While Israel has turned to the politics of election, we have been digging around in the dark roots of Varda’s history.
They are deep in Germany. Her father, Erich, was a patriot until his death. He was proud of his father''s service in the German army during World War I (stationed on the Western Front somewhere against my father who was in an American uniform), and spoke about gravestones in the Jewish cemetery of Dusseldorf with his family name from centuries past. Cousin Kurt said that his branch of the family came to the Rhineland with the Romans.
Erich returned to Germany each summer until the age of 89. He walked the routes his nanny had pushed him in a carriage, attended reunions of his high school, and maintained close ties with classmates.
He brought us to his childhood home and the courtyard where he and his brother Karl played.
When he was speaking of Germany, family members knew we could not mention his mother or brother, on pain of the conversation ending in tears. Varda is the Hebrew equivalent of her grandmother''s name, Rosa. She was sent from Dusseldorf to Theresienstadt, and then to one of the death camps further east. Varda recalls listening to the Israeli radio program that broadcast news of family members separated by the war, hoping to hear about Rosa. Varda was already married and a mother when she received from the tracing service of the Dutch Red Cross a record of where and when the Germans killed Rosa and Karl
We know individuals with similar backgrounds who range from strong aversion to anything German, to the embracing of German language, German culture, frequent visits to Germany, and acceptance of the citizenship that the German government has offered to individuals with some claim of a German background and to Jews of Israel and the former Soviet Union without such a background who want to become German.
Varda has tended toward the aversion side of the spectrum, but not obsessively so. She has traveled with me on Lufthansa with only mild protest due to its many good connections with places we like to visit. On numerous occasions she has used the well accented German she learned as a child with Lufthansa personnel. At other times, when a facility with German has seemed important, she has frozen, and I''ve been left to cope with my poorly pronounced, grammatically faulty, and insufficient vocabulary learned in college.
This is our first trip to Germany (as opposed to passing through the Frankfurt airport) since the death of Varda''s aunt, who returned to Germany after a difficult refuge in Palestine/Israel. The occasion is our brother-in-law Moshe''s sabbatical at the University of Freiburg, and the opportunity to visit with him, Varda''s sister Gabi, and one of his Moshe''s Freiburg colleagues and his family, who have become our close friends via their annual participation in the family''s Passover Seder.
What took me by surprise was Varda''s initiative to expand our visit with several days in Berlin. That was her mother Ina''s town, and we traveled with the address of the home where Ina was a teenager until distant cousin Chaim Arlosoroff persuaded Ina''s mother to leave Germany. That was shortly before Arlosoroff’s own death, still a mystery, on a beach of Tel Aviv.
Our visit to the Holocaust memorial coincided with that of a German family and their teenage children, who did the German young thing of jumping gaily from stone to stone. The parents were subdued. Varda said she cried, when hidden from me somewhere in the narrow passageways. Jumping children did not bother her. As long as they came, the memorial will accomplish something.
The best part of Berlin, for both of us, is the closeness of nature to a bustling, traffic noisy city. Our long walks between our hotel and Unter den Linden went through the Tiergarten, with paths wide enough for walkers, runners, and bicycles, ponds, streams, and a working canal.
We finished with our morning hotel rituals too early on our second day to go directly to the Jewish Museum, so we went to Aschaffenburger Strasse 13, where Varda’s mother was a teenager. On the way we passed a home with two Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), small memorial plaques in the sidewalk. These noted that Dr and Mrs Max Nova were residents of the adjacent building, until they were deported to Auschwitz and killed in 1943.
The Jewish Museum is not easy to decipher, purposely so, reflecting the history of Jews in Germany from the 10th century onward. There were good years and bad, with the pre-modern worse being the slaughter in the Rhineland by Crusaders, and then the pogroms associated with the Black Plague, said to be caused by Jews poisoning the wells. 19th and early 20th century were good years, with the educated, well-to-do and religiously liberal thinking of themselves as Germans as well as Jews, but with some of the intellectuals saying that Germans did not share that perception, and with many converting to Christianity to assure their acceptance. Members of Varda’s family shared in the national identity and patriotism. One story is that Rosa was granted a concession in the 1940s on account of her husband’s service in World War I. She was allowed to stay at home to nurse him through his final illness, and was only transported to her death after he died.
Among the exhibits was a painting and description of Rudolf Mosse, the grandfather of my late colleague and friend from both Madison and Jerusalem, Professor George Mosse. His wealth from reparations paid to the family for its ownership of the confiscated Berliner Tageblatt funds programs at the University of Wisconsin and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
There are explanations for the Museum''s exhibits in German and English, but no Hebrew except for what is in the exhibits themselves, mostly those from religious texts used before the most recent centuries. Yet Hebrew is the principal language of half the world’s Jews, with Hebrew speakers well represented among those who visited the Museum along with us .
By adding explanations in Hebrew the Museum could make another symbolic point--together with all its other symbols in the architecture--about what happened to much of German Jewry and that from other lands who survived what the Germans did to them. (On our earlier visit to Oslo’s Holocaust Museum we also noted the lack of Hebrew explanations, but that is understandable in a city not so often visited by Israelis as Berlin.)
The “New Synagogue” was an icon in the history of Reform Judaism. It dates from the 19th century, was protected from Kristalnacht by a good German police officer but later destroyed by allied bombing, and has been partially restored as a museum.
The German Historical Museum begins with Germanic tribes, then goes from Charlemagne to Helmut Kohl. The explanations for the Nazi period were politically correct in specifying all the groups that suffered, including a notation of both Sinti and Roma for "Gypsies." Jews, correctly, receive special attention.
Visits to the museums of the New Synagogue and German History were on a gray, rainy day that gave us as many ghosts.as we could absorb. A walk through the Tiergarten was relaxing, but we talked about ghosts along the way.
Adding to the mood is Varda’s reading a Hebrew translation of The Dark Room, by Rachel Seiffer. It deals with characters reflecting the author’s personal experience, of Germans coping with what their grandparents did during the Third Reich.
On our last day we mastered public transportation to the Jewish cemetery of Weissensee, and found the graves of Varda''s grossvater and a cousin who died young, sadly but naturally.
Still to go are several days with Gabi and Moshe in Freiburg. Gabi’s mother tongue was German. It was only when Varda came along four years later that the family had converted to Hebrew, except for Ina’s mother, who went to Palestine in her 60s and never learned the language. So German was Varda’s second language, for speaking with Grandma and family friends. Gabi’s involvement in Freiburg has not been easy, even though she enjoys the associations due the wife of a distinguished visiting professor. She has sent us pictures of two Stolpersteine which she found in the sidewalk of her neighborhood.
Elections are easier.