Historical Connections Forged in Germany

We were standing on the top of the Reichstag, the building where the Bundestag (German Parliament) meets. The city of Berlin looked spectacular from the illuminated dome and the mood  appeared to be relaxed and almost lighthearted.

We had been brought into the Reichstag by a member of the Bundestag, entering through an underground tunnel,  which is not open to the public. This was special, but we realized what was most special is that we were together as American Jews and Germans who were enjoying a welcome end to a powerful and emotional day.

We were  members of a trip called the “Third Generation Initiative” sponsored by  the AJC ACCESS, American Jewish Committee’s young leadership project, of which I am a board member, German Insurance Company Allianz,  for which the German participants worked, and Germany Close Up, which  aims to bring young Jewish professionals to Modern Germany.

We visited various German, Israeli and American political institutions  to discuss issues facing modern Germany. On this day, however, we were  going to discuss the past.

That morning, I knew this was going to be the most difficult day of the trip. Today was called “Remembrance and Beyond” when we would visit  Sachsenhausen, one of the brutal Concentration camps of the Third Reich, located outside of Berlin. For myself and one of my new German friends  from the trip, Christian Koennecke,  it would be the first time we had  visited such a place of horror.  Christian told me he had felt insecure that morning for the first time of the  trip. He asked himself what is the appropriate behavior toward the  Jewish members of the trip, whose ancestors had died in such a Camp?  Should he keep his distance? Ask them how they are doing?

I was filled with a great deal of apprehension about this day, wondering  whether our experiences could reopen wounds of our ancestors.   I thought I would be able to hold it together walking through the Camp. I was wrong.

As I made my way through the Camp, I separated from the group and broke  down when we got to the barracks, looking at the horrible living  conditions and areas of solitary confinement used to “punish” prisoners.   What I saw had made me sad. What Christian saw had made him extremely angry. Since the start of the tour, when the guide had told us that the buildings used by the Nazis for administration of the Camp was now a  police academy, his mood had hardened.  Could they not find other  buildings to train the German police forces?   As he made his way  through the camp, the anger at his ancestors grew.  The lavatory and  sleeping area were not what they seemed, but were in reality torture  chambers. Same with the broom closet, same with every other room.  How  could this have happened?

At the end of our tour, we all said the mourner’s prayer in Hebrew and  made our way out. Christian came over to ask me how I was doing. I asked him the same. We discussed our families. My Grandfather had fought in the US Army and  landed in Normandy on D-Day. His Grandfather was a Brown Shirt and  “definitely Pro-Hitler” he said. We imagined stories our Grandfathers  never told anyone. My Grandfather died when my father was young, but my  Grandmother recently told me he regularly slept with the light on and  would cry out at night, no doubt brought on by a post-traumatic stress  disorder from the war.

Christian told me he would have loved to tell me that his  Grandfather had  nothing to do with all of this. That he was a rebel, a freedom fighter, a hero. But he could not. He told me what he knew about his Grandfather  during the Third Reich, which is not much.  Despite questions from Christian, his Grandfather never spoke of the years 1933-1945.   “Maybe I was too young to pressure him to get more answers, before he died. Maybe I was too worried about the few comments relatives of mine made about  my grandfather’s political views, that I did not ask more.”
He sighed.  “According to them he was – at least at the beginning of the Third Reich- pro-Hitler. Maybe I was satisfied with the few things he told me, when he talked about “the mess (the war) he (Hitler) got us into”.

When I told Christian my Grandfather landed in Normandy, he told me his  Grandfather fought in France, too. I paused and said: ”Wow, I wonder  what they would say, seeing us here standing together…”

We comforted each other and as we walked back to the bus to leave, someone commented on how as we both stood talking by the entrance to the camp,  from afar all anyone saw was our nearly identical blue polo shirts.  Someone said despite the fact that I am average height with brown hair  and Christian is tall with blonde hair, we looked so alike that it  brings to mind how we are really all the same.

After some group discussion about our experiences, that night we got the special tour of the dome of the Reichstag. We chatted some more and reflected on an incredible day where we went  from seeing the horror of the past, to being special guests at the  center of modern German democracy. In a way, the experiences of that day were a metaphor for German/Jewish Relations. We’ve all come a long way, but we all continue to learn from the past together.


Thanks to Christian Koennecke for his thoughts and ideas toward this article.

About the Author
Joel Omansky is a commercial real estate attorney in New York. He earned a BA in Political Science and Music from Colgate University, where he was President of the Colgate Jewish Union, and a Juris Doctorate from Cornell Law School. Joel is a member of the American Jewish Committee's ACCESS Group's New York Board, he is also a Big Brother in the Big Brother/Big Sister program at the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services. He is also active in New York Cares, where he regularly entertains approximately 250 low income guests on the piano as part of a weekly service project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Joel has lived in the New York area since graduating law school.