Why I love Berlin when I was supposed to hate it
The following article was originally published in German in Fluter.de, a German political magazine for young adults ages 18-25.
I was supposed to hate Berlin when I first visited from Tel Aviv in 2014. I came with my American father, who wanted to see the former Displaced Persons camp in Hannover where his Polish parents, Auschwitz survivors, gave birth to him. I may not have come had a good friend from Los Angeles not recently moved to Berlin. My Israeli mother opposed the trip. While her parents are Iraqi, she still swears off German cars.
I admit, when I first walked the Berlin streets, I didn’t see a modern city. I’d imagine Nazi banners strewn across the buildings. I’d wonder from which of these adorable Alt Bau apartments Jews were dragged out. I’d hear German: the language that murdered my grandparents’ families. I’d take a train: to what death camp? This creepy Holocaust awareness must be common for Jews during a Berlin initiation.
That same year, Berlin made headlines in Israel in what became known as the “Milky Controversy.” An Israeli Berliner angered Israeli parliamentarians when he encouraged Israelis to move to Berlin, comparing grocery receipts that put Berlin’s chocolate pudding one third cheaper than Israel’s famous “Milky” brand. By 2015, when I returned to work with my friend on a music project, I started to understand why young Israelis flock to Berlin. (Although I recently learned that the German brand is made with unkosher beef gelatin.)
With the obligatory visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Topography of Terror already out of the way, I could focus on enjoying Berlin as the creative, vanguard, affordable capital it is. My friend and I still made occasional Holocaust jokes (like when we’d behold a stunning blue-eyed, blonde German who looked like an “Aryan” poster boy), but overall, we made music, went out, and socialized with friendly locals, forgetting the city once housed SS headquarters.
As I struggled to like Berlin, I interviewed young Germans living in Tel Aviv, its Israeli “sister-city”, to find out if the attraction was mutual. Naturally, the Holocaust came up, and one woman said that I can’t blame her generation for the sins of the fathers. “I wasn’t born when it happened,” she said, while acknowledging she feels a special responsibility for Jewish safety today.
I realized Germans and Israelis are quite alike – we come from two people struggling to rebuild and make sense of a troubled yet soaring national identity after a great trauma. Even though we come from opposing sides – the persecutor and the victim – we, this third generation, carry a burden that may be best unpacked together.
Still, I shocked fellow Israeli patriots when I told them I planned to spend Summer 2016 in Berlin. They scratched their heads when I started adding heart emoticons around Berlin on my Facebook statuses. Their shock had run out when I announced my decision to stay, indefinitely.
The artistic vibe, the historical richness (and scars), the ease of getting around, and, of course, the insanely cheap groceries and beer all make Berlin loveable to many internationals: Australians, Argentinians, Brits, etc.
But the pleasure I get from just walking the streets is deeper; it’s like a transmutation of the pain Jews must have felt here, once, in fear of deportation, of torture, of death – a fear I don’t have to feel anymore. Now I don’t see Nazi banners, but delightful café signs; I don’t see “Aryanized” Jewish apartments, but apartments I’d like to own; I hear German: a challenge; I take the train: to which party?
While growing up in the US, I learned about Germany through horror stories almost as much as I learned about Israel through heroic legends. Hence, my strange familiarity and connection to this land. And as much as the Jewish state is a modern miracle, so is the re-transformation of Berlin into a force for liberty.