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Why Berlin feels safer than the US for an American Jew

Diane Wolf
September 21, 2018

Diane L. Wolf, senior visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin, reflects on her time in Germany, her Jewish family's expulsion in the 1930s and how the country has dealt with its past.

Symbolbild - Judentum - Menora
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. von Erichsen

Diane L. Wolf, a sociology professor at the University of California, Davis, and former director of the Jewish Studies Program, recently spent six months in Germany at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA), working on a new project questioning the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Near the end of her sabbatical, Wolf wrote this reflective essay about her stay in Berlin.

Often, when I met someone new in Germany, they would comment on my German last name. Then I would explain that my parents were born in Germany. This was received with a puzzled look, a non-verbal version of "Huh?"

Diane L. Wolf, senior visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin
Diane L. Wolf, senior visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Antisemitism in BerlinImage: John Ebel-Davies

What fascinated me is that no one seemed to think of the 1930s or Hitler when I said that. I'm middle aged with curly hair — isn't that a hint? That's where my thoughts would go. But that's where I always go.

Usually, I had to spell it out for them very precisely. So I explained that my parents had to leave if they didn't want to get murdered. And then it happened. The calculation was made and as their brain moved to the other side of the equation, I could literally see the realization ripple over their entire face. It's the opposite of when a child figures out the answer to 2+2 and shouts it out with glee: FOUR!

In this case, however, their smiles faded and their facial muscles morphed into a serious look. "Oh, so your parents were Jewish?" (I always noticed the past tense, which I found curious). "Yes, they were," I said. "And so am I. And I'm back!"

Generational shift

Sometimes their smiles returned, but not always. I suppose it's still awkward for some Germans to meet a real, live Jewish person. When I began coming regularly to Germany well over 30 years ago after I met the German man who became my husband, I never had to spell out my background so directly; most people I spoke with were from the postwar generation and they immediately understood. A generational shift has occurred and I find that very appropriate.

After spending a six months in Berlin, I can say without any reticence that I feel very safe here — safer than in the United States. Actually, I think Germany is a good place for Jews these days, better than the US. Yes, there is anti-Semitism, yes there are hate crimes, and yes, it is safe for Jews. All three are true at once.

Recent events in Chemnitz are very disturbing, of course. Anti-Semitism from Germans affiliated with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is strong, and nationalism is growing. However, the overwhelming reaction that brought 65,000 counter-protesters to Chemnitz after the right-wing violence is hopeful and impressive.

And from what I've read, there doesn't appear to be widespread anti-Semitism among Muslim residents and recent refugees in Germany. My sociological sense of contemporary German society is that they suffer more abusive behavior than do Jews, but this is not reported or acknowledged often enough.

anti-racism concert in Chemnitz
The anti-racism concert in Chemnitz drew 65,000 peopleImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Culture of remembrance

After the events of August 2017, when neo-Nazis marched with torches in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, I was glad my parents and grandparents were dead and did not have to see that kind of spectacle yet again. Imagine feeling glad your parents or grandparents are dead! That's not normal. But there is no longer any normal in America. The new normal is feeling terrified.

President Donald Trump did not immediately condemn the march — he had nothing critical to say about a neo-Nazi nighttime torch rally. After considerable time and pressure, he eventually remarked there were "some very bad people in that group," but also "very fine people, on both sides." There you have it: He seems to be acquainted with some very fine neo-Nazis.

I have immense respect for Germany in its attempt to confront rather than shy away from its past. Memorial sites abound in Berlin. I deeply appreciate the smaller markers of loss and terror, such as the remains of the Jewish orphanage near my apartment on Schönhauser Allee. These smaller plaques on the sidewalk marking sites of memory are touching reminders that interrupt daily life and make one think. They are also statements of admission.

This confrontation with the past may explain why some non-Jewish Germans are not sure how to react to me. Most were educated with a full acknowledgement of what their country did to my tribe and many others. Although that may not have been the education they received at home, their formal education has confronted unimaginable and horrible deeds done in the name of their families and their nation.

