Growing up in a 1980s Jewish suburb of New York City, my parents taught me a great deal about the Holocaust, without any hesitations. They did not shield my brothers and I at all from the gruesome and horrific details of the Shoah. This included their still very tainted opinions of Germans.
I, too, from an early age, swore to “never buy a German car,” and I’d jump out of my skin when I heard a German accent, my arms nearly rising into the air from reflex and fear.
Yet, at the same time, I was being educated in a new era—a time in which the terrors of the Holocaust and the fear of the Nazi regime and the German people of World War II was becoming a part of history, the past. As “never forget” was emblazoned upon my brain at home and in religious school, “inclusion, acceptance, diversity, and a time to move on,” were themes of my public school history lessons. It was certainly quite the juxtaposition for a curious, history-loving teenager.
As years passed, I became a history teacher and later continued my studies in Holocaust and genocide, and I began to make peace with the different sides of my beliefs. I was finally OK with hating the Germans of the Nazi era while at the same time forging a new path of acceptance with Germans today. Or, at least I thought I was.
Several years ago, my husband and I decided to bring foreign au pairs over to our home for a year to help care for our three boys. Last October, as we searched our au pair database, we fell upon a young German girl. She fit everything we were looking for, and the fact that she was German was actually a bonus. Our boys were getting older and more knowledgeable and were beginning their own path of Holocaust education in a different time and era than my husband and I did. For some reason, this just felt right.
Of course, we were up front with her from the start. We told her that we were Jewish and that I worked in the field of Holocaust education. She seemed fine with it, and so did we. As the weeks leading up to her arrival approached, several people questioned us: “How could you of all people get a German au pair?” or, “ How are you going to be able to listen to the German accent all the time?” And to be honest, at times, we questioned ourselves.
From birth, it was certain my children would be well educated on the atrocities of the Holocaust and the importance of their Jewish heritage. They are being raised by a mother who has devoted her professional career to Holocaust and genocide education and a father who works tirelessly to ensure a positive American-Israeli relationship. And they know how their Jewish grandparents built a strong Jewish community for them to live in.
But this year was far more remarkable than my husband and I could have imagined and shaped our children’s education of modern Germany in a way that will benefit them forever.
There were moments during the year (most of which our au pair may not have even realized) when we brushed aside our own conjured up images from the past.
There was the time that a World War II book emblazoned with a swastika came home from the library, and one of the boys brought it to the au pair spouting off words of hatred towards Hitler and Germany. About to jump in and curb the situation, we quickly saw that for her, there was no connection of the past to the present. There was no accusation at all.
There was the time when our au pair innocently spoke of getting the boys into the showers, and my husband and I looked at each other out of habit, because for us, our immediate thoughts of showers from a German meant something terrible. Yet again, the boys drew no connection. For them, showers meant it was time to head upstairs and get clean and ready for bed.
There was the time that our au pair’s wonderful, loving father came to visit and asked our oldest about summer camp and we cringed, as hearing the word “camp” from a German made us immediately think of concentration camps. Yet the boys went right on with their stories of beautiful summer camp, not even thinking remotely about what we had thought.
As they grow into young adults, the images my sons will have of Germans will reflect the love and care our au pair has given them in the past year.
For them, hearing a German accent will not automatically make them uncomfortable, but will instead remind them of her soft tone with them, the songs she sang with them, and the books she read to them.
For them, when picturing the German countryside, they will not automatically think of Jewish children running and hiding in fear, but will instead be reminded of the stories they have heard of her small picturesque town and the trips she and her friends took to Cologne in the winter to go ice-skating.
For them, the Nazis and Germany will be the past—a horrible past but the past nonetheless. And Germany today, 70-plus years later, will be the home of their beloved au pair.
As we say goodbye to her, I can’t help but think of the strife in the world that still exists. As we watched the news together on the night of the Paris attacks, we sat together in our home, as Paris saw destruction it hadn’t seen since World War II. I can only hope that one day, the same peace that exists between Jews and Germans today will exist between all the peoples of the world. And that maybe my children’s children will be able to place the terrors of our day into history, just as this past year has done for my children.