FROM THE AIR, flying in from France, the first thing I see is forest, deep and green, the sort of woods Hansel and Gretel got lost in (and perhaps with the same nasty, albeit sugar-coated surprise within). In Berlin, at least its western part, there are abundant trees, old ones that Allied planes must have missed, and a 17th-century palace complete with formal gardens and stone goddesses. Its mix of gracious middle-class areas and grimmer, more industrial neighborhoods (mostly in the east) is not uncommon in urban life.
In some ways Berlin is the very model of a modern city: It is remarkably clean and efficient; the subway trains run on time (a novelty to New Yorkers); it has great museums and music as well as all the typical chain stores (Zara, H&M…and instead of Starbucks, a chain called Café Einstein). It is apparently straightforward, a bit bland, perhaps, rather Americanized and therefore immediately comfortable. Although we don’t speak the same language, we do speak the same language. Expecting a nightmare city, I almost—almost—say to myself, So this is the bogey man? What was I scared of?
Almost equally evident are the collision points of past and present: The half-destroyed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with its jagged tower left as a reminder. Brass plaques on buildings commemorating martyred Jews. At the Wittenschaftplatz U-bahn station, around the corner from KaDeWe, Berlin’s equivalent of Macy’s, a sign listing 12 concentration camps, unannotated save for the introductory words: “Places of terror we must never forget” (it was put up by the League for Human Rights in 1967). On the site of Hitler’s bunker, hard by the lush, enormous Tiergarten park, the Holocaust memorial: blocks of gray stone of varying heights and levels, like sentinels, with an information center below ground.
There’s a lot below ground, figuratively as well as literally; Berlin is like geology. Underneath the seemingly solid earth there is stratum upon stratum of pain and destruction and heartless evil; there are plates shifting, magma boiling. My comfort is joined by a sense of unease. The positive qualities of German life—organization, reliability, precision—become suspect because these same features fueled the Nazi war machine and The Final Solution. I can’t forget—I don’t want to forget—that a mere 65 years ago someone like me, a woman from a German Jewish family, would have been not this city’s citizen or welcomed tourist, but its victim.
I WAS BORN just as World War II was ending, and I grew up on Anne Frank and the Blitz, Churchill and Eichmann, Dresden and Hiroshima. My uncle died in a Japanese prison camp. The war, that mythic battle between good and evil, shadowed my early life. I remember seeing the movie Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961 with my Catholic boyfriend, and although he was appropriately moved it wasn’t personal; I, on the other hand, knew that among those piled-up denuded bodies could have been me and mine. Perhaps this was a sign of nascent—very nascent—Jewish consciousness.
Since my mother’s family were highly assimilated German and Dutch Jews, I was not raised in an atmosphere that emphasized my Jewish identity. For many kids of my generation, it was the grandparents who cared that holidays were observed and bar and bat mitzvahs took place. For me, living until age 12 in rural New Jersey, where you’d need a sniffer dog to find a synagogue, and with nearby grandparents who didn’t give a hang about religion, there was nobody to carry the torch. My grandparents named their sons Richard and George (after English kings?). That my mother, the youngest, was Ruth was, I guess, a belated nod to the Old Testament. Mix religion-free Ruth with my father, Russell, a Midwestern atheist with Protestant roots, and what you got was…me. My parents’ creed was antifascism.
But in a deeper sense the family religion was European art and culture, so my relationship to Germany was ambiguous. I couldn’t reject it without losing some of the best parts of my heritage. In my maternal grandmother and grandfather’s early life, German was spoken at home, and German music and literature were passionately embraced. My mother, a pianist, played Bach, Mozart, Schubert. My grandmother, slightly deaf and the author of children’s biographies of composers, identified strongly with Beethoven. Every note, every word seemed to breathe humanism. (A recent book called The German Genius highlights all this accomplishment; its publication is surely a sign that postwar recriminations are ebbing as the World War II generation dies out.) In a sort of defiance of any residual Jewish identity, in my teens and twenties I had a perverse fondness for the operas of the anti-Semite Richard Wagner, and such Nazi collaborationists as conductor Herbert von Karajan and soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Perhaps that was my rebellious way of acknowledging the contradictions in my family heritage. You want German? I’ll give you German!
The mixed messages about Germany in my own family are, of course, but a pale shadow of what German Jews themselves went through. Proud citizens and patriots, many of them could not believe—or realized too late—that the Nazis no longer considered them German, or indeed, fully human. The writer and doctor Hans Keilson, now 100 years old, remembers (in a New York Times interview of September 4, 2010), “I was so German. I thought they would not do this to me. I am one of them.” When he realized the truth, Dr. Keilson went into hiding in the Netherlands and survived. (His father, a decorated World War I veteran who also escaped Germany to Nazi-occupied Holland but did not hide, died in Auschwitz.)
