There were obvious reasons I didn’t want to travel to Germany this summer. Actually, there were reasons I didn’t want to travel to Germany—ever. I planned to spend my life very happily visiting all sorts of other places on the planet, but neatly avoiding that one country.
I grew up with Survivor parents and Survivor grandparents, also Survivor aunts and uncles, all of whom talked about Germany a lot, mostly spitting over their shoulders or hissing in their voice towards the Nazis who marched out of that country and, besides creating the absolute devastation of World War II, tried to systematically erase the Jewish people from the planet.
In my family, Germany was Nazi Germany and the Germans were all Nazis.
Before the war, mother’s family was living happily enough in Lithuania, my father’s in Poland. My mother’s family spent three years living in the forest; my father’s in Siberia. The postwar period found them and their families displaced, Hitler their inadvertent matchmaker—they met while living in their Displaced Persons camps, eventually marrying in the U.S.
I inherited their hatred. I inherited an avoidance of a country, an aversion to German products, to German automobiles. After all, it had only been barely one generation since the war when I was born in 1960. My mother was still looking for a lost cousin; my grandmother searched for her brother, even though she saw him killed before her very eyes. As a family we were monolithic in our loyalties: grateful to be Americans but never stepping foot again in the old country.
So I was somewhat dismayed when I realized that the cruise my husband and I wanted to take this summer started and ended in Hamburg. We always like to get to our cruise port a few days ahead of time to get rid of our jet lag and explore an additional city as a way of extending our vacation. But Germany?
I tried desperately to avoid this. Anything but Germany, I thought. Maybe we could spend a week in whichever city was our first stop before flying onto Hamburg, somewhere like London? But that wasn’t going to solve the airline/jet lag problem. Perhaps we could just stay in the U.S. and visit Washington, D.C. in its sweltering 100 degree summer heat after leaving Arizona at 115 degrees? Probably not.
For these and other reasons, none of my machinations worked. And so I resigned myself. Hamburg it would be. I thought, worst case scenario, I would be so traumatized I would just spend the entire five days we planned to sty there hiding in our hotel. The very best case scenario I could imagine was that I would spend the five days a martyr, in Germany but under protest, dutifully visiting only Jewish history locales and nothing else.
What I’ve found instead is something I never expected. I have encountered a very lovely city. A civilized, clean city. A beautiful city set breathtakingly on the convergence of the Elbe and the Alster Rivers with canals cutting through the city. A city a little like Amsterdam, but clean and with no bicyclists trying to run us over, and no marijuana, and many less people. A city a little like Copenhagen but with beer gardens and a lot of weinershnitzel.
I can’t escape my history. Sometimes when I’ve glanced at these trees or these rivers I’ve thought of the death marches that the Nazis took the concentration camp prisoners on as the Allies were marching in, through breathtakingly beautiful German forests, a great many of the prisoners dying on the march, amidst this beauty, in sight of what I see today: picturesque German villages with their strapping sons and daughters who make me think: Aryan indeed.
So what is today’s Germany to a Jew who cares about her Judaism and her family’s past—and how do I hold on to the importance of honoring our past while moving into the future?
Germany exists with all of this–the beauty and the horror; I can’t look away from either. Germany is a warning sign that no matter how civilized a nation is or thinks it has become, there might just be a barbarian soul hiding inside, a wake up call to us all.
And, last, Germany is also a land of Jewish history, centuries of it, all intertwined together. It hasn’t been erased, no matter how they tried. And in that final thought, I made peace with traveling to Germany.