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Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

(BERLIN, Germany) – I always knew that Germans did stuff by the book, but I didn’t think I was going to get a taste of it so soon, right after taking my first steps on German soil coming off my El Al flight today.

We were all herded onto a bus at the bottom of the stairs and waited about 10 minutes or more until it filled up.

We then proceeded to drive across the street, a distance of about 10 meters (and I’m being generous), and the doors of the bus opened. Nobody understood what was going on for a few seconds, and it took a while to grasp that we had actually arrived at the terminal. We got off the bus and looked back at the plane behind us – it was so close I could have thrown an apple and hit it straight on the nose.

Go figure…

Anyway, I’m in Berlin as a guest of the Heinrich Boll Foundation (disclaimer: the Heinrich Boll Foundation supported +972 Magazine in 2011 and 2012), which is holding a conference on German-Israeli relations and the future of democracy in both nations.

When I was offered to come, I had to think twice.

I mean, let’s face it, it’s Germany.

There are still a lot of people in Israel who get the creeps from this place. Although there probably aren’t many left who still refuse to buy anything German (maybe a few), there are still those who just can’t bring themselves to come here. But on the other hand, there are those who love this place. Berlin especially is enjoying a huge influx of young Israelis who love the openness, the art, the culture, the gay scene – and the low cost of living (compared to Tel Aviv, of course). You really can’t beat 3.00 euros for a beer, compared to 7-8 euros in Tel Aviv.

I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. My mother’s side of the family was wiped out almost entirely in the Holocaust. So, it’s a bit strange to come back where it all “began.” When my mother first heard I was going she was surprised. But then we went into our old routine: “Be careful of the Narzis!” she said to me. In the “2,000 Year Old Man,” with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, they have a routine where the 2,000 year old man is mad at Winston Churchill. According to the 2,000 year old man, in one of his speeches, “Churchill said ‘We must conquer the Narzis.’ All this time we were looking for Nazis! We dropped everything and started looking for Narzis! It prolonged the war!”

Over a year ago, I wrote about lighting my family’s Hanukia. It was actually in a post about the big Carmel fire. I recently got to tell the story of this Hanukia to a group of college students from the United States on one of Aziz Abu Sarah’s MEJDI tours. I don’t believe in God, but every year I get emotional while lighting the wicks of this Hanukia. It belonged to the family of my Grandfather, Poppy, who lived on a farm outside of Bratislava. Poppy always had good instincts. He left for the States before the war. As the Nazis were getting closer, the family buried the Hanukia, a beautiful piece of Judaica, in their back yard. After the war, and after everyone was killed, Poppy came back and dug it out. When he passed away, we took it to our place and light it every Hannukah, with olive oil.

I love lighting that Hanukia. And I love the fact that my children light it together with me. I’m not a religious man, and don’t believe in God. But when I light that Hanukia, I feel like there’s a reason for my being in Israel.

The problem is, that with each year that passes, Hannukkah catches me in a different state of mind. And this past year it was the most complex for me. It was the year that, at least in my opinion, the two-state solution died. Yet since then I’ve been in some sort of limbo state, where I still don’t come out and support the one-state solution, the only option left. It seems like some sort of mourning period, which I’m coming to grips with. And it’s not easy, because it’s scary. And I presume it’s scary for many Israeli Jews. It means, in a way, giving up on Zionism and maybe even on Jewish self-determination. And that’s extremely difficult, given all we’ve been through.

And it’s this state of mind where I suddenly land in Berlin. It’s this state of mind that I began reading “Alone in Berlin,” just before the invitation to come here.

The Holocaust comes up every once in a while during the conference. But it comes up quietly. It kind of reminds me how some people whisper the word “cancer.”

And nobody seems to really want to open it up. Why should they? Hasn’t it all been said before anyway?

But even for me, Holocaust remembrance is changing. And despite what my family went through in Europe, I understand more clearly how Israel uses this for its own purposes. How it justifies things it does. Crimes it perpetrates.

And it’s not easy to release oneself from this grasp of remembrance. Growing up in the Israeli school system, I went through quite the brain-washing. Only distancing myself from those schooling years has enabled me to see more clearly. Merav Michaeli wrote recently in Haartez on this topic an amazing op-ed that should be read in whole. She wrote it after a poll was published that said 98% of Israelis consider it “either fairly important or very important to remember the Holocaust, attributing to it even more weight than to living in Israel, the Sabbath, the Passover seder and the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people.” Here is an excerpt:

The Holocaust is the primary way Israel defines itself. And that definition is narrow and ailing in the extreme, because the Holocaust is remembered only in a very specific way, as are its lessons. It has long been used to justify the existence and the necessity of the state, and has been mentioned in the same breath as proof that the state is under a never-ending existential threat.

