Her life was full of extremes, shaped by ideologies and the struggle between right and wrong. Ready to share her impressive story, German-born Jew Salomea Genin will look back on a life where personal destiny is shaped by world history.
She will do this by giving a talk at Phnom Penh’s Meta House on January 10, and introducing a documentary, Stumbling Stones, about one aspect of Jewish persecution.
“All my life I’ve been obsessed with two subjects. One was the Nazis, the other was communism. This I am now going to leave behind,” Salomea Genin, 79, said.
Born in Berlin in 1932 to Jewish parents, Genin experienced the beginnings of Nazi Germany. Lucky enough, her mother had a brother in Australia who signed an affidavit for them to get a visa and flee to Australia in May 1939.
“The hard thing was not getting out of Germany, but finding a place that was willing to take us in,” she said. “They didn’t try to stop us. They didn’t try to stop Jews leaving the country, they were happy to get rid of them.”
In Australia, Genin joined the Eureka Youth League, a communist party youth organisation, when she was 12 in 1944 before becoming a member of the Communist Party in 1950. “The ideology they taught me really convinced me,” she said.
Convinced that socialism fought injustice, Genin visited the German Democratic Republic in 1951 as a member of the Australian Delegation to the third World Youth Festival in East Berlin.
“I saw what I wanted to see and anyone who told me it was different, I just didn’t believe them,” Genin said.
Her visit to East Berlin also marked the start of her determined support for the GDR. “I wanted to help rebuild a part of Germany that would never again be at war, never again become fascist,” she said.
“And I wanted to become a teacher; I wanted to teach the German youth to think for themselves so they would never again follow another Hitler,” she said.
Without realising, she had subconsciously internalised Nazi messaging. Genin wanted to forget that she was Jewish, “Because the Nazis had taught me as a small child that Jews are vermin, something disgusting,” she said.
In 1982, after 20 years of supporting the GDR, Genin realised she had been working for a communist dictatorship in Germany.
“I just couldn’t close my eyes anymore. I realised that for 38 years I had dedicated my life to a cause which just wasn’t workable. That realisation caused me to become suicidal.”
With a lot of effort and the help of a psychiatrist, the mother of two children, “Managed to sort of climb out of that big black hole I was caught in,” Genin said.
“Today I am 79, I’ll be 80 this year. I’ve been working on all these issues ever since and today I think I can say I’ve left it all behind me.”
The search for a home had also always been a part of Genin’s life. “I feel at home in Berlin. I also feel at home in Melbourne. I mean, I grew up there and I speak like an Australian.”
But she now calls Germany her home.
“I don’t intend to leave Germany though, except when the winter comes,” she said.
Escaping the cold winter in her home town Berlin, Genin came to Cambodia for the first time on December 2, and will stay for three months.
Although she decided to leave her past behind, she said she could not resist going to Meta House’s screenings of Khmer Rouge movies, reading books about it or visiting the Tuol Sleng genocide museum.
Having visited the concentration camps in Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau, she refuses to go to the killing fields.
“It’s enough, I don’t want to see these things anymore,” she said.