a visit to past 88.
(photo credit: )
I never intended to go to Deutschland. For all of my adult life, my family made a conscious effort to avoid buying German products and avoid situations that would have led to a flight landing in Germany.
My grandparents were born in Germany. My grandfather, until his dying day, was a proud Berliner. My grandmother was the typical reserved Yekke from Munich. In the early 1930s, they left for Palestine and lived here until soon after independence. Most of their close family escaped Germany and settled in the US, Israel and South America.
Growing up in New York, my grandfather regaled us with his adventures in sporting events, showing us medals that he had won in Maccabiah Games held in Berlin. We never heard a negative word about his homeland and, in later years, when the German government invited its former citizens to visit their old hometowns, my grandparents enjoyed their trips.
Therefore, I have often wondered why I have been obsessed with the Holocaust. I pick up every book, watch every film and try to hear lectures by historians and survivors. With that keen interest, friends and family were very surprised when I nonchalantly told them of my upcoming flight to Frankfurt en route to the US. Initially, the stopover in Frankfurt was a matter of practicality and use of free tickets. As the journey neared, it became clear that it would be much more than that. Though the duration of the stay would be short - less than a day on the way to New York and 10 hours again on my return - I knew that I had to make the most of it.
I took off in the early morning. Landing in Frankfurt, seeing all the German police surrounding the El Al plane was not as unsettling as I thought it would be. I have always had this picture in my mind of walking down the streets of a German city, or riding public transport, and this scenario would play out in my head: the person walking by me or sitting across from me would be old enough to have been a German soldier in the war, be wearing a monocle, looking right through me while painting a yellow star on my chest. I would see this grey haired, frail man as a virile twenty-something bully goading a Jew to beg for his life or forcing him to humiliate himself.
But reality in Germany was different. Taking the S-Bahn to downtown Frankfurt was a sterile experience. Yet, looking out the train window and seeing the inter-city train speed by made me think of how people 65 years ago might have been on these trains seeing other trains flying by traveling to untold places. It seemed there were smokestacks everywhere, and the combination of smokestacks and train tracks in Germany made me crazy.
Checking out the special exhibit on anti-Semitism in the Judische Museum, I was surprised that Alfred Dreyfus was the main theme. I guess they didn't have enough of their own German anti-Semitism so they needed to import French examples. Ironically, the exhibit was sponsored by the large German metal concern, Degussa,which was complicit in the use and sale of Jewish dental gold and silver.
After touring the museums, I ate dinner at the Jewish Community Center, and then it was off to the Holiday Inn. I preferred staying in a hotel that did not provide the local character, something I usually try to do when traveling to other countries. I wanted generic American.
Walking to the S-Bahn, a light misty rain was falling. The twinkling of lights and the smell of fireplaces coming from private homes gave the aura of tranquility and peacefulness. How could one not have smelled burning bodies and not have questioned what that smell was? Of course, there were not any camps near Frankfurt.
ON MY return from the US, I had 10 hours before my flight to Tel Aviv. The train ride from the airport to Weimar, the home of Goethe, is approximately three hours on a very comfortable express train.
On this journey, an older woman strikes up a conversation with me in her excellent English: "Where are you from?" she asks. This is something I had pondered from the day I decided to go to Germany. Do I use my American passport or Israeli? Do I wear my kippa or my hat? I tell her that I am from Israel. She tells me her daughter worked on a kibbutz, and also spent time in Saudi Arabia. "Where are you traveling to today?" she asks. "Weimar," I answer. "Oh, yes, it's a beautiful place. The home of Goethe and fine German culture," she replies. I begin to tell her that my grandparents were German Jews, and this fine Protestant woman, who has been pointing out the beautiful cathedrals and churches that dot the countryside, turns quiet.
"It was just horrible - the things done by the National Socialists." She now knows that Weimar is just a pit stop for me, a place to change mode of transportation to get to my final destination - Buchenwald.
With little less than German precision, the train arrived 10 minutes late. I had 55 minutes before I had to head back to Frankfurt. I took a cab to Buchenwald and asked the driver to stay while I visited the camp. He told me his name was Peter, and that his parents and grandparents had always lived in Weimar. "It was a horrible thing that was done there by Adolf Hitler" he said.
As we drove down the "Blood Trail," which today is a rustic cobblestone road with lush greenery and trees on both sides, but was then a path down which the Nazis herded the survivors of the various death marches from camps in Poland. Those that couldn't keep up or fell were shot - hence the name of the path.
I entered the visitors center where I picked up some brochures. The entrance to the camp was preceded by the commandant's barracks and the dog kennels. As I entered through the main gate, there was a vast expanse of black rocks. I put one in my pocket. Prisoner's barracks, the water sewage system and the SS guard path were laid out before me. Yet I gravitated toward the building with the chimney that housed the crematorium. I can't describe the chill that went through me looking up at the watchtowers looming over me.
As I entered the crematorium, there was a group of schoolchildren led by a guide. As they went out to the courtyard to hear more about the evils of Nazism, I decided to put on my kippa and pray Minha. I felt the eyes of the German schoolchildren on me, quite possibly the first Jew they had ever seen. I had very little time to see the camp, but I felt the pebble in my pocket that was going to be making the trip back to Israel with me.
On the train back to Frankfurt, the two people sitting next to me were businessmen who spoke Hebrew. I was silent, contemplating what I had just seen. Chances were good, I thought, that many Israeli businesspeople see today's Germany as an economic powerhouse that is friendly with Israel. Many of my friends who have traveled to Germany frequently had never gone to a German camp. Even we Jews see Poland as the killing field of the Jewish people, as the Hitler regime purposely set up the death camps there. The intention was to not contaminate Germany and to avoid lowering the morale of the German people.
As I boarded the El Al plane back home to Israel, I had mixed emotions. Leaving what was until quite recently a center of Jewish life but was transformed into an unfathomable Jewish cemetery and flying back to our national homeland - the feelings of sorrow, anger and immense pride mingle together. It felt good to be going home.