Seeing Germany, Close Up

My colleague, Rivki Rosenblatt (OU Press) and I recently returned from staffing OU Alumni’s ten-day trip to Germany through an organization called Germany Close Up (GCU). GCU was founded by Dr. Dagmar Pruin. Dr. Pruin is not Jewish – in fact, she is an ordained minister in her church – but she studied Jewish studies at Hebrew University and had made a career of forging liaisons between young Jews and modern Germany.

The participants on the trip were 17 college students and recent graduates. As one who has chaperoned many leadership groups over the years, I can attest that this delegation was particularly well-informed and insightful, asking truly impressive questions of every speaker. (Actually, if the group could be said to have a catchphrase, “I have two questions” would be it.) At the Germany Foreign Office, the representative reasonably assumed that the visitors from OU Alumni would want to hear about Germany’s relationship with Israel. “We already know about that,” he was informed. “What we want to know about is….” (For those of you reading who may not know, Germany is Israel’s staunchest ally. Their position is: (1) Israel has a right to exist; (2) Israel has a right to defend itself; (3) Okay, now let’s talk about the situation in Gaza.)

There were many eye-opening sites, not the least of which was the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. This was not a camp used for Jews, but for political prisoners – the ones the Nazis “liked,” relatively speaking. Conditions were so horrific and subhuman that one could only imagine how much worse they were in Auschwitz. One prisoner, who had been in both Sachsenhausen and Birkenau, said that the former was like paradise when compared to the latter. For example, in Sachsenhausen, one slept on a mattress of filthy straw, encrusted with human waste and the bodily fluids of those who had died. In Birkenau, however, six people had to share the same kind of accommodation. As hellish as Sachsenhausen was, the Nazis still found ways of making it far worse.

In Wolfsburg, we visited the Volkswagen plant, where they have established an exhibit about the forced labor that was carried out there during the war. Rather than burying it, Volkswagen has made great efforts to address this shameful episode of its past. Decades ago, they established a humanitarian fund to compensate the laborers. They have published books and created this exhibit in order to educate. They actually have positive relationships with a number of surviving laborers and their families. (If this surprises you, remember that the people running the factory today are not the ones who enslaved them decades ago. Today’s leaders are doing their best to make up for the atrocities committed by their grandparents’ generation.)

Far more happened in ten days than I could possibly cover here. A personal highlight was seeing the remains of the Berlin Wall. As an old-timer of [redacted] years of age, I remember when the Wall came down. It was something we previously never thought we’d see. Hearing about the reunification of a city and a country separated physically and culturally for decades was fascinating and enlightening.

The elephant in the room was the fear of anti-Semitism, given the nature of things in Europe since the start of the current conflict in Gaza. The advice to wear ball caps (or, in my case, a jaunty straw hat) was heeded, though it might not have been necessary. The entire time we were there – in Berlin, Nuremberg and Munich – we did not encounter a single anti-Semitic taunt or anti-Israel protest. We thought it might be because the Jews were keeping a low profile but then we went to a restaurant with a prominent magen-David-and-menorah motif. Shuls, supermarkets, museums and memorials were likewise unmolested.

The closest we saw to an act of anti-Semitism was that the star of an Israeli flag on the Berlin Wall mural was defaced. Apparently, that’s always the case: someone defaces it, the authorities restore it, someone defaces it, the authorities restore it. It is not related to the current tensions.

In Berlin, we were told that anti-Semitism was more of a problem “down south.” But when we got to Munich, we were told that it wasn’t such a problem like it is “up north.” I’m not going to claim that it doesn’t exist at all but at no point did we feel unsafe because of our religious identity. We exercised caution – always prudent, especially in a big city where you don’t speak the language – but fear was unwarranted.

Germany is doing its best to ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust never happen there again. Memorials are ubiquitous, Holocaust education is taught in schools, and Holocaust denial is a crime. In some ways, the Germans are more direct than we are, saying that people “were murdered” in Auschwitz rather than they “died” there and referring to Kristallnacht as “the November pogrom” (since the term “Kristallnacht” actually downplays the violence to a native speaker). Combined with their unqualified support for Israel – something we could use far more of in this world! – it may be time for many of us to re-think our relationship with Germany.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.