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New York Jews see Germany with mixed feelings

Chris Melzer (dpa) / scJanuary 22, 2015

For many New York Jews, the Holocaust can not be forgiven and visiting the country of the perpatrators is unthinkable. But thanks to a program, young Jews are going to Germany and returning with some surprising findings.

Berlin Oranienburger Straße Synagogue
The reconstructed synagogue on the Oranienburger Strasse has become symbolic for new Jewish life in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Judith Sabba is Jewish. Her grandparents were killed by Germans, the memory of which is kept alive in her family. For many of her relatives, traveling to the land of the Holocaust perpetrators would be inconceivable - but not for Judith. She went and returned with, even for her, some surprising conclusions.

Stolpersteine "stumbling Stones" side walk Memorials to victims of Nazism
More than 6000 "Stolpersteine" commemorate Berliners who were persecuted, deported and murdered by the NazisImage: DW/R. Pelzl

"Germany is a modern country and Berlin is a wonderfully lively, cosmopolitan and liberal-minded city," she told DW. But wherever she went in the city, Judith kept encountering little cobblestone-sized brass plates in the sidewalk, the so-called Stolpersteine or "stumbling stones." Stolpersteine are small memorials in the sidewalk each listing the name of an individual victim of Nazism, incorporating those who died but also survivors. And this commemoration of former inhabitants of a house "moved me very deeply," says Judith.

"It makes the horror of the past personal. And yet at the same time it is impressive because it shows how openly Germany deals with its past." This fascinating impression became an obsession for Judith: "What was it that changed this country so much?"

Louis Mittel's grandparents survived the Holocaust: "They were Germans. At home, there was always a picture of my great grandfather in a uniform. A German uniform! He fought in the First World War," he tells us. This part of his own history preoccupied Louis Mittel, which is why he wanted to travel: "I just wanted to talk with Germans."

At first, the country appeared perfectly normal to Mittel: "No one expected to see Nazis marching through a village. I knew that Germany had become a modern country."

And yet he was still caught off guard: "It is unbelievable how much the country has changed. The level of tolerance is immense." For Louis, however, some uneasy questions also came to mind.

"Some concentration camps were very close to villages and cities. Were people really unaware of what was going on there? Did they really not know?" When Louis asked older people in Germany about this, he said that they usually fell silent: "As soon as they realized I was Jewish I think it was a case of: don't say a wrong word."

Some New Yorkers wouldn't buy a Mercedes, or listen to Wagner

More Jews live in New York than any other single city in the world - as many as two million in total. Without them, the city would not be what it is today. For generations Jews have enjoyed a tolerance there that they couldn't find in Europe. Nearly 70 years after the end of the war Germany is still regarded with mixed feelings. For many, German guilt like Jewish mourning never goes away. That is why the German government in 2007 started the "Germany Close Up" program. Young Jewish people are invited to form their own impressions of Germany - and to take them back to the US. This is partly due to the fact that Germany is viewed more negatively by New York Jews than by Israeli Jews.

Kurt Enger, whose father survived the Holocaust, confirms that there are "certain prejudices." On his visit to Germany he experienced a degree of anxiety.

"It was irrational, of course, as no one was going to imprison me in a camp. But I couldn't help wondering every time I saw a man around 80 years of age: what did you do back then?" To compound matters, at some point he suddenly spotted the word "Nazi" plastered on a pub wall in the Berlin district of Neukölln. He did not understand the other words, and so it was with horror that he took pictures of the poster. Only later did a friend explain that the caption read: "There is no place for Nazis in Neukölln!"

"Maybe it was not a serious campaign or even a marketing ploy," Kurt Enger tells us, "but this open admission of German guilt really moved me."

"Germany Close Up" project brings 250 US Jews to Germany each year

Jayson Littman
Jayson Littman was part of a group of New York Jews who were invited by the Berlin government to visit GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Melzer

Just the idea of going to Germany was greeted within the New York Jewish community by questions, disbelief, and even accusations.

"Growing up, German products were banned. A Volkswagen was as unthinkable for my family as a Siemens toaster," says Jayson Littman. Members of his family asked him how he could do such a thing: "I first told them that while travelling through Israel, I'd seen German products everywhere. So if this boycott was already being questioned, why should I not look at the country?"

Jayson was "surprised how safe and comfortable" life in Germany was, telling DW that he had encountered distrust only once: "At a synagogue, of all places. We had to answer questions for ten minutes before they were sure that we were actually Jewish." Littman is openly gay, which isn't easy in an orthodox religious environment.

"I wanted to see how it is in Germany. And Berlin is crazy. It is like New York!" Being gay is perfectly normal for many, but Littman couldn't help but think: "Homosexuals were also persecuted and killed by the Nazis. And yet Berlin has an unbelievable gay scene. Why then are Jews still left on the sidelines?"

But they are not on the sidelines, says Kurt Enger: "I was surprised by the vibrant Jewish culture in Berlin. Before my visit, I asked myself how you could live in Germany as a Jew. Afterwards I told myself: of course you can, now more than ever!" This was especially true, he said, because he felt safer in the German capital than, for instance, Paris: "Some said: but in Berlin there are police outside every synagogue. I answered that in New York there is cop at every temple, too."

Hadas Cohen
Hadas Cohen experienced Germany as open minded and diverseImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Melzer

“In Israel they know more about Germany than in the USA," claims Hadas Cohen. She is Israeli but studied in New York. "We never had a problem with Germany. We were just curious."FAnd that despite the fact that her mother is a Holocaust survivor. Hadas Cohen went to Germany as a child, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"There were lots of old empty houses and it was easy to imagine what it used to be like, back then," she tells us. And now? "Completely different! Germans handle their dreadful history very responsibly. I was very surprised by how multi-cultural the big cities were. And yet I kept asking myself: should I mention that I'm Jewish?" Not because her grandparents died at Auschwitz. Not because "Kristallnacht" was one of the few German words she knew even as a child. Not because she was afraid of rejection. "I just didn't want the person I was chatting with to feel bad." Because once Jews come up in conversation, Germans tend to become monosyllabic: "They are insecure, totally insecure. And all we want to do is simply talk about it."

The glass dome on the German Reichstag building in Berlin
The dome on the Reichtag building - for Judith Sabba symbolic of a modern and democratic GermanyImage: picture-alliance / Richard Bryan

When Judith Sabba thinks about Germany, and how a country could have changed so much, she thinks of the Reichstag:"It is an old building with old traditions. But above it towers this breathtaking dome, so modern and transparent. And it is a unique symbol: people can look down on those in government. The people can control them and they stand above them." And yet while she was there she was given a fright. "I heard a siren. In Germany sirens sound different." So despite all that modernity, tolerance and multiculturalism, Germany obviously can still make people shudder.