Reflecting upon my experiences in Germany has been somewhat challenging since the bulk of my warm memories of my time in the country revolve around the people with whom I experienced this dynamic, energy-infused yet inescapably burdened place and space. Yet this has also been a fascinating exercise, as I seek to examine the moments of solitude between many unforgettable encounters in Berlin as well as Hamburg, Heidelberg, and Worms during my summers in the heimat — in 2010, with Germany Close Up and the American Jewish Committee, and in 2011, as a student in the Leo Baeck Summer University in Jewish Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.
More than three years since I last strolled down Unter den Linden, I can still join President Kennedy in saying, “ich bin ein Berliner.” There is a certain magic that has lingered in my conscience. It is a pulse that quickens whenever I see a Strauss opera playing in Canada, or an opportunity to read about the current happenings in the Jewish community, known as the Einheitsgemeinde. Indeed Berlin is among the only places in Europe to which I feel profoundly connected, in spite of a lack of any familial connection to Germany. Yet I am also conflicted, as I have heard countless times that “Berlin is not like the rest of Germany.” And as I struggle to determine what precisely Berlin is in the first place, I am even more hard-pressed to conceptualize the rest of this complex and influential country. So permit me to focus my thoughts on my time in Berlin — that “poor but sexy” city, to quote Mayor Klaus Wowereit.
Particularly during my second summer in Berlin I had ample time to explore by myself. During countless S-Bahn rides and on long neighbourhood walks through Charlottenburg and Kreutzberg, I enjoyed more private moments than I was accustomed to. And in spite of a very handy map, I never quite determined how to categorize where indeed I was — largely because of the emotional and historical roller-coaster one cannot avoid when exploring this city. One day, Berlin may feel like a veritable playground, until your hopscotch is gently interrupted by a stolperstein, one of several thousand stepping stones designed by Gunter Demnig to allow for private and specific memorialization of a man, woman, or child who lost their life at the hands of the Third Reich.
Even Peter Eisenman’s controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — just a stone’s throw from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate — can feel like a place for leisure, with tourists and perhaps even locals taking turns at ‘hide-and-go-seek’ and picnic lunches atop one of 2,711 concrete slabs. I walked past and through this memorial dozens of times and experienced not only (the intentional) delirium, but also a full and uncompromising range of emotions. I even found myself barking at a French high school teen taking selfies within this place of memory. Some of my peers dismiss the memorial in its entirely on account of this negligent behaviour by tourists. But as I quickly learned, this ambivalence — between merriment and mourning, between life and remembrance, between this moment and the last — defines Berlin in many respects.
Indeed the pangs of history can hit at unexpected moments. On a morning run through the Tiergarten, marvelling at the Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart-Denkmal one moment and then encountering in the next moment the subtle yet unforgettable memorial to homosexual victims of Hitler’s Holocaust. Dozens of people were jogging near me, yet I was the only one who seemed to be unable to continue my exercise until devoting proper attention to the memorial, which features a looped video of two men in an intimate encounter. Jogging can be a very private experience, and many derive esteem from the ability to ‘conquer’ a city on foot to the beat of their iPods. I found myself fuelled by the opportunity to connect with those who lost their lives simply for exercising their rights to live as free individuals and to do so in peace. Fuelled, albeit burdened, but fuelled enough to make it back home to Kreutzberg.
While running through Berlin was impactful, most of my memories of this city involve a number of unpredictable walks. There was the rainy morning I and my classmates spent in the Weißensee Cemetery, undisturbed since 1880, as I encountered the likes of Louis Lewandowski — whose enduring memories I sang just days earlier at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue — and Herbert Baum, an anti-Fascist resistance fighter. On one hand I was left bemoaning “the pity of it all” (to reference Amos Elon’s remarkable book on German Jewry) — all that Germany lost of its Jewish change makers. But on the other hand I was left absolutely impressed by the work of the community and the state to maintain the cemetery. Then there was the train ride home from Weißensee. A twenty-something girl got on at Alexanderplatz. I overheard her speaking Hebrew into her smartphone. She is one of the many, many Israelis who have left Tel Aviv to find solace in that city’s original inspiration, Berlin. The moment for me was consumed by questions surrounding this young woman’s ties to Germany. Were her grandparents survivors of the Shoah? How did her parents or siblings feel when she told them she was ditching the Promised Land — and, possibly, mandatory Israeli military service — for this land of culpability.
