Dear German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Dear German Chancellor Angela Merkel

David Harris, AJC Executive Director
May 25, 2010

Dear Chancellor Merkel,

This is a year filled with milestone anniversaries.

It is 65 years since the end of the Second World War, 50 years since the first meeting between German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, 20 years since German unification -- and, yes, five years since you became Chancellor.

Allow me a few thoughts.

I grew up in a home which, to put it mildly, had no love for Germany. But to a young child, other than knowing that Germany had done something terrible to the people closest to me, the intensity of feelings was quite difficult to process.

When I was not quite 11, things started to become clearer -- and more complicated.

My father came home one evening in 1960 and told my mother and me that his employer, CBS, wanted us to move to Germany. The purpose was to help introduce new technologies to a German counterpart with which CBS had negotiated a deal.

This was an important job opportunity for my father, but it also meant returning to a country he had left at the age of 13, in 1933 (for the "safety" of Vienna), and then fought during the war. To say the least, he wasn't keen on the prospect. Nor was my mother, whose last sighting of Germans had been in occupied France, and who, 20 years later, had no desire to meet more.

In the end, though, with steady encouragement from CBS, my father agreed to give it a try. If he succeeded, we would follow; if not, he'd return home to New York.

He left for Munich. We waited. Several weeks later, the phone rang. My mother listened and then said that we should begin packing.

Thus began my real introduction to Germany and German-Jewish relations.

We arrived in Munich in September 1960, just about the time I turned 11. We temporarily moved into a room at the Hotel Platzl on Sparkassenstrasse. Everything looked new and different in Munich, and I couldn't help but be curious. At the same time, it wasn't long before I was reminded that I wasn't just in some exotic foreign land. This was, after all, Germany.

One night, my father jumped out of bed and ran out. I later learned that he had heard a group of heavy-drinking Germans singing Nazi-era songs. He went alone to confront them. That was my father.

A few weeks later, we moved to an apartment on Ainmillerstasse. Life took on an air of routine normality. Or so I thought.

I began to feel at home in Munich. I was able to go places by myself. I loved the street trams that ran along Leopoldstrasse. I enjoyed the English Gardens, Munich's Central Park. Our family's weekly forays to Dallmayr, the legendary food emporium, were always memorable. I could stare endlessly at the shop window of a neighborhood bakery, marveling at the pastries while savoring the seductive aroma wafting out of the store.

And yet, it was Germany, always Germany.

That meant watching my parents ask themselves where any German over the age of, say, 32 or 33 had been during the war.

One day we were in the train station when my father became livid on seeing a poster advertising a trip to Dachau -- that is, the picturesque town with its historic 19th-century castle, not the concentration camp, the first established by the Nazis in 1933. 

I remember when my maternal grandparents, who had sworn they would never buy anything German, much less visit Germany, arrived in Munich. Their desire to see us had trumped their boycott stance, yet their unease while with us was all too palpable.

And only years later did I learn that, when my mother put a Chanukah menorah in our living-room window, neighbors who had previously greeted her during the day began to shun both her and my father.

All this was quite heavy-duty for the emotional circuitry of an 11-year-old. But by the time my mother and I returned to New York, I understood two things. Germany was, yes, a country unlike others and therefore had to be viewed differently. Yet Germany was also a place where I had experienced many enjoyable moments and met lots of nice people. I could never forget either side of the country.

Maybe it was destined that I would eventually find AJC.  The organization, unique among Jewish agencies, had engaged in its own postwar encounter with Germany.

While other Jewish groups shunned Germany, except for discussions on restitution (in which AJC also actively participated), AJC struggled to find a way to interact meaningfully with the country. How else could the past be confronted, if not with the German nation at its center? How could the present be managed successfully, given the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany was re-emerging as a European power? And how could the future be shaped in such a way that allowed for the writing of a promising new chapter in German-Jewish relations -- one that could, perhaps, set an example for others as well?

To AJC's credit, it persevered. Often alone, at times criticized, it nonetheless understood the historic imperative of the effort. Over time, German partners emerged, beginning with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Relationships were established, friendships were created, and trust was built.

That led AJC, as you pointed out in a recent letter, to become "the first Jewish organization to wholeheartedly welcome German unity, thus signaling its confidence in a united Germany."

It wasn't an easy decision to take. The weight of history was immense. But it was the right decision, built on the platform of trust you described. You yourself, having grown up in East Germany, are proof of the incontestable wisdom of unification. And, as I think back, living on Ainmillerstrasse in 1960 and 1961 also helped me draft the text for our position.

That same trust also led us to initiate, in 1995, a once improbable relationship with the German armed forces. This past December in Berlin, together with the German defense minister and many other friends, we marked the 15th anniversary of a link that has touched the lives of literally thousands, including many Kosovar Muslims helped by our joint humanitarian efforts in 1999.

And it prompted us in 1998 to open the first office of its kind in Germany -- on land once owned by a Berlin Jewish family, just yards away from Hitler's bunker.

Of the many far-reaching activities of AJC over the span of a century, few can match the singular importance of the decision to establish links with the Federal Republic of Germany. It was terra incognita for us. There were no scripts to follow about how to deal with such a backdrop as the Holocaust. And it wasn't all smooth sailing. There were difficult moments along the way -- from Bitburg to German-manufactured chemicals in Saddam Hussein's hands, from attacks on so-called foreigners to anti-Semitic incidents.

There will, I am sure, be other tough moments. In the German business community, some are too enamored of commercial ties with Iran. Extremism, with its potential for violence, hasn't entirely disappeared. And, longer term, it will take hard work to ensure that the special relationship with Israel is transmitted from generation to generation.

But considering all that has been accomplished demonstrates what's possible for those with the capacity to dream -- and the will to act.

Germany today is among Israel's most stalwart friends, beyond even what visionaries like Adenauer and Ben-Gurion could have imagined. The relationship is deeper and wider than most realize. It touches on Israel's core strategic, diplomatic, and economic needs.

Germany is the home of a Jewish community that has grown dramatically in size and vitality from 1990 to today.

Germany is a responsible international actor, whose democratic values are anchored in the nation's fabric and fiber.

And Germany has a chancellor who, as your recent interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung reminded us once again, is steadfastly committed to the protection of Holocaust memory, the struggle against anti-Semitism, and the defense of Israel's right to exist in peace and security. 

Apropos, you will recall your participation, in 2006, in the AJC centennial gala, together with U.S. President George Bush and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The response of the audience was most telling. A few asked why we had invited the president, since they opposed his policies at home or in Iraq. Others asked why we had invited the UN leader, as the world body, they said, was structurally biased against Israel. Of the three headline speakers, only you, the German chancellor, were warmly embraced by all. Germany has come a long way!

In the last two years, much has rightly been made of questionable financial investments around the world that helped trigger a global economic crisis.

Long before, AJC made its own investment in the new Germany. At the time, many considered it questionable. It turns out to have been among the wisest investments we ever could have made.

Thank you for helping justify our confidence in the Germany that you today so ably lead.

Respectfully,

David Harris


To rate and comment on this article, go to the Jerusalem Post and go to the Huffington Post

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC