ACCESS/Interreligious Mission to Germany, November 2013
Germany Close Up and Personal: American Jews Grapple with Modern Germany
This November, I spent a week exploring Germany with a group of remarkable people from across the United States. Germany Close Up: American Jews Meet Modern Germany is a program which, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee and AJC ACCESS, brings American Jews to experience modern Germany through meetings with government and community leaders, and visits to historical sites, centers of contemporary Jewish life, and a schnitzel dispensary or two. We had the opportunity to tour historical sites central to Jewish life in Germany, the Shoah, and the Cold War, while learning about issues in German society today, such as education, minority rights, and what being German means today (or what some feel it should mean).
The week we were in Germany was a significant one for Germany as a country. It was both the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Upon landing in Berlin, we experienced a vibrant city, full of history and full of life. In fact, it is a place that has attracted so many Israelis seeking a lower-rent alternative, that you hear Hebrew everywhere. Many of us, however, felt the eerie presence of ghosts of Jewish history everywhere.
Dr. Dagmar Pruin, the Founder and Director of Germany Close Up, gave us a walking tour of Mitte, a Jewish neighborhood of Berlin, that she titled, “Don’t Trust the Green Grass.” We heard stories of Jewish life in Mitte, but many were punctuated by what was, a synagogue, a school, a cemetery without headstones, a family. One such patch of grass had a barely perceptible line that was once the concrete foundation of the Jewish community center. Near that spot stood a monument for the Rosenstrasse protest in 1943, organized by the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men who had been arrested for deportation to Asuchwitz. This protest led these men to be returned home, and men already sent to Auschwitz were brought back.
Why don't many know about this story of herosim? Perhaps Jews were uncomfortable with the idea that intermarriage may have saved lives. Perhaps Germans were uncomfortable with the idea that in this case protest was effective, and more protests could have accomplished similar results. Standing on that patch of grass, and during the rest of the trip, we tried to find meaning in empty space.
This opportunity was so important to me and I’m still unpacking the layers to find out why. The Holocaust altered the future of the Jewish people forever in a way we will never fully grasp, but the impact on my family’s future was made clear to me throughout my entire childhood. When I was in high school, I lost two grandparents, but the natural circumstance of losing grandparents shook me years later when I realized that the world also lost two survivors, two witnesses. We are approaching a difficult time where my generation, the third generation descendents of Holocaust survivors, or 3G’s, is going to be required to represent those witnesses on behalf of our families.
In the wake of Holocaust denial, which is a real threat, and indifference, which I believe is a more pressing concern, my peers, including the participants of this trip, are uniquely positioned in a way our parents never were. By the time we were brought into this world, our grandparents who survived the Holocaust had already rebuilt their lives. They had healed- in whatever way one can heal. Our parents grew up in households with their parents’ physical and emotional wounds still raw, and the world grappling with disbelief at the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. At the same time, our parents did not need to be witnesses. Survivors were close by, and the truth was ever-present. Today, however, many 3G’s are haunted by the burden, and the question: what now? I went to Germany to be a witness; I continue learning how to be one.
There was some hesitation among those on the trip about going to Germany. Collective Jewish attitudes towards modern Germany are very complex. AJC was the first, and for many years the only, Jewish organization to engage with the German government after the Shoah. While AJC demonstrated tremendous vision in understanding the critical nature of this relationship in the future, for many other organizations it was going to take time. To some German Jews who survived the Shoah, the country that they grew up no longer existed; it had been desecrated beyond the point of recognition, and there was no turning back. For many Jewish families, Germany was a bad word. If your son came home with brand new Adidas shoes they were returned immediately, or simply thrown away. Still, for others, it was home. They could not close their hearts to the many people and places – an entire culture – that they loved.
It was remarked to us by Germany Close Up that our group was unique in the disproportionate amount of time we spent talking about the role of Jewish identity and peoplehood in our group discussions. To me, I can’t imagine how one could not. A trip to Germany like this one calls out a lot of difficult questions for a young Jew. It challenges who you are and how you live your life. It humbles you. At times, it scares you.
In studies exploring Jewish identity among young people, remembering the Holocaust is either at the top, or close to it, in terms of what defines their Jewish identity. One of my key takeaways from this trip is that as witnesses we must remember and work to ensure “never again.” But if, as one participant put it, young people feel that their Jewish identity is more influenced by Hitler than Moses, we have a serious problem.
We had the opportunity to meet with Israeli Deputy Chief of Mission Emmanuel Nahshon, who was about the complete his tour in Berlin before returning to Israel. He had numerous German colleagues that had come to understand Judaism as something somber, encountered in black and white, at memorials, or in museums. Nahshon took one colleague to shul on a Friday night, to show the beautiful building, full of light, singing, families, and candles marking the Sabbath. He took it upon himself to show Germans that Judaism is something made of light and beauty, not of death and mourning.