The Holocaust is the sole prism through which our leadership, followed by society at large, examines every situation. This prism distorts reality and leads inexorably to a forgone conclusion – to the point that former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau announced at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony three years ago that Moses was the first Holocaust survivor. In other words, all our lives are simply one long Shoah.

Remembrance is an issue that follows me around Berlin. It is a city full of monuments, like I’ve never seen in any other.

They even remember the leader I used to believe in, the man who had my vote.

And suddenly I try to remember if there is a sign in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Did they just change the name from Kikar Makchei Yisrael? No sign? Maybe we should learn some basics from the Germans.

As I walk around Berlin, I try – with no success – to forget about the Holocaust. Just for a few minutes. To see it clean, tabula rasa.

But I can’t.

And I won’t.

(My next post will be about the Heinrich Boell Conference)


Read also:

Alone in Berlin (Part II) – A powerful memorial, mistreated

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    1. sh

      This post of yours touched me too much to say anything except to thank you for it, Ami. I’ve visited Berlin twice.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Uncle Chuck

      Great post! Go online to read Sunday’s NY Times sports section. Article about a 27 year old Jewish-American hockey player playing for a German national team. Interesting- his name is Kaufman(n)!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Jodi

      Gave me chills. So honest and open. Very brave.

      Reply to Comment
    4. ben

      i went to berlin for the laying of a stolpersteine in remembrance of my great grandparents a couple of years ago, it’s an odd experience the west and east are still very different, there are so many memorials to murdered Jews both individual an communal some times I wondered if it was too much, but how can it ever be?

      I’ve also read Alone in Berlin – an amazingly powerful book.

      Look forward to reading more about your trip

      Reply to Comment
    5. Shelly

      My feeling is like Jodi’s but with a different physical reaction. I got a lump in my throat. I read and understood all your mixed feelings and being of an older generation, one that’s closer to the holocaust chronologically, I am grateful that you chose not to forget.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Aunt Frannie

      Great post. It really makes you think. Poppy would be very proud.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Diane

      Thank you for this Ami. It is deeply moving, on personal and universal levels.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Robert Soran - Schwarz

      Get see a physician, I mean a psychotherapeut, my dear friend! Holocaust remembrance and onanism cult is the cancer still eating up generation after generation of Israelis (I am an Israeli, and I am a Jewish German, and I feel best in Berlin, not in Jerusalem). BTW, please don’t call Boell Boll. And take the bus from plane to terminal, if you want both security and safety. You’ll wonder, but in a chaotic country like Romania you’ll get the same experience. And in most other countries in the civilized world …
      If you had to wait 10 min. for the bus to fill, then it is with certainty due to Israeli lack of discipline when deboarding a plane 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    9. Thanks Ami.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Janice

      Wonderful piece.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ami, I don’t know if you realize it, but being defined by an event that took place before you were born is the antithesis of having no core, having no personal capacity to, in each activity you do, notice your actual experience, and then adopt a rational concept that provides you with an accurate overview of that experience. And without accurate observations and adopting rational concepts regarding those observations, no person ever makes any progress toward mastering life, toward having each day be filling with quality moments.

      No event is ever the result of external forces unavoidably causing a person to suffer, all events are a product of how each person lives her life.

      An example, you drive through a green light, and a truck simultaneously drives through the red light, hits your car, and causes you great suffering. Appears to be a classical example of pure victimhood. But wait, if during your entire journey that day, during any one moment, you had taken less than a second of time longer or shorter, you would not have been in the intersection as that truck went through that red light. So is the truck driver responsible for your injuries, or is it your approach to how you live your life responsible for your being there and being injured? I personally always vote for the latter.

      Reply to Comment
    12. AYLA

      Thank you, Ami. Take care.