Such small brass plaques, known as "Stolpersteine," commemorate victims of the Holocaust throughout GermanyImage: DW/T.Walker

Revision of the past

Reactions to my background in other countries, such as the Netherlands, are very different. The Netherlands had the highest deportation rate of Jews in Western Europe only after Germany, at more than 70 percent. But many Dutch still view themselves as victims of the Nazis, rather than as enablers. If one of them finds out I'm Jewish they may feel that we are on the same side as victims of the Nazi occupation rather than discomfort because they are from a country where, despite the Resistance narrative, some people were more than willing to collude with the Nazis.

What I realized during these past months, however, is that while the state has raised tremendous awareness of what occurred in Germany, it's less clear to me how the German population has assimilated this knowledge or acknowledged the past. In other words, there is more of a disjuncture than I had imagined.

After all, the Third Reich is far in the past now. I don't think the younger generations need to feel guilty about what was done by their ancestors to Jews, Sinti and Roma, gays, the disabled, Poles and those in the resistance, but they do need to know about it and take it seriously.

Research has shown that Germany's third postwar generation seems to weave a positive (and false) history about grandfathers who served in the army, or the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party — or how they heroically saved some Jews. The past is being revised in family memory in ways that do not reflect national memory or history.

Although some may bemoan the lack of connection young Germans have to the events of the Shoah, how many of my students in California feel badly about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in US internment camps during World War II? How many even know about it?

How many Americans own up to the way in which the US was created through genocide and built on the backs of slaves? How many acknowledge that Native Americans and African-Americans are still an underclass that has received neither apologies nor reparations? Why aren't there memorial stones on the West Coast where people were killed during anti-Chinese riots?

A safe feeling in Berlin

I am not at home in German culture, even though there are some familiarities because of my upbringing (rye bread, 4711 Eau de Cologne, writing and reciting poems for important celebrations, and extreme punctuality!). I didn't really make any German friends while I was in Berlin. I understand that takes time, but I wish something more had happened.

I greatly appreciated my colleagues at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA). From their reactions to things I said, I learned how difficult it is for Germans to be critical of anything Jewish, including, and perhaps especially, Israel. At a conference in Cologne, I found myself in a heated argument with a young German psychoanalyst whose unassailable defense of Israel astonished me.

And sadly, Germans, my husband included, still cannot laugh at my dark Holocaust humor. I have made two new Israeli friends, both colleagues as well. We talk about being Jewish in Berlin and laugh at the things Germans dare not laugh about.

I hated the cold when we arrived in March. But all the same, I felt as though I was happy to be "home" in our Berlin apartment. I loved my life in Berlin. I was so much more relaxed, not having to worry about guns. I did see two Berlin drivers get out of their cars and yell at each other, but I kept reminding myself that no one was armed. I can't feel that reassured in my daily life or in my work at the university in the US.

In Berlin, I felt acknowledged in some deeper way when I saw memory sites while walking down the street, and I felt safe knowing that most German politicians and people are vocal in their condemnation of anti-Semitic attitudes, behaviors and acts.

I loved walking in the nearby Jewish cemetery and kept telling my husband that I want to be buried there. I treasured this time when I was able to focus on my research, which corresponded so deeply to my environment, the novels I was reading and even what was shown on TV. I was fully immersed in the 1930s and 1940s: life and work, family and memory all blended together.

The Jewish cemetery in Berlin
The Jewish cemetery in Berlin's district of Weissensee is one of the largest in Europe Image: picture-alliance/T. Uhlemann

A future in Germany?

After living in Berlin for months and observing parents and children, teenagers and young adults, and older people, I also realized that I was deprived of this culture and some of its values because my family had to flee. I did not want to move to Germany when I married my husband, but now I keep feeling that I deprived our son of a certain kind of upbringing in a society that is kinder, fairer and more family-friendly than the US in many ways. And less violent.

My "inner refugee" has been on red alert (or should I say orange?) since Trump's election and I am very worried about the future — some of it with good reason, some of it not. I'm putting together the paperwork for German citizenship, which I feel I need now more than ever before. Whether and when I use it remains to be seen, but I am grateful for the option. How ironic that the citizenship taken away from my parents and grandparents will now make me feel safer in the world.