Bringing Home-Taught Hatred to the Country of the Holocaust

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I went to Berlin last March. I hadn't actually planned on visiting Germany -- ever.

Like many American Jews, I was raised by at least one parent who harbored a racism as self-righteous as the Nazis themselves. My mother proudly admits to her mistrust and hatred of Germans -- all of them.

I decided to go to Berlin because a friend of mine was there on a Fulbright fellowship, and she encouraged me to visit. Her own family was attempting to reclaim the land they lost after Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis ravaged the Jewish community, and were unable to regain through the war and Communist rule.

My friend was working on a film. I had enough airline credit to go for free. I figured there would not be this kind of opportunity again. I made my reservations.

I remember as a child, my parents and me stranded, with car trouble, on a deserted roadside in another country. We had been stuck for quite some time when another car finally pulled over and the driver and my mother attempted to find a common language. He didn't speak French; my mother didn't speak Serbo-Croatian; he didn't speak English, and when he asked my mother -- Sprechen sie Deutsch? -- she shook her head.

My mother flatly rejected the only tongue they shared, the language she dutifully learned because her Ph.D. program required it, the language she refused to understand even to get us out of a jam in a foreign land.

I knew her prejudice was wrong. She knew it was a prejudice and didn't care. Germans were not to be trusted. They were cold, passionless, obedient people. What they did to the Jews was inexcusable, and their offspring, and every generation to follow, was equally untrustworthy, stained by the legacy of the Holocaust.

It wasn't their fault, my mother explained, but those tiny, blond German children were being raised with the same values that spawned a massacre. She called it their efficiency, and she said the word as if she were spitting.

My father had little to say on the subject except that no one from our family has been personally victimized by the Holocaust. Both sides left Eastern Europe for America long before my parents were born.

As far as my psychotherapist father was concerned, Hitler had a pre-existing organic, chemical brain deficiency that was probably exacerbated by abuse from his family. My father didn't approve of my mother's prejudice, but he didn't challenge it either: at least not in my presence.

I didn't notice my anxiety when I phoned my father to announce where I was going and held my breath waiting for his response, or when I didn't tell my mother (who at this writing does not know I went).

I didn't run into my fear until I was at the bank signing traveler's checks; my last name was completely illegible. I told myself I was rushed and there were so many to sign, but another thought took voice: You don't want them to know.

My family traveled to a different country every summer, covering a good portion of the world by the time I was 20. I have always felt grateful for that experience, believing that it is responsible not only for tolerance toward other cultures, but also respect, curiosity and wonder.

I grew up with firsthand experience of the diversity of customs and beliefs. My own culture was not singled out as superior to any others -- except through omission of the one we would never visit as long as we traveled as a family.

My Jewish friends wished me luck on my journey. Many added that they would not undertake it themselves. My non-Jewish friends, for the most part, phoned to say: Wow, a free trip, lucky you; have a great time!

I wanted to go to Germany open-minded, to leave my mother in America. When I left, she was actually in Israel. I liked the idea of her tucked away in the arms of a Jewish state while I, her daughter, went to face her demons and diminish them.

The irony of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not lost on me either; even that seemed appropriate: my mother among those Jews who felt empowered by claiming land and, having another enemy, finally fighting back.

I wanted to see Berlin through the eyes of the magazines that touted the city as burgeoning with the arts and a spectacular night life, a social wonder, a place in transition filled with the energy of change. Unification.

As the plane prepared to land my heart started pounding. I looked out at a wing and watched its gray flap open exposing the tangled green and yellow innards; I felt nauseated.

I exchanged my dollars for marks, tucked my passport into the side pocket of my valise and left it there. Intellectually I knew it unnecessary to protect my Jewish identity, but I indulged my anxiety.

On the streets of Berlin I witnessed shoplifters, homeless people telling their stories in subway cars, a couple of young boys running past us hooting and waving a white and blue flag while just behind them another boy lay beaten and bleeding on the subway platform.

Each time I heard my mother's voice: See, see? I told you so. But I was not convinced.

I enjoyed the cafes, the jazz clubs, the discotheques, the opera. I noted the daily listings of theater, art exhibits and poetry readings. I noted the sign in the train station: Places of Horror We Cannot Forget -- and the list of camps. Surely there was passion and sensitivity here.

Daily I crossed from West to East passing street peddlers selling medals, binoculars and pieces of the wall. Just a few feet east of Checkpoint Charlie was an Apple Computer store and the United Colors of Benetton. Wasn't the landscape transforming?

Then I went to a concentration camp.

No photograph, no written accounts, no movie remake penetrated me this way. Without the physical distance, my last vestiges of denial crumbled. I was faced with the calculated and imaginative atrocities committed: not only German to Jew, but Serbian to Muslim, American to Native-American and then to African-American, Israeli, Palestinian, Irish Catholic, Protestant and on and on.

A tour of German teen-agers was in front of me. They walked in groups, talking with each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes serious. I wanted to see horror in their faces; I wanted to like their youth, to trust them, to tell them I was a Jew. They took photographs of the ovens choked with the black iron stretchers used to shove fresh corpses into the flames.

My mother roared inside me. She pointed to the modern offices built right on the camp grounds, the half-empty bottle of juice and a glowing blue computer screen visible through a window; Germans come here every day to work, just like they did when the work was extermination, just as dutiful, just as dispassionate.

I was offended. Maybe she was right. I cried.

We visited the Jewish cemetery the next day. The wall surrounding it was higher than the wall around the camp. This was the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Somehow, it had not been desecrated during the Holocaust. Then it was left untouched by the Communist government. Full trees had grown up between the tombstones. There were ivy and grape vines clinging to the walls covering the plots of earth.

Walking along the cleared pathways of this enclave, I saw, literally, every Jewish name I knew carved in stone. Spring birds nesting in some of the trees kept chirping overhead. From this, I created my own myth:

I imagined that when the Nazis came to desecrate this place the tombstones appeared to them as tree trunks, the whole cemetery as a beautiful forest. So the Nazis, believing they were in a forest, left it undisturbed. From that moment, Nature took over as protector and grounds keeper until the Jewish families could return and tend to their ancestors again.

On my last evening in Berlin, we walked along part of the wall left intact as a canvas for artists. We crossed into the Turkish section of Berlin. It was a Saturday night; the streets were crowded. Women wearing black scarves wrapped around their heads walked in pairs and small groups. the restaurants served humus and babaganoush, voices carried across the street in Turkish. I felt as if I'd crossed the canal into another country, a small village, a shtetl. Later, as we stood waiting for the train, my friend talked about a growing resentment toward the Turkish population in Berlin.

Finally it was time to leave. I planned to stop in London for four days to visit friends and go to the theater. I was relieved to land at Heathrow Airport, to understand the language, to know my way around and not to feel so confronted: until we took the Underground to the West End and had to evacuate the train station because of a bomb threat, until I passed a newsstand and the headlines were all about a three-year-old boy killed in an IRA bombing of a mall.

The day I left London, the main highway into the city was shut down during morning rush hour traffic because of another threat. "It's become our way of life;" said my host, "you get used to it."

When the plane landed in New York, I was not jet-lagged; I was exhausted.

My mother had taught me well. I could not will my fear and mistrust away, but just as entrenched is a compelling urge to approach those who are "other" and look for the connections between us.

In Berlin, I found the connections, but they weren't the ones I had hoped for. I regret the similarities I discovered between us, yet I learned, firsthand, the dimensions of our inner struggle to move beyond an inheritance of resentment and mistrust. I can't stop attempting to connect in peaceful coexistence any more than I can keep from finding the common language in self-righteousness and fear.

Bonni Goldberg is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
36°