I am a secular Jew. I don't belong to a synagogue. I seldom attend religious services, yet I feel Jewish. I understood what Daniel Pearl said before he died. Being Jewish is part of my identity, not a choice or decision.
Recently I traveled to Germany for business and some side trips. I had previously spent a few days in Berlin in 1984, when I lectured on behalf of the State Department. What I remembered most was the Wall, the barbed wire, the soldiers vigilantly watching to prevent escapes from east to west, and the drabness of the Soviet sector.
This time was different. I planned a trip that started in the south, in Balingen near Stuttgart, then north to Bad Kreuznach, then last in Berlin, where I was speaking at an international education research conference.
The war ended 66 years ago. Yes, "the war." For people of my generation (I was born in 1938), it is still "the war." So, the question I asked myself as I packed for the trip was whether I could see Germany as it is now, not as the homeland of the Third Reich, and whether I could relate to Germans without picturing them as members of the Wehrmacht or concentration camp guards.
As I traveled through Germany accompanied by my partner, who is of German descent and who speaks a fair German, I made a point, when appropriate, of mentioning that I was Juden. No one blinked. Certainly not her family in Balingen, who warmly welcomed us and took us on a tour of the imposing Hohenzollern castle. They drove us to a mass grave near Hechingen, discovered by the French at the war's end, which held the remains of over 1100 Jews, Roma, and political dissidents.
In Bad Kreuznach, a stunningly beautiful medieval town on the Nahe River, the first site in the old town is a large stone marking the location of the town's synagogue, built in 1737 and destroyed on November 9, 1938 -- Kristallnacht.
Riding on the excellent train from Bad Kreuznach to Berlin, I found myself imagining a cattle car packed with people like me. When I went to the spacious toilet in first class, I thought of the Jews who rode for days in train cars where there was no toilet. I thought of them emerging into daylight, stinking from the journey, looking as dirty and smelling as filthy as their captors expected.
It is impossible to escape history in Berlin. Major street names resonate with echoes of terrible events. The guidebook said that Hitler had ordered the removal of the linden trees that lined the grand esplanade of Unten den Linden, to make way for a capacious parade ground. The trees have been restored, but I dimly heard the tramp of thousands of goose-stepping men in jack boots and imagined I felt the reverberations of the ground beneath my feet.
And yet these memories were eventually quieted by the dynamism and joyfulness of the city. We stayed in a small hotel near Alexanderplatz, in what was once East Berlin. It was hard to believe how seamlessly the city had become one in the past two decades. Now the eastern part of the city, like the western part, boasts elegant hotels, bustling cafes, and throngs of tourists. What was once Checkpoint Charlie is now just a tourist attraction, with the guardbox and signs preserved, warning that you are now crossing from one sector to another, but of course there are no sectors, just one city.
After taking in as many of the great museums as we could in six days, our last stop before leaving was Daniel Libeskind's stunning Jewish Museum. The exhibits tell the story of Jewish life in Germany from the early middle ages to the present. It is a story of magnificent cultural accomplishments and horrifying persecution. I couldn't help being reminded of an old Tom Lehrer lyric, "The Protestants hate the Catholics, the Catholics hate the Protestants, and everyone hates the Jews."
The atrocities against Jews intensified during the Crusades, recurred at the time of the Plague (which was supposedly caused by Jews), and culminated in the Holocaust. The Holocaust is represented mainly through the display of small objects that belonged to a specific family or individual. So it is not the death of six million anonymous persons that we think about, but this woman, this man, this child, this grandmother, this one who did not get an exit visa or who hung himself or was betrayed. Significantly, the labels do not say "Mr. X died in Auschwitz," but instead, in each instance, "Mr. X was murdered in Auschwitz" or some other camp.
History presses in, and yet the lesson of Berlin for me was that even the worst of times comes to an end. Hitler was defeated, the Third Reich was destroyed, the division of the city of Berlin eventually ended, the Communist regime fell. None of this happened accidentally or naturally. It happened because of resistance, persistence, belief in a better life and a readiness to fight for it, even to die for it.
By the end of my ten days in Germany, I reassessed my emotions. Being in Germany made me keenly aware of my Jewish ancestry. Yet I felt no anger towards the Germans I met. I will never forget or forgive the perpetrators or even comprehend what happened in this nation, on that soil. But I think today of the many decent, kind Germans I met and of the candor with which the nation has acknowledged and repudiated the crimes of the past.
As I left Berlin, I realized that I was beginning to understand what was said to me when people spoke German. I was no longer hearing the guttural commands so common to World War II movies, but the familiar, long-ago sounds of the Yiddish that my grandparents spoke.