Getting to know Germany…up close

So this is where they did it,” I think to myself. I’m in Berlin, headed to a hotel, and all I can think about is the Holocaust. A truck pulls in front of me. On the back is written “Schnell!” The exclamation point cues me in. It’s an ad. It wants me to hurry up and buy something. It is not ordering me to march or to dig. 

I pass a river murmuring in the early dawn. “Welcome to the land of the Enlightenment,” it whispers. “Welcome to the birthplace of Kant and Beethoven.” This, for me, is the experience of arriving in Germany for the first time, this dichotomy. You love it and hate it all at once, like a romance gone to hell. 

I’m here on Germany Close Up (GCU), a fellowship that brings young American Jews to Berlin for one to two weeks of touring, lecturing and discussion. GCU is administered by Berlin’s Neue Synagogue and subsidized by the German Federal Government’s Trans-Atlantic Program. Dagmar Pruin, a Protestant theologian and Hebrew Bible scholar, founded the program in 2007, and has since hosted more than 1,400 young people — from Yeshiva University students to LGBTQ professionals.

I have come with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a Jerusalem-based, non-denominational yeshiva. Pruin tries to clear the air about GCU at our first meeting. The German government does not run the program, it is not a Holocaust trip, and it is not a PR gambit. It is, first and foremost, a way for Jewish people to learn about Germany’s past and present, intensively and on site. Ultimately, participants are encouraged to form their own impressions.

The Neue Synagogue’s Web site is a little clearer with respect to GCU’s goals and, perhaps, a little franker. “The purpose of the program is to strengthen understanding and transparency between German and Jewish American circles and to encourage North Americans to view Germany in a positive … light.”

For me, there were two different aspects to getting to know Germany. The first involved grappling with Germany’s past, specifically what went on in the country from 1933 to 1945. The second involved falling in love with the Germany that existed before the Nazis, as well as the Germany that still exists today.

Germany wears its darkest history on its sleeve. It is impossible to go more than a few miles without stumbling upon an allusion to the Holocaust. Stolpersteine — stumbling stones — lie everywhere and were designed by artist Gunter Demnig with this end in mind. Each of these brass cobblestones bears the name of a single Holocaust victim and, often, the words “Hier wohnte” — “Here lived.” Stolpersteine are like burrs, those prickly plant parts that stick to you as you brush by. Here lived a Jew, and he was murdered; here a Jew, and she was murdered; here a Jew, and here, and here.

Then there is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a five-acre field of concrete located in the heart of Berlin. The 2005 monument, designed by architect Peter Eisenman, is made up of 2,711 stelae of varying heights, laid out in a grid over sloping ground. The enormity of the installation is telling. It’s prime real estate, paid for by the perpetrators, and ostensibly converted for their rehabilitation. The site’s information center has recorded more than 400,000 visitors every year for the last eight years.

Of course, there was more in the way of mementos, a lot more: buildings riddled with bullet holes from the second world war; a sign outside a Berlin train station listing the names of every Nazi camp; the Wannsee Villa, now a museum; the Jewish Museum Berlin; Sachsenhausen concentration camp, now a memorial; Track 17, defunct, also a memorial. This national, coordinated excavation of a country’s past, of the most ignominious chapter in a country’s past, was unlike anything I’d seen before. It was obsessive to the point of being inescapable. It was brutally honest. And, by all appearances, it was genuine. 

But it wasn’t just the monuments or the museums — it was the people, the GCU people, in particular, none of whom are Jewish, and almost all of whom are German, like Pruin, who was deeply knowledgeable about Judaism, but also deeply sensitive to the delicacy and strangeness of any encounter between a German and a Jew. When touring the camps, Pruin didn’t feel comfortable, for instance, doing to Jewish groups what a Nazi guard might have done in other circumstances, assigning each person a number, even if only to take attendance.

But there was something else about her as well. I saw it first in her eyes, and then, eerily enough, in the eyes of nearly all our guides — a deep sadness, a gentleness. And whether that sadness, that gentleness, was pity, grief or guilt, it was, in any case, an articulation of something. And I took that something to be great pain or, perhaps, a silent apology.

There are caveats, of course. We met those Germans who were deeply moved by the crimes of their country’s past, who had devoted their lives to Jewish studies and Holocaust education. Meanwhile, we were told, Jewish cemeteries are vandalized; neo-Nazis set fire to Sachsenhausen; Eisenman’s memorial was resisted before it was accepted. I, too, saw some things: houses on the outskirts of Sachsenhausen, built by Sachsenhausen inmates, still lived in; other houses mere feet away from Track 17, where Germans must have watched from their porches as their neighbors were carted off to “the east.”

I remember roaming the Jewish Museum, after a day full of museums, picking my way past German tour groups. I wanted someone to beg forgiveness, none of this stolid institutional junk. I wanted someone to apologize. Apologize for destroying my grandfather’s childhood, for murdering my family, for slaughtering my people. I wanted someone to apologize, and I wanted them to weep while they did it. No, of course it’s not enough. It can never be enough. But I wish more countries would do what Germany has done to atone for its crimes.

Then, at some point during the trip, things began to shift. I began to see past the Third Reich to the fourth. For starters, there’s the beer. You know the way an apple tastes when you eat it right off the tree? Warm and sweet and spicy in a way the ones at the store never are? That’s what German beer tastes like. Like getting a glass fresh from the barrel.

And then there are the bakeries. Like coffee bars in America, bakeries are everywhere in Germany, and particularly in Berlin. They’re warm, they’re welcoming, and they do meat as well as they do bread. I remember standing saucer-eyed in front of a display case one morning, vacillating. A woman grabbing coffee before her train asked if she could cut in line, so I traded my place for her recommendation. She pointed out a few dishes, all meat wrapped in meat, asked me how long I was in town and wished me a pleasant stay.  She, like so many of the Germans I met, was full of warm smiles and sweet solicitude, not unlike the food she recommended — all of which I ended up ordering. There was a warmth and pleasantness to it that I wasn’t accustomed to. It reminded me of those moments in “1984” when Winston snags some scraps of Inner Party food and realizes how rich and vibrant real coffee is, or real chocolate — dark, shiny, delightful.

I headed out for a stroll afterward, moving along the cobbled, European streets. There was more food steaming in an open-air market down the block. It was quiet and clean in a way that cities such as Los Angeles and New York are not. A woman in a yellow jumpsuit got off her yellow bike and sorted through envelopes. It was the mailman. I ducked into the courtyards of stony-faced apartment buildings and traced the ivy along the walls as it tangled its way toward the roof. Graffiti is common in Berlin and, like the ivy, it crawled along at intervals — strange, vibrant and beautiful.

There was something called Café Cinema on one corner, and on another, a gallery. And then, all at once, I was in love with the city. I turned to my friend and said, “We should move here.” And she said, “Yeah, I know.”

Berlin is what I imagine New York was like when it was still cool, when it was a little grungier and a lot more cultured. Berlin doesn’t have that sickeningly sallow glaze of corporate homogeneity. There’s still air to breathe, and it’s alive with possibility.

Going on Germany Close Up reminded me of an interview I once heard with the San Francisco activist Harvey Milk. He was addressing people who were gun-shy about gays. His advice? Get to know some. Eat with them, talk with them, welcome them into your homes. This is probably what Germany Close Up has in mind. And I think it may be working.