For our eighth date, he was the one to offer to watch a Holocaust movie.
I had just purchased the DVD of A Blind Hero, an obscure 2014 German film that tells the story of Otto Weidt, a righteous gentile who sought to save as many Jews as possible by employing them in his “Workshop for the Blind.” As a Jewish tour guide in Berlin, I take tourists to the site of the “blind Schindler’s” workshop in the former Jewish quarter of Berlin, the “Scheunenviertel.”
We snuggled on my sofa, like we did when we watched Scarface together. Only this time, I didn’t let his hands wander.
“No funny business,” I said. “This is serious.”
Until then, most of our dates consisted of bike rides in Berlin and through the Brandenburg countryside. We were a picture-perfect vision of lovers, lying on new grass near sparkling lakes, eating dinner by candlelight on my balcony against the bright leaves of the Berlin spring. This was an apt correction of history: a German offering a Jewess good times and pleasure.
I came to Berlin over two years ago for the same reason many Israelis do: the quiet, relaxed quality of life, the creative vibe, and – for me – the unexpected depth. Since befriending Germans in Israel, I’ve been fascinated by interactions between third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators, especially the romantic kind. Our fates are intertwined. I always felt that our healing must happen together.
To that end, I wrote Underskin, a steamy romance novel between the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and the grandson of probable Nazis. Now, fiction could meet and possibly mimic reality. Like my German hero, my date was a musician who grew up in Dresden, a city known for the Allied 1945 firebombing, where I also give tours.
The Holocaust movie would be the test.
It’s not as if we never spoke about the Holocaust. Usually, on my second or third date with Germans, I brave the question many Israelis secretly like to ask 30 and 40-something-year-old Germans: “Do you know what your grandfather did during the war?”
He knew the basics: His maternal grandfather fought in the Wehrmacht and became a POW in the United States, while his paternal grandfather had sought an “Aryan certificate” to prove his ethnic purity so that he could get a good Nazi job as a lawyer. The latter worked for IG Farben, possibly in the division that produced Zyklon B gas, but he couldn’t say for sure.
At first I cringed upon hearing that, but I already decided upon moving to Berlin that I would not blame young Germans for the sins of the fathers. They weren’t even born at the time. And I admit: with his thick reddish-brown hair and blue-gray eyes, I was very attracted to him.
“I tried to talk to my father, even wrote him letters, but he didn’t want to talk about it,” he had revealed to me. I already knew that in many German families, discussion of possible family involvement with the Nazi regime is taboo. He believed he suffered from his parents’ silence. They were never truly his confidants. He lacked emotional and intellectual intimacy with them.
I took his prodding into his family past – and his reading of my novel – as a good sign. He was ready for introspection into this devastating period.
AS WE watched A Blind Hero, he seemed riveted. His hands did not stray.
I’m not sure if he had ever watched a Holocaust feature. As a child of the anti-Zionist East Germany, he may have received even less education about the Holocaust than his Western counterparts.
The film dramatized how Weidt bribed Gestapo officers to prevent them from deporting his Jewish workers. He went to great pains to save his favorite worker, Alice Licht, from sure death at Auschwitz by bribing locals to track her down and communicate with her on his behalf. Thanks to his calculating efforts, Licht escaped the brutal Nazi “Death March” and made it back to Berlin, a survivor.
Closing credits listed the fate of the workshop’s major characters. Most were murdered.
The ending also murdered the prospect of a romantic night together, but maybe the time had come for more intellectual intimacy, especially about the Holocaust and present-day German atonement. He seemed so moved by the film, I thought he might even cry. I anticipated a moment of catharsis in which he would emotionally connect with the pain his grandparents’ generation caused mine and seek new insight on how to prevent such atrocities in the future.
He sat up straight and brought it up first by asking, his voice heavy: “What do you think Germany needs to do today?”
“I think this generation has to do more research into how their families were involved in the Holocaust and the Nazi regime. If they don’t make the Holocaust personal and understand the details, the Holocaust will become too abstract, universalized.”
