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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Unexpected Healing (ive)

GERMANY | Sunday, 24 May 2009 | Views [918] | Comments [1]

The castle in Bruchsal

The castle in Bruchsal

Many of the staff at Schweibenalp Center of Unity are from Germany. One of the German staff who we became friendly with, Yvonne, was planning a three-day trip back to her hometown and very kindly invited us to join her. Honestly, I had an initial moment of resistance to going. We hadn't planned on leaving Switzerland. Maybe it was the idea of an unexpected expense. But the resistance didn't last long. Yvonne pointed out that she is from a town between two major tourist destinations: the cities of Karlsruhe and Heidelberg. This would be a great chance to see these cities and experience another Western European country. And we had heard so much about Germany from the people at Schweibenalp. More than that, we really enjoy Yvonne's company and didn't want to pass up a chance at getting to know her better. So one evening, Miral and Yvonne and I (and a guy we were giving a ride to Basel) hit the road for Germany.

Or maybe my moment of resistance to going to Germany had something to do with the aversion to Germany commonly felt by American Jews. If it was, it wasn't conscious. But like most American Jews, I was raised, from a very early age, with the Holocaust seared into my consciousness. By first grade, I was regularly attending Hebrew School assemblies in which we were showed extremely graphic footage of Nazi concentration camps – Jewish people being rounded up, being starved, being gassed, being shot, being buried, being burned. We were given talks by Holocaust survivors. We participated in annual Holocaust Memorial Days – in fact, a friend and I led a service at our Temple one year when I was around ten or eleven. We were repeatedly told to “Never Forget” or risk a future Holocaust. And we were told to support the State of Israel so that Jews worldwide would have a safe refuge if another Holocaust was about to happen. So, I was not very old when the Holocaust became a deeply essential element of my identity as a Jew – when I became a child of the Holocaust. It's ironic, in a way; no one in my family that we know of was killed by the Nazis. Both sides of my family had come to the US fifty years earlier to escape an earlier Jewish genocide – the Eastern European pogroms in which Christians massacred hundreds of thousands of Jews. Still, I didn't grow up feeling like a child of the pogroms. Like most American Jews my age, I am a child of the Holocaust.

Maybe because the Holocaust was a part of such an early stage of my consciousness, I feel like I have spent my entire life working out my feelings it. During early periods of my life, the Holocaust provided me a strong sensitivity to human rights issues everywhere, it was a shared experience that united me with other Jews, and it fueled a resolve to carry on the tradition of my ancestors “so that Hitler did not succeed.” This feeling probably reached its peak when I attended a march of Jewish high school and college students (“The March of the Living”) on the grounds of Aushwitz/Birkenau after a week of touring several Polish concentration camps. I toured the Birkenau barracks, gas chambers, and ovens . And I heard a stirring speech by Elie Weisel (Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor) amidst a bevy of Israeli flags planted in soil saturated with Jewish blood. As I exited Birkenau, walking down the same railroad tracks that had carried at least a million Jews to their deaths, I swore to myself of my dedication to the Jewish people and to leading a Jewish household so that no one who died at these camps will have died in vain.

But as time went, the dark consequences of the “Never Forget the Holocaust” legacy became more apparent to me. I became saddened at all of the beautiful and deeply spiritual parts of Judaism that were never taught to me as a kid because so much time was spent remembering the suffering of the Holocaust. I realized how much personal damage is done when people become so focused on themselves as victims. Feeling that you are a member in a group of people that the world is out to exterminate, as we were told, breeds fear, anger, and obsessive self-protection. And that personal damage is translated into collective worldviews and policies. I realized how the “preserve Israel at any cost” mentality of most Israeli and American Jews is linked to the desperate desire to never be so victimized again. And I became more and more sad as I realized that the current sufferings of the decades old Israeli-Arab conflict – the violence and thousands of deaths on both sides - is at least in large part, an outcome of the fear, anger, and obsessive self-protection of the Jewish people. The irony of this nation of victims now engaging in so much oppression and persecution horrifies me. As I grew more vehemently opposed to Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, I also grew to believe that Jews needed to finally grow beyond the Holocaust.

This perspective probably reached its peak when I read The Jew in the Lotus, a great book documenting meetings between Jewish leaders and the Dalai Lama. In it, the author (Rodger Kamentz, a Jew) compares the Jewish reaction to the Holocaust of anger and fear to the Tibetan reaction to Chinese persecution. This reaction included the beauty of imprisoned monks who felt and expressed deep compassion for their Chinese captors. It also included the view that the painful suffering involved in the violent invasion of their country, murders of its peoples, and attempted destruction of their culture was part of a larger good in that it forced the Tibetans to abandon their isolation and engage the rest of the world, where teachings like those of Buddhism are so needed. For many years, I felt strongly that modern Judaism and I as a modern Jew, needed to end the intense focus on the Holocaust, at risk of this focus being the real source of our final demise. I began to avoid reminders of the Holocaust in order to learn more about the deep spirituality of Judaism. And I spoke to Jewish friends about this new relationship with the Holocaust whenever there wa a good chance.