      Reply to Comment
    13. noam

      I myself have lived in austria and germany and by now i don’t identify with any of ami’s emotions, but your sheqel-worth-of-philosophy is very thin and cannot apply to the total victimhood of european jewry in the shoah.
      “No event is ever the result of external forces unavoidably causing a person to suffer, all events are a product of how each person lives her life.”
      give me a break. it also cannot apply to ami. he is not causing himself to “suffer”, or victimizing himself. i think he wants to share his reactions BECAUSE he doesn’t want to be defined purely by emotions without trying to reflect on them. (correct me if i’m wrong, ami).

      some people, like ami, have deeply rooted, sometimes irrational reactions towards modern-day germany, due to their upbringing and/or family background. and due to the shoah, which is undeniably the one major theme which gives most of the world’s jewry, even atheists and half-jews, a sense of a shared fate. (and for a damn clear reason.)
      to ami, as to many israelis on first visits to germany/austria, any normal EU procedure happening in airport is immediately attributed to “germanness”. even though this is stereotypical and irrational, it doesn’t mean he has no “personal capacity to… notice his actual experience”, or that he has “no core”. that’s going a bit far.
      ami doesn’t mean he doesn’t choose to live in fear and hate, far from it (read his blogging). i think he’s trying to transcend something a bit more subtle, more personal, that doesn’t fit with your two dimensional [and patronizing] allegories.

      Reply to Comment
    14. noam

      correction to last paragraph, obvious fatigue typo –

      ami doesn’t choose to live in fear and hate, far from it (read his blogging). i think he’s trying to transcend something a bit more subtle, more personal, that doesn’t fit with your two dimensional [and patronizing] allegories.

      Reply to Comment
    15. zayzafuna

      Ami, welcome home

      Reply to Comment
    16. Elisheva Gilad

      Dear Ami,

      I was very moved by your piece, thank you. I went to Germany for the first time four years ago (no coincidence, I was raised in a home that boycotted all German products), after I started working for the Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Israel. I can deeply relate to many of your reflections. Just hearing a siren there caused me to tremble with pounding heart. Over the years at HBS, I have been able to unfreeze my concepts of Germany. I have met and become friends with contemporary Germans affiliated with the foundation and the German Greens who have shown an impressive sensitivity and knowledge of the Shoah. One evening I went out to dinner with a colleague in Berlin and she was able to tell me about town squares where Jews were once rounded up, about buildings that we passed that were once synagogues or community centers and I found myself feeling envious of the ability to stare in the face and without blinking at the misdeeds and crimes of your own government (L’havdil). In our although sometimes justified sense of victimization, many Israelis seem frozen in their inability to understand and empathize with our Palestinian neighbors, both within Israel and over the green line and yes, the Israeli government abuses the victimhood status again and again (I’ve lived in Israel for 35 years and I know about the real, unimagined threats).
      One of the gifts I have received from my work with a German organization has been the gift of the ability to L’havdil, to develop a differentiated view of contemporary Germany and to develop real friendships and dialogue with my post-war colleagues. It has been no small tikkun, a repairing that has allowed me to humanize and update my relationship with Germany. And, as an Israeli, I always hope that others will develop a differentiated view of us here as well.
      Thanks again Ami for touching on an important topic in a courageous and nuanced way.

      Reply to Comment
    17. A Gentile

      Brilliant piece, Ami.
      The way I read your piece, aside from the existential angst, is that you on the one hand see Israel as it is, but you also acknowledge the other side of seeing things. As bad as Israel gets, you have to take into account that it was founded in some ways because of the Holocaust(even if it was planned before it happened, the Shoah essentially made it possible – even necessary – very quickly).
      This post relates in some ways as I, an outsider, see Israel. I see the daily debasement of democracy, but I also see a people trying to survive in a harsh neighbourhood(if you want to acuse me for buying into the hasbara, go ahead, but that’s how I feel). No matter what faults Israel may have, there is a complex pshycological background that one has to take account of.
      But now what? I agree with you that the 2SS is probably dead. Recently there was an article in Haaretz that stated that the Civil Administration in Israel proper wants to give settlers much more power over roadbuilding, essentially dooming the 2SS de jure. This, added to the recent revelation that the area E1 is about to be built by settlers, thereby splitting the West Bank in two, is yet another blow and perhaps as you think, no longer a ‘final’ blow but rather a deeping of the status quo.
      But given the history of Jews in the diaspora, and given how, let us be honest, I don’t think neither side is ready for co-existance, what is to be done? My own view is that Jews will get by, you guys always do and that will continue. Just how that will happen, I don’t know. But I know it will. And I think the diaspora, Western world, is more friendly towards Jews in general than never before. America, Canada, certainly most of Western Europe, Australia. The Jewish population in the UK is up 15 % over the last decade. Germany has seen as surge of young Israelis as you have noticed. And so on.
      You guys will be fine whatever happens.
      And again, thanks for this piece, it was beautiful.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Thanks to all of you for the warm words.
      @Zayzafouna – Berlin is not my home, and never will be. And I don’t appreciate what you’re hinting, as well.

      Reply to Comment
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