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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.