Photo Credit: German Federal Archives

{Originally posted to the Elder of Ziyon website}

I have a thing about Germans. I cannot stand to see or hear them. It isn’t intellectual, not something thought out, but a gut reaction: it literally turns my stomach to be in proximity to them, to Germans, even through the media of film.

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Do you want to call my kneejerk response to Germans simple bigotry? An inability to forgive? It’s not. Truly. The way I feel about Germans is just the well-honed instinct of a Jewish person, a response to the way Germans systematically packed my people into cattle cars, shipped them off to death camps, and gassed and burned them in the millions.

No. You’re right. They weren’t the ones who did all that. Because the people who did that are mostly dead. So it wasn’t them but their parents and their grandparents. But the thing is, their parents and their grandparents are their people. And that is what their people did.

In fact I’m not thinking about any of this when it happens, when I have contact with Germans. It’s like a flash, a moment of impact or a collision, something primal. It’s my stomach turning when a German tourist on a Jerusalem bus turns to me with a smile, holding out his bag of cookies. “Take one,” he says, smiling, even laughing.

My head flies ‘round, as I turn my face to the side so I will no longer see him. I am being obvious and it’s not nice of me. But I can’t help it. Still, I cannot just ignore him. So I turn my face forward once again and shake my head no, never looking up. Not once. Because I literally can’t bear it. Can’t bear to look at him.

It’s physical, this reaction, and you can call it animal instinct, or self-preservation, I really don’t care. I’m not thinking about any of that when I’m around Germans: the people of the people who did what their people did, which is murder Jews in the millions.

My guts twist because I am a Jew. It’s something that happened to me. I’m a product of centuries of cell division of a single people descended from four mothers.

I am a Jew.

So when a friend sends me a video of a “Stairway to Heaven” flashmob from the Kirschgarten, in Mainz, Germany, I try, I really do. But I last only 40 seconds. Then it happens. My gut turns and I have to shut it down. I just can’t.

 

I want to be nice. My friend was just being nice. So I take several deep breaths, trying to decide what to say, what to do. Finally, I thank him. I tell him I just can’t stand to see or hear Germans, but let him know I tried to watch it and that I do appreciate that he wanted to share something beautiful with me.

I want to be honest. The instinct, what happens when I see or hear Germans, wasn’t always there. It is a learned instinct. When I was a young girl in elementary school, I befriended a German girl, whose parents were doing graduate studies in Pittsburgh. The girl was new in my class and I wanted to be nice to a stranger. I didn’t know I shouldn’t be friends with her, and Antje was really, really nice.

One day she invited me to come home with her after school. I called my mother, who said it was fine. As it got closer to the time for me to go home for supper, Antje’s parents begged me to stay for dinner, and said that afterward, they were going to a movie. I remember it was “Yellow Submarine” that was playing, and they said I could go with them. It seemed there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do for me, they were being so nice. I called home and asked if I could stay a bit longer, for dinner and so forth, maybe for a movie.

My dad got wind of the phone call, having just come home from work. He asked my mother what was going on, asked her some questions, then took the phone and said, “You can’t stay. I am coming to pick you up. Be ready.”

“But Daddy,” I began to beg.

“No,” he said. Just the one word. But there was a kind of finality to it. I wanted to demand a reason, but knew it wasn’t going to work on him. I wasn’t going to wheedle this out of him or change his mind and I knew it. I said goodbye to Antje and her family and I never went back there ever again.

I wasn’t allowed to.

My dad explained it to me in the car. “They are Germans being nice to a Jewish girl. They think it can make up for what they did to us in the war.”

My dad mentioned a few of these things. Bars of soap. Babies. He didn’t have to say much.

I still liked Antje after that, but I never really spent time with her again. It was impossible. She was a German. I was a Jew. The war. The soap. The babies.

Now when I think about her parents trying so hard to get me to stay over that evening, I feel sick inside. The way they tried to woo a little Jewish girl. “Hey! We’re not so bad. See? We’re just people, like you.”

But you see, they’re not.

They know it. I know it. Why try to pretend?

Some of us, of course, get the message better than others. My eldest sibling, for instance, never got the message, never developed the instinct. Perhaps there was a blip in the gene pool. She bought a used Volkswagen bug during college and my dad didn’t speak to her until she had it towed away, a few years later.

We didn’t buy German things. And good God! Especially not a Volkswagen. But the truth is, it wasn’t specific to Germany. We didn’t buy things from Spain because of the Spanish Inquisition. And when my father discovered that a particular American discount chain store was owned by an antisemite, we were told never to frequent that establishment, ever again. My mom knew he meant business, and we never did.

For the record, I do not hate Germans. It’s just that more than anything else, I love and am proud of being a Jew. And this is what my body does to protect my Jewish soul. It has a violent reaction when I come in contact with Germans.

It’s not malicious, and in fact, like with the nice tourist offering me cookies, sometimes I feel bad about it. But it is what it is.

I feel no need to apologize.

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