December 3, 2013

In August this year I was going to provide my first city tour in the beautiful and bleak city of Hamburg, and all I had on my mind was the list of challenges I was about to face. Seems like this list was complete: rain, wind, memorizing a dozen of random dates and names, speaking in front of 20+ strangers, being quick and smart in answering their questions and learning a bit more of German history to make my answers sound reasonable. Yet there was one thing I have surely forgotten of: it is the German history itself.


Oh yes, however hard I try to pay a bit more attention to the cholera epidemic, the Great Fire, or even the bombing of Hamburg, I still have to say a few words about the Holocaust at some point. In fact, I only need to touch this challenging topic twice – at the former building of Tesch & Stabenow, the distributor of Zyklon B gas; and at one of the Stolpersteins, tiny cobblestones commemorating the lives of Holocaust victims. I am quite lucky, since most of my guests are not German. Yet, every time I am about to mention the Shoah, I am getting to the limits of my cautiousness and gentleness. Sometimes I feel like a father, who tries hard to tell his children a scary fairytale without making them cry. I carefully watch my guests’ reactions and prepare for a retreat, in case I see too many alarmed faces hopelessly seeking for a happy end. I also have a consolation planned for the end of the story, such as an idealistic statement of how good it is to be able to discuss this topic openly today and to know that it belongs to the past and will never take place again.


One way or another, all my efforts of entertaining my guests at the beginning of the tour vanish without a trace once the word ‘Holocaust’ is pronounced; and trying to cheer them up right after the story seems to be a morally questionable move. How relieved I am to see the very same angst and grief on my guests’ faces when I start talking about another sensitive topic – WWII bombing of Hamburg! So it was not about Jews at all, it was just about people’s lives. However, when the biggest challenge of my tour is left behind and I lead my guests to a canal to tell the story of the Great Fire, which destroyed 1/4 of Hamburg back in 1842, uncertainty is there again. It’s not that my audience is completely indifferent, but the strong feelings caused by the Holocaust and bombing stories are certainly gone. Is it because the Great Fire was obviously less disastrous? Or is it just the time difference; some hundred years, which make the victims of the past so distant and so irrelevant? What about some hundred years from now, year 2113? Will my successors encounter the same reaction to the Holocaust stories? And more importantly: which reaction would be more desired?

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