In August 2014, my family joined me in breaking a long-standing Jewish taboo. We spent almost three weeks of our summer vacation in Germany.
My parents’ childhood memories of Budapest wartime ghetto life, terror-stricken flight, and murdered relatives remain raw and unadulterated. I belong to that next-generation demographic which has typically spurned all things German – language, culture, consumer products and, above all, personal visits.
At least, that was the case for the first 50 years of my life.
But recently, my attitude began to shift, influenced by a number of factors. At first, the change was almost imperceptible, but, over the past five years or so, I developed a nearly obsessive fascination with the Nazi era that could be quenched only by visiting places that had heretofore held an almost mythically inaccessible status in my psyche. This was especially true of Berlin which is, arguably, ground zero for 20th century western – and possibly global – history, encompassing two devastating world wars and the critically eventful years between them, the Cold War, and the fall of communism, culminating in the emergence of the economic powerhouse that is today one of Israel’s most steadfast European supporters.
Our trip started in Hamburg, where we first encountered stolpersteine (stumbling stones), the brass plaques installed in sidewalks in front of buildings in most German cities and towns from which Jews were deported. Each plaque names a victim, listing the date and place of his or her death; “ermordet,” meaning “murdered,” is the word engraved on most plaques.
Meanwhile, the city’s museum, which almost certainly caters more to German visitors than international tourists, has devoted most of its second floor to a beautifully presented and curated permanent exhibit on the long history of the Jews of Hamburg. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the municipality offers, free and in several languages, a complete city map featuring all sites of Jewish interest, including those of the Holocaust.
Our next stop was the former East German city of Leipzig, renowned for its role as the cradle of the German enlightenment at its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. Walking toward the old town centre, we suddenly came upon an unusual monument occupying most of a city square: 140 metal chairs arrayed in tidy rows, sitting empty under the open sky. We soon discovered that this had been the site of Leipzig’s main synagogue, built in 1854 and swept away along with so many others on Kristallnacht. The accompanying memorial details the fate of Leipzig’s prewar Jewish community.
Berlin, where we spent 10 days including two shabbatot, reputedly has the world’s fastest growing urban Jewish community; the most consistent estimates suggest a current Jewish population of around 60,000, including many from the former Soviet Union and Israel. The prewar count is said to have been 160,000, of whom around 8,000 – fully 5 per cent – were remarkably still living in the city when the war ended; more than half of the prewar population managed to flee, while some 55,000 were murdered.
It is not hard to understand the appeal that today’s Berlin holds for Jews looking for economic and cultural opportunities in a very liberal atmosphere. Moreover, the very fact that Jews can feel comfortable living in today’s Germany seems to reveal something important about the political and societal changes that have taken place there since 1945 and, especially, since reunification. By contrast, the Iberian Peninsula remains almost completely bereft of Jews nearly two centuries after the Inquisition formally ended.
To my mind, what uniquely characterizes Germany’s success in recreating itself from the ashes of its horrific past is an unblinking, unqualified acknowledgment of that past, and of the societal, political, and economic factors that enabled it. Unlike in other European countries, where the Shoah is counted as just one among many misfortunes inflicted by “fascists” or “national socialists” – as if they were some alien species who inexplicably descended on an unwitting population – what we experienced in Germany, again and again, was a clear-eyed, unsentimental willingness to say “look in the mirror – this is what we (or our parents/grandparents) did.”
The Deutches Historisches Museum, Germany’s national history museum, devotes a huge space to an unflinching examination of the rise of National Socialism and its catastrophic consequences. The idyllic Wannsee Villa, where Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann, and top Nazi brass laid the logistical groundwork for the Final Solution in early 1942, is now an educational centre, visited by German schoolchildren on field trips. Sachsenhausen, one of the earliest concentration camps where SS guards were trained for their brutal assignments, now serves a major educational function, and the adjoining former SS barracks has been pointedly and deliberately converted into the modern Federal Police training school.
Wherever we went in Berlin, I felt no hesitation about wearing my kippah openly. To the extent that our clearly visible identity elicited any reaction at all, the most typical was one of friendly curiosity. The only exception to this pattern was at Berlin’s imposing Holocaust memorial, where a recent visitor had inscribed the guest book with the words “Free Palestine”, and where a swarthy looking young man standing just beyond the exit – perhaps the author of that contemptuous message – hissed the same words at us as we walked past.
For me, the key question was – and continues to be – whether a culture and society which produced the most murderous and malignant form of totalitarianism that the world has ever known could recreate itself over the span of just a couple of generations in a way that would give depth and substance to the too-easily mouthed platitude of “never again.” And after exploring today’s Germany, I am left with cautious hope that, if there is such a thing as “collective tshuvah” yielding a positive and sustainable long-term effect on a people’s attitudes and actions, then the Germans – perhaps in their stereotypically methodical and efficient way – have come a long way toward realizing it.
Gil Gross is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based physician. He and his family are avid travellers.