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February 2, 2011 8:50 pm

The Ghosts That Accompany a Jew in Germany

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a stunning and sobering site, consisting of thousands of coffin-like objects that form a maze. Photo: Photo: Remy Sharpe.

My son is studying at the Chabad Rabbinical College of Frankfurt, Germany. So when I was invited to address the Jewish community of Cologne and then ‘The Jewish Experience’ in Frankfurt I jumped at the opportunity.

Although this was my fifth visit, the specter of the holocaust always accompanied me. How could it not? The enormity of the crime leaves permanent shadows. Hints of it exist in all the holocaust symbolism that one cannot shake: the trains that pass, the Synagogues that were burned to the ground and later rebuilt, the large Third Reich ministries that still remain, and the police who carry automatic weapons (ironically, most of them are posted outside Jewish community centers to protect them). This was once the most dangerous of all places for a Jew and even today, though Germany is a thoroughly modern and tolerant society, the ghosts of six million dead still haunt it.

Ironically, I am someone who has long advocated that any blame placed for the holocaust on today’s Germans is seriously misguided. Judaism believes in horizontal, rather than vertical accountability. The tens of millions of Germans who participated in the final solution by actively slaughtering Jews or voting for Hitler (who was installed through democratic means) and the other tens of millions who allowed his criminal regime to take over Germany without protest are the ones guilty of genocide. But their children did not participate at all and they dare not be blamed for the sins of their fathers. Indeed, I have also argued that modern Germany in general, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, is, along with Italy and Silvio Berlusconi, the best friend that Israel has in Europe (which some would say isn’t saying very much but it counts nevertheless).

But none of this changes the emotional response to a visit by a Jew to Germany. One is gnawed at by many hard-to-shake feelings. Is this really the place from which the world’s greatest evil spread in the lifetime of many of the people still known to me? Could so advanced and civilized a people have each had a hidden beast just waiting to break free at the first demagogic moment? Did Jews suffer and die on the very boulevards that I now stroll as a tourist? And is it right that I feel a certain distance from the innocent Germans that now surround me?

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I last visited Berlin as a guest of the German government in 2003 for ‘The Ecumenical Church Day’ which draws something in the region of 200,000 youth and I spoke in a stadium. At that time the German Holocaust memorial, planned for central Berlin just a block from the Reichstag, was not yet complete. When I arrived in the German capitol on Monday night I went straight there at 1am with my son. It is a stunning and sobering site, consisting of thousands of coffin-like objects that form a maze. Underneath it all is a small and powerful museum that neatly captures the horror of the crime. Reading the panels and seeing the pictures of my people being slaughtered en mass brought sadness but also anger, conflicting emotions made all the more strange by the fact that I was feeling anger at the very people who had put up the memorial up to take a measure of responsibility. One picture in particular left me numb. It was of a little girl, about five years of age, who had just stepped off the train in Auschwitz. It was bitterly cold around her and she had no shoes. Yet she was playing with something in her hands, oblivious to the horror that surrounded her. No doubt she was dead less than an hour after the picture was taken, her young lungs filled with German poison gas.

I too have a baby daughter that plays constantly. She makes my heart melt whenever I see her and I just dedicated my book ‘Honoring the Child Spirit’ to her. She often runs around barefoot. A father’s compassion went out to this little Jewish girl in the picture and I thought of the magnitude of her parents’ pain, unable to protect her little feet from the frost, unable to fill her tiny stomach with any kind of food, and unable to protect her from the animals whom they knew would devour her in so short a time. And I hated those who had tortured the little girl. I hated them with every fiber of my being.

It was almost 7pm, when the museum closes. A young German female curator came over to tell me and my son that they were soon closing. She did so very gently, almost sensing what I was feeling. She tried to engage us in conversation. We responded warmly. I felt her pain as well. She was saying, “I’m not one of them. I feel deeply for what happened to your people.” Emerging from the museum we asked a passing German youth to take a picture of us. He was half drunk. He took the picture and then did the same thing, making a conscious effort to demonstrate that he wasn’t one of them. “It bothers me,” he told us, “that many of the new Muslim immigrants to Germany say that Jews have stolen their land. It’s wrong. The Jews have suffered enough. Why don’t people leave them alone?” We thanked him for his friendliness and he staggered on.

It was at that point that I understood that the German and Jewish people were forever locked in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a ‘single garment of destiny.’ Today’s Germans were linked to the holocaust by the enormous guilt this generation still feels at what their parents and grandparents perpetrated, and feel self-conscious around Jews. The Jews were linked to the Germans with conflicting emotions of both anger for what happened, and remorse for implicating, ever so slightly, a generation of Germans who, for the most part, want to make things better.

But in a larger sense they are connected by something far deeper and more mystical, two vexing and insoluble questions that tug at their basic humanity. For the German people the question is, “How can we have done this? How could we have hated so deeply as to have become so unquenchably bloodthirsty?” There is an interesting exhibit in the German History Museum that seeks to address how Germany felt for Hitler. It’s showpieces fascinate but it utterly fails in answering the question. The German nation will never know and their actions will therefore forever haunt them. For the Jews the question is very different, but just as unanswerable nonetheless: “How could G-d have allowed this? Where was He when it happened?”

And so two nations – oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim – remain forever connected by a cosmic question-mark that hangs over their very existence.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition and hosts TLC’s ‘Shalom in the Home.’ The international best-selling author of 25 books, he has just published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.” Follow his Germany updates on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • m. v.

    thanks for the article. i want to raise a caveat: the tendency to homogenise a group is natural and we think of a whole nation as perpetrators. over time, this tendency becomes ever stronger as history imposes an increasingly distant, simplistic perspective on complex events. i want to remark the following. not the germans were perpetrators, but nazis in a fascist regime. the average german was not a nazi. the nazi party one the election with only about 15% of the population voting for it (counting non-voters) – due to the catastrophically many parties in parliament, that was enough for hitler to be the winning candidate.
    the actual nazi party members were less than 10% of the population, and those directly involved in killing 12 million people, were 2-3%. most of those people killed were germans, as were the german, completely assimilated jews: yes, they were germans, too and hitler was killing his own people.

  • Esther

    I have been in Frankfurt, Germany this hanukah to celebrate with my aunt there and I agree with you. I thought about shoah all the time I was there and for every person I saw I was thinking that he was son of nazis.

  • MS

    There is no way I will ever feel comfortable around Germans.
    It doesn’t matter how many words of teshuva they express.
    It doesn’t matter how many synagogues they visit.
    Nor how many marble coffin-like structures they build as a monument.

    If they were to truly do teshuva, they would have to make a much deeper and more fundamental change. They have not yet done so.

    • Eliezer

      The Germans of today are not the people who perpetrated the holocaust. While we must never forget, and perhaps never forgive those who did what they did, the young Germans of today didn’t do it, and in fact, have indeed shown many times over their regret for the past and their support of the Jewish people and even of the State of Israel.

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