While growing up in Great Neck, NY in the 1970s, no one in my community would drive a BMW or a Mercedes. They were verboten. They were German cars. My high school teacher, my synagogue’s cantor, my friend’s parents, and my neighbors had not only been touched by the Holocaust, but had actually lived through and survived it. As a child, my 11th grade algebra teacher, Ms. Sanders, had walked across the Swiss alps with her mother and sister to safety. Cantor Segal survived a mass shooting as a child. Dr. Moser, my best friend’s father and a dermatologist like my dad, was a passenger on the St. Louis. Our neighbor Dr. Gerstein, my parents told me, was the only person in his village who had survived the Holocaust. Mrs. Gross, the wife of my dentist and my mother’s carpool companion, escaped Austria with her mother and sister. Dr. Gerstein, like Cantor Segal, no longer had any immediate family. And in the 1970s, my education at Temple Israel of Great Neck’s Hebrew School included watching video footage of concentration camps and much more.
(PAUSE) Those images are “printed” on my mind forever!And, I knew the reason for all this pain and suffering: Germans. Germans! Germans!
Fast forward 40 years and Welcome Our Exchange Student Lena!
Some 40 years later, I am married and living in Boulder, Colorado with my husband, Tom. Married late in life, we do not have children of our own. Anxious to be involved in the lives of the next generation, we decide to host an exchange student for a year. What fun it will be to invite a 10thor 11thgrader into our home and learn about each other, our lives and our cultures. We fill out the application, we pass the home inspection, request a scholarship student, and await possible students who will live with us.
Tom, my husband, says he will be happy with any of the teenagers. He is sure they are all good. I, on the other hand, am more picky. Our liaison tells us she has the perfect person for us –LENA. Like Tom, she plays the drums in a band. Like me, she loves the theater. Upon receiving and reviewing her file I learn Lena is GERMAN. Yes, GERMAN.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but at first I say to Tom: I cannot have a German in my house. But we read her file and learn that she is Cameroonian-German. Her father was born and raised in Cameroon and Lena is a woman of color. This put a wrench in my initial rejection. After all, while she may be German, I know that people of color in Germany have historically faced very bad discrimination. And so, I say, perhaps GOD has a plan.
Yes, we will have a Cameroonian German teenager spend the year in the house of a Rabbi. I seem to tell EVERYONE that she is Cameroonian German (implying she is not a real German!).
Yet in fact, Lena was a “Real German” in many ways. She spoke German, was very direct, was always on time and she loved Soccer. During our many conversations, I learned much that I never knew.
During School, she had learned about World War II and the Holocaust at least 3 different times. The first time was when she was in 3rdor 4thgrade, just 9 or 10 years old. She couldn’t believe how people could believe such screwed up ideas, and do such horrible things in the name of those ideas. In Junior High School, her class visited Dachau Concentration Camp, not far from Munich. She shared how in Germany, the whole idea of “your own people” is not encouraged and that the one big feeling of unity is for football (US soccer). When she was 16, she participated in a two-week class trip to Poland with 15 German teenagers. They visited Auschwitz. For Lena, it was the first time that she really understood the full monstrosity of the Holocaust, not only intellectually but also emotionally—and made the connection to her own family.
“I think most of us felt unbelievably guilty as it was ‘our’ grandparents who did that to ‘their’ grandparents (together with many, many other innocent people). I remember us even talking about the fact that we were insecure about how to deal with that.”
Lena is not unique in her education. In an article in Ha’Aretz, the leading Israeli newspaper, Aya Zarfarti writes, “Holocaust studies are just as thorough in Germany as they are in Israel, if not more so. Here you will never encounter a class that does not discuss Kristallnacht.” To date, over 3,500 German speaking teachers have come to Yad Vashem to learn how to better teach the Holocaust.
The lessons Lena learned about empathy, dehumanization, discrimination, etc. greatly impacted her, her ideas and her current choices. From me, a rabbi, she is eager to learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. She respectfully participates in Shabbat, Sukkot, and Passover. She writes impassioned high school essays about today’s refugees and the mistreatment of minority groups.
Next Stop on the Journey: A Visit to Germany!!!
After spending a year with us in Boulder, visiting my family in NY and Tom’s in Montana, Lena wanted to show us her home, introduce us to her village. As do most host families, we promised Lena that we would definitely visit her. Well, two years passed, and we thought that it was important to visit Lena sooner rather than later. After all, unattended relationships can fade away and people can grow apart.