Although I studied German in college, at that time I had no desire to reach out to the country itself. My parents were fiercely anti-German and anti-Japanese because of the war, and there was an implicit boycott of both countries and their products (which of course collapsed in time under the onslaught of Toyotas and Volkswagens, Sonys and Leicas). My image of Germans was still of a Teutonic Master Race type, tall, blond, and icy—as in some Hollywood World War II movie where the prison camp commandant listens to Schubert when he isn’t strutting around ordering torture and genocide. Germans didn’t seem entitled to their own ravishing achievements. And the preeminent question, of course, was: Did this apparently humane and gorgeous culture generate Hitler, somehow encourage his mania and crimes? Is it innately authoritarian?
I EVOLVED. Never in my life had I been in a synagogue; almost as soon as I met my second husband I was attending his daughter’s bat mitzvah. His intense though utterly secular version of Judaism gave me a different sense of my own dubious roots. I acquired a Hebrew name, Kadya (which means pitcher), and we got married under a huppah by a rabbi who was herself a convert. When we went to live in Jerusalem for a year, I expected that it would only reinforce my Jewish identity and anti-German bias.
In some respects it did. Our neighbor was a retired doctor who had been in a Nazi prison in the early 1930s; he escaped death by a hair. But the time in Israel also altered my views: I took a daily ulpan, or Hebrew-language class, and a few young Germans were students, too. One young man was part of a service program designed as recompense for the Holocaust; a married couple had come on their own as a gesture of solidarity. Not only were these people the best, most diligent students; they were outstandingly decent, thoughtful human beings. There was something poignant about how aware they were of their country’s blighted history, as if they forever had to be on the defensive (or maybe I imagined that because I thought they should be). It’s hard to believe that they—or any of the polite young people on bikes we saw a decade later in tidy, circumspect, law-abiding Berlin—might be the storm troopers of tomorrow.
Among Germans themselves, in fact, increasingly there is a feeling that they need no longer be ashamed, according to a recent New York Times article, “German Identity, Long Dormant, Reasserts Itself” (September 11, 2010). An 18-year-old quoted in the piece says her generation has “gotten past” the Nazi era; a 25-year-old social worker says, “We have this extreme helper syndrome, to try to make the world love us again, and it’s completely overdone.” In Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet only one minister was born before the end of the war. And it’s not just the Germans. The Israel Chamber Orchestra plans to perform in, of all places, Bayreuth, site of the ultimate Wagnerian festival. They are not performing at the festival per se, but they are playing a piece by Wagner—a composer forbidden in Israel itself.
Eyewitnesses to the Nazi era not going to be around much longer. Perhaps that is one reason that a current exhibit about Hitler at the German Historical Museum in Berlin is attracting so much attention. The focus is not so much on the Führer himself as on the ordinary Germans who supported and celebrated him. Contrary to the former view that Hitler was an anomaly in an otherwise virtuous society, this show asserts that “much of the German people became enablers, colluders, co-criminals in the Holocaust” (to quote the front-page New York Times report of October 16, 2010). One of the curators said that the message of the exhibit was more vital than ever, given the rise in nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. The show attracted at least 20,000 visitors in its first week, the French newspaper Le Figaro reported.
IGNORING THE PAST is not an option, whatever the younger generation may say. If Germany, clearly the strongest economic partner in the European Union, no longer remains alert to the right-wing, racist strains in its culture, I can’t help but think that some version of Nazism could rise again. And it’s short step from there to the suspicion that my tourist dollars, my attraction to Berlin’s music and art—all the treasures of my mother’s family–are inherently corrupted and corrupting because they lead to my unwitting participation in the resurrection of a Germany no longer guilt-ridden but triumphant, and possibly dangerous.
At the same time, I can’t write off a whole culture and its people. I want to know Germany more deeply, partly as a way of rediscovering my own past. But I doubt I can ever embrace it unconditionally: I will necessarily remain poised between amnesia and revenge: admiring yet watchful, generous but not naively uncritical.
Just this morning, a friend e-mailed me about a video. The subject is Alice Sommer, the oldest Holocaust survivor (she turns 107 this month): a pianist who still plays every day, to the joy of her North London neighbors (see www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlccsLr48Mw). She was sent to Theresienstadt, the “showcase” concentration camp used by the Nazis to gull the international community into believing they were treating Jews well. There she played Chopin etudes for an audience; her son (who was allowed to stay with her) sang in the children’s chorus. They were, as one of her survivor friends puts it, “dancing under the gallows.” Alice credits music with giving her hope—in the film she is shown playing Bach and Beethoven as well as Chopin—and says that whenever Germans come to visit, they pause at the threshold: “Don’t you hate us?” they say. “I never hate anyone” is Alice’s reply. “Hatred brings only hatred.”
Yes, but…. Is love enough?