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Jews and Germany: Why You Should Go, Even If It Makes Your Grandma Angry

I got a lot of flack from family and friends about visiting Germany, but no one had any compelling reasons for me to reconsider– other than ‘this feeling’ that it was somehow wrong for a Jew to set foot in … Read More

By / February 1, 2010

I got a lot of flack from family and friends about visiting Germany, but no one had any compelling reasons for me to reconsider– other than ‘this feeling’ that it was somehow wrong for a Jew to set foot in the former Nazi-land. Their feelings, along with my own, weren’t enough to quell my curiosity and in retrospect, I insist that my anti-pilgrimage was both worthwhile and a necessity. I’d never visited a concentration camp and the Sachsenhausen Camp, located just outside of Berlin, was one of our first stops. It was cold and rainy and I walked around the camp, saw the bunks, the ovens, and the open fields in which my people were systematically shot and murdered at the discretion of some of the most evil men in the history of the world. It looked just like it did in the books and in the movies and I’d stuffed my pocket full of tissues in anticipation of the emotional breakdown of the century– but it never came. Some people cried and others looked as numb as I did. I wasn’t sure what to make of my reaction or the reactions of others and I just kept asking myself, "why am I here?" Surely, the purpose of visiting a concentration camp was to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel one-millionth of the pain that your grandparents would feel if they set foot inside the camp. No such luck. On the bus ride home, I felt a slight escalation in emotion, mostly anger. I thought about the helplessness and desperation, focusing mostly on the perpetrators. Still, I realized that I was privileged to be a part of a generation with a source of comfort. This could never happen again because there is a powerful army that exists to protect Jews and I was able to witness the way in which guilt has truly influenced German society. There is a serious stigma within German society when there is mere mention of beginning a new political party and the German disdain for everything pertaining to the military is (almost) understandable. I struggled with all of this– I struggled to remember with feeling and intention, all while knowing that this was a part of our past and that I could be certain that it would stay there, in the past, as another piece of our story that I could mourn for but not completely relate to. The same question came to mind, "why am I here?" While at the Jewish Museum in Berlin– one of the most fantastic tributes to Jewish history that I have ever witnessed in the diaspora– I came the closest that I’ll probably ever come to finding an answer. We saw the well-known installation Shalechet by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. It was featured as a part of an exhibit entitled Void, most of which conveyed messages related to the Holocaust. Shalechet was a tiny sliver of a room and there was a bit of light, but if you ventured far enough, you disappeared into the darkness. If you chose to walk the length of the room, you had to walk over thousands of hunks of metal that were shaped to look like faces (see photo below). The only sound in the room was the wretched, horrible sound of feet crunching on metal. When no one was there, the exhibit didn’t move and it didn’t make any noise. That was, as we interpreted it, the point. By walking on that very ground, we were giving the murdered and the forever lost the opportunity to scream again, and to be heard. Two generations later, I was already somewhat numb to the pain of the Holocaust– had I not visited Germany, acquired a visual, and dedicated two weeks to focusing on the screams of the Shoah, how would I remember? The reservations that I had about traveling to Germany, the ideological and emotional struggle of being shlepped around such a historically loaded place– that was my first and only opportunity to truly grapple with the reality of the Holocaust. The feeling that it’s somehow wrong to visit Germany is irrational and purely emotional. The Nazis are dead or dying and their children, as a whole, haven’t committed any crimes against humanity. You can buy a cappuccino from a middle-aged man and not have to worry that he voted for Hitler– or worse. It’s true that anti-Semitism has a real presence, but it has a presence in France, England, and most of your other European vacation destinations. My visit to Germany wasn’t a book that I could put down or a movie that I could turn off; it was full immersion into the remnants of what happened, and that is the best that my generation can do when it comes to memorializing something that is in danger of becoming just another sad story among many others. "You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid." – Franz Kafka

This article first appeared on November 22, 2008 and has been republished as part of the series JEWCYEST WEEK EVER.

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