Ghetto, Gestapo, Gas, Goering, Goebbels, Galicia hmm… Germany?
One fine night, just before I was to fly to Munich and meet my German boyfriend, a selected group was sitting at a smoky bar: my trusted sister, some good friends and two Germans I met in Ramallah during a demonstration some two days earlier. According to the tradition we started playing our favorite game: The Holocaust-Alpha-Bet. The idea is to choose a letter and find as many Holocaust-related words starting with that letter. Urs and Hans, who were not yet familiar with the game, drank their Israeli beers politely and sent disturbed looks at one another. A few letters later, we found ourselves very disturbed when the two young Germans started to cooperate efficiently and even had an astounding array of associations which even we, so well trained, couldn’t come up with.
Admittedly, Holocaust-Alpha-Bet is a twisted invention. The intention of the game is not to mock the survivors or the Holocaust. The truth is that this darker than dark humor is a form of protection for us – the Third Generation. It’s a way for those of us who as children grew up immersed in tales we couldn’t ever really comprehend, to deal and cope with life, death and the Holocaust in particular.
And what makes one a ‘Third Generation’? My case is a simple one: My Mother was born in Poland, and immigrated to Israel in 56’. Her parents (who fled Poland just in time, but left family, friends and loved ones behind, later to come back and discover they were murdered) force-fed her mashed potatoes and gefilte fish in order to be strong so she’d be able to escape the Nazis. One time she managed to visit Bochum for a work related trip. She spent her time at an art exhibition in a Gasometer. That was quite enough for her and she decided never to return. My Grandmother on my Father’s side had survived many camps and was not shy about showing her numbered arm. I am not sure if my fixation is really because of my family’s personal past or my attraction to all things morbid. But maybe it will help explain why going to Germany in the first place was a difficult task to take on.
So there I was, after a wild night, in which we went through most letters (and didn’t neglect a single holocaust joke, as well as talk about the Israeli occupation, which, as usual, got nowhere), I finally felt myself able to separate between Nazi Germany and Germany of the third millennium and that I was truly prepared to visit the cold land of monuments, where rusty railways send shivers down my spine; that the protective wall in my heart was fully built. But arriving in Munich, I chose to sit silently in the basement (where my boyfriend and I stayed at his parents’ house), and to read ‘The Seventh Million – Jews after the Holocaust’ a book by the Israeli writer and journalist Tom Segev. As I read through adventures from Auschwitz, I realized just how I was trapped in feelings of hate for a whole nation: in their straight and punctual way, so successful, cold & harsh; Hate for that sexy language that attracts me so and yet makes me quiver. For that beautiful, clean countryside, and that tasty beer which felt sour in my Jewish mouth, which sought revenge.
Hiding in the cold basement, alone, I couldn’t even find comfort in my boyfriend: a German version of Nilse Olgerson, who didn’t imagine for a minute that our retreat would become a Holocaust debate-room, and most certainly did no find it amusing when I announced dramatically that I am on my way to the shower and look forward to making it out alive. We had long and exhausting holocaust conversations, especially together with his father (who speaks no English) who said he does feel somehow guilty, although he knows it’s really without a just cause. A few wine glasses later, while discussing the (then new) Berlin monument, he was outraged that the monument was making the Germans feel guilty, and said it was enough already with the holocaust memorabilia. Nilse argued that it is very important to remind people of their history, and the two of them quarreled until morning.
Behind enemy lines, listening to two Germans debating in, well, German, about this most tender of subjects, and what felt for some reason so personal, like it’s my own private pain and how could they discuss it so callously, my already fragile spirit broke completely and Munich seemed colder and meaner than any other European city I ever visited before. Nilse, miserably trying to salvage things took me around green Bavaria, where the flowers bloomed and painted the fields with color on that perfect spring day… But all that pastoral ambiance depressed me even more and reminded me of my small country back home, which we were driven off to so many years ago. I felt that it wasn’t fair for the Germans to have all this beauty. Later he took me to his former elementary school, with its well-groomed gardens, manicured grass, sparkling clean classrooms and Jesus firmly nailed into a wall. And as I stood and listened to that stillness, a stillness that could never be found back Home, I knew this was no place for a Tel-Aviv girl like myself. Even when my sweet gentleman dragged me to the magical Neuschwanstein, my sarcastic tongue lashed out at him mercilessly.
Entangled In Denial:
When we met, two years ago, Nilse and I would walk around Berlin and have long conversations about the world. He then asked me if I had already visited the Jewish museum or gone to see one monument or another. I simply answered, in simulated nonchalance, that these things don’t interest me at all. He just stared at me with his blue eyes and kept his polite silence. He did not (and could not) realize that my way of dealing with things was to deny them. That I was feeling especially uncomfortable discussing it with him. Only while visiting Israel he realized how entangled I am with the Holocaust, which is a part of me, of the family, of the Israeli world.
