Why Germany?

Before we left for Germany, we received many strange reactions when we would tell people we were traveling to Germany.  Some people were quite blunt: how could we visit that country after what they did to the Jews in the Holocaust? Others were more subtle and just shrugged and said, “Why would you go there?” Others simply looked bemused.  Some people said, “Just Germany?” I know if we were going to Italy or England, no one would have reacted that way.  Germany just did not seem to be an appealing destination to many of the people we know.

Even when I explained that I was going to see the places where my father’s ancestors had lived and meeting cousins who live in Germany, people reacted strangely. So now that we are back, I can better explain why we went to Germany and why other people might want to go there as well. I will write about the specific experiences we had in the various places we visited in later posts, but first I want to put the trip in perspective and give some overall thoughts about what we saw and what we learned.

First, Germany is a beautiful country with so much to see and experience.  The Rhine River and the rolling hills and wide open green spaces are a delight.

On the Rhine from Bingen to Koblenz

Some of the cities and towns we saw are as charming, interesting, and historically and culturally rich as any we have seen in other places.  In particular, Mainz, Wurzburg, and Heidelberg are beautiful with storybook churches, elegant palaces, and inviting and exciting markets and squares.  The houses range from half-timber fairy tale houses to rococo-decorated merchant homes.

Mainz

In the smaller villages and towns, you get a feeling for how life has been lived in such places for centuries.  They are not like the small town where I now live.  There are clusters of houses around a central square with a church and town hall anchoring that common space.   Surrounding these clusters of homes and buildings are miles and miles of open land.

Countryside near Sielen

Second, people need to see and understand the damage that war can do. The places destroyed by the Nazis—especially the synagogues and cemeteries—are terribly heartbreaking to see, and there are constant reminders of the Jews who were deported and killed by the Nazis. You cannot go any place in Germany without being reminded that there were once Jews there and that they were persecuted and murdered.

Stolpersteine in Bingen

And some of the places we visited—Cologne, Kassel, and Bingen, in particular—were devastated by Allied bombing during the war.  They’ve been rebuilt, but quite often the new architecture is bland and boring. Often people would comment on how beautiful a city had been before the bombing. The Germans live with daily reminders of what their country did during the Third Reich and also what the war cost them.

A street in Cologne showing a Roman arch at the end of a post war street.

I can’t say that as an American Jew, I felt any guilt about the damage my country did to Germany in order to stop the Nazis.  But I also never once heard any of the many Germans we spoke to express resentment or hostility towards the Allies for the harm done to their country.  They seem to understand and accept that the Allied attacks were a necessary response to the aggression and genocide committed by the Nazis. Nevertheless, as the world continues to use violence and destruction as a means of settling disputes, we all should understand the consequences of war—not only in terms of loss of life, but also in terms of loss of culture, history, art, and architecture.

Which brings me to the third important lesson we learned while in Germany.  There are many non-Jewish Germans who are working with a true passion and commitment to preserve and restore the history of the Jewish communities that were wiped out during the Holocaust.  These people by and large are volunteers—good and dedicated people who were born either during or after the war and who are horrified by what the Nazis did.  We spent a great deal of time with six of these people in a number of different towns where my ancestors once lived.

Just a few of the good people we met in Germany (and my husband Harvey)

We asked all of them why they are doing this work.  Their answers varied; one said it was because she’d had a Jewish teacher as a child with whom she’d been very close; another said that it was discovering a former synagogue that had been desecrated; another mentioned that it was learning what had happened to the Jews in his small town that had motivated him to learn more.  They are all warm, thoughtful, and kind people. They became friends.  One man, with tears in his eyes, spoke about his gratitude to the US for the aid it provided to German citizens after World War II.  These people spent many hours with us and did not charge us one cent.  They just wanted to help.  They want Jews to know about the work they are doing; they want us to come and visit and reclaim our history.  They want to help us reclaim that history, and they want us to help them preserve it.

And that’s what I did in Germany.  I stood where my ancestors once stood.  I staked my claim as a person whose family once lived and thrived in the towns of Germany, as a person who is also a part of the history of that place.  I wanted to make a visible statement that Hitler did not win because Jews still exist; we survived, and we are as entitled as anyone to walk the streets of Germany.  By going to Germany and talking to those who live there, I was able to let them know that we have not forgotten what happened during the Third Reich, but we also have not forfeited our claim to our history in those places.

Standing at the graves of my 3x-great-grandparents, Scholum Katzenstein and Breine Blumenfeld in Haarhausen cemetery

I understand that not everyone will feel as I do. And it’s not my intention to change anyone’s mind.  I just want to explain my feelings to those who have asked and will continue to ask me with that skeptical look, “Why would you go to Germany?” Because we can.  Because the Nazis did not win.  Because we have every right to claim our rich heritage and our long history in that country. And because many people who live there want us to do just that.

