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August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
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Mixed Feelings On A Berlin Visit


When my grandfather left Poland in 1930, he refused to speak Polish again. Perhaps he foresaw what many would not. When he learned of the Shoah, he discovered that his remaining family members were among those whose lives were snuffed out by their European neighbors.

In a deep sense, many Jews have never spoken “European” again. American Jewry ascended to new heights, and a State of the Jews emerged from ashes to become the new locus of Jewish conscience. Strangely though, there are Jews again in Germany; officially 110,000, but likely in excess of 200,000 – the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) recently sent a delegation of young leaders to Berlin through their young people’s initiative, ACCESS. Paid for by the German government from interest earned from the Marshall Plan, the trip engaged journalists, high school students, politicians, German-Turks, and Jews.

In an emotional and dynamic week, the delegation learned that Panzer divisions no longer rumble through Brandenburg Gate; that Berlin is a favorite destination for young Israeli artists; and that what was a divided city for four decades is this year the capital of a united Europe. More important, we learned of how Germany has coped with its ugly past and how it confronts an eternal anti-Semitism.

The newly opened Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe stands directly in the center of Berlin. A five-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, the memorial, open at all hours, is an eyesore. Some 2,700 uneven, dark stone blocks rise out of the ground, resembling a dizzying nightmare of silent, screaming caskets. Locals say teenage couples can sometimes be seen cuddling in its labyrinth alleys. On my visit, you could hear the echoes of laughing children playing hide-and-go-seek.

Offended? Some are. Yet the design is purposeful. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the whole of German society, not by a renegade gang. It was a series of acts – of disenfranchisement, of enslavement, of collective murder – that became as accepted as love-struck teenagers, as laughing children.

In a walk through a former Jewish neighborhood in Berlin, I looked down at the cobblestone street and noticed several small, engraved gold stones. On these stones are carved the names of the Jews who used to live in the houses behind them. “Here lived Alice Kozower, from 1934, deported to Theriesenstadt, 1943, killed in Auschwitz.”

On a tour through the Reichstag, I saw an entire wall covered with Cyrillic graffiti. A reunited Germany had returned to its old Parliament headquarters, but its layers of history – this graffiti was left behind by conquering Soviet troops in 1945 – remains deliberately embedded as another reminder of its stained past.

David Harris, the executive director of the AJC, asked in May 2006: “Can you imagine in sixty years that Israel’s best friend in the world will be Syria, or Iran? In 1945, no rational person could dream that Germany would ever be a friend of the Jews. But here we are.”

And yet…

A Chabad schoolhouse in Berlin was smoke-bombed several weeks ago. The Associated Press reported last month that anti-Semitism is at its highest level in Germany since reunification. Ask Deidre Burger, director of AJC’s Berlin office, and she will tell you that Germany has a dangerous, qualitative media bias against Israel. Yet at a meeting with German journalists, one of them stated blankly: “There is no media bias.”

Ask German-Turks about their job prospects, and some will tell you there are simply too few available for them. Yet a high school student told me, “Neo-Nazis are angry because the Turks take their jobs.” Meanwhile, when pressed on the issue of growing anti-Semitism among the German-Turks, one of their Berlin heads said Israel should treat Arabs better. Later, he asked us to work to prevent the U.S. government from recognizing the Armenian genocide – a strange request, seeing as most of us were for the first time stepping foot in a country that had committed genocide against our own people.

I visited Lauder, a Jewish school and yeshiva in Berlin. One of the students glowed about the revitalization of Jewish Berlin, numbering more than 12,000 today. Yet he told me with a straight face that school rules require that no student leave the premises wearing a yarmulke.

About the Author: Robert Tanenbaum is a J.D./M.A. candidate at American University’s Washington College of Law and School of International Service. This fall he will clerk for the Honorable Harold Ackerman, United States District Court, D.N.J.


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