The 24 Israeli 16-year-olds pressed up against the rail in the Ben Gurion airport arrival hall that separates the recently landed from those who had come to meet them. Expectations were running high as the kids looked obsessively at their watches, texted furiously and strained their eyes for a glimpse of the arriving passengers. Suddenly a giant shout rose up — and the screaming adolescents burst through the barrier and into the cordoned-off entrance pavilion. They had just caught sight of a parallel group of 24 youths pushing luggage carts. Suitcases were immediately abandoned, as the two groups leaped into each other’s arms: hugging, laughing and showing all the exuberance and love of life that is instinctive when young people see their best friends after a prolonged absence.
This bedlam was the scene I witnessed Saturday evening, when my daughter Zoe and the members of her Israeli delegation reunited with their counterparts from an exchange program with Germany. The Israelis had spent ten fascinating and fun days in November staying at the homes of their new German friends in charming Detmold. Now it was their turn to play hosts in Modi’in. Rather unexpectedly, the spontaneous explosion of teenage joy changed my thinking entirely about Germany, the Holocaust and Israel’s role in the world.
You see, I have probably thought about the Holocaust on-and-off for more than 40 years now. Nothing particularly creative comes out of it. Rather, like a toothache that refuses to be forgotten, even when not directly perceived, it informs one’s reality. There are, of course, the more acute regular dosages. This includes the solemn annual ritual when our family joins hundreds of other families, dressed in white, at our neighborhood high school, as the students conduct the Holocaust Day memorial ceremony.
There are those cynics who quip: ‘There’s no business like Shoah business.” Indeed, the Holocaust business for Israeli kids has expanded, now involving travel to Poland and interviewing the increasingly diminished reservoir of survivors. But the truth is that, for the most part, this country does not minimize or disingenuously exploit this indescribable evil and incalculable national loss. The innocence, anger and horrors of the student performers at the ceremony each year resonates clearly in their heart-breaking readings and invariably moving, sad songs. Ever since they started bringing grandparents and other Holocaust survivors on stage, who speak of their ordeal and their new life in Israel, I find myself tearing up. It is very real and an important part of who I am.
But, to be honest, the thoughts that go through my head are not particularly inspiring. Indeed, very little ever gets much beyond clichés: “Never forget how alone your people are in this wicked world.” “How lucky we are to live in a time when a Jewish state can defend itself.” And, of course, the most common platitude: “Those children are a concrete manifestation of our victory over the forces of darkness who sought to annihilate us.”
The last notion is probably the most deeply engrained feeling. As a child growing up in Zionist summer camps, I too was offered a heavy diet of German/Canadian-Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim and various forms of his proverbial 614th commandment: “We are commanded to survive as Jews, lest we give Hitler a posthumous victory.”
It is only natural to scale up this individual obligation to a national imperative. When interpreting the events of World War II and its aftermath, what could be more obvious than seeing Israel’s survival and present prosperity as a daily victory over the Nazi death machine? The impulse is one implicitly and explicitly passed on from my parents’ generation. As children, they and their parents witnessed the Jewish people’s uncertain battle for survival. Now they can say with some relief and justifiable vindictiveness: “We won.”
As I watched my daughter, however, jumping about, embracing her tall, smiling German friends, I realized that our people has begun to move onto the next stage. It is a better place. Seventy years is a long time. To me, it is long enough. Staying at war with Germany in 2016 — that — is giving a posthumous victory to Hitler and his minions. There is practically nothing in common between Nazi Germany and that of Angela Merkel. Germany today has emerged as a model of compassion for refugees, and has set a new standard for international decency.
Perhaps, my generation still carries our parents’ national traumas with us: their misgivings with Volkswagens and Wagner; their psychological need for mantras like: “Never Again!” and “Remember!” To be sure, I too surely don’t want my children to forget. Nor do I want them to move to Berlin.
But I also recognize that time heals: people change; peoples change. My daughter and her generation sense this intuitively. As they take their German pals to see Israel’s Supreme Court and Masada, as they frolic from Tikva-6 Rock and Reggae Concerts to pre-Purim costume revelry — they are effortlessly making a far better statement than I and my peers probably ever could, even with considerable effort. They are saying: humanity can move forward; what unites us as human beings is far, far greater than what divides us. Time to move on.
To see my daughter make life long German friends and insouciantly cast away the burden of bad blood between our nations, is probably the only “victory” over Hitler that we should be proud of. And I am.