I had many moments like these — moments of minutiae blended with probing uncertainties. They usually began with wondering where I might find the cheapest döner for lunch. And then in an instant I would find myself mired in confusion and conflict. There was the difficult day spent in Sachsenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp primarily for political prisoners. This was my first encounter with a site of torture and death, though I would go on to visit many more such horrific places, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek.
Yet the night after that difficult day on the outskirts of Berlin, I found myself at a Jung und Jüdisch networking event for Jewish young professionals. Hitler’s epic failure has never seemed to me more stark. Were our people and traditions not supposed to be the subjects of museum exhibits by that point? Yet there I was, somewhere along the Friedrichstraße, eating a chocolate-dipped pretzel and chatting up a young tech entrepreneur hoping to make it big while holding on to his Jewish identity and community engagement.
There was the day I summoned the courage to attend a Meshugge Berlin party. These gay-oriented, Zionist soirees are held in a dingy basement bar. A powerpoint slideshow runs through photos of Israeli pioneers like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, while Israeli expat Aviv Netter greets guests and, when the mood is just right, initiates a hora. The evening was invigorating if a bit short — admittedly not my ‘scene’ — but it was not entirely one of insouciance. As I walked to the party, I passed by five stolpersteine. Five Berliners, five lives cut short by genocide. But walking away from that Meshugge night, Hitler’s ultimate defeat resounded once again, to the tune of Israeli techno.
Moreover, how could I fail to mention a day in which the morning was spent discussing the concept of spatial fantasies with Professor Joachim Schlör, and then trekking in the evening to the Nazi-era Olympiastadion for a highly-anticipated concert at the Waldbühne featuring opera superstars Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann. Yes, the same Waldbühne whose construction was ordered by Joseph Goebbels and which staged a production of Wagner’s opera, Rienzi, financed and co-designed by Hitler. Yet these dark shadows faded from oblivion as the sun set and Mr. Kaufmann serenaded 20,000 lantern-carrying Berliners with Du bist die Welt für mich, translated as You mean the world to me.
I could go on for pages to describe these moments of tension, conflict, and sheer bewilderment at the capacity of Berlin to house, at one time or another, so much that is evil and so much that is euphoric both to me and to so many other young Jews. That state of confusion is not restricted to encounters in the broader public, but was also ever present in my interactions with the Jewish community of Berlin — a community bursting with wealth and diversity of culture and heritage, yet one that is fiercely united against real and present threats, including the horrifying number of young Europeans turning to violent Islamist extremism. A community that is at once deeply connected to the state — with Jews fully and publicly engaged in political parties and civil society organizations — while at the same time, consistent with chapter 1, verse 10 of Pirkei Avot, remaining hesitant to get too close to the centre of power. And finally, a community that stands both with the Jewish people’s right to a sovereign homeland in the land of Israel and against all forms of anti-semitism, while at the same time being among the loudest voices affirming that criticism of Israeli policy does not equate with anti-semitism.
As mentioned, I have been told repeatedly that Berlin is not reflective of the rest of Germany in terms of general attitudes and proclivities. But what then is Berlin as a basis for comparison with other regions? Is Berlin inclusive or exclusive? Introspective or extroverted? Fringe or mainstream? Radical or pluralistic — or pluralistically radical? Ask anyone from Mitte to Kurfürstendamm and you are likely to receive responses as varied as those I received.
And while attempts to categorize Berlin continue ad nauseam, much remains objectively perplexing: why, for instance, are so many German youths pursuing university degrees in Jewish Biblical studies and even learning Hebrew and Yiddish? How are we to understand reconcile the status of the Jewish community and its involvement in inter-religious dialogue (and Imam-Rabbi tandem biking!) with a national landscape in which, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel, multiculturalism is dead?
And of course, why is a third-generation Jewish Canadian like me — with Russian and Polish roots, not German — enthralled, and not just in an academic sense, by the legacies of Martin Buber, Viktor Ullmann, and Walther Rathenau? Why do I find their accomplishments so personally, not merely academically, compelling when our community is chock full of other role models and pioneers in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic worlds?
What I do know is that part of me is still in Berlin — and no, I’m not living in the past. I am drawn to this odd-shaped village that delivers reminders when one least expects it of what has been lost and destroyed. I am comfortable and so very much alive in Berlin at the same time as I recognize that Germany as a country remains a mystery to me. And finally, I feel a deep sense of connection to, and solidarity with, a resilient Jewish Einheitsgemeinde that is proudly engaged in building a more just society while remaining embedded in, but never possessed by, remembrance and mourning.