Many years ago, my husband bought me a beautiful gold Jewish star. I wore it for a long time and then the chain broke. When I was asked to speak at a conference in Stuttgart, Germany and decided to accept the invitation and opportunity to meet and present colleagues from around the world, I asked my husband to get me a new chain. I wanted, I needed, that piece of home to come with me.
Procrastination and a busy life left that detail until the night before I left. In the end, as a birthday present, Lazer bought me a new star and a new chain. I put it on in the store, and haven’t taken it off.
“You’ll wear it inside, right?” asked one daughter of mine. She is worried. Germany is as Poland was in her eyes – a place of dark and death. I have shared that with her and so I understood her fear and no, I had no intention of wearing it inside. I am a Jew. I am an Israeli. I am proud of both and will hide neither.
I went on a plane from Tel Aviv to Vienna filled with Israelis. I flew El Al, the national airlines of Israel and spoke in Hebrew the whole way. In Vienna, my journey began as I left Hebrew and the Israelis behind. Austria was Hitler’s playground and I had my first instance of rudeness from an Austrian woman working for Austrian airlines who rudely spent more time ignoring my request to ask a simple question rather than saying, “yes, you can get your boarding pass here at the gate.”
She was frazzled after a 12 hour day, managing to make announcements and process a plane full of people in 15 minutes alone because Lufthansa is on strike and the overflow has effected many other airlines. I know all this not because she took the time to explain – she was simply rude.
But I met a German couple and as we began to speak, I felt the first instance of concern. I didn’t come to Germany to like the people or the country. I can be honest enough with myself to say that I came for professional and personal reasons. The professional reasons are easy to explain – this is a fantastic opportunity for growth for myself, my company and, I’m hoping, perhaps in some way, the Israeli technical writing industry.
I came for personal reasons and in that sense, I did not come alone. From the prayers we say each night before we go to sleep, there is the reminder:
And if coming with all this were not enough, my great grandmother is with me, and her two daughters. My mother-in-law is with me and almost 300 relatives murdered by the Nazis on my father’s side, and my husband’s grandparents – all of them, and so many more. It’s crowded in my head, I’m sure you can imagine.
So my Jewish star announces what I don’t have to. “Where are you from?” the woman asks me and so we begin a conversation. “The Germans are responsible,” she says as she thanks me for coming to Germany. I feel dishonest. I didn’t come here to like the Germans.
“It’s painful,” I told her honestly and she thanks me again. They offered to help me get to my hotel but I asked them to just help explain to me where it is. I see one hotel in the distance but not the one I need. The man who had handed me a business card on the plane so that we could remain in touch beyond my short visit here went to a taxi driver to ask directions. He came back and pointed to the hotel and explained that mine was just beyond it. Truly a 5-10 minute walk as promised by the convention coordinators.
I walked alone in Germany filled with thoughts. As I was exiting the plane, as always, passengers had filled the aisle waiting to exit. From two rows in front, the man looked at me and said, “Israel?” and without any hesitation, I answered, “Yes.”
A man still sitting in the row ahead of me answered with words from a well known song, “hava nagila.” Everyone seems to know the song but do they know what it means? Roughly translated it means,
Ironic…I’m in Germany. Happy is the farthest thing from my mind.
Before I could say anything other than smile at the elderly man, another answered, “shalom aleichem” – peace to you.
“How do you know all this Hebrew?” I asked them as we prepared to get off the plane. It seemed that they liked my being impressed. They were all older than me by a good 10 years, probably closer to 15. The woman who sat next to me for the short flight didn’t speak much English but she was very friendly…and no, I never asked her the thought that comes to mind when I see an elderly person – she was old enough. She was alive then, even if she was only a small child. She didn’t do anything…she didn’t harm Jewish neighbors…and I didn’t ask about her father, her grandfather, her uncles and neighbors. I didn’t ask because it is an unspoken rule. We look forward and smile and try to heal.
But I have a gaping hole inside. “The Germans killed them,” said the kind woman earlier. I had told her about my father’s family – that my grandmother was lucky. They were from the Ukraine but had left before the war because her father couldn’t take the antisemitism and after his daughter (my grandmother) survived a pogrom by hiding in the back of a synagogue, he moved his family to America. All those that remained, as many as 300, died there, or so we believe. I told her of my grandfather being sent to America by his mother, how he worked to earn money to bring her but he ran out of time.
I told her a bit about my husband’s family but not enough. I mentioned his grandparents, uncles and aunts. That was when she said, “the Germans killed them.”
“Yes,” I said – never even getting to tell her about my mother-in-law, who was put in a gas chamber and then pulled out at the last minute because the Nazis needed more women for a work detail.
Germany, the people, is not what I expected, in some ways. In others, it is. My natural instinct is to joke around. When I got to the hotel, the night clerk was in a discussion with a guest who was complaining that although the hotel WiFi worked, he was unable to access his companies VPN (virtual private network). The clerk correctly explained that this was beyond the hotel’s problem; the man insisted.
When it came my turn, I joked about how I only needed Internet, not access to my VPN and the clerk, with no understanding that I was making a joke, began to explain again that the hotel is not responsible for this. “A joke,” I said. “It was a joke.” I don’t think he got it.
After I got to my room, he called and said he had an envelope for me and could he bring it up. He did – and asked me for my birthday because he has to enter it into the hotel computer. I looked at my watch and said, “wait 30 minutes.”
So Germany the people – polite, wanting my acceptance? I’m not sure what the right word is – friendly, open to reaching out and perhaps afraid, as a German man told me many months ago in India, afraid of confrontation. Afraid that I’ll respond to their overtures with an outpouring of the agony that is inside of me. It would be so easy to open up and let it pour out.
I walk in the streets and hate them…no, not the people, the ground. I see the buildings, the clean sidewalks and my stomach rebels. They DIED here. You MURDERED them. You stole their lives, dehumanized them, humiliated and shamed them, beat them, burned them, gassed them. You gassed them to death, for God’s sake, how do you want me to feel?
All that is said simply by wearing a Jewish star. Once you labeled me; today, I come here having labeled myself. I am a Jew. I am an Israeli. I do not hang my head in shame or in fear. I am, if anything fearlessly proud. They accept this pride with respect. If anything, they think of Israel as a little brother that they have the responsibility to watch over. For some, that sits easily. And even our silent response that we don’t need them to watch over us, that we are, finally and forever, going to take care of ourselves, is met with a silent, “we are responsible.”
I accept that, I respect that. I guess in the coming days I’ll meet more Germans and we’ll see if the few I met are typical of all or not.
For now, I am a Jew in Germany, in a place I never thought I’d be, struggling to accept that I have to see, to experience and find a balance between a heart filled with pain and a mind that knows there is no one who can relieve or answer what was done in this place to my family and my people.
First published at ‘A Soldier’s Mother’