“Willkommen in Berlin”, said the captain, as the plane began its final descent into Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Welcome, indeed! I was ready for the journey of a lifetime. This past November I participated on a ten-day trip to Berlin through ACCESS Global, the young professional division of the American Jewish Committee, in conjunction with the German non-profit organization, Germany Close Up. Germany Close Up introduces American Jews to modern Germany and provides the opportunity for participants to meet young Germans, interact with government officials, and learn about Berlin’s Jewish community, past and present.
Prior to November, I had only spent about a day and a half in Berlin while on a European holiday. Needless to say, I did not know what to expect, or how I would react to being in Germany again. I returned from Berlin over two months ago and because the experience was so intense and inspiring, I am still distilling my emotions. One thing I know for certain: this encounter with modern Germany was a transformative experience that I will never forget. The trip exhibited Germany’s unique ability to address its dark history. Openness to speak about the past has enabled Germany to build meaningful relationships with Jewish groups, as well as with the State of Israel.
One of the most significant moments of the trip was the day we visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is about a forty-five minute drive from Berlin. A large percentage of prisoners at Sachsenhausen were political dissidents, but Jews and other so-called “enemies” of the Third Reich were also sent there. As our tour bus drove up to the camp, our guide mentioned that the rows of houses lining the streets were quite old, and existed during the time the camp was operational. That really made an impression on me: how villagers must have known what was going on just a short distance from their doorsteps, yet they remained silent. The camp’s existence however, serves as proof that the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe today is not innocuous. The longer those tensions continue, the harder it will become for countries to combat groups and individuals who are threatening the stability of European democracies. Another poignant aspect of the visit was touring the Jewish barracks, which were nearly destroyed by arsonists in the 1990’s, as well as seeing the remnants of the execution area and ovens from the crematorium. I felt numb and was beyond relieved when we left and drove back to Berlin.
That night we had dinner with young Germans who volunteer with Germany Close Up. One volunteer, Laura, and I sat together on the bus to the camp and we had a pleasant, lighthearted conversation. At dinner, Laura pulled me aside and thanked me for making her feel so comfortable that morning, as she was nervous accompanying the group to the camp. This touched me because I was dreading the trip as well! Speaking with her made me feel at ease and helped me collect my anxiety about the day. Laura’s comment made me realize that one conversation can change one’s entire perspective. Prejudice can be combatted person to person. Words and human connections are more powerful than stereotypes. My discussion with Laura exemplified what ACCESS Global seeks to do, build relationships between Jewish young professionals and those of other cultures and faiths.
Germany has also set a commendable example for how other European countries can address past wrongs through education and dedication to prohibiting extremism. Since this experience was about fostering an open dialogue, conversations were not whitewashed. In this vein, I asked our Germany Close Up guides whether they felt a burden from history for the sins committed by their great-grandfathers. Rather than a burden, most stated that they feel a sense of responsibility to educate humanity about the past. This is a partnership between Jews and Germans and I was greatly moved by the commitment of the young Germans I met to fully face the past and work to author a new chapter on German-Jewish relations. Both groups share this responsibility to remember the lessons of history and more importantly, to write new chapters on tolerance and embracing forgiveness. As we watch an alarming trend of anti-Semitism rise throughout Europe, it is imperative to continue dialogue and relationship building with emerging leaders in Germany and throughout Europe. At this defining moment for the global Jewish community, this work is a powerful way that we as young Jewish leaders can play our part in shaping the future.