Then a few years ago, Miral and I were in Boston for a friend's child's Christening. After the ceremony in the suburbs, we went out to eat in the city. Leaving the restaurant, we walked the streets and happened to walk into a large street memorial to the Holocaust. We walked through it together – and for one of the first times in our relationship, I talked with Miral about the role of the Holocaust in my life and in the lives of many modern Jews. And as she was shocked and sickened by the stories relayed in the memorial, I told her of many other stories that have become a part of my being over the years. And for the first time in a very long time, I found myself crying at the agonizing insanity of what was done to six million of my people. Through all of the work I had done in my head to think about how the Holocaust had affected Jews and the world of my generation, I may have begun to disconnect from a heart that still ached and broke when I felt what was done to us Jews and the world in the Holocaust.

And, so, after all of these years, I find myself accepting that both perspectives are true and that a Middle Way is the right way into the future. That in some paradoxical way we Jews must never forget what other people did to us in the Holocaust so that we can try to prevent its repetition to us and to other peoples – while we also move on from the intense focus on the Holocaust and identifying with that victimization to, instead, reconnect with the deep beauty of our unique way of connecting with and honoring the Ultimate Divine Ground of the Universe. This truth has lived with me since that day in Boston.

And with a ll of that I still, consciously, wasn't thinking about the Holocaust or Nazis at all when we crossed the border from Switzerland into Germany in Yvonne's car. And we had a great time over the course of the three days – meeting Yvonne's friend Barbara who hosted us with incredible generosity and graciousness; eating tons of German Bretzels; sampling a bit of German beer; eating a meal of the most amazing fresh white asparagus (“spargle”) I have ever had; exploring some classically gorgeous Western European cities, and having great conversations about life's journeys with Yvonne. Thanks to Yvonne, we had a great time in Germany.

But what will stay with me most was meeting a couple Yvonne is friends with and their young daughter. We brought over some really inexpensive and really delicious German bakery items to share over coffee. At one point, Jork (the husband) explained that the city of Bruchsel, where we were, was a major national railroad hub during World War II and was completely destroyed by Allied bombing. He noted, for example, that the castle we planned to walk to later that day is a replica of the original. “There are a few buildings left here from before the war; otherwise it has all been rebuilt.” He began to talk of the struggle of Germans to recover from the war, explaining that open discussion of what happened almost never occurs, leaving wounds that fester from generation to generation. When Miral asked, he confirmed that the silence is out of shame.

Jork spoke of his extreme frustration that he feels so passionately anti-war, but that as a man from the country who began the most horrible war we know, his opinion on this is easily dismissed by others. He explained, for example, that if he were to speak out against Israeli-instigated wars in the Middle east he'd immediately be labeled a Nazi. I confirmed that I think there is a big difference between being anti-Israeli government and anti-Semitic, but that the distinction is often inappropriately blurred by Jews. Then he explained that his grandfather was an SS soldier in the Nazi army. He became very soft as he spoke about his hard emotional work in men's groups to heal from his own family's refusal to discuss this.

I noticed a moment of surprise arise in me that in his discussion of the victims of World War II he was focused on the Germans, with no mention of Holocaust victims. But then I realized how powerfully and poignantly he was describing his struggle. He seemed truly haunted. I appreciated how real that pain is for him and I became sad, strongly feeling our strange bond in the legacy of this horror. And I felt deep respect for his hard journey. As he spoke, it amazed me that in my own long, long journey of finding my way with the legacy of the Holocaust, I can think of only one other time that I really considered the effect of the war on German children and youth – when I was at Aushwitz and was told that German high school students often volunteer to help maintain the camp to preserve the memory of what happened to work through their own feelings about the role of their people in it.

As he continued to discuss the difficult consequences of German refusal to acknowledge what happened -- I mentioned that I am Jewish. When I mentioned my heritage, he stopped cold with a facial expression that was hard to describe – part shock, but also a sense of joy to know he had been talking with a Jew so openly and had not even realized it. I told him a little bit about my own life-long struggle with what happened in Nazi Germany. He began to cry. And then he and I hugged. A Jew and a German – descendents of the persecutor and the persecuted. He thanked me for the moment, which he said was a step of unexpected healing for him. I sensed it as an important moment in my own, too. We lamented that there has never been a Truth and Reconciliation effort between Jews and Germans, like the ones that have brought healing in South Africa, Ireland, and other places. And then we stopped talking. The moment of our own truth and reconciliation was enough. My meeting with Jork felt to me like the reason the universe had directed me to Germany. I told him that as we sadi good-bye. He agreed.

 

Comments

1

I am in tears myself as I read about this encounter and its "backstory." Your description of how the Holocaust is burned into the psyche of American Jews is so correct. On my recent trip to Israel, I had a fascinating discussion with my fervantly orthodox aunt who believes to a great extent that the emphasis on Holocaust education and museums is misguided. I have also had recent discussions with my sister (inspired by our reading of "The Book Thief"- fiction about a young girl growing up outside of Munich during WWII), about the responsibility of every day Germans.

I just recently saw my cousin's pictures of his trip to Poland with his parents to participate in March of the Living. He is the grandson of an Auschwitz survivor. The images of him carrying the Torah scrolls high above his head as he marched were powerful as was the image of his passing the Torah to a woman survivor who was marching in a wheelchair. These stories and memories and emotions continue to be woven together. Thank you for sharing.

  Karen May 24, 2009 11:37 PM

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