He asked me what I meant, so I reminded him of our recent attendance at a “kippah rally.” A few days before, young Germans handed out white kippahs at various Berlin parks to display solidarity with Jews following a recent antisemitic incident in which an Israeli Arab in Berlin tested antisemitism in Berlin by wearing a kippah. No sooner was the Israeli belted by a Syrian refugee shouting “Yahud!” One of the young German women participating in the rally lamented how Holocaust education is diminishing in schools.
“Germans must learn empathy,” she had said, before adding: “For all people.”
I told the Dresdener, as he reclined into the sofa, that empathy for all religions is not the right lesson for the Holocaust.
“Once you make the Holocaust about all religions, then you will equally defend Islam and Judaism when the religions are entirely different. You’ll allow Muslim antisemites into your land as compensation for the Holocaust.”
Whereas once he couldn’t take his hands off me, he froze in the corner of the sofa, curled up. His hands retracted to his heart. “You can’t generalize,” he said with stereotypical German stoicism.
“That’s not to say all Muslims are antisemites, but antisemitism can be found in the Koran,” I countered. “Recent surveys show that a majority of refugees bring with them the antisemitism of their Muslim countries.”
He didn’t argue back – only sat there stone-faced. He seemed to be listening intently, receptively, so I continued, this time making my argument personal.
“I studied the nature of Islam. I had to. I lived in Jerusalem during the second Intifada. People were getting blown up all around me: on cafes, buses, nightclubs. That’s not fighting for a policy, that religiously-inspired hate! I wanted to believe in peace, but I’ve suffered from too much Islamic terror. I don’t want to face it here, now. You in Germany don’t know how good you have it. You don’t deal with a struggle for survival. But my life’s at stake!”
JUST WHEN I thought he would hold me, because I was crying, he sunk further into the corner and looked straight at me, his grayish-blue eyes turning cold and mean. I shivered because I saw his grandfather in them.
“I don’t think we’re a match,” he said.
“Why? Because what I’m saying is disagreeable to you?”
“I don’t know what to think. I need to study the issue. I don’t know so much about Islam. I’m sure there are problems there, but I don’t like these generalizations.”
He had already known I was a critic of Islam, but something changed after we watched the Holocaust movie. The past was no longer an abstract. It was there. In the room. It was clear that he bought into what is becoming prevailing wisdom in intellectual circles in Germany: Muslims are the “new Jews.” For this reason, Muslim immigration provides peace to the German psyche, a peace I broke for him that night.
What had kept us together until that point was a need for companionship and especially human touch – a touch he could no longer give me.
He proceeded to put on his shoes, looking around to make sure he didn’t leave behind his vintage “Interflug” East German airline T-shirt like he had in the past. It was the middle of the night, but he couldn’t get out of my apartment fast enough.
“I don’t think we’re a match,” he repeated and left.
I sat alone in my bed, sad and bewildered. Was my romance novel, which I doubt he’ll ever finish, an exercise in naiveté? Are romantic relationships between third-generation victims and third-generation perpetrators doomed from the start? Survivors and their descendants are perceptibly, tangibly affected by Nazi crimes. My orphan grandfather wore his suffering on his arm – in the form of a tattooed Auschwitz prisoner number. Perpetrators and their descendants are also affected, but more subliminally. They could more easily hide the past – and run from it.
Germany likes to portray itself as a country that has made amends for the Holocaust with its beautiful Holocaust memorials and declarations about Israel’s security being Germany’s “reason of state.” But what about the memorial in the hearts of Germans, who understand intellectually the sins of World War Two, but who have not connected the crimes to their lives and families – and to the Jewish plight of today?
Since that night, when I visit the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind Museum, I silently thank the blind hero. He rescued another Jew – from a man who probably would not have saved me had we lived 80 years ago.
The writer is an American-Israeli journalist based in Berlin and author of The Settler, a coming-of-age novel following the 2005 pullout from Gaza, and Underskin, a German-Jewish love story. www.oritarfa.com
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