Jul 102017
 

With so much news coming out of Hamburg this week I decided it was time to repost what I’d written about my visit to Neuengamme, a concentration camp not far from the city.  I had spent several months in Hamburg as a law student, and this was a field trip organized by the law school.  The following, a combination of two posts originally written in October 2005, joins other items I’ve reposted from the blog I kept back then that reflected on my time there, particularly with respect to what it was like being Jewish in Germany and learning about the history of Jews in Germany

Keeping the holidays around here is challenging. My days are particularly packed, with more classes than usual as two of them wrap up this week. Yesterday began with Conflict of Laws, followed by Comparative Torts. Then almost immediately thereafter many of us boarded a bus for a field trip to the Neuengamme Concentration Camp.

It was one of those gorgeous fall days the holiday often falls on, sunny and pleasant. But we spent it in an environment whose modern serenity belied its past. Although this camp wasn’t dedicated to the extermination of Jews, per se, many did perish there (along with many, many others). On an occasion of contemplation, it was quite the place to spend the afternoon. Continue reading »

Jun 082016
 

Seeing news that Israel has named a street after Chiune Sugihara, I thought I’d repost what I wrote about him in law school:

There was another excellent show on PBS this evening on Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania who wrote visas for thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II. He suffered for his actions personally afterwards – his foreign career effectively destroyed as a punishment (a true shame, given his remarkable linguistic and cultural acclimation skills) – but today thousands and thousands of people and their descendants are alive because of his sacrifice, to risk sanction from his superiors and write all those visas.

The show was also interesting to me on another point: examining the relationship between the Jews and the Japanese. In particular it explained a comment I had heard in my family that previously had no explanation.

I’ve written before about my great-grandmother’s brothers who had escaped Russia in the early 1900s by running east to China. There they settled in Harbin, a city full of expatriate Europeans, including many other Jews. They thrived there, even through World War II. And that was the comment – that the Japanese treated the Jews very well. Unfortunately during that period the Japanese army treated the Chinese people very poorly, which is why there was such confused marveling over why my relatives had no problems themselves.

There seems to be two explanations: one, that there were industrialists in Japan who actively wanted to settle Jews in China, to develop industry using their skills and education. In fact, at one point the Japanese, at the urging of these industrialists, offered to Jewish leaders that it would accept all the European Jewish refugees, with or without passports, so that they could settle in Japanese territory. This offer, however, was unfortunately declined by an American Jewish leader in the misplaced hope that if the European Jews had no viable options left, Roosevelt would step in and finally let them come to the United States and England would let them enter Palestine. Sadly neither of these things came to pass. Boatloads of refugees were turned back at Palestine, many to end up immediately shipped off to concentration camps upon return to Europe, and largely at the urging of anti-Semites in the State Department, America’s borders stayed shut as well.

The other explanation stems from a conversation between Japanese officials, by then allied with the Germans, and a Jewish leader representing the large population of Lithuanian refugees who by now were temporarily settled in Tokyo. Their numbers and the irregularities surrounding their immigration were cause of some concern to the Japanese officials, and Germany was heavily lobbying for Japan to adopt its policies of Jewish extermination. So the Japanese officials asked the Jewish leaders why they should not abide by the Germans’ wishes.

“Because we are all Asians,” was the response. You from the eastern side in Japan, and we from the western in [Israel]. Besides, when the Germans talk about the population they aspire to have, it is all Aryan. It’s all about blonde hair and blue eyes, which the Japanese don’t have. Believe us, they said, when they’re done with us they’ll come for you next.

Whether this explanation was the reason or not, the Japanese chose to resist the Germans’ urgings and let the refugees stay. And Mr. Sugihara was eventually vindicated by history, being honored by the survivors, the State of Israel, and also his native Japan. In Israel, like Schindler, he is known as a righteous person, and more people should know of his deeds.

Originally posted May 5, 2005.  I then had a sad update about his widow here.

Jul 132014
 

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. Continue reading »