Growing up, there were two ways of categorizing Jews.
Those who would buy a German car and those who wouldn’t.
Our family fell firmly into the wouldn’t category.
It was a discussion that I can remember witnessing more than once at our dinner table when my parents had family or their friends over (the majority of them were of the wouldn’t ilk too). Sometimes one of them played the role of devil’s advocate, saying, what’s the big deal, it’s a car, it doesn’t change a thing if you own one. Nu, do you really think the Germans are suffering because you don’t buy their car?
Still, my parents would never go near one, because although they bought the argument, they had a choice in the matter and their choice was not to do it. Although I hate to tell my dad that the little Cortina my mom owned throughout the late 1960’s and early 1970’s for a while could have been built by bigger anti-Semites than the ones over at Mercedes. For that matter so could all of those Mercuries, Buicks and Chevrolets we owned throughout the years too.
This past week I was in Frankfurt for work.
It’s the second time that I have been in Germany, both times in Frankfurt, both times for work.
Even though we live close to Germany and it’s a beautiful country with lots to see and do, we don’t go there. We don’t even entertain the notion of going there. When I’ve had to be there for work, I make it a point not to enjoy myself there.
Yes, I realize that while lots of Jews I know, like me, fall into the wouldn’t category, I know my feelings are a little irrational. I am not one of these kinds of Jews that blames Germany for the ills of the world. I actually harbor no resentment to the generations of Germans born after the Second World War. They cannot be held responsible for what their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did, anymore than I, as an American, cannot be held responsible for dropping the bomb on Japan.
I am not ashamed to admit that while I would never buy a German car, we do have some German products in our house. Living in the Netherlands, German products, particularly appliances, are often the best quality for the money and as much as I love American appliances they are often too big for Dutch houses. We own a Miele Fridge, because it is the only European brand of fridge that has an ice maker. So yes, I am a hypocrite, but the truth of the matter is that we are all hypocrites on some level. In life, you often choose the level of hypocrisy that works for you. My principles extend to cars but not to ice makers apparently, sue me.
Last week though I had to make the trip to Germany, for a work event. Unlike the first time, I went to Germany, I didn’t fly but instead opted to take the train, taking the argument that the train is actually easier, more comfortable, you have to go through less travel-bs, and I could work on the train.
Well, let’s just say I didn’t get any work done, the official excuse being that was no wifi on the train, but I am sure if there were, I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate anyway.
I sat transfixed with my gaze out the window from the second we crossed over the German border. I tried reading, talking with my colleagues, listening to music and watching Mad Men on my computer to distract me, but I just kept looking out the window, as we passed small towns, farms, clusters of houses and as small train stations passed in a blur out the window, two words kept going through my mind.
How many Jews rode these same railroad tracks to their deaths?
I tried to put it out of my mind, but I just kept going back to that thought as I watched the grey, wintry villages pass by the window, as we passed station after station, some small, some larger, some looking just like every single station in every single Holocaust movie I have allowed myself to watch. Nothing has changed, except maybe the benches are a little more modern but it’s the same tracks, the same ones that took people on that horrible journey east, to where they lived the stuff of nightmares, the stuff that no words and no film can adequately capture the horror of.
As I sat there, telling myself I was crazy and to put the thoughts I was having out of my head, I thought only seventy years earlier, at probably exactly the same time as me, scores of Jews were on these same tracks, in cattle cars, on a journey east, most of whom were never to be heard from again.
These thoughts kept going over and over as stopped in Duisenberg, Dusseldorf, Cologne and finally into Frankfurt, I wondered how many How many parents, children and grandparents, aunts. uncles, cousins? And of course my mind couldn’t help going and thinking about my own beautiful, lovely daughter, a girl with autism and cognitive delays and an amazing and beautiful spirt who is officially listed as a disabled person. What would have happened to her if she would have been born 70 years earlier?
Would they at least have let me hold her and comfort her while they murdered her?
And as if that weren’t the worst thing ever, I can hardly think about that time without thinking about my own father, a child younger then than my daughter is now, experiencing his childhood in France, during the war, a childhood of hiding in every sense of the word, his identity, his religion, his feelings, his fears, and what a burden that experience was on him and his life.
His decision to kill himself was his own, but I cannot help but wonder what might have happened had he not had to live through what he lived through at the hands of the Germans? Maybe he would have spent his life enjoying his success rather than being plagued by sleeplessness, fear and rage. Maybe his life’s work wouldn’t have been to outrun the nightmares of the past. Maybe he would have lived a life in service to his brilliance and what he managed to build instead of what was taken away.
Maybe he would have been able to love my brothers and I in the way we needed rather than only in the way that he could?
Maybe our love in turn would have made him feel whole, whole enough to be the loving father that he showed us in snippets. Whole enough to be able to see and actually enjoy all the good that was all around him.
Maybe it would have been enough for him to stay.
Yes, I know I am irrational.
But, my truth is that no matter how much I understand the rational arguments, I can never embrace them. Just like how my dad could never allow himself to buy a German car and I won’t either, even though it’s not at all about the damn cars. No amount of logic or rational thought can stop my mind from wondering about these things when I enter Germany and when I am home. It may not be fair or even right but I don’t care. Six million defies the mind and logic and all rational thought.
We shouldn’t ever think rationally about it.