To bear witness means to see through personal presence, to see and not to be able to stop oneself from seeing. Standing in the Mauthausen concentration camp in central Austria, I could only visualize faces of those I never knew. I could see the photos of my great-grandparents and great-aunt who were murdered to the east in Auschwitz. What was wrong with me? I did not want to recall the humanity of loved ones in a place that spoke to their very dehumanization perpetrated by the Nazi regime. But I could not stop, and my tears ricocheted to the children’s trampoline standing innocuously to the side of the road. At that moment, my eyes detached from the rest of my body and I could not fathom the vestiges of a living hell.
The following is a reflection from a recent AJC and Germany Close Up trip to Berlin. To take part in our next Germany experience this August, click here to apply!
As we passed one of the numerous stores that sold “I Love Berlin” t-shirts, I turned to a few other participants in the group and joked, “They should sell shirts that say ‘I visited Berlin and I’m still sorting out my feelings.’” I received a few empathetic laughs, or maybe my new friends were just trying to humor me.
Several months have elapsed since I returned from the week-long trip to Berlin, and I continue to sort out my feelings. The trip was organized by the AJC and a program called Germany Close Up. As a group of young Jewish professionals, we spent the week exploring the city and its history trying to find out how the country has dealt with its past while also learning about Jewish life in modern-day Germany and Germany’s current relationship with Israel.
There was a lot of talk of miracles at the Chanukah party hosted by the new Austrian Consul General in New York, Peter Brezovszky, on the second night, December 21.
The theme, of course, lends itself as we celebrate the unlikely defeat of the Romans at the hands of the Maccabees, and the oil that lasted eight nights. But on this occasion, a few other layers of history were pealed back and in the process, some tender wounds exposed along with hopes that healing may be at hand.
David Harris, AJC’s Executive Director, came to the party, which was filled to capacity with over 150 ACCESS and Austrian guests. He recalled his late father, whose work in physics as a young man in Vienna was put to an abrupt end with the Anschluss. In the 1960s, David returned to the city to help Jews in transit who were escaping the Soviet Union for safer harbors. He recalled lighting the Chanukah menorah with families who had just arrived on free soil – their first open Jewish act after hiding their faith for so many years.
None of us knew what to expect – Twenty-three American Jews visiting a Protestant Church to commemorate the anniversary of what Americans call “Kristallnacht.” In Germany. At a service conducted in German.
What happened through the eyes of our group was, in a word, unbelievable. Over 300 Christians, young and old, attending an hour long remembrance, repentance, and commemoration to the systematic persecution of Jews in Europe, eventually resulting in the six million murdered during the Shoah. It was a moving and chilling program which included a recounting of the laws enacted against Jews, a speech on the nature of human rights and the role of justice and redemption in German society, and a call to action to uphold freedom for future generations.
Sachsenhausen is enormous; I do not say this out of shock, merely a statement of fact. As the Director of BBYO for the JCC of Greater Baltimore and a member of the staff for BBYO’s March of the Living delegation I have been afforded the opportunity to see a number of concentration camps. As you take in all the horrors, facts and figures, waves of emotions overcome you. But among the many thoughts and feelings that wash over me, one stands out as I walk out the gated walls. As I stare at the sign “Arbeicht Mach Frei” I find immense pride and power in my Judaism.
As I step out of the world’s worst atrocity I find myself so proud of the ability of my people to face our history and continue to move forward. As I have had the chance to learn and understand the Shoah I am constantly amazed at our ability to keep moving forward. While in the moment of walking past a gas chamber one often feels a wave of immense sadness, walking out of a camp makes you remember the triumph of the human spirit. Among the myriad of reasons that I dedicated so much time to educating myself and others about the Holocaust is this: someone fought in order for my right to exist, walk in and out of this horrible place. It is all of our collective responsibility to make sure we do not let that moment and that memory fall by the wayside.
(This article was originally published on together.to, a website and forum dedicated to German-Jewish diaolgue)
Did I start The Kippa Test already one week ago? It does certainly not feel that way. It’s as if I just started it yesterday.
For those that did not read last week’s post … let me give you a quick summary of what The Kippa Test is.
Will someone wearing a Kippa feel “good” in Germany – this is what I was asked. So I decided to test it … lets call it a field study. I was wearing the kippa whenever I would come in contact with strangers, with people who don’t know me. On my way to the office and back home, when doing grocery shopping (have been to three different grocery stores this week, plus the bakery). I’ve also been shopping for a “start of school present” for my little nephew. All of that while wearing the kippa.
This morning we had the opportunity to meet our ten German counterparts who will join us for the rest of the week. The day began with four hours of eating, starting with breakfast at the hotel, and immediately followed by a decadent brunch at Villa Flora, a nice restaurant in Munich. There, over white wine and an endless spread of food, including my very first true German Bratwurst, I got a chance to talk with some German peers. Though I’m a pretty observant pescatarian in California, I decided it wouldn’t be a complete German experience without trying some authentic bratwurst. I’m no expert, but I have to say the meat seemed lighter and the taste was more flavorful and nuanced than the typical large-scale breakfast sausage in the U.S. After four hours of eating and drinking, the Americans and Germans at my table were all on joking terms.
After lunch, we stayed in the room for a panel on “Diversity in Contemporary Germany.” 20% of German society comes from what is known as a “migration background.” However, this segment comprises only 2.5% of Parliament and only 2 -3% of journalists. The Iranian-German journalist Saba Farzan finds hope in the popular German TV show “Turkish for Beginners,” which features an intermarried German-Turkish family. Just as “The Cosby Show” portrayed an ideal American family as an African American family—perhaps in some way paving the way for Obama’s presidency—she hopes this show will help assimilate the large Turkish minority into mainstream society.
My childhood was full of magical, well known tales, about characters like Tevye the Milkman, as well as tales of love and joy and everyday life in the shtetls of Poland, told with warmth and wit by my grandparents.
There were Moyshe and Sorale and Feygele from the shtetl of Zamosc; people I never met, but who were brought to life through my grandparent’s stories.
Some of them became my childhood heroes. As a little boy yet unaware of Auschwitz, I wondered about my grandmother’s sadness: Even when telling funny stories, she seemed to laugh with one eye and cry with the other. I don’t remember when I found out that all characters, so alive in these vivid stories, were murdered in Auschwitz.