Swastika and the word "Raus" (Out) are sprayed at a asylum seeker accommodation in Waltrop, western Germany, on October 13, 2015..
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
The 1930s actress Lana Turner, goes the legend, was “discovered” at a soda fountain. I was “discovered” on a street corner in the German town where I lived with my mother. A modeling agency scout saw me talking with a friend, setting me on a career path that would make me not only an international fashion model but also a beauty queen.
Lana, though, never dealt with antisemitism.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day observed on Saturday, I can’t help but think of the antisemitism of my youth. My mom and I emigrated from Russia to Germany when I was seven years old.
It was 1993 and we were among those in the last big emigration wave from Russia. My mother, no stranger to antisemitism, had numerous family members who perished in the Holocaust. My first personal exposure to antisemitism was at our refugee camp near Stuttgart. We were the only Jews – some families at the camp said they were Jewish but really were ethnic Russians looking for a ticket out. Other kids chased me, calling me a “dirty Jew.” Once, they tried to drown me.
When we moved to Karlsruhe in southwestern Germany, my mother told me not to let anyone know I was Jewish. That was something just between us, as she read me Torah stories at night. We thought that our Judaism was a secret, but what I didn’t realize while growing up in Germany is that my real identity was known to those who recognized my last name as a Russian Jewish one.
Even though my German quickly became so fluent that I won several German literature competitions, I heard at school over the years – especially from the teachers – that I was “Russian” or “foreign.” It was only in looking back years later with the benefit of hindsight that I realized that “Russian” and “foreign” were just code words.
When I started modeling after being “discovered” at 17, I didn’t experience overt antisemitism, but I wasn’t seen as truly German either. With my dark hair and olive complexion, I didn’t look German. Nevertheless, I became a successful model, with more success in other parts of Europe than in Germany.
When I was crowned Miss Universe Germany in 2011, I never told the organizers or anyone else that I was Jewish, nor was I identified as such in news accounts – but some people figured it out. One social media posting – which I read while in Brazil preparing for the Miss Universe pageant – stated: “Hitler forgot about her and her family.”
When Tamar Morali, who is publicly known as Jewish, was crowned “Miss Internet” in December as part of the lead-up to next month’s Miss Germany competition, antisemitic rants targeted her as well, with one wondering if some “Jewhadi activists” had something to do with the online voting process.
To me, it was a reminder how deep-seated antisemitism remains in Germany. When I was a child, my schools taught little about the Holocaust. A few school lessons here and there focused on World War II, with the main messages being that Adolf Hitler was Austrian, not German, and that millions of Germans died in the war.
They didn’t teach much about the Nazis beyond the bare minimum. They fleetingly referenced that six million Jews perished, but there was no attempt to humanize the victims of the Holocaust or acknowledge that Germans and German culture enabled and actively assisted Hitler’s efforts. We never learned that synagogues in our city were destroyed in 1938. They didn’t take us to Dachau, just a few hours away. If anything, the Holocaust is taught in German schools as a horrible episode in history that coincidentally was planned on German soil – carried out by some alien group called the “Nazis.”
I learned about the Holocaust from my mother.
Americans, particularly Jews, who travel to Germany don’t realize how ingrained antisemitism is in Germany. Well-trained tour guides show them around, point out the memorials and talk about Germany making amends. The visitors don’t hear the comments I’ve heard and don’t see the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns on the college campuses, as I did.
They don’t witness the strong anti-Israel sentiment, as I did, among people who never learned that Jews have lived in Israel for thousands of years, and instead see Israel as usurping land that belonged to Palestinians.
But for me, living in Germany taught me how important history is, that hiding a problem won’t make it go away. We must always be on guard against antisemitism and speak out when we witness it.
There are those in the Jewish community who think that the key to deflating antisemitism is to not provoke the antisemites with too much Jewish pride or support for the State of Israel. Having suffered antisemitism growing up in Germany without ever even admitting that I was Jewish, however, demonstrates that Jews will experience antisemitism no matter what we do. That is why Jews and non-Jews alike need to support Israel: because it is the homeland and the haven for Jewish people – the key to our safety and security.
The author is a model and aspiring fashion entrepreneur based in New York, and the first Jewish Miss Germany.