Why not Berlin

Surely, there’s some psychology to this. Victims often return to the scene of the crime as part of their healing work – and then there’s what’s called identification with the aggressor.

"I love Berlin" postcards in Berlin, Germany (illustrative) (photo credit: MARKUS SPISKE / UNSPLASH)
"I love Berlin" postcards in Berlin, Germany (illustrative)
(photo credit: MARKUS SPISKE / UNSPLASH)
Stopping by the university recently for some meetings during semester break, I ran into a graduate student I had taught a couple of years earlier. She was all bubbly and obviously relieved at having just come out of her master’s thesis defense – and with an excellent grade at that.
“Wow, that’s great,” I congratulated her. “So, what’s next?” “Get some rest, travel, work some, and then maybe go on for a PhD.,” she replied. “Maybe in Berlin.”
“Berlin?” I asked, part reflex, part curiosity, part provocation. “Is that the best you could do?”
Triggering the rise that I had perhaps subconsciously intended, she asked, “Why? What’s wrong with Berlin?”
“Too close,” I responded with all of the gravitas I could muster. “It’s all still just too close.”
I told her that I had been to Berlin once, several years ago for a conference. Strolling around the city one day, I wandered into a souvenir shop. Featured between the I ♥ Berlin sweatshirts and coffee cups, there was a display of some cute keychains. One had a circle with a ghost character and a diagonal line through it (Ghostbusters). The next one had a circle with a cigarette and a diagonal line though it (No Smoking). And the next one had a circle with a swastika and a diagonal line through it. I was shocked. It gave me the chills and I even think I caught myself looking behind me. Not cute anywhere, I felt. Really not cute here.
“Lighten up,” I then said to the Shtetl Yid inside me. “This is today’s enlightened German society rejecting their Nazi past.” Then I thought, “No, this is real and what I’m feeling is real. It’s all still too close.”
Full disclosure: I was a 1950s baby boomer born to Jewish American parents who were themselves young adults during the Holocaust. Germany and German-made were taboo. “Made in Germany” was off limits. My mother once flew from the US to Israel and the plane stopped in Frankfurt. This was back in the days when planes stopped on the way to refuel. My mom wouldn’t get off the plane (you could do that back then).
“Everywhere you step,” she explained, “there’s Jewish blood.” Years after that, when a relative once picked her up at an airport in his new BMW, she gently stroked the supple leather upholstery before sticking it to him. “Nice,” she complimented. “Tell me, is it human?”
Interesting, because I think American-born Jews of that generation were more averse to things German then what I saw among my childhood friends and their Holocaust survivor parents or what I saw later in Israel, when it seemed there were more Mercedes taxis than telephones. But that’s a matter for sociological study. I’m just telling you what I grew up with.
Yet I’m pretty sure that’s not what drove my response to my student’s otherwise admirable aspirations. Germany no doubt has outstanding academic institutions and I do believe that today’s mainstream Germany is sincere in trying to shed its Nazi past.
There is even a part of me that feels compassion, if that’s the right term, for post-Holocaust Germans who have rejected their past and worked to regain their place among the nations, and who have tried to make amends to the Western world (and to the State of Israel), but who really can never escape the horror and shame of their parents’ and grandparents’ deeds.
You see, my student’s gaze toward Berlin was, she explained, for good reason. Asked “Why Berlin?” she related that she had been there several times before and that “… it is a place where I can feel free, I can be myself, anyone I want to be.”
THE INFATUATION of Israelis, especially young ones, with Berlin is well known and need not be belabored here. Liberal, hip, fine lager, low cost of living and much more, plus the need of Israelis, especially young ones, to get the hell out from under the pressures of life here. That is understandable and, I think, even healthy. Israelis are among the most traveled people in the world. It even irritates me somewhat when I run into the occasional provincial Israeli who, for religious reasons or otherwise, declares “I never leave Israel.” But why the infatuation with Berlin? If it’s just for some escape and R&R, why not Helsinki or Copenhagen? I’ve never visited them, but they sound like clean, cool, progressive, 1.7-kids-per-family places, too. Not sure about the cost of living there, but there are probably some good lagers to sip – and good universities too.
Surely, there’s some psychology to this. Victims often return to the scene of the crime as part of their healing work – and then there’s what’s called identification with the aggressor. That’s when someone who feels vulnerable gains a sense of security by getting close to the source of their threat, like Patty Hearst’s Stockholm syndrome or like the class wimp cozying up to the class bully to offset his feeling of weakness.
It may also be that there is a real sense of pride and mastery for today’s Israeli to visit (or reside in) and navigate cosmopolitan Berlin just like anyone else. Of course, I respect their right to do so if that’s what does it for them. What does it for me is the sight of IAF F-15 jet fighters flying over Auschwitz piloted by descendants of Holocaust survivors. Call me old-fashioned. Or provincial.
But here’s the hypocrisy. If there’s one thing that will get the heart of any Israeli who is even remotely within the national consensus, including the Berlin crowd, to bleed, it is the poor old Holocaust survivor. You know, the one in the hospital corridor or the one who doesn’t have food for Passover or the ones our high school students visit as part of their community service because they’re all alone. You know, the ones who we’re all rushing to take care of and whose stories we are hurrying to document because soon they won’t be any of them around.
Sorry, it just doesn’t work together. As long as there are some among us for whom the Holocaust is a living memory, this infatuation with Berlin is, as they say in Hebrew, “lo bamakom” (out of place). This isn’t a guilt trip. Maybe in another a generation or two it’ll be different. But for now, there just seems to be something indecent about it. We need some distance. It’s all still too close.
FOR ISRAELIS – both young and old – traveling the world, feeling free, learning and seeing what’s out there is a good thing. We need to do it. It’s important. I encourage my children and my students to do it. There is a famous story about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century father of modern Orthodoxy who championed the concept of the educated, worldly and devoted Jew. He would leave his yeshiva for weeks at a time each year to trek in Europe. When his students asked him, “Rabbi, how can you leave your Torah studies for so long?” his answer was, “When I die and go to heaven and the Good Lord asks me, ‘Samson, what did you think of my Alps?’ what am I supposed to say?”
In a brilliant essay about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal journalist who was executed in Pakistan, Columbia University professor Samuel Freedman tries to reconcile how this lover of rural Appalachian bluegrass music, a man married to a French Buddhist and who wrote about Persian carpets and child beauty pageants, chose to end his life with the words “I am Jewish.” The point of his piece, and its title, is that “Universalism without Tribalism Is a Kind of Self-Loathing.”
So, my dear student, go to Berlin if you wish, enjoy a good lager and have a great time – but don’t idealize it and don’t long for it. If not out of respect for the old man in the hospital corridor, then out of respect for yourself.
The writer, a PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Ra’anana and an associate professor of psychology at Ariel University.