In a strange land

This week marks the time when the United States goes back to being The Stupid Country after a blessed eight-year reprieve. Two other things are happening: my grandfather’s yahrzeit, and a trip to Berlin.

My grandfather died when I was 19, so it has been some time, but I’m not sure what he’d make of the state of the country right now. The USA was very good to him. The first generation in his family to break into the middle class, in later life – through government work, at that – he survived polio, became a homeowner, saw my father graduate law school, and became a zaydie to me, my brother, and my cousins. The American dream, cliché as it is, actually became real for him. I know I’m incredibly lucky to have even known my grandparents, because history could have treated the Jewish half of my family so much differently.

When I was sitting in the educational session for Ashkenazi genetic screening at Montefiore a year ago, the woman next to me said she had no idea whether there was a history of breast or ovarian cancer among the women in her family because all her grandmothers and great-aunts died in the Holocaust. But my grandparents were the lucky ones in the United States while so many others, stuck back in Poland or elsewhere, were herded off to their deaths. For the added WTF-factor, the non-Jewish side of my family comes from Oswiecim in Poland, a town just west of Krakow. You probably haven’t heard of Oswiecim and I don’t think you’ll have much luck pronouncing it in Polish on the first try, but I’m sure you know it by the German name of the death camp the Nazis built there: Auschwitz.

So, yeah, I admit to having had a certain wariness about Germany when I was younger. It was the country of Beethoven and Bach, whose works I diligently learned on piano; of Kant (who I skimmed through for school) and Max Weber (who I actually wanted to read); but it was also the country that seemed to have let all that wealth of talent and genius warp its collective mind into the most twisted of ideologies, culminating in an attempt to wipe from the face of the Earth both ethnic groups that went into creating me. History seemed straightforward: a nation of people who had an admirable past, who thought they were so great, failed to cope with a changing world that knocked them off their pedestal, and ended up nearly destroying the world as a result. In a very cracked nutshell, that’s how it always looked. (And it sounds awfully familiar now that it’s happening in my own backyard.)

Germany hangs a strange shadow over many Jews of my generation. Growing up, I associated the country with the wholesale, indiscriminate destruction of all that was good in humanity, and I figured I didn’t owe them anything, let alone sympathy. It’s hard to read about the wall and the supposed spirit of people in East Berlin yearning for freedom when the question rolling around the back of your mind is, Where the hell was that yearning a few decades earlier, when your Jewish neighbors were being persecuted, disenfranchised, gassed? You couldn’t be bothered standing up for the defenseless when they were people like me.

Of course, we know it’s not that straightforward. Many Germans, at tremendous personal risk to themselves, fought back against the Nazis and/or protected Jews. We know all about Schindler, all about Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. We also know that while time doesn’t necessarily heal, it also doesn’t confer guilt upon those who weren’t born, whose parents weren’t born, when the atrocities took place. Guilt is not a mutated gene; it doesn’t pass through generations. Of course I wouldn’t blame today’s Germans for what happened 70, 80 years ago any more than I would expect someone to blame me for the sins committed by white Americans generations before we left Eastern Europe…! Guilt is the most useless of emotions, and in an attempt to not waste any more of my life with it, I decided there’s no way in hell anybody is going to ever make me feel guilt for anything I haven’t personally done. It would be the height of hypocrisy to insist on a different standard for other people.

What time does afford is an opportunity for reflection and for atonement – and more amazingly, for renewal. I began reading a few years ago about the revival of Jewish life in Berlin (and of the bizarre case of how young Israelis now flock there to work in creative industries in a fun city with cheap rent, when in many cases their grandparents did everything they could to get the hell out). There are congregations gathering, sometimes without synagogues of their own but with enough people to form a minyan. All this is a testament to how cities are places of constant change and constant potential, belonging to nobody in particular, and such is their strength and allure. Berlin, cursed with a wealth of history, has built a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. They have shown they are at no risk of forgetting what was done in the name of their country, by a government that came to power through its citizens and democratic institutions, and that is all I could ever ask. Germany has, as much as it is possible to even do this, atoned for the twentieth century.

And now here we are, sitting in the United States, watching our country fail to remember everything we said we would never forget, poised to do everything we said we would never do because we were a different country, a different people, we had learned, we knew better, didn’t we? How easy it was, as a child reading history books, to think all those Germans should have known better, they should have seen it coming, they should have done something, and obviously they hadn’t, so they must have overwhelmingly agreed with the Nazis, right? How easy it was to think that the dissenters were so tiny a minority as to only be visible when their actions crossed into outright heroism. How simple it was to think that resistance in the face of an instant death penalty could be, well, simple. That if you believed something, it would be easy enough to turn it into action.

I’ve tried to avoid hyperbole since the shock of November 8th, because 1) Panic is never beneficial in an emergency, and 2) I still have confidence that American institutions are strong enough, and the resistance to Trump mainstream and widespread enough, that no, he is not going to become the next Hitler. If I’m naïve or wrong then I’ll eat my words at a later date, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’re in the final days of the Weimar Republic as I sit typing in Manhattan. But what I do know is that for the next four years, the United States will be represented in front of the entire world by a petty authoritarian who didn’t even win the popular vote – yet the world will stare back at my passport and silently think, you wanted this.

I decided to go to Berlin over the Inauguration weekend because I wanted to learn from the past. I wanted to see how a country came to terms with the horrific actions it committed, and how it made constructive lessons of the past. I hope I won’t someday see my children having to apply those lessons in the United States. I will stay away from the media on Friday. I will go someplace in the city far from any television that might be broadcasting the proceedings so that I won’t have to see someone who glorifies ignorance and stupidity ascending to lead the country that once let my grandfather prosper by merit, not blood. I will take a stone from New York City and leave it on one of the plinths of the Holocaust Memorial, as is our custom at gravesites, for those who have nobody to observe yahrzeit for them. And then I will live my life as I want it, because I am lucky that I can.