We were standing on the top of the Reichstag, the building where the Bundestag (German Parliament) meets. The city of Berlin looked spectacular from the illuminated dome and the mood appeared to be relaxed and almost lighthearted.
We had been brought into the Reichstag by a member of the Bundestag, entering through an underground tunnel, which is not open to the public. This was special, but we realized what was most special is that we were together as American Jews and Germans who were enjoying a welcome end to a powerful and emotional day.
We were members of a trip called the “Third Generation Initiative” sponsored by the AJC ACCESS, American Jewish Committee’s young leadership project, of which I am a board member, German Insurance Company Allianz, for which the German participants worked, and Germany Close Up, which aims to bring young Jewish professionals to Modern Germany.
We visited various German, Israeli and American political institutions to discuss issues facing modern Germany. On this day, however, we were going to discuss the past.
That morning, I knew this was going to be the most difficult day of the trip. Today was called “Remembrance and Beyond” when we would visit Sachsenhausen, one of the brutal Concentration camps of the Third Reich, located outside of Berlin. For myself and one of my new German friends from the trip, Christian Koennecke, it would be the first time we had visited such a place of horror. Christian told me he had felt insecure that morning for the first time of the trip. He asked himself what is the appropriate behavior toward the Jewish members of the trip, whose ancestors had died in such a Camp? Should he keep his distance? Ask them how they are doing?
I was filled with a great deal of apprehension about this day, wondering whether our experiences could reopen wounds of our ancestors. I thought I would be able to hold it together walking through the Camp. I was wrong.
At the end of our tour, we all said the mourner’s prayer in Hebrew and made our way out. Christian came over to ask me how I was doing. I asked him the same. We discussed our families. My Grandfather had fought in the US Army and landed in Normandy on D-Day. His Grandfather was a Brown Shirt and “definitely Pro-Hitler” he said. We imagined stories our Grandfathers never told anyone. My Grandfather died when my father was young, but my Grandmother recently told me he regularly slept with the light on and would cry out at night, no doubt brought on by a post-traumatic stress disorder from the war.
When I told Christian my Grandfather landed in Normandy, he told me his Grandfather fought in France, too. I paused and said: ”Wow, I wonder what they would say, seeing us here standing together…”
We comforted each other and as we walked back to the bus to leave, someone commented on how as we both stood talking by the entrance to the camp, from afar all anyone saw was our nearly identical blue polo shirts. Someone said despite the fact that I am average height with brown hair and Christian is tall with blonde hair, we looked so alike that it brings to mind how we are really all the same.
After some group discussion about our experiences, that night we got the special tour of the dome of the Reichstag. We chatted some more and reflected on an incredible day where we went from seeing the horror of the past, to being special guests at the center of modern German democracy. In a way, the experiences of that day were a metaphor for German/Jewish Relations. We’ve all come a long way, but we all continue to learn from the past together.
Thanks to Christian Koennecke for his thoughts and ideas toward this article.