A second takeaway are the unanswerable questions. What I will remember most of our time in Germany is the conversations, at times heated, with survivors, with those who lived under communism behind the Berlin Wall, with members of Berlin’s Jewish community, and with my fellow participants. The difficult, unanswerable questions demonstrated to us that we have work to do as we grapple with our roles at witnesses. Examining our lives today, I asked, “what do we owe to the past to preserve or rebuild the world that was lost in the Shoah?” The Jewish world we know does not represent even a shadow of what was in the 1930’s. Not all of this is bad. Vibrant, proud centers of Jewish life have been built, a thriving Jewish state of Israel has been established. Still, what can we preserve, better than we have, of the Jewish life that my great-grandfather lived and I know little about?
I was struck by how Germany is still not comfortable in its own skin. It is very much not at peace, struggling to find out how to exorcize the demons of committing an immeasurable sin. In other words, Germany is grappling with what happened, how it happened, and what they can do to make things right. After all, nothing can undo the past, especially when the past is an abstract, and took place ten, thirty, even sixty years before you were born. My burden of remembrance, of being a witness, is heavy, but cannot be as heavy as what many Germans feel. That Germany struggle should not be overlooked or underappreciated. To be sure, the main perpetrators were Germans, but something we discussed among ourselves was that we’re not sure how much Poles or Hungarians today struggle, nor those during the war who moved in to their recently departed neighbors’ houses, and ate at their dining room tables lit by candles in their candlesticks.
Germans and Jews arrived to 2013, to this point in history, on very different paths, but we’re in the same boat now. There is a partnership, bound by history. Reparations, reconciliation, and diplomatic cooperation between Germany, Israel, and global Jewry, through organizations like AJC, chart the path of what the relationship can look like going into the future.
Daniel Kuhn is the East Coast Field Director for the Israel on Campus Coalition. He currently resides in Washington, DC.
Picking Up Pieces of My Jewish Identity in Germany.
Jessica Stein shared these reflections with AJC after participating in the AJC ACCESS/Interreligious and Intergroup Relations/Germany Close Up Interreligious trip to Germany along with 17 fellow participants from 13 communities. She is on the staff of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.
Germany is a country with a complicated past, that I have complicated feeling towards. A place I never imagined visiting but there I was in the heart of a land that killed six million of my people. After what was a relatively short flight, in comparison with my usual travels to Israel, I landed in Germany. It was just past 6:00 am and still dark outside. As I exited the plane, and boarded the bus, so many thoughts entered my mind, one of which is that I just arrived in enemy territory. It was cold, dark and rainy as I went through customs and got on the public bus to my hotel.
Along the drive I passed houses and residential areas before the city center. Again my thoughts turned dark. Who lived in these houses during the war, I thought? Did a family of Jewish people live there? Were they kicked out? What happened to them? While walking along the streets through Berlin I encountered small square gold stones called “stumbling stones.” They are placed throughout the city in front of houses and places where Jewish people lived or worked, engraved with the victim’s name, birth date and deportation camp location during the Holocaust. The stones are controversial in Jewish German society. Some argue that the stones are a permanent reminder of the war while others say it’s just another way for Germans to keep stepping all over the Jews. Above all it is a small way in which German society is commemorating the victims of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
Responsibility and reconciliation are ever-present and difficult topics for the German people. The big questions that loom are “How did this happen? How do we move on? How do we take responsibility? How do I deal with what my family did during the war? We broached these and other discussion topics with members of the activist group Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). Each year ARSP plans a commemorative service to honor the fallen Jews and the events of Kristallnacht.
During my visit we spent a day at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp right outside of Berlin where Jews, Soviet soldiers and others who opposed the Nazi regime were sent for forced labor and extermination. Walking through the gates and passing through the infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” above me, I experienced that eerie feeling again, similar to when I first landed. I stood there taking a few deep breaths in and out before I could walk again. The weather was cold, dark and rainy, and the atmosphere was gloomy and dreary, just as I expected it to be. The enormity of the place scared me. The vastness of the camp expanded for miles and was surrounded by walls. Standing inside the remains of the crematorium – the site of countless, senseless murders -- was ominous. Our group from AJC ACCESS, AJC's new generation program that empowers Jewish young professionals to engage with today's critical domestic and international issues, was led by Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, in a tefila service to remember those who lost their lives at Sachsenhausen, and in the Holocaust. We remembered those who were exterminated only because they were Jewish and acknowledged that hatred like this still exists in society today.
With the experience, I discovered a greater appreciation for Germany and German society from meeting those who work for AJC in Germany, and the eye opening speakers they brought in for us. Prior to this trip, I had little knowledge of the guilt that some Germans live with each day. Some are ashamed of family members who were part of the SS or Nazi regime. Others are uncomfortable living in the shadow of the crimes of past generations. I remain conflicted about my connection to Germany but appreciate the many ways the country has accepted responsibility for their past mistakes and the steps they are taking today to right the wrongs of the past. While we can forgive, we can never forget. I am still left with one big question: “Can the Germans ever overcome their guilt?