This past 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 in partnership with the American Jewish
Upon landing in Berlin, we experienced a vibrant city, full of
history and full of life. Many of us, however, felt the eerie presence of ghosts
of Jewish history everywhere.
Our first venture was a walking tour of
Jewish Berlin titled “Don’t Trust the Green Grass.” We heard stories of Jewish
life, but many were punctuated by what once was: a synagogue, a school, a
cemetery without headstones, a family.
One 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 Auschwitz. This protest resulted in these men being returned
home, and men already sent to Auschwitz being brought back.
many people know about this? 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 the idea of what more protest
could have accomplished. Standing on that patch of grass, and throughout the
rest of the trip, we tried to find meaning in empty space.
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 what
shook me years later was when I realized that the world also lost two survivors
– two witnesses. We are approaching a difficult time where for the first time my
peers are going to be required to represent those witnesses on behalf of our
In the wake of Holocaust denial and indifference, which I
believe is a more pressing concern, my generation is uniquely positioned in a
way that our parents never were. By the time we were brought into this world our
grandparents who survived the Holocaust had already rebuilt themselves. They had
healed – in whatever way one can heal – and rebuilt their lives. Our parents
grew up in households with their parents’ physical and emotional wounds still
raw, and the world was in disbelief at the horrors perpetrated by the
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: what now? I went to Germany be a witness, to continue learning how to be
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. The Holocaust is either at the top, or
close to it, in terms of what defines young peoples’ Jewish identity.
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.
What do we owe to the past that will 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? It isn’t hard to tell that Germany is still not comfortable in its own
skin. It is not at peace, struggling to find out how to exorcise the demons of
committing an immeasurable sin. Germany is grappling with what happened, how it
happened, and what it can do to make things right.
Nothing can undo the
past, especially when the past seems abstract to many; these sins were committed
years before most Germans were born. My burden of remembrance, of being a
witness, is heavy, but cannot be as heavy than what many Germans feel. That
Germany grapples with its past should not be overlooked or under-appreciated. To
be sure, the main perpetrators were Germans, but something we discussed among
ourselves was that we’re not sure how much today’s Poles or Hungarians, or those
during the war who moved in to their recently departed neighbors’ houses and ate
at their dining room tables, lit by candles held in their candlesticks, are or
were burdened by history.
Germans and Jews arrived at 2013, this point in
history, via very different paths, but we’re in the same boat now. By the path
of history, there are two peoples who have no choice, or perhaps as a mitzvah
have accepted that they have no choice, but to grapple with history: the German
people and the Jewish people.
There is a partnership bound by history,
and reparations, reconciliation and diplomatic cooperation between Germany,
Israel and global Jewry will chart the path of what the relationship can look
like going into the future.
The writer is the East Coast field director
for the Israel on Campus Coalition. A native of Detroit, he is a graduate of
Michigan State University. He currently resides in Washington, DC.