61 thoughts on “Why Germany?

  1. We lived in Munich for one year and absolutely loved it and the people. My husband has ancestors from Baden Wurtenburg and we will definitely go back to follow his family history when we have more time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We did not get to see either Munich or Berlin. That will have to wait for a future trip. I had no family in either place. Thanks for your thoughts!

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      • Pleased you went to see the place where your ancestors lived, Amy. Both my parents lived happily together with their Jewish neighbours, while in Germany, pre WW2. My mother had a Jewish boss, while working in the city of Frankfurt, of whom she still speaks of with admiration.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We heard that over and over, Vera—that before Hitler came to power, the Jews and Christians lived and worked together peacefully and with no problems.

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  2. It’s always beautiful to read about people returning to their familial roots.
    I can’t believe people reacted the way they did when you told them you were going to visit Germany! Germany has such a beautiful culture that extends past the Holocaust (which was devastating in its own right). My girlfriend also has German heritage and the stories she tells me resonates with those that you have shared here. So thank you for sharing! A great, honest insight into your experience 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Amy, thank you for such a wonderful post. I agree that you had many good reasons to go to Germany. Bottom line, Jewish or not, is that Germany is a big part of your heritage. And to be able to walk the streets of your ancestors is just priceless. It is on the bucket list for my husband and I to be able to travel to our ancestors’ homelands.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’m so glad your trip to Germany was so wonderful. I think, when Americans plan a trip to Europe, they want to see everything at once. They don’t have the time to appreciate the places they visit. You took the time, talked to the people, had a wonderful time, and likely brought back plenty of memories. I’m sure the time flew by.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I hope you got the Stolperstein history too, the brainchild of Gunter Demnig in 1992. They
    include all victims of persecution and are to be found in many European countries, and in most towns and cities in Germany. Great to read your thoughts Amy, I know that feeling – to tread the path of your ancestor’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I was aware of the history of the stolpersteine before I went and had seen them while we were in Poland, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest two years ago. Thanks, Shirley.

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  6. In the late 1950’s I was a 2nd LT Infantry Officer at the US Embassy in Paris. I often had courier duty which brought me to most of the European capitol cities. I went to Bonn (Bonn was the German capitol from 1945-1999) once and then asked my superiors to never send me there again. My problem was the police car sirens used in the cities. They were exactly the sound from movies I had seen about the war when the Gestapo was pulling up to a home or other place to arrest Jews.
    I still shiver to recall sitting at a sidewalk cafe and hearing a police car approach. That sound brought so many horrible thoughts to my mind that I never wanted to hear it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand your reaction, Bob, and I think that it is much harder for those who were alive during World War II to forget the images and sounds. And I would never try to push someone to do something that is painful for them. I think we each have to find our own way to honor the dead and keep their memory alive in a way that works for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy,
    Have you seen the Israeli documentary, THE FLAT? It is about a young Israeli who is tasked by his family to clean out the flat in Tel Aviv occupied by his deceased nonagenarian grandmother. He goes on to become obsessed with his family genealogy. His discoveries, including a trip to Germany, are fascinating. The film has won many awards. I saw it about five years ago in NYC it was in Hebrew with English subtitles, but is now available in English and available from NETFLIX.
    Michael Moore has given it a rave review. Enough said, watch it. You will thank me.
    Bob
    Interview with the filmmaker:

    Awards:
    The Flat (2011)

    Showing all 8 wins and 4 nominations
    Adolf Grimme Awards, Germany 2014

    Nominated
    Adolf Grimme Award Information & Culture

    Awards of the Israeli Film Academy 2011

    Won
    Award of the Israeli Film Academy Best Documentary
    Arnon Goldfinger

    Bavarian Film Awards 2012

    Won
    Bavarian Film Award Best Documentary (Dokumentarfilmpreis)
    Arnon Goldfinger

    German Film Awards 2013

    Nominated
    Film Award in Gold Best Documentary (Bester Dokumentarfilm)
    Thomas Kufus (producer)
    Arnon Goldfinger (producer) (director)
    Zero One Film

    Guild of German Art House Cinemas 2012

    Won
    Best Documentary Arnon Goldfinger

    Jerusalem Film Festival 2011

    Won
    Van Leer Group Foundation Award Best Director of a Documentary
    Arnon Goldfinger (director)
    Nominated
    Van Leer Group Foundation Award Best Israeli Documentary
    Arnon Goldfinger

