A very personal reflection on Germany in 2018…I just don’t understand!
Like many countries around the world, we commemorated Labor Day on May 1 here in Germany. The day also coincided with the beginning of a new government position – commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and to fight antisemitism, but everyone refers to it as the “Antisemitism Commissioner.” The inaugural holder is Felix Klein, a career diplomat with an international law degree, who coincidentally happens to come from the same town I grew up in.
Having recently moved back to Germany after spending 22 years living in Los Angeles working for USC Shoah Foundation, I actually find myself being torn by the news. On the one hand, I know I should applaud that the German Bundestag had voted for this position and allocated funds to pay the commissioner and a secretary for now. But on the other hand, I am stuck on the fact that this position has become necessary 73 years after Nazi Germany was defeated.
I grew up in Germany at a time when I learned about our past early on, went to a school where our responsibility to learn from the past was not an extraordinary deed, but kind of taken for granted – it is not only what we have to do, of course, but it is what we should do. I mean, how could you not teach and learn about it in the perpetrator country, even if it sometimes created a sense of guilt in us for the massive crimes committed by our German grandparents. (I am not using a more general description such as “grandparent’s generation” on purpose here because more people committed either directly or stood by than stood against. Otherwise, I would not be writing about this now.)
I took what our grandparents did personally – even though it happened before I was born. The lesson I took was to work in a field where I can further educate people and ensure the memories and stories of survivors and witnesses can be heard in the future, so we continue to learn from them and find ways to prevent other such events. If nothing else, the least I can do is try.
And now I find myself back in Germany – reading and hearing about daily occurrences of antisemitic attacks (verbal or physical). The head of the German Jewish community advised against wearing the kippah publicly. I actually even heard wearing any type of jewelry that represents a Jewish symbol should be avoided, or at least hidden.
I did hear and read about the rise of antisemitism in Europe while living in L.A. But being back in Germany and experiencing the proximity to it, has given me a different awareness of how serious the situation is. It also gives me a new sense of urgency and belief that working with testimonies and bringing these stories to every possible audience is the way to go. Even if I don’t understand how this country got to this point again – a point where German people or anyone of the Jewish faith has to worry about walking the streets safely and confidently like anyone else.
I know there are Germans of all faiths speaking out against antisemitism and quite a number of NGOs working hard to counter the situation. The German government is also doing something such as establishing this new Antisemitism Commissioner. While that is good, it is NOT GOOD ENOUGH. To me, Germany and Germans have never done enough to deal with the past. And I am starting to think there is not NOT ENOUGH – nothing in this field is too much from where I stand right now. What it also tells me that Holocaust education, as well as genocide education and survivor testimonies are key. The personal stories have to become part of any curriculum here as core as learning to read and to do arithmetic.
Last week, I spent a day with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, a great musician and cellist, who has been speaking to German schoolchildren for years. Anita gave her testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation in the ’90s, has done an interactive testimony as part of our New Dimensions in Testimony program, and was the keynote speaker in the German Bundestag this year during the Holocaust commemoration in January. We both talked at length about the current situation and found ourselves at a point of resignation: “Well, that is the world and it will never change.” But as soon as one of us went down that bleak path, we found a way to always come back to, “We need more education and better education.” At the end of the day, when Anita dropped me off with her car at the nearest subway station, we pledged to each other not to resign and keep up the fight. She will continue to talk to students as long as she can, and we will continue to engage paths to teach with her and all of the USC Shoah Foundation testimonies as long as we can – in perpetuity.