Above That Spot, new friendships

Jewish cemetery on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, BerlinI was not far from the scene of The Crime.  About twelve feet above it, actually.  The Fuhrer Bunker, Hitler’s underground lair, the very heart of the Nazi regime, now buried irretrievably beneath a parking lot.  Physically gone, but even with this grandson of Holocaust survivors up on top and Hitler somewhere very very far down below, it gives you pause, an involuntary chill, a peculiar sense of anger and sadness and relief to be On That Spot.  It feels a little weird to be there – it’s not a “visit”, because that’s too casual, but it’s not exactly an arduous journey, either, being in the middle of the city next to a subway stop.  It’s sunny out, but this is a dark, dark place.

At the same time, wow, I love Berlin.  How can you not?  A liberal city of energy, history, arts and culture, music, food, architecture, and the center of the Jewish historic enlightenment, a city that encompasses the Jewish peoples highest highs and lowest lows of the past three hundred years, a city that has gone through so many changes and so many meanings that it’s difficult to wrap your mind around.  If you love history, stay far, far away – you’ll never want to leave.  Over here the Berlin Wall.  And over here the graves of Prussian kings.  And over there remains of Berlin’s first synagogue from the 1700s.  And everywhere – everywhere – monuments and memorials to the destruction left by the twelve years of Nazi rule.

That Spot.  The parking lot above Hitler's bunker.  The building in the background is where the Chancellery was located.
That Spot. The parking lot above Hitler’s bunker. The building in the background is where the Chancellery was located.

I was in Berlin with the American Jewish Committee, Germany Close-Up Foundation, and Allianz SE (the international financial services company) on a program that joined ten American Jewish professionals with ten German non-Jews, all of us of the “third generation” – the grandchildren of the World War Two generation.  It could have been confrontational or controversial, this mixing of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and German soldiers alike, some with Nazis not too far removed, and us delving into our respective histories and the lessons we’ve learned, the narratives we’ve assumed, the societies and communities we’ve constructed in response to those devastating twelve years.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Instead, it was a wonderful moment of engagement and connection, an opportunity I am eternally grateful for and an experience I will never forget.  I’ve been to Berlin before, I’ve been to Jewish museums and old synagogues and concentration camps – but never with German peers, never with people whom our very recent history tried to permanently separate through hatred and murder.  In defiance of all that, we became friends.  We said Kaddish at the Sachsenhausen camp as friends, we visited the German Parliament as friends, and we encountered modern Germany and Jewish history together as friends.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.
The entrance to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin.

Here’s what I learned: there is a natural kinship between us third generation Germans and Jews.  My new friends know about the horrors of genocide and the consequences of hatred and violence – they’ve had it hammered into them from the same young age as I have.  They can look beyond current political events in Israel to understand why a safe and secure homeland is such an integral value for the Jewish people.  They don’t ask for forgiveness and they know we can’t forget, and they carry with them a sense of responsibility that sounds to me like our Jewish notion of atonement.  Because of the Holocaust, Jews and Germans are bound to each other like two friends with a past no one else understands.   We must nurture these relationships, share our stories, and together act according to the history we’ve experienced.  The German people are our natural allies.

The synagogue (gold dome) on Oranienburger Strasse
The synagogue (gold dome) on Oranienburger Strasse

On Shabbat our group attended Friday services at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse.  Many of the German participants had never before attended synagogue, and two asked if they could sit with me so I could explain what was happening.  A High Holidays-only kind of synagogue-goer, I’m not sure I was the best person, but I made a good effort and realized that this may well have been the first time I have ever attended synagogue with people who had never experienced Shabbat.  What a privileged moment.  In this eclectic congregation of a reconstituted Jewish community we were led by a cantorial student from Hungary with a voice that took me back three hundred years.  We sang prayers that reminded me of so much that had been lost.  But after a few minutes it wasn’t about Jews and Germans, the Holocaust and the Nazis, or Hitler’s bunker and a rebuilt synagogue.  It was about being there together as newfound friends.

About the Author
Jason Harris is the host and producer of Jew Oughta Know, a podcast that tells the story of the Jewish People from Genesis to modern Israel. He has taken hundreds of young adults on trips to Israel, and holds master's degrees in Jewish studies from Brandeis University. Prior to his work in the Jewish community he served as a senior staffer to a U.S. Member of Congress. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.