    Krakow Film Festival 2012

    Won
    FIPRESCI Prize Arnon Goldfinger

    Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival 2012

    Won
    Best Documentary Arnon Goldfinger (producer/director)
    Zero One Film (production company)

    Traverse City Film Festival 2012

    Won
    Founders Prize Best Foreign Film – Honorable Mention
    Arnon Goldfinger
    “The jury has voted to give a special jury prize to a film that revisits the holocaust in a simple,… More

    Tribeca Film Festival 2012

    Won
    Jury Award Best Editing in a Documentary Feature
    Tali Helter-Shenkar
    “For a story so skillfully told that even though we thought this subject had been covered already … More

    Nominated
    Jury Award Best Documentary Feature
    Arnon Goldfinger

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a good beginning to the series of postings that will follow, Amy. It is best to state it now as the posting is vivid and to the point. In the future, like a year from now, it will still cue readers in on the reasons for your trip.

    It must have been a deeiply touching experience to visit the resting places of your Third Great Grandparents.

    I’ve read in other blogs here at WordPress about the damages and losses sustained in what was once Galicia. The cemeteries there are in such disrepair. And now it’s even more difficult to restore any traces of the Jewish communities there because the towns of what was once Galicia are now in different countries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Emily. Yes, I wanted to give an overview before I started describing the trip in detail. And I will probably do an afterward overview as well. Writing helps me process everything we saw and experienced.

      The cemetery visits were very emotional for me—sometimes frustrating, sometimes exciting, sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Another reason for the very sad state of cemeteries and other traces of Jewish life – after of course the shoah – is the emigration of the survivors and their descendants to Israel, USA, and even Germany.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. What a lovely and moving post Amy. I especially love the photo of you standing by your 3rd great grandparents graves. You do not look the least bit defeated. You look like any other genealogist who has come to know and love ancestors and then has the joyful opportunity to visit their final resting place. I love your reasons for visiting and that so many Germans are seeking to preserve Jewish history in their country. Everything about this is wonderful! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Amy, I read this post early yesterday but could not post until now. I was very moved by the photo of you standing next to your ancestors’ graves. I had that image in my head all day; it’s very powerful. I am also glad you wrote about the trip in general with details to follow. It’s a bit difficult to understand why people reacted the way they did when they learned where you planned to visit. I think your post (and reasons) are quite timely, since the “aggression and genocide committed by the Nazis” is something we should never forget. If it makes people uncomfortable, I say, “Good.” If it helps us remember where we never want to go again, I say, “Good.” Keep at it. Lovely post. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Karen. I do understand why people reacted that way even though I don’t feel that way myself. For some people, especially the older generation that lived through the war, the memories of what the Nazis did is still quite fresh and the pain quite close. I understand how they feel—I just don’t feel the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes, that makes sense among older people and for those who lived through it. Feelings are raw and rightly so. I thought you meant younger people (who may not share the same memories or feelings about those periods in time, wrong as it was). I hope people have come far enough that they can understand that what happened in Germany wasn’t the fault of the people; rather, it was the doing of a group of (psychopathic) individuals. Do you get the impression people question the reason for your visit because of location and where that all happened, or because they hold it against all German people?

    To this day we find that some people judge our Asian daughter–unfairly so–regarding the events surrounding Pearl Harbor and how Japanese people were treated. Most agree that those atrocities should have never occurred. They see her and somehow think she was connected to or was a part of it. One woman once yelled at her, “Go back to China where you came from!”

    Unfortunately, ethnocentrism and racism is alive. Our daughter was born in South Korea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is just awful, Karen, for you and for your daughter. I am so sorry that there are such stupid people out there.

      I am not sure what those people are thinking exactly about Germany. I know there are some who will always associate anything German—cars, food, the language—with Nazis. It’s a real shame.

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  12. I can’t believe that in this day in age people still think of Germany as Nazi Germany! I hope to visit Germany one day for the great history, cuisine, and culture it has to offer.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Friday finds: Week 20 – 2017 | Norwegian Genealogy and then some

  14. We also travel a lot to Germany. Maybe it has not the charm of France or Italy or Spain, but it has many lovely places to see, both man made or nature created.
    We have mostly traveled to the North Rhein Westphalia and to Lower Saxony and found so many great towns, architecture wise were really beautiful.
    I have just started writing my articles about them, here are two of them. I would love to have your support and follow back.
    https://egodiary.com/2017/06/14/munster-in-a-nutshell-bicycle-capital-of-germany-and-green-city/
    https://egodiary.com/2017/07/19/ludinghausen-and-three-moated-castles/

    Julia

    Liked by 1 person

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