Photo Credit: Courtesy
This is my third trip to Germany. If you’d asked me even 5 years ago for a list of countries I would never visit, Germany would have been at the top of the list. The first time I came here, I trembled as we landed. I felt each step that I took in this land directly in my heart.
The first time as I stood in the shower, I felt sick to my stomach. I told myself to stop being a baby and yet I thought of how many Jews were told they were taking a shower…as they went to their deaths. I didn’t walk where I didn’t have to walk; I hid in my room between presentations as much as was reasonable. I was invisible, or wanted to be. I suffered…and didn’t want to embarrass myself or the Germans that I met.
I wore a Jewish star prominently as I do at home. Before I left, my daughter asked me if I was going to wear the star under my shirt, concealed. And ask she asked the question, I knew that I wouldn’t. Almost immediately, in the airport waiting for the connecting flight to Germany and on the plane itself, I saw their eyes drop to the star and rise to meet my eyes and I saw knowledge in them. They knew who I was. It had been stated. I am a Jew. Interestingly enough, most automatically assumed that I came from Israel and I confirmed this as well.
To a couple of German missionaries who questioned me, “Do you really not believe in Jesus as all?” I proudly answered, “Nope, not at all”. And then I turned around and asked them if it was true – that they believed that only those who accept Jesus as God or whatever can get into heaven. They said yes, but immediately saw my next question and assured me that everything was okay because Jesus was up in heaven and as Jews die and approach him (him being in heaven waiting), Jesus gives them another chance to “repent.”
So I told them, “well, we have a problem because I can assure you that the six million Jews, having just been murdered by good Christian Nazis, weren’t going to accept Jesus in death anymore than they did in life.” That presented them with a huge problem which I left them to resolve.
The second time I came to Germany, last year, I told myself that I had to try harder. As I had labeled myself “Jew” the first year, I labeled myself again. The star that I wear at home, a gift from my husband, was not something that I would take off for the Germans. But here it has a greater meaning. Once, I wrote after the first visit…once they labeled me. Now, I choose. I label myself…and that is everything.
What I did notice was that it was easier last year to mingle and speak with people, to walk and talk to clusters of people. So I pushed myself and decided to use the free transportation pass that was provided to me as a conference speaker. Very kind staff in the hotel game me a map and directions, I took the train to the center of the city. Like showers in Germany, trains are another nightmare I needed to tackle.
I took the train to the stop I was told to take and then I started to walk. I’m told that few people recognize the pockmarked stones on the older buildings for damage caused by war, I recognized the marks right away. I see them almost daily in Jerusalem.
When a bullet strikes stone, the stone lives on to tell about it in the marks left decades later. I saw how the upper floors of some of the buildings in the center of the lovely German city were built much more recently than the lower floors. And this I confirmed when I got back to the conference – the city was heavily bombed and most of the buildings in the city center were left in ruins.
I noticed the buildings, and I noticed the people. And I’m ashamed to admit that I found myself glaring at the oldest people. And more, in my look was an unspoken dare that I’m not even sure I understood, let alone them. “Look at ME, see ME. I’m what’s left! I’m what you tried to destroy! Where were you? What did you do when my great-grandmother was being taken by train to Auschwitz? Did I just take a train on tracks she traveled? Were you there when my husband’s grandparents were all murdered – there on a train, there in the camps?”
I walked only a short distance before I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore. My eyes were filled with tears and I hoped the cold wind would be assumed to be the reason. I stopped a policeman and asked him where the next train stop was and in my head, I realized, I was listened for the sound of vicious dogs barking.
This was a very nice, young, helpful and kind policeman, but the accent and the uniform hurt my heart. I took the train back to the hotel and went to my room where I sat watching the rain and the wind and the sleet as it turned to icy snow in the evening.
This is my third time in Germany. It is cold here. Moments after landing, I watched the oriental man walk up to passport control to my right. The border guard looks at the passport and holds it to the glass to examine the picture and the young man’s face. He asks him questions that I cannot hear and looks at the passport again. Ahead of me, a fellow traveler finishes and leaves. It is my turn. My heart hurts but I walk up to the woman in the booth and I say good morning. She responds kindly as I pass through my Israeli passport.
