The Bronx neighborhood in which I was raised was densely populated by Jews. Among them were survivors of the Holocaust. It was not uncommon, when in the supermarket or bakery or appetizing store, to see the tattooed numbers on the outstretched arm of a customer as he or she paid for their items. Years after the Holocaust Germany, and Germans, were still the enemy. None of my neighbors would think of buying a German product, let alone traveling to Germany. I, too, never thought I would find myself on German soil.
But time has a way of softening even the bitterest disputes. I had time to reflect on this when I recently traveled to Germany as part of a mission between the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform Movement, and IsraAID, an Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency that responds to emergency crises and engages in international development. Together, with 14 other rabbis, I witnessed Germany’s efforts to welcome Syrian refugees and the Israeli volunteers helping them do so. The trip offered me a chance to view Germany anew, to unpack my lingering hesitation when it came to my understanding of Germany’s relationship with both Jews and refugees.
Germany has been a complicated nation in the lives of Jews and refugees ever since World War II. The country’s Nazi regime and its role in the Holocaust are inescapable history, one that has made Jews like me at times profoundly uncomfortable with the country. Germany was a country from which one fled. Germany’s postwar experience has been one of migration and refugees: post-World War II immigrants from former German territories, refugees from the Yugoslav Wars, and migrants during the ongoing Syrian crisis have all intertwined with the sense of collective responsibility for the Holocaust that remains with German citizens. The country’s views of immigrants and refugees are inexorably tied to that darkest period of history, and, as a result, have made it necessary for Jews to re-examine our discomfort with Germany.
The most recent refugee crisis has been punctuated by hateful rhetoric around the world, by threats of blanket bans against all migrants, by closed doors and borders, by refugee camps that are overcrowded and disease-ridden. But while some countries have refused outright to take in refugees, Germany’s progressive outlook has rightly captured the world’s attention: Germany has now taken in over one million Syrian refugees. As part of the CCAR/IsraAID mission, I witnessed this firsthand. We traveled to two refugee centers in Berlin. One shelter was a former city hall: each family was assigned a former office as a living space. There were 1,200 refugees living there, all with limited access to laundry service, unlockable doors, and monetary aid of only 80 Euros a month. Another shelter was a converted factory: families were separated only by fabric drapes. We also learned about a shelter specifically for LGBT refugees, who faced violence in other refugee centers.
During the mission, we ate dinner every night with anywhere from four to six refugees and learned their stories. I met a teacher who had left behind a wife and children and was terrified for their safety even as he tried to plan a way for them to join him in Germany. I met a 22-year-old who had planned to study technology in Syria before being forced to flee the country. His family traveled across a number of countries and were now scattered across Germany, while his father remained in Jordan. I learned that 80 percent of refugees have a high school education or better. And I learned that, while the process has not been a perfect one, Germany has opened its arms to 1.5 million refugees. In fact, 10% of the German population is involved in helping refugees, whether they donate their clothing, their money, or their time. Of course, not all Germans are involved with this generosity, and not all Germans approve of the flood of refugees. But the open hands and hearts that we witnessed spoke of an almost indescribable transformation in the country.
On the last day of the trip, we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. After having spent days learning the stories of countless refugees — young people with interrupted futures, fathers missing their children, children missing their mothers, families torn apart — the memorial served as a painful, crucial reminder of how far we have come, and where we have come from. In the memorial, there was an exhibition called “Rooms of Families,” which used photographs and documents to tell the stories of families who were torn apart, expelled, and murdered during the Holocaust.
Those families experienced a Germany that echoed the one I feared as a child. But during the week that we spent as part of this greater mission, we experienced a Germany that has brought families in, rescued the homeless, saved lives, and created opportunities for hundreds of thousands of futures to grow and thrive. Germany is no longer a perpetrator — it is now a rescuer.
Rabbi Victor Appell is Manager of Programming for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.