Monday, December 30, 2013

Forgiving Germany

Maybe it started when I chose to take German in the 7th grade. French or Spanish hadn’t seemed like languages that would roll off my tongue. Yet German did.  Back then, we learned the old written text and “high German.”  It seemed to plug into my sensibility. Later I came to think something about German grammatical orderliness tied into my being.

My family was Jewish, but my parents didn't participate in Jewish culture or religion. It was almost as if they went out of their way to avoid it. My father was an avowed atheist. His mother once informed me that there could be no God if there was a Hitler. We were Americans – we celebrated Christmas - that was all I really knew and religion wast part of our life.
When I first learned about Nazi Germany, maybe around age 8 or 9, I remember being frightened. We were in the middle of the cold war . What would I do if the same thing happened in the U.S.?   Why would I have to die for being "Jewish" when it meant nothing to me? 

By the time I headed off to college, that first pang of fear had grown to how could Nazi Germany have happened. How could that go on in a civilized society?  I majored in twentieth century European history to find out.  After lots of reading, the only thing that really struck me was that those who lived near the death camps and said they didn't know, were lying. Apparently it's impossible to deny the smell of burning flesh.  But I never sated my need to understand how people could do that - how so many people could sit by and watch that happen. Words like "genocide" weren't in my vocabulary then.

My Daughter and I in Dresden
Fast forward from the 1970s - until two years ago, when my daughter moved to Berlin for a job.  I really didn't want to go to Germany but I wanted to see her and there was also the gnawing hope that I could finally get a chance to speak my high school German.

When I first visited Germany last Spring, I found I could barely leave my daughter's apartment. I had glimpses or memories of what had occurred. The phrase “blood running in the streets,” ran constantly though my mind. My internal mental imagery was haunting. I found myself hating and angry, and frightened.

At any use of the word Jew, even in a street sign, or countless placards or exhibits, I felt I was being served up insufficient versions of history or apologies.  The bigger picture of Nazi aggression and oppression - beyond Jewish people - it didn't even make it onto my emotional grid during that visit. 

Walter Rathenau

Instead, I memorialized a quote by German Industrialist Walter Rathenau, which was posted in the Jewish Museum.  It resonated with me, because I had had similar experiences in my own life. Mr. Rathenau had served in an elite military regiment  in 1890 and became an influential person in German social and political life, until he was gunned down by Jew haters in the early 1920s. His quote:

In the youth of every German Jew there is a painful moment he will remember all of his life; the moment when he becomes fully aware that he was born into the world as a second class citizen and that no amount of virtue or public service can lift him out of that condition.”

When my daughter initially announced she was moving to Berlin, I gave a hesitant endorsement. In response, she told me harshly that this was my “baggage.”  Had she learned nothing about the world in high school? It boggled my mind that she could describe what happened in Germany as “my baggage?”  I thought her ignorance stunning. 

My first trip to Germany was memorable because my daughter and I shared some wonderful adventures, including a lovely day bike riding in Potsdam.  And I saw she was happy at work and in her life. But I didn’t plan to return. 
Schloss Charlottenburg Weinachtmarkt

But she remains in Berlin, which she loves, save for the city's mostly gloomy skies. And I find myself here again, now at Christmas time. On this visit – amid Weinachtmarkts and winter cold, I find myself warming up. I take more risks speaking the language, interacting with people and letting Germany in.

Schloss Charlottenburg

This trip, I see things differently despite myself.

As we drive from Berlin to Dresden, my daughter kindly reprimands me: "So many in your generation won’t give Germany a chance. Why can’t you just see that not everyone and everything here   is bad?  Not everyone here now can feel personally responsible forever for what happened in Nazi Germany!”

The Elbe Between Alt and Neu Dresden
With her words, I search for words and my resistance gradually ebbs. I shift in my seat and look out the window at the green rolling hills punctuated by windmills.  It is very peaceful.

I let my thoughts subside and feel myself breathe differently with this new thought.  My daughter is right. I have been so stuck in my cement thinking that everything is ugly about Germany. But it is not.

Weihnachtmarkt in Dresden

As we drive into Dresden I see the scars of Russian occupation and the war. The Elbe and the remnants of a grander culture remain beautiful.  How much Hitler’s lunacy and a misguided nation has cost this land. What an awful legacy this new generation has inherited.  For the first time I feel compassion for Germany and for Germans. This is a new experience.

I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to make a dent in how people think or what goes on in the world. How would I answer for a nation's history? Many things in my own country boggle my mind. And yet we all keep moving and time indeed marches on. 
The entry- Schloss Charlottenburg

By making Germany her home, my daughter has given me a great gift. I see I have to expand my capacity to forgive and move on. Realizing this in a foreign land and speaking a foreign language I love has made this lesson quite special. Who would have thought that I learned German all those years ago for this beneficence now?

My daughter is planning to make Berlin her home for some time to come - despite the often gray skies that plague Berlin.  She attributes the state of affairs to a micro-weather system that shrouds Berlin.  
I do hope it loosens its grip  and sunshine streams in soon. Maybe it's not God's punishment after all.