Learning from history

Germans are going to great lengths to educate themselves about their Nazi era past and learn from it.

By NATALIE ROSENFELT
September 10, 2014 21:39
3 minute read.
Opening concert of the Days of Jewish Culture Festival in Berlin

Opening concert of the Days of Jewish Culture Festival in Berlin. (photo credit: MAYA SHWAYDER)

At the end of June, I was lucky enough to take part in the American Jewish Committee ACCESS Third Generation Initiative trip to Germany, which brought together 10 young American Jewish professionals and 10 young German professionals to explore modern Germany and its history. The trip was co-sponsored by American Jewish Committee ACCESS; the Munichbased financial services company, Allianz; and Germany Close Up, a German nonprofit that promotes American- Jewish-German relations.

I first traveled to Germany in 1994 with my high school orchestra on a cultural and educational exchange program with the Detmold Jugendorchester from the small town of Detmold, Germany. At the time, I was a bit hesitant about traveling to Germany because some members of my family regarded anything German or related to Germany with some suspicion and distrust. During my high school trip, I stayed with a German host family and was struck by how sensitive they were to my being Jewish and how attentive they were to my Kosher dietary restrictions, making special efforts to prepare vegetarian meals for me. During this trip, I spoke to some Germans about the Holocaust and could see they were eager to learn about it and discuss it.

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On my recent trip to Germany with the Third Generation Initiative, I saw that this interest in learning about the Holocaust runs far deeper than I initially thought. During this trip, I saw Germans in all aspects of society going to great lengths to educate themselves about their Nazi era past and learn from it.

We visited the offices of Allianz, a large German financial services company that co-sponsored the trip. Allianz has spent years uncovering its corporate history during the Nazi era, including its involvement with the Nazi regime during that period of history, and has taken a leading role in handling Holocaust-era insurance claims.

During the trip, we visited the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. As I walked through the camp, I was surprised to see a number of groups German schoolchildren visiting the camp. After the visit, many of the German participants on our trip shared what grandparents and aunts and uncles were doing during the Holocaust. I was moved to see how visibly conflicted and upset some of them were about relatives that may have been complicit in the atrocities.

On a visit with leaders from the German armed forces, I learned that the country’s history during the Nazi era influences current military policy.

The German Nazi and Stasi history has led to a general policy of military restraint, although this may be changing as Germany becomes a larger force on the world stage. The military leaders told us that the army’s current oath is to defend the rights of the German people as opposed to the military’s oath during the Nazi era, which was to pledge unconditional obedience to one individual – Hitler.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen numerous newspaper articles about the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. I was especially shocked to read that protesters were shouting anti-Semitic slurs and attacking Jewish individuals on the streets of Berlin, which is so much at odds with my experiences in Germany. However, I am encouraged by the strong statements denouncing these anti-Semitic actions made by Chancellor Angela Merkel, other prominent Germans, and members of the German press.

I have confidence that Germany will continue to take a strong moral stance and put a stop to the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe, and that Germany will be a model for the world in learning from its past. As young leaders in the Jewish community, we have a critical role and responsibility to continue to support these efforts and to strengthen the German-Jewish relationship in the years to come.

The author lives in Washington, DC, and is an antitrust lawyer for the US Department of Justice. She received her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law and her undergraduate degree from Cornell University.


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