When I first came to Germany I wished to ignore “that part” of the country’s history, to rise above it and certainly not to discuss it with the locals. To try not to make them feel as if I am reminding them of their history which they would rather forget, not to make them think that I am judging them, or even worse: blaming. But denial can’t work in Berlin. Everything pressed the Jewish-Past-Button: Taking the train-line, final destination: Wansee or Oraniunburger, or even getting on a train. Some of those old stations, with the old German font, someone yelling ‘Raus’, or of course – ‘Achtung’.
And even while indulging myself on a visit to the KADEWE: leaving the place cheery and delighted, holding on to my recent purchases, almost forgetting to remember. As I was making my way to the U-Bahn in the wicked cold of May, I lifted my eyes off the sidewalk just like some foolish tourist. And there it was: a monstrous sign reminding me – a betrayer to my grandparents, and the whole Jewish nation, walking in the street of the Diaspora, purchasing from these Goys, and worst of all, enjoying myself (!) – never to forget those who were taken to the concentration camps. Indeed, Berlin is a strict teacher who will not allow me to simply ignore my history lesson.
Nilse in Palestine:
Nilse is 30. He told me how he always wanted to visit Israel.The first time he actually visited Israel was March 2006.
‘But why did you want to visit Israel,’ I tested him, ‘because of the German history?’
‘Because of the connection between Germany’s past and the situation in the Middle East today.’ he answered bluntly.
On his first day in the divided city of Jerusalem he insisted on going to Yad-Vashem (the Israeli holocaust museum), while I decided to take advantage of the time to walk around the beautiful German colony.
I remember being mad with him. I wanted him to feel guilty, to take some of the pain which I have. He came back and didn’t say much for a while. Finally he concluded that the Yad-Vashem experience was so overwhelming it has left him stunned.
The cynical jokes and the perverse associations, which simple words bring up, surprised and shocked him. On his last day of his first visit, while standing on the bus line, we overheard a young guy saying something like: ‘Oh man, it’s just like Treblinka here’. Nilse did not understand the Hebrew, but after two intensive weeks with me and after long conversations with my mother (who feels much more anger and has better Holocaust anecdotes), understood perfectly well the connection of the packed line of people along with the word ‘Treblinka’, and sighed wearily.
During the two years we’ve known each other, my German man has withstood much Jewish sarcasm and plain mean observations. A couple of months ago I was truly determined to try and put an end to my bad manners, seeing as I was really creating an unpleasant atmosphere. But sometimes I just find myself in the most irresistible situations, like the time he asked me what to bring for my mother from Germany and I instantly replied: ‘Her family back’. He ignored this fine comment and I had turned from a victim to a victimizer.
So though there is such an immense gap between the past and the present and us Third Generation Germans and Jews (and especially Israelis), could a relationship between us work? A different German would probably not endure or put up with my behavior.
The truth is that our characters and genetic codes do play a primary role: Those who live in the shadow of the past and those who don’t. Although the DNA argument is not particularly a healthy one in a place where people were murdered over it, I can’t help but to examine my own gene pool: My mother, who will not visit me in Berlin and my sister, who does not carry this Judenschmerz on her shoulders: ‘When I was in Japan,’ she conveys to me in hope to put a stop to my suffering, ‘I met this hot German guy, who immediately began to apologize once I told him I’m Israeli. He asked if I could ever forgive him… I just stared at his lips – moving in such sexy perfection – and at his strong, tattooed arms; but he continued! Just Holocaust talks until I finally said “it’s not really a turn-on for me, so you better stop it!” your German man,’ she continued, ‘is interested politically and historically while you just like to torture yourself.’
Is that the genuine reason I chose to conspire with him? Or is it the other way around: even though he is German I still chose to be with him? And how can a future be build with someone who’s not quite sure where his grandfather was in 39’? Why do I have such a strong attraction to this culture and language, this stubbornness to study in order to read books and poetry, to understand films and music? And Berlin, am I in love with this incredible city because of its past or is it its promising future?
As I walk down the broad streets of Berlin, in an attempt to feel a bit at home maybe, I am haunted by Fania Oz-Zelzberger’s lines from her book ‘Israelis, Berlin’: ‘The riddle, in my mind,’ she writes, ‘is the ability to be an Israeli in Berlin without always hearing, at each and every moment, the joint cry of hundreds of mothers at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, who just realized the children transport is leaving for Auschwitz; Without hearing, past all the sounds of Berlin, the silence around the dead baby at the Majdanek station.’
Zelzberger’s words do not only haunt me, they reproach me. And to me there is no riddle: I can’t. But maybe by studying others, as well as myself, and by trying to actually live here, I will find a way to juggle between the two worlds. Never to forget the past but perhaps to see a brighter future.
First written Spring 2006, partly in Hebrew and then translated and sewn together, piece by piece.