Tom and I agreed to visit Lena this past July, several weeks after her high school graduation. Once Tom and I told her we would be coming, I started to have strange dreams. I started to dream that I was walking around a city in Germany. In my dream, I saw people going about their daily business andI saw skeletons walking around too. These skeletons were going about their daily business unseen and unnoticed by the living. It did not take a Ph.D in psychology to figure out that I was dreaming of the people who had been murdered and denied the opportunity to live their lives. What I was experiencing is called intergenerational trauma.
I was quite upset and told Tom that while I would be able to visit Lena in her hometown, I was not prepared to have a joyous holiday, frolicking around Germany. It just did not feel right to me. Tom said he completely understood. We would visit Lena in her hometown, visit Berlin with its Holocaust memorial, and then head elsewhere in Europe or go straight home.
So, we go off to Germany. From the airport, we take an express train to Lena’s tiny village of 60 residents. As we ride the train, we pass train stations, train cars and railroad tracks. My heart sinks. I have visions of Jews trapped behind locked train doors. I wonder if anyone else sees them.
Her mom asks me if it is strange or hard for me to be in Germany given what happened there to the Jewish community? She volunteers that there is a house in the next village that belonged to a Jewish family. That family was taken away and killed in the Holocaust. She asks if I would I like to go see it and I say yes. I feel an obligation. There is a plaque outside listing the name of each family member and what had happened. I recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
I go to the 800 year-old church in Lena’s Village. As a rabbi and a Jew, I am welcomed by the pastor. He makes a point of saying the priestly benediction and gives a sermon on the importance of interfaith relations and understanding.
I go to Berlin and visit The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. it is centrally located – very close to the Reichstag building and the Brandenburg Gate, the Times Square of Berlin.
The museum’s exhibit begins with a quote from Primo Levi, “It happened, therefore it can happen again: that is the core of what we have to say.” “It happened, therefore it can happen again: that is the core of what we have to say.”
The small museum tells the stories of people. At the entrance, six large portraits of lost Jews hang, larger than life. These represent the six million Jews murdered in the WWII era. One portrait is of Zdenek Konas, an 11 year old boy who was deported from Prague and sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp and then to Auschwitz. This theme of individuals affected by the war carries throughout the museum.
The role of Germany is front and center, as well as the reality of what happened throughout Europe. I cry, I feel nausea. I learn not only about the role of Germany but also of complicit European nations and citizens.
In 2015, 475,000 people visited the exhibition. Since it opened in 2005, more than 6 million people have visited the memorial/information center — German school children, European tourists, and Jews. Wow!I think it I s one of the best Holocaust Museums I have ever visited –including Yad VaShem and the DC Holocaust Museum.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared: “80 years after Hitler’s rise to power, Berlin showcases how far Germany has come to terms with Nazism, to the extent that it can resemble an open-air museum of past horror and current commemoration, unblinking in its honesty”.
Germany has visited its past. It doesn’t deny or make light of its role in the destruction of European Jewry. It teaches about it to its young.
Today, Berlin has a rabbinic seminary training rabbis and renewing Jewish life in Germany.
As of now, Germany has accepted more Syrian refugees than almost any other European country. Despite some backlash, Germany continues to have some of the most liberal refugee policies in Europe. Germany also has some of the strongest anti-Nazi and Holocaust Denial laws. As the Yad VaShem website points out, “countries like Germany take these laws very seriously and vigilantly prosecute both speech and behavior having any reference to Nazis and Nazism.”
Upon my return to the US, I called my colleague and teacher, Professor David Kaufman. He teaches history, including Holocaust Studies, to rabbinical students. Today in Holocaust Studies, he said, we teach students that the German people were human beings and not monsters. Ruthie, do you know that Daniel Goldhagen’s hotly debated book “Hitlers Willing Excecutioners” was a best seller in Germany? No, I reply. I did not.
My relationship with Lena, has left me with questions for which I do not have easy answers:
Is reconciling with my “enemy” a betrayal of my people and our history?
Can I accept the challenging responsibility of recognizing the German people’s teshuvah, rather than freezing them as monsters in my mind and heart in perpetuity?
Jewish Chilean Playwright Ariel Dorfman who has family who died in the Holocaust and who lived under Pinochet’s regime asks, “How do we keep the past alive without becoming its Prisoner?
These are questions we must continue to reckon with as memory becomes history right before our eyes. Nearly 75 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, we are left with fewer and fewer witnesses. As the survivors’ (and the perpetrators’) generation dies, it is up to us and to our children – and to them and their children — to find a way of memorializing what happened, of bearing witness, and of still finding a place for healing and forgiveness. My relationship with Lena gives me hope that this is possible.