When the Hamburg Senate sent me a formal letter inviting me to participate in their annual program for the children of Jews born in Hamburg, I accepted with both trepidation and excitement. My father, born in 1925, to a third generation Hamburg Jewish family, had escaped along with his family on September 30, 1938, less than six weeks before the infamous Kristallnacht.
Growing up in the USA during the fifties and sixties, I heard many stories from my German grandmother about life in Hamburg. There was the story about how she swam in the Elbe River (or was it the Alster). There was the one about how she and my grandfather devised a series of signals to communicate with each other across the street, when their parents disapproved of their budding romance. When I grilled her about Antisemitism, she told the story about the teacher who insisted on giving exams on Saturday, although she knew my grandmother, an Orthodox Jew, would not write. My grandfather told about how, after the Nazis came to power, he stored a top hat at the synagogue so that he would not call attention to himself walking through the streets of Hamburg.
Our home was German Jewish. There was sandkuchen and baumkuchen. There was bircher muesli and rote grutze. There were the special tunes to Shir Hama’alot, the Song of Ascent, sung at every Shabbat and Holiday meal. There was order and organization. We arrived everywhere on time, and often five minutes early. We were German Jews and proud of it.
And then, there was the boycott on German products. Nothing made in Germany ever crossed our threshold. No Volkswagens or BMWs for us. Nobody took vacations in Germany. That was the forbidden country. It was a love-hate relationship of sorts that softened over the years, particularly after we moved to Israel, and so many of the products available were German. As Germany began to face up to its past, and became a friend of Israel, our position seemed to soften a bit. Yet, I insisted to the many German students who came and volunteered with me over the years, I would never come to visit Germany without first coming to Hamburg to make my peace.
And so, when the letter from the Senate came, with it came my opportunity to look at what happened to my family along with the 20,000 Jews who lived in Hamburg, before WWII and to begin to come to terms with it.
Assembling on the top floor of the elegant Steinberger Hotel, where we were housed as guests of the city of Hamburg, a group of middle-aged folks, including my three siblings, gathered and shared a brief synopsis of their family history and what brought them here. We were all the lucky ones, the ones whose parents had survived. The group that assembled came from South America, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Cyprus and the US. All of us had parents who had been born in Hamburg. Many of us had lost family members, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. All were here to find out more about their families, about themselves, and about Germany today.
Taking the opportunity to talk to every German I met, the five hour plane ride to Hamburg became my opening seminar learning about how young Germans today deal with the horrors of the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by their people. I learned from Yolanda and Julius, the attractive thirty-something couple that sat next to me, that Germans never fly their flag (except during the Euro Cup or Mondial), are forbidden by law to call their children Adolph, and cannot have the initials SS or NS on their license plates. In her seventh month of pregnancy, Yolanda cannot do genetic testing as it is against the law. She is not proud to be a German, but unlike her parents’ generation, she is also not ashamed. When I asked the couple about their grandparent’s role in the war, they said this was a virtually forbidden topic, avoided by the older generation. Interestingly, Yolanda’s grandfather began to talk about his war service in the Wermacht, after he reached the age of 80. Her mother, as a result, grew up thinking that her own father might have been a mass murderer, when in the end it turned out that he was wounded after only two weeks on the Russian front, abruptly ending his war career.
The sense that Germans are meeting their past on a collective level but shying away from it on a personal one was compounded when we met young German high school students. I grilled every one I met asking them what they knew about their grandparents’ or great grandparents’ involvement in the war. Most knew nothing. When I asked Luis, a slight seventeen year old why he did not ask his grandmother about the war, he thought for a moment, and slowly answered that he was afraid. Afraid that he might displease her? Afraid of what he might find out? It wasn’t clear. When we met that same young man two days later, he came over to me and excitedly told me that he had spoken to his grandmother, and learned that his great grandfather had been an officer in the German army She had a packet of letters written and sent home during the war. Luis was interested in reading them and she was willing to share. Up until the time I asked Luis that very pointed question he had avoided any personal confrontation with the past.
Germany has put up many monuments to remember the atrocities of war. Thousands of stolpersteines have been placed all over Hamburg, particularly in the Jewish quarter of Grindel where virtually every house has at least one and often many of these memorials.These small brass squares placed in the pavement in front of houses where Jews had lived before the war,display the name, date of birth and date and place of death, often Auschwitz or Treblinka.. Because these stones have become so common, it is not unusual to see people walking by with no notice and many actually stepping on the small stones. Some people carefully walk around them, going out of their way to respect these small memorials. Lastly, there are those righteous gentiles who dedicate much time and effort to this project, walking through the city equipped with rags and brass polish, cleaning the stones. Sabine was one such German who generously spent a long, hot afternoon with us finding the addresses, family houses, and stolpersteines of lost relatives. We, the Jewish visitors stopped in front of these stones, to reflect and to remember the relatives we never knew.
Neuengamme, the concentration camp located within the city boundaries of Hamburg, is an example of how the official German response preferred to often forget or blur their ignominious past. Survivor groups pressured the German authorities who failed for more than forty years to place a memorial to the 50,000 prisoners who found their death by starvation, disease, torture and murder. Marco, our remarkable tour guide carefully walked us through the history of postwar Neuengamme, sharing that a small memorial monument was finally placed at the edge of the camp and it wasn’t until 2006 that the prison that was housed on the grounds was closed down forever, making way for a memorial and a museum about this terrible camp. Standing on the enormous roll call plaza and picturing the thousands of inmates standing for hours in the freezing cold and rain after twelve hours of back breaking labor, was chilling.
Visiting the city of Hamburg offered me the opportunity to explore on a very personal level my family roots. The Jewish section of the huge Ohlsdorf cemetery remained untouched during the war and I found the well-tended graves of three great grandparents. Standing in front of the graves, pictures, stories and memories my grandparents had shared about their parents, and their formative years flooded me. Considering that had it not been for the ascent of the Nazis, I too might have been a proud member of the German Jewish community of Hamburg was a sobering thought.
As we stood at the threshold of the building that housed my great-grandfather’s progressive girls’ school known as the Loewenberg Schule, I felt a sense of pride and belonging to a tradition of educators and writers. While I had known of this school since my childhood, actually standing at the place where my great grandfather walked and taught, I could almost reach out and touch him. Strengthening the connection back to him and to my other ancestors was one of the wonderful gifts I took back from this trip.
And so, I am left with a plethora of mixed feelings. The Germans we met were friendly and welcoming. They talked freely and with much concern about the Holocaust on a communal level. When it came to personal responsibility, and an understanding of what their family members had done, there was little desire to search, to find out or to become accountable. Marco, our tour guide at Neuengamme was a notable exception, and he concurred with me that this is indeed the reality he meets in Germany today. To my mind, there is still a long way to go in understanding the impact of the Holocaust on all of us, victims and perpetrators alike.
Trauma crosses generational lines, and pierces the walls of denial and shame. The conspiracy of silence that continues in Germany today, surrounding what family members have or have not done, sins of omission and commission, cannot be disregarded. The Second Mayor of Hamburg stated in her speech at the gala luncheon sponsored by the Senate to welcome us, that Germans today must look the Holocaust squarely in the face and take full responsibility for it. To my mind, this must include looking deep inside our family and ourselves, experiencing the horror, the shame, the revulsion, and understanding that as human beings we are all entirely vulnerable. We are vulnerable as victims and vulnerable as perpetrators. The only way to make sure this doesn’t happen again is to unpack the trauma, bravely, and recognize the humanity in each and every one of us.