Picking Up Pieces of my Jewish Identity in Germany.
Germany is a country with a complicated past, that I have complicated feelings toward. A place I never imagined visiting but there I was in the heart of a land that killed six million of my people. When I landed in Germany at 6:00 am it was still dark outside. As I exited the plane and boarded the bus, my first thought was that I just arrived in enemy territory.
It was cold, dark and rainy as we drove through the residential areas from the airport to the city. Again my thoughts turned dark. “Who lived in these houses during the war,” I thought? “Did a family of Jewish people live there? Were they kicked out? What happened to them? “
While walking along the streets of Berlin I encountered small square gold stones called “stumbling stones” in front of houses and places where Jewish people lived or worked. The stones are engraved with the victim’s name, birth date and deportation camp location during the Holocaust. The stones are controversial in Jewish German society. Some argue that the stones are a permanent reminder of the war, while others say it’s just another way for Germans to keep stepping all over the Jews. Above all, it is a small way in which German society is commemorating the victims of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
Responsibility and reconciliation are ever-present and difficult topics for the German people. The big questions that loom are “How did this happen? How do we move on? How do we take responsibility? How do I deal with what my family did during the war?” We broached these and other discussion topics with members of the activist group Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). Each year ARSP plans a commemorative service to honor the fallen Jews and the events of Kristallnacht.
During my visit, we spent the day at Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp right outside of Berlin where Jews, Soviet soldiers and others who opposed the Nazi regime were sent for forced labor and extermination. Walking through the gates, I got an eerie feeling as I passed beneath the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) above me. I stood there taking a few deep breaths before I could walk again.
The atmosphere was gloomy and dreary, just as I expected it to be. The enormity of the place scared me. The vastness of the camp expanded for miles and was surrounded by walls. Standing inside the remains of the crematorium - the site of countless, senseless murders - was ominous. We held a tefila service there to remember those who were exterminated only because they were Jewish and acknowledged that hatred like this still exists in society today.
With the experience, I discovered a greater appreciation for Germany and German society. Prior to this trip, I had little knowledge of the guilt that some Germans live with each day. Some are ashamed of family members who were part of the SS or Nazi regime. Others are uncomfortable living in the shadow of the crimes of past generations. I remain conflicted about my connection to Germany but appreciate the many ways the country has accepted responsibility for their past mistakes and the steps they are taking today to right the wrongs of the past. While we can forgive, we can never forget. I am still left with one big question: “Can the Germans ever overcome their guilt?