American Jews grapple with modern Germany

There is a partnership bound by history, and reparations, reconciliation and diplomatic cooperation between Germany, Israel and global Jewry will chart the path of what the relationship can look like going into the future.

2013 march of the living390  (photo credit: Courtesy, IDF )
2013 march of the living390
(photo credit: Courtesy, IDF )
This past November I spent a week exploring Germany with a group of remarkable people from across the United States. “Germany Close Up: American Jews Meet Modern Germany” is a program in partnership with the American Jewish Committee.
Upon landing in Berlin, we experienced a vibrant city, full of history and full of life. Many of us, however, felt the eerie presence of ghosts of Jewish history everywhere.
Our first venture was a walking tour of Jewish Berlin titled “Don’t Trust the Green Grass.” We heard stories of Jewish life, but many were punctuated by what once was: a synagogue, a school, a cemetery without headstones, a family.
One patch of grass had a barely perceptible line that was once the concrete foundation of the Jewish Community Center. Near that spot stood a monument for the Rosenstrasse protest in 1943, organized by the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men who had been arrested for deportation to Auschwitz. This protest resulted in these men being returned home, and men already sent to Auschwitz being brought back.
Why don’t many people know about this? Perhaps Jews were uncomfortable with the idea that intermarriage may have saved lives. Perhaps Germans were uncomfortable with the idea that in this case protest was effective, and the idea of what more protest could have accomplished. Standing on that patch of grass, and throughout the rest of the trip, we tried to find meaning in empty space.
The Holocaust altered the future of the Jewish people forever in a way we will never fully grasp, but the impact on my family’s future was made clear to me throughout my entire childhood. When I was in high school I lost two grandparents, but what shook me years later was when I realized that the world also lost two survivors – two witnesses. We are approaching a difficult time where for the first time my peers are going to be required to represent those witnesses on behalf of our families.
In the wake of Holocaust denial and indifference, which I believe is a more pressing concern, my generation is uniquely positioned in a way that our parents never were. By the time we were brought into this world our grandparents who survived the Holocaust had already rebuilt themselves. They had healed – in whatever way one can heal – and rebuilt their lives. Our parents grew up in households with their parents’ physical and emotional wounds still raw, and the world was in disbelief at the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis.
Our parents did not need to be witnesses. Survivors were close by and the truth was ever-present. Today, however, many 3G’s are haunted by the burden: what now? I went to Germany be a witness, to continue learning how to be one.
A trip to Germany like this one calls out a lot of difficult questions for a young Jew. It challenges who you are and how you live your life. It humbles you. At times, it scares you. The Holocaust is either at the top, or close to it, in terms of what defines young peoples’ Jewish identity.
One of my key takeaways from this trip is that as witnesses we must remember, and work to ensure “never again,” but if, as one participant put it, young people feel that their Jewish identity is more influenced by Hitler than Moses, we have a serious problem.
What do we owe to the past that will preserve or rebuild the world that was lost in the Shoah? The Jewish world we know does not represent even a shadow of what was in the 1930’s. Not all of this is bad. Vibrant, proud centers of Jewish life have been built; a thriving Jewish state of Israel has been established. Still, what can we preserve, better than we have, of the Jewish life that my great-grandfather lived and I know little about? It isn’t hard to tell that Germany is still not comfortable in its own skin. It is not at peace, struggling to find out how to exorcise the demons of committing an immeasurable sin. Germany is grappling with what happened, how it happened, and what it can do to make things right.
Nothing can undo the past, especially when the past seems abstract to many; these sins were committed years before most Germans were born. My burden of remembrance, of being a witness, is heavy, but cannot be as heavy than what many Germans feel. That Germany grapples with its past should not be overlooked or under-appreciated. To be sure, the main perpetrators were Germans, but something we discussed among ourselves was that we’re not sure how much today’s Poles or Hungarians, or those during the war who moved in to their recently departed neighbors’ houses and ate at their dining room tables, lit by candles held in their candlesticks, are or were burdened by history.
Germans and Jews arrived at 2013, this point in history, via very different paths, but we’re in the same boat now. By the path of history, there are two peoples who have no choice, or perhaps as a mitzvah have accepted that they have no choice, but to grapple with history: the German people and the Jewish people.
There is a partnership bound by history, and reparations, reconciliation and diplomatic cooperation between Germany, Israel and global Jewry will chart the path of what the relationship can look like going into the future.
The writer is the East Coast field director for the Israel on Campus Coalition. A native of Detroit, he is a graduate of Michigan State University. He currently resides in Washington, DC.