The Jewish Berlin Wall
For Jewish travelers, for decades, and for good reason, no country has been as feared and loathed as Germany. We are not the average tourists, lightheartedly enjoying the splendor of German culture, its architecture, gardens, and beers. No, for us, travel to that country has long been shadowed by sadness and shock. Here, despite centuries of high German civilization and rich Jewish history, our greatest tragedy was planned and executed. I call our understandable aversion “the Jewish Berlin Wall.” This “wall” guards our hearts, our hopes, and our wallets from opening to and benefiting our former enemy.
Still, for the past many years, Germany has been an ally to Israel. Its post-Holocaust laws, barring anti-Semitism, serve as a model for the rest of world. Jewish culture is being widely taught in universities. The streets are full of Jewish tributes, as vast as the Holocaust Memorial and as small as the “stolpestener” – those small brass cobblestones, seen everywhere, that mark where Jewish people lived and where they died. Even Israelis feel comfortable there, not only as tourists but as residents. They travel there in droves, and are welcomed.
Berlin, in particular, has become more and more known for its tolerance. Like New York – my home town — it is a mecca for the intermixing of ideas and cultures from all over the world. From the site of a drab, stony wall, separating East from West and repression from democracy, it has become the vivid voice of freedom itself. The buzz from Berlin has become so strong, in fact, that I thought I’d pay it a visit.
A word about who I am. The daughter of survivors, I’d only been to Germany once before – to visit Dachau, where my father had been imprisoned. To me, at that time, the merry sounds of beer drinkers in nearby Munich were blows to my heart. They reminded me of how easily life seemed to go on for Germans, even as we Jews, their former friends and neighbors, were degraded, incarcerated, killed. But now, decades later, I traveled to Berlin, inspired by the stories of Jewish travelers who’d loved it, and who’d felt – perhaps for the first time – welcomed, not only as a tourist, but as Jews.
We are all testaments to survival, and my very presence in that city, amongst the descendants of my former enemies, testified to the resilience of goodness in the world. The wall itself was down, of course, but so were the walls between me and the many Berliners I met. There was the couple whose AirBnB I stayed at, friendly from the start, but far friendlier learning who I was, who my parents were. There were the policemen, standing respectfully outside shuls and community centers, greeting us all with kind expressions. I sat in an old-world Jewish restaurant, eating gefilte fish (its very name, of Yiddish, and hence Germanic, origin), flanked by Jews and non-Jews, Germans and tourists from all over the world. A German rabbi, female and a convert, warmly welcomed a lively group of Israeli children to Shabbat services.
I saw many children playing outside their schools, and I saw, in the schoolyards, their projects about the Holocaust, proudly displayed for the world to see. I saw the Holocaust Memorial, prominently placed in full view of the Reichstag. But most of all, everywhere, I saw the stolpestener, those tiny memorials to the Jews who’d once lived there. Each now had a name, a story, a brass plaque that was polished to a gleam. Gentile or Jewish, German or American, you couldn’t walk far in Berlin and not see these “stumbling stones.” And something about all of it made me walk more proudly, not stumbling anymore.
It was as though walls had fallen. Not only the Berlin Wall itself, but walls of prejudice from one side, and fearful distrust from the other. Is it odd to say that I found Berlin to be a balm to my soul? But it was, and I would go back there anytime.