What is it about the Germans?

A British Jewish journalist spends two months in Berlin trying to rationalize the Shoah.

david byers 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
david byers 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I was offered a one-off grant by the German-based Internationale Journalisten-Programme to work for two months as a reporter at the daily Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin back in October, I did so partly because of simple journalistic interest and a desire to improve my mediocre German - and partly because I wanted to embark upon a personal journey into my family's history. I wanted to use my time in Berlin to take a look at today's Germany and, somehow, link it to its past - to try to understand how my family had lived, and why they had been discriminated against, by the ancestors of those in the country I was now about to visit. The most obvious historical journey to make, perhaps, was to find the street where my family once lived. The offices of Der Tagesspiegel are based in Potsdamer Strasse, which is easy walking distance from the road where, more-or-less 80 years before, grandmother Bronia Hermele (later Bajer) and great-uncle Maurice Hermele lived as small children, along with the rest of their family who were murdered by the Nazis in various camps little over a decade later. It was an era, between 1922 and 1928, which Bronia and Maurice both agree, was the happiest of their childhoods - before Europe became truly engulfed in the anti-Semitic nightmare of the 1930s and '40s. For the rest of their family, killed by the Nazis, this period in Berlin was probably the last relatively peaceful time in their lives. In a number of interviews this year at his London home, which I conducted for a book I am compiling about my family's history, Maurice told me that Koniggratzer Strasse was the name of the street where he and his family had lived, in a smart apartment near a famous theater. The road was meant to link Anhalter Bahnhof and Potsdamer Platz, and yet I could not find it anywhere, and it didn't seem to be on any maps. All Internet references to the street were in the 1920s. Eventually, I walked into a shop on Stresemannstrasse - which was where I thought Koniggratzer Strasse should have been - and asked directions. The woman serving behind the counter hesitated for a second and, with a look of slight amazement in her eyes, informed me that I was, in fact, on that very street - but that no one had called it by that name for more than 70 years. Its name had been changed first by Hitler in the 1930s, and then to Stresemannstrasse at the end of the war. I walked slowly up and down Stresemannstrasse, from Anhalter Bahnhof, on one end of the street, to the gleaming Potsdamer Platz on the other, and felt strangely emotional. I took photographs of simple things on my cellphone camera - buildings, road signs, shops. I tried with all my heart to make that link to the past. I tried to imagine a young Maurice and Bronia walking down that very street, playing in the nearby square they both talked about. But, short of the simple geographical location, I couldn't imagine anything. Precious little else on today's Stresemannstrasse had anything in common with the Koniggratzer Strasse that my family knew. Gleaming skyscrapers, shiny new buildings, a Christmas market and a Dunkin' Donuts can be seen from the end of Stresemannstrasse, at Potsdamer Platz. The famous old theater my uncle and grandma talked about with affection was nowhere to be seen, and the woman in the shop didn't seem to know anything about it. I tried other ways to make that link to the past. I interviewed Isaak Behar for Der Tagesspiegel (also published in The Jerusalem Post and Jewish Chronicle). Behar's entire family had been murdered by the Nazis - and he, unfathomably, had decided to go back to Berlin straight after the war and live there, even though most of his neighbors had stood by and watched as his parents were taken away. Interviewing Behar was an extraordinary experience. He lives in Grunewald, which, to all intents and purposes, is the equivalent of leafy Hertfordshire or Essex, and yet the history books tell us Grunewald was the scene of one of Nazi Germany's nastiest crimes. As I walked around the streets, however, all I saw was an affluent suburb, similar to the place my parents live. Autumn leaves were scattered on the ground and princely houses with electric gates were set back from the road. And there is a little railway station - a small, utterly innocuous building with traditional big German clock and little cafeteria. Standing in Grunewald Station, I could barely imagine that here, in the 1940s, 50,000 Jews were rounded up by the Gestapo and SS and bundled onto cattle cars for Auschwitz, where most of them (Behar's parents included) were gassed. Grunewald is the last place in the world you could imagine such a thing happening. Before the war, Behar and his family certainly thought so. Then, also for Der Tagesspiegel (and also published in the Post), I went to interview Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of Germany's Zentralrat de Juden (Council of Jews), to write an article marking the anniversary of November 9, Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses, synagogues