A few things happened today: Germany won the World Cup, and I ended up in several unsettling conversations about the current contretemps between Israel and Hamas, which somehow led to a German friend saying something to the extent that the Holocaust was 70 years ago and it was time for Jews to get over their sense of victimhood.
I won’t debate that point here right now (I’ve already railed in unconstructive astonishment on social media…) but I decided that the convergence of events today warranted republishing this post I wrote in law school, during the semester when I studied in Germany.
I’m really enjoying my time here in Germany. I’m learning a lot of interesting law, meeting lots of really nice people, learning the language… I’m really glad I came, and as an American student I’m being made to feel very welcome at the school, in the city, and in the country.
But I’m not just an American. I’m also Jewish, and it’s hard to think about being Jewish in Germany without stumbling upon the elephant in the room: what happened 60-70 years ago. It’s the history we’ve all inherited – but to what end? I know relatives and acquaintances who refuse to set foot in Germany, not out of any sense of personal fear (although there probably is some distrust that the virulent anti-Semitism is truly a thing of the past) but more out of a lingering anger for those horrible crimes perpetuated against so many people, and particularly against people like us.
I can’t dismiss their feelings: they are a reasonable reaction to an incomprehensibly horrible tragedy that I would not want to minimize, nor encourage others to minimize. But at the same time, it’s completely unintuitive to me to dig my heels in and continue to punish a nation of strangers. On the contrary, it seems that the complete opposite is called for. Hatred festers in the distrust unfamiliarity breeds. The thing to do, it has always seemed to me, is to take affirmative steps to not be strangers anymore.
In this vein I had an interesting conversation with a German woman a week or so ago. Her parents were war refugees themselves, having fled what is now Poland in advance of the Russian army. Growing up, her parents – directly scarred by the trauma – harbored and often articulated ill feelings towards the Russians as a result. But she, not being as directly affected, resisted absorbing those attitudes. Instead she chose to study Russian, and come to know the people that she otherwise might have regarded with fear and suspicion. I understood exactly why she felt it was so important to do that, because when I was younger, as a child of the Cold War, it was what motivated me to study Russian as well. It was also what prompted me, when I was 13, to want to study German too.
Of course, learning the language is just the first part of the equation. The next step is to learn people’s stories. In talking to this woman she admitted to me that when she meets someone who says they’re Jewish, immediately the wheels start turning and she wants to know how their families’ stories personally intertwined with history. And when she said that, I immediately blurted out, “You know, I’ve always been curious the same way about the Germans that I’ve met.”
The conversation greatly validated what both of us, independently, had come to believe – that it was necessary to climb down from our respective, distant turrets history had built for us and make a point to lay a shared, positive foundation for a mutual history that’s yet to be written. (And that both of us from such different – perhaps oppositional – pasts could reach the same conclusion is itself an important lesson, too, I think.) For my part, I’m here – learning German, “being” German, and making an effort to see the world through the eyes of my German friends and neighbors. And for their part, the Germans I’ve met are making a tremendous effort themselves. My woman friend, for instance, learned Yiddish and wrote her dissertation on a community of Russian Jews. As another striking example, a few nights ago I was out at dinner with a group of German students from school, and was amazed to find that, in this random group of four people, three of them – completely separately – had visited Israel. (Two had gone on student exchanges, and one worked at Yad Vashem.)
All that said, I still find some things about being in Germany difficult or poignant, especially around this time of year. And there is one concrete thing that I felt very uncomfortable about in particular. While I suppose there are many things about Germany that don’t make sense to me, or that I think should be different, it’s not my country and therefore not my place to criticize. Except in this one instance, and I say what I do with all due respect for my host country and the complete cognizance that I am a guest here: it felt extremely wrong to me that when I filled out the city registration application, I had to report my religion. Purportedly this was for tax purposes, and had something to do with the city needing to know how many people the churches served. But it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t want to tell the German government that I’m Jewish, and I don’t think it’s good if it knows where all its Jewish residents live. Things went horribly wrong the last time it knew.
But beyond that, the Jewish high holidays are here. Even not-particularly-observant Jews tend to use the occasion as a time to reflect on their Jewishness, and given where I am right now, I felt it was important that I did as well. I didn’t want to let the occasion go unmarked. I didn’t really care if I marked it formally by going to services; indeed, I found the prospect intimidating. I’m not so well versed in my own religion that I can resist feeling a bit like an outcast amidst other Jews who are strangers to me. I tend to feel very inept, and consequently critically question my own identity. This wasn’t the time for that though – to be able to be Jewish in Germany is an important thing, and I needed to find a way I was comfortable being so.
So I took the day off on Tuesday for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. I didn’t go to school that day, passing on the matriculation ceremony for new students we were graciously invited to. I felt my obligations to myself were the most important ones for me to attend to and focused only on those. I did go to a German class for a bit in the afternoon – after all, learning the language is one of the obligations I owe to myself – but that was the only regular appointment that I kept.
Instead I threw a party. One of the traditions of Rosh Hashanah is to eat sweet things in hope of having a sweet new year. I thought it might be nice then to have a dessert party. But poor planning morphed it into something else – something nicer, even: some of my German friends came over and joined me (and my roommate) for dinner. One made some delicious sweet pancakes, and we ate them with applesauce, carrots with peanut butter, and, of course, the traditional apples with honey. It was one of those lovely occasions where you can sit back and marvel, “Wow, I’m a grown-up!” as we enjoyed the company of good friends and good food, all of which we arranged ourselves. It was such a nice evening my roommate and I were still high-fiving each other an hour later about it. Then, the kitchen and our rooms all straightened up, we were ready to face the new year.
It was one of the nicest evenings I’ve ever had, spending it in the company of people I really like. German people, even. Call it an irony of history if you want, although I would prefer to see it as an inevitability. Being willing to cross the barriers that sorrowful history has placed before you seems well worth its rewards. If I hadn’t come here to Germany, I wouldn’t have known these people, and they wouldn’t have shared my holiday with me. I don’t mean to suggest, though, that I shouldn’t look at the elephant, or pretend that the elephant isn’t there. We all need to look at that elephant, long and hard, so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. My nice evening does not make me glib about that. But what I have come to realize, with increasing clarity over recent days, is that running away from the elephant isn’t the right thing to do either. If I had refused to come to Germany, or refused to know my friends, or refused to let them share in my personal celebration of such an important day, what would it have accomplished? What sense would it have made to punish my friends for something they themselves didn’t do? I would only have been punishing myself.
Originally published October 5, 2005.