When my wife suggested three years ago that maybe we should check out Berlin on one of our vacations I was reluctant, almost adamant in fact, about not going. As a Jew growing up in Canada I had learned about Germany through my Holocaust education in Sunday school. And although my family had already immigrated to North America during an earlier Eastern European pogrom, visiting the country responsible for loss and trauma of such magnitude was not high of my list of fun things to do.
But, after speaking to several friends who had either visited or lived there and loved it, I decided I should get over myself and see what all the “hip” fuss was about. Needless to say I loved it as a city, which is why I find myself here three years later, living for the better part of a year.
The reasons why I was hesitant to come however haven’t changed. In fact, they’ve become even more a part of my reality, especially as of late.
Last week a friend’s mother arrived in Berlin as part of her annual pilgrimage to her hometown in southern Germany. She is a Holocaust survivor, one of only three Jews from her town who are still alive today (other than her mother and a childhood friend). Each year she makes the trip and visits the town where she lived until she was 10. Her house is no longer standing — it was one of the two on her street destroyed by the SS — but her memories of childhood and growing up are still intact and her connection to her family history and culture are something she honours.
As I got older my personal Holocaust education expanded beyond the walls of my synagogue school. I studied the Holocaust and genocide in university, spoke alongside Auschwitz, Sobibor and Buchenwald survivors about discrimination, racism and homophobia, guest lectured about the Resistance movement in France during the Second World War and listened intently to family histories that anyone was willing to share. I can say I am friends with survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors and they are part of my everyday life.
What I have learned since being in Germany is that that is a privilege.
Before my friend’s mother arrived in town, we told everyone we knew that she was coming. Not only is she a fun and vivacious 80-year old, she was coming home, to a place that she had escaped from on one of the last boats out of Germany. The reaction from our German friends was something I could have never expected — awe, fascination and respect of the highest order.
The trauma of the Holocaust runs deep throughout Germany and the generation gap is filled with resentment and shame. Shame for what the country’s elders participated and believed in, and resentment for letting it happen. I have heard confessions about Nazis in the family, SS fathers and Hitler Youth brothers. I have learned of families being ripped apart by history and circumstance, philosophy and action — or inaction. I am being educated on how a country that is this year celebrating its’ 20th anniversary of reunification still has no national voice. No pride. No “I am German” beer commercials.
For the past six months friends and family have been asking if I will be doing a concentration camp tour, if I will visit the places that in name alone can evoke feelings of disgust and horror, sadness and loss. And until yesterday, my answer was no. Why should I? Why would I want to have the physical picture to go with what I have learned through books and firsthand accounts? Does that sound like something I would want to do on my year of rest and relaxation? I couched my reluctance in the highbrow ideology that I didn’t want to participate in the Disneyfication of atrocity. I didn’t want to be sold a striped cap at the gate of Treblinka, or a temporary tattoo at Belzec and walk around in the sunshine with a tour guide wearing a T-shirt that says “Welcome to Majdanek.” *
But walking through the streets of Berlin yesterday, surrounded by daily life, I realized that I was being selfish, shortsighted and disrespectful. I have a choice, something that millions who were here before me did not have — that just because I could choose not to go, doesn’t mean that is the choice I should make. I am able and obligated to honour the history of my community as so many have already done and continue to do, both here and at home.
This week in Toronto artist Reena Katz will be honouring her community — the Jews who have made an impact on her life and her art, both young and old. She comes from a family of many Holocaust survivors and, according to a statement on her website eachhand.org, was “taught to embrace tolerance and fight racism in all its’ forms.” She learned Yiddish at 16 from her great-aunts and has “worked within Jewish, multifaith and secular forums to educate around anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and sexism.”
Her piece entitled each hand as they are called consists of “sonic and visual performances, that bring elders from Toronto’s Jewish community into conversation and play with students from Ryerson Public School, and involves a series of vividly designed posters seen throughout the Kensington neighborhood.”
Up until last week this ambitious art project was supported by the Koffler Centre for the Art. But it appears that Reena’s political beliefs, which raise questions around Jewish/Muslim, Israeli/Palestinian relations, suddenly became an issue for the Koffler Arts Centre and made them question their ability to continue to support the project. Each hand as they are called, however, has nothing to do with Reena’s personal politics around the state of Israel. It involves more than 70 community members ranging in age from primary school to retirement home some of whom have experienced firsthand someone’s heavy hand.
If I was in Toronto I know where I would be when it opens. There, present, counted. In Berlin I believe I will be making plans to do a similar thing, on a whole other scale.
*As far as I know, these things do not exist.