“What a fun city, one of my favorites,” friends said to me as I was leaving for Berlin. I tried to smile, but I was uneasy.
As a Jewish communal professional, I’ve led trips to Auschwitz and visited concentration camps throughout Europe. This journey meant spending time in the city where the Third Reich designed and implemented its plan to exterminate the Jewish people.
I was taking part in the Widen the Circle Visiting Program. Widen the Circle is a nonprofit organization with offices in the United States and Germany. It grew from an initiative created by the late Arthur Obermayer, an American Jew with German roots. The Obermayer Awards, founded in 2000, recognize people throughout Germany who preserve Jewish history and culture, and who use that history to combat bigotry and hate today.
Widen the Circle was created in 2019 by Arthur’s son, Joel Obermayer, and is aimed at strengthening grassroots efforts like those in Germany and efforts to combat racism in the US, and to build bridges between activists in Germany and the US.
As the third cohort of the program, our group was the first to include civil rights leadership from the US, mainly from the South. They joined Jewish communal leaders from the East Coast and Germans who had received the Obermayer Award.
Many of the delegates from the South referred to their remembrance work creating museums and markers on difficult history — such as the murder of Emmett Till and the Tulsa Race Massacre — and on racial justice and democracy issues in the US.
Hearing so up close about the obstacles, threats and violence they faced from southern conservatives made it all the more real that Jim Crow still exists in our country. Efforts for advancement, education, employment, criminal justice reform and social justice are a heavy lift. While some see civil and voting rights achievements as a victory, many of us are still trying to make implementation a reality.
So while we celebrated with Evan Milligan when his case against gerrymandering in Alabama was upheld by the US Supreme Court, we lent support when another of our participants was threatened because his museum was holding an LGBTQ history program. Our common struggles and commitments drew us closer.
A focus of our trip was on memorials, particularly to victims of the Nazis. We explored memorials for gays, for people who are disabled and, the most recent, for the Sinti and Roma.
We saw the location of a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht, the sculpture of children being sent to concentration camps, the underground library memorial marking where Nazi youths burned books, many written by Jews. We saw the memorial for the six million Jews; its placement is strategic, so that those with influence will never be allowed to forget.
We visited the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was codified, and we debated whether the site should be a memorial or not. And we went to Platform 17, a memorial located in an upscale Berlin neighborhood and adjacent to an active train station where many thousands of Jews departed for death camps.
We met several people who received Widen the Circle’s prestigious Obermayer Award, honoring people and organizations in Germany raising awareness of Jewish history and culture in their communities and fighting the rise of hate, prejudice and antisemitism.
Some of those we met were teachers whose students designed projects to learn about the Jews who lived in their neighborhoods. We visited high school students, many of them immigrants, who studied about Jews in their community who were sent away on a train platform just across the street. The students created a memorial park and preserved the remaining section of the tracks, and hold regular observations there.
At one Berlin elementary school, students built a brick wall with the names of nearly 2,000 Jews from their neighborhood who were killed during the Holocaust. The students add new names each year. In another project, students from Germany and France worked on an app to connect their research and information on important remembrance sites in Europe.
Many youth projects are about remembering individuals, and we saw small brass stumbling stones in front of buildings where Jews had lived. Each square, cobblestone-sized piece was set into the sidewalk, and each bore the name of a single Jew. Each of these stones is the result of a research project, some by students and many by community members.
We also traveled to what was formerly East Germany to visit with several of the award winners who were focused on deterring neo-Nazis and skinheads.
The entire experience both within our group and among those we met was a fascinating opportunity to grapple with how a country that experienced trauma wrestles with remembrance and how to move forward, as well as how it expresses itself and its values generations later.
These observations led to discussions during which we juxtaposed the experience of slavery in America and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. During the pandemic, the state of Black America and the racial disparities that exist came to the surface. While we thought we were making advances, this past year we experienced the opposite.
States are banning critical race theory, the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action, justice reforms are being reversed, and more. When we discussed the important role of remembrance, I realized that I was with today’s civil rights heroes currently on the frontlines.
While Widen the Circle presented this trip as an opportunity to examine the impact of hate and discrimination and to explore ways to counter its effects, I stand strong in my belief that this was also a Jewish trip — similar to a community relations field mission in which we bring Jews and non-Jews together to grapple with important issues and challenges.
At the macro-level, we saw firsthand the long-term impact of neo-Nazi white nationalism, and the need to strengthen and preserve our multiracial democracy while dealing with our difficult history. Our aim is building a common society for all. At the personal level, we built trust and let go of our stereotypes.
The motto for our trip was “remembrance is resistance, remembrance is resilience, civil courage is necessary.” I hope that Joel Obermayer’s vision as founder and executive director of Widen the Circle, to bring people of influence and conscience — student activists, civil and racial justice champions, social change makers — from the US to Berlin is financially supported and recognized.
This is Holocaust education and how we teach “never again.” We must face and interface with the country and its people — where a previous generation carried out a Holocaust.