I’m cheating. I have an American passport that I could easily travel with. In Amsterdam, last year, they asked me if I had another passport and as I was about to pull out the American passport, I asked if there was something wrong with my Israeli one. It would be easier, said the man, to use the American passport. Easier? Use the Israeli one, I told him, since nothing is wrong with it. Now, here in Germany, I don’t even offer the American one.
I see the woman’s eyes look down. She has seen the Jewish star. She looks at the Israeli passport but she doesn’t lift it to check my face against the picture (the picture is 10 years old; in Israel I have trouble with it and the Israeli guards tell me to smile as I do in the picture. It was taken right after my oldest daughter got married and it is one I still love. I have so much more to smile about now – two others have married as well, four grandchildren have been born, another, God willing, is on the way. But she woman doesn’t look at me again. She doesn’t ask me to smile. She stamps the passport and hands it back to me without a word.
I take it and leave. The oriental man is still being questioned. Don’t tell me they don’t do ethnic profiling here (and in England where I was passed through in under 2 minutes while two Indian women were each questioned for close to 10 about where they were going, who they were staying with, when they were leaving). The oriental man was asked when he was leaving. I wasn’t asked I was ready to give the German clerk the exact time and day that I was to leave, to make it clear it would be within an hour of when the conference ends.
I quickly and efficiently collected my luggage and walked out of the airport. The ground was wet – it had just rained. It’s so much colder here than in Israel and I shiver and put on the coat I brought and barely wear in Israel. In Israel it is 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Farhenheit) and here in Stuttgart, it is 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Farhenheit). My heart hurts again.
Third time here and it’s getting so much easier to speak to the people but the land hurts me; the steps I take feel so different than in Israel. It is said that for each “dalot amos” (four steps) you take in Israel, you are credited with doing a mitzvah, a good deed. The land of Israel reaches up through my feet and I take pleasure in each step I take on its holy soil.
Here I feel nothing. I miss looking at something and knowing it is mine. Does everyone feel that when they are far from home? I can’t answer that. I can only write what I feel at this moment.
They still see my star, as I want them to. There is still a look in their eyes, a question they are too polite to ask and I’m too stubborn to answer. I come here as an equal and they readily except me as such. I’ll shower and take the train and I’ll crave home. And I’ll deal with the guilt of it being just that much easier this time than last. Sometimes, the best we can do is be honest – it’s a work in progress, it’s complicated.
I can’t heal faster because I don’t really think it’s possible to heal from every blow God or man delivers. We have to learn to accept, to deal, if not to heal. So, I’m here. I’m dealing. I’ll smile and be social; I’ll take showers and maybe I’ll try the train again. I’ll look out my window and rub my heart and tell it, soon we’ll be home. I know it hurts but the hurting is honest and it won’t kill you.
It’s good to be in Germany, to come here and be respected. They are very kind to me. And I learned the first time that I was here that they suffer too. I hadn’t known that – at least not in my heart and where once I would have said, “good, let them suffer. After what they did, they can’t suffer enough” – the reality is, they didn’t do it just as it wasn’t done to me.
Raizel and Yeshaya Zev and Binyamin Elimelech, and Shmuel, and little Gavriella, and Esther Chaya, and Chaim Laizer, and Sarah, and Feigy…and so so many others…they were murdered but despite it all, I’m here in this place with the Germans while their grandparents…and mine…aren’t.
And there is another thing that I hadn’t been ready to accept but now know to be true. They know my heart hurts, at least some of them do and in being here, I think I make their hearts hurt a little too. For now, I’ll give myself tonight and then tomorrow I’ll go out and I’ll walk and I’ll wear my coat and as I do, I know that behind me and beside me, so many others will walk with me because somehow like the star that I wear, I have six million shadows walking with me. I feel them and the Germans see them.