and homes were smashed and more than 90 people killed. Kramer told me that Holocaust education has gone wrong in Germany. That too many young Germans today either feel complete submissiveness toward Jews, or are fed up with hearing about the Holocaust and are resentful for having it rammed down their throats. He said, controversially, that modern Germans, and German Jews, must be given a healthy sense of modern national identity and pride, while never forgetting the horrors of its past - and that the vacuum being created by young people lacking such national identity is being exploited by the extremists who are once again on the march. Once more, I tried to make that link to my family's past. Could such a formula prevent what happened to them from happening again? I SPENT WEEKS during my stay watching the way German people - the grandchildren of the Holocaust generation - act. What, I repeatedly asked myself, is it about Germany? Are Germans more likely to carry out a mechanical, meticulously planned genocide against their own people than, say, Britons? By studying ordinary Germans, I searched for answers to this question. I looked at the way Germans behaved in the street, for example. Next to no one crosses the road unless the green man is showing, even if there is no traffic for miles, I noticed. I used to get looks of horror and indignation when I did so, which I quietly relished. Are Germans sheep, I wondered, who are so obsessed with obeying the rules that they do so blindly and without thinking logically about them? Is the way that German people cross the road and the general robotic orderliness of society evidence, somehow, and in some way, of a mechanical culture where regulations are everything and common sense little? And what about the rise of the far right, I thought. Is it far higher in Germany than in most of Britain, for example? Is this evidence of a Nazi timebomb waiting to happen? Is the German people a race where, in the right political climate and at a certain time, you simply flick a switch and all of a sudden Nazis emerge? This would be the convenient and intellectually lazy conclusion to draw, but I have my doubts. Support for the far right is highest in areas of enormous deprivation. In 1990 Germany did, after all, take the unprecedented step of absorbing a second- or even third-world country when the Berlin Wall came down. Large parts of the east are truly in a desperate state, with some having a population comprised of 80 percent men, I am told, who are mostly unemployed. Surely that, rather than a mechanical trip-switch of hate, better explains the rise of extremism? And yet, if there's nothing essentially mechanical about the Germans - nothing that makes them inherently more likely to flip out in an orgy of intolerance the moment rules get disobeyed or things get bad in their society - could the Holocaust happen anywhere? Even in Britain? It's true that many a German Jew (including Maurice and Bronia) have said that Germany was the last place they, too, expected it to happen. In a passage from her Holocaust diaries, which she completed in the 1980s, Bronia describes the amazement she felt when she first arrived at Auschwitz in 1944. "I find it impossible to describe my feelings seeing the vast desolate expanse, with emaciated human beings moving about in rags," she wrote. "Most people have seen pictures in different films, but to be really there is something quite different. I could not help thinking: 'Where is our God? He is supposed to be just, kind and caring.'" As I write this I am approaching the end of my time in Germany and, as you can probably tell, I feel I've failed on my mission to make a link with my past. As hard as I strain - whether it is walking between the stones of Berlin's Holocaust memorial, strolling around the Jewish Museum, chatting to Jewish community leaders and Holocaust survivors or simply walking around my family's street - I've found it impossible to answer the questions of how, and why. At Grunewald Station, I couldn't see those hordes of frightened people being loaded onto cattle cars. All I could see was a station with a nice-looking little caf . On the U-Bahn or at pedestrian crossings, I couldn't see killers-in-waiting, no matter how hard I tried. I just saw ordinary people, of all shapes, sizes and races, going about their daily business. For someone who loves rationalizing and contextualizing everything (I am a journalist, after all), I have found - after two months in Berlin - I can't rationalize the Holocaust. I can't place it in a box, or give a few simple reasons for it. So do I think all Germans are mass-murderers-in-waiting? No, I don't. Were they in the 1930s? Yes, clearly, they were. Could it happen again, but this time, perhaps, to the Turks instead of the Jews? I - like the vast majority of people who have studied this subject - simply don't know, and it frustrates me. How can anyone stop something from happening if we don't understand the cause? Sadly, it is more out of hope than expectation, then, that I keep my fingers crossed that children of the future, just like my grandmother Bronia and uncle Maurice, will be free to play with their friends down all of those Koniggratzer Strasses of years to come, away from the fear of imminent persecution.