Friday, 17 September 2010

Screening of 'Menachem and Fred'

On Thursday night I was invited to a screening of the 2009 film 'Menachem and Fred', about two brothers with an extraordinary past. Heinz and Mannfred Mayer grew up in Hoffenheim, a village in Baden Wurttemburg near Heidelberg, and lived a normal life up until the beginning of the war. A Jewish family, they were deported to a concentration camp in Gurs, Southern France in 1941 where they were kept until 1942. Their parents were given the option of sending the boys to a local orphanage and, knowing well that they would quite probably never see them again, consented to let them go. The parents were eventually sent to Auschwitz where they met the same fate as thousands of others; death in the gas chambers.

In the last years of the war the brothers were separated and cared for by two different groups. Heinz was smuggled into Switzerland and was taken into the care of Orthodox Jews, while Mannfred remained hidden in France with the help of a Catholic family and an American Quaker Organisation. When the war finally ended, Mannfred had decided to emigrate to the US to find a new life and forget about the past. His brother had been thinking along similar lines, but decided instead to go to Palestine, later Israel. He changed his name to the more Jewish Menachem, while Mannfred changed his name to the less Jewish 'Frederick Raymes'. While Menachen kept his Jewish traditions alive, nurtured in the new Jewish state, Fred went to extraordinary lengths to lose his to the extent that his grandchildren have been raised Christian.

Seventy years saw the brothers have families and begin to forget the past, but in no way had they come to terms with what had happened. Mannfred had even lost his ability to speak German, his mother tongue, yet he was the one most physically moved by the experience. He kept coming back to the last words his father said to him, 'Take care of Heinz', with whom he maintained minimal contact as the years went on.

There was a post film discussion led by Rev. Björn Mensing, the main pastor at the Versöhnungskirche, in which the audience tried to grapple with the main themes of the film. Perhaps the most marked response I had to the film was a better insight into the extent to which the mind protects itself from horrible experiences. Throughout the film the brothers began to regret agreeing to be in the documentary. Menachem complained of nightmares; Fred broke down in tears on several occasions. I have often been rather critical of attempts by Germans to forget their past or justify it to themselves, as have many Germans, but the film left me wondering if, had I killed thousands of people or witnessed such atrocities, wouldn't I want to forget? Whether or not it was right, perhaps forgetting the past is the most human response to bad memories there is.

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