People say that the best part of traveling, and life in general, are the experiences that we have. Beautiful sights are enjoyable to see and photograph; historic sites are important and fascinating; but the true understanding of where we are as well as where we are going comes from real life experiences. Nothing made me feel this more than a recent experience I had in Prague while on a trip with two friends.
We had plans on our first night there to see a Black Light Theater show, a must-do while in Prague. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the theater, the window was closed. Though there was a sign that read, “Will return shortly,” something felt off. Sure enough, a quick call to the theater confirmed that the show had been canceled due to lack of interest.
By then an older-looking man had joined us. Through the few words we exchanged regarding the show, it was obvious that he was German, or from a German-speaking country. Once we all suddenly found ourselves without plans for the evening, there was time for some chitchat.
The opening question from our new “friend” was of course, “Where are you from?” Now, normally when asked this question while abroad, I hesitate before answering. It doesn’t matter whether I am in Italy or New York; I do a quick assessment of the situation, my surroundings, and the person asking the question. Is it safe to say Israel? How do I think this person will respond? If she or he becomes aggressive, is there somewhere for me to go? Is there someone in the area who could help me? For some reason, this time around, I didn’t hesitate.
“Israel,” I said confidently, surprising myself.
We were in Prague. This man seemed to be German. We were three women alone in a foreign city. And I said Israel just like that.
“Whoa,” said the man taking a little jump backwards.
Before my frozen state had time to take hold, the man continued.
“Oh no. Israel – Germany; you must hate me.”
By now the man was waving his hand in front of him helplessly.
We didn’t have time to digest what had just happened. Instinctively we all just said, “No, no. It’s all good.”
I think we were just stunned, and did the polite and kind thing we were all brought up to do.
“You know, I usually lie and say I’m from The Netherlands,” said the German man, clearly ashamed.
I was struck by a whole new level of shock.
He’s ashamed? He is? This was an entirely different reality. I was so accustomed to the one who was ashamed, or more like afraid to say where I’m from, but why?
There was no reason. I never had a reason to be ashamed, but that has always been the reality of my world. We are hated. Wherever we go we are hated. To avoid that, to prevent any harm or any damage, we lay low. Try not to stick out. But why in the world should we do that? We have nothing to hide! Nothing to be ashamed of!
Here, for the first time, someone who is part of a people who has done something very, very wrong was ashamed!
It was really all too much to take in. I felt myself begin to get emotional as he talked about the horrific things the Germans did. Each time he said something he would pause and shake his head a bit.
“So horrible, so horrible,” he said.
This went on and on until we finally parted ways.
But it wasn’t over. He turned around and ran back to us to offer some candy. He seemed desperate to try to do something that showed he wanted to make amends somehow.
We politely declined, explaining we only eat kosher.
“But what’s not kosher about candy?” he asked.
Not wanting to get too into it, but at the same time wanting to supply a sufficient answer, I started to explain how sometimes there is gelatin in candy, which is usually made from pig.
Before I could complete my explanation, he had already figured it out.
“Pig! Oh my goodness! How could I have offered such a thing to you! That’s so insulting. I apologize. I apologize.” Again he took a few steps back humbly.
Once more, we were speechless. Yes, clearly this man was slightly eccentric. But the authenticity of his words was genuine. You could hear it in his voice; you could see it in his eyes.
We finally managed to say good-bye and continue on our way. It took us a few good minutes to recompose and fully understand what had just transpired. I had never experienced anything like that in my life, nor had I even heard of something like that happening. It never occurred to me that there were people walking around with guilt in such a tangible way. It touched me. It really did. It didn’t make anything better but it still created a spark inside of me that continues to flicker. It flickered throughout the rest of our trip and gave me the strength to say “Israel” over and over again when asked where we were from. Mostly, it was received with open arms. But even when it wasn’t, the words that the kind German gentleman uttered echoed in my head.
“I’m ashamed,” he had said. He. Not me. Not us. Not you. He.
Am Yisrael Chai. I love Israel and I love my people. Here’s to never being ashamed of who we are and walking with your head held high.
(For the record, although I walk around with this irreparable pain on a daily basis, as inexplicable as it may be given the fact that I didn’t know any of the people that perished in the holocaust, I don’t believe that we can hold every single German accountable. Yes, I do try to avoid buying German products. But that has more to do with the fact that the same name that cooperated with the Nazis is now operating in the modern world, making profits, without acknowledging the past in any way. There are even arguments how this concept is not logical. Still, part of being a member of a nation, any nation, means knowing the ups and the downs, the right-doings and wrongdoings. Even a wrongdoing that took place over seventy years ago needs accountability because… because six million. Because nearly a century later and we still haven’t recovered. Because so many people were complicit in these horrors. Because it was normal. It was accepted. It was the way of life. That is why I can hear this apology, this shame, and appreciate it. Those who say he has nothing to be ashamed of may be right. In a way. He personally shouldn’t be ashamed. But the German in him should be. If only other nationalities with Jewish blood on their hands had this approach, the world would look very different. Here’s to hoping it will, and soon.)