Young Germans and Israelis don′t forget the Holocaust, they go dancing | Lifestyle | DW | 11.05.2015
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Young Germans and Israelis don't forget the Holocaust, they go dancing

Dancing in a Berlin bar can change everything. DW's Caroline Schmitt explores her own German Holocaust guilt by dancing and chatting with young Israelis. "I don't need you to cry over my grandparents," she's told.

It's a mild spring evening and I'm dancing in the back of a bar in Berlin-Kreuzberg with a friend my age. There's nothing special about the scene. Except that there is.

Seventy years ago, it would have been impossible because I'm German and my friend is from Israel. We are the third generation since the Holocaust, spinning around to tunes from the 80s.

Seventy years after the Dachau concentration camp was liberated and 50 years after the beginning of German-Israeli relations, Tel Aviv is in love with Berlin and vice versa. It's unclear exactly how many Jews live here, partly because descendants of Germans who were persecuted during World War II often have German citizenship, but the Israeli embassy in Berlin estimates there are around 15,000 Israeli students, young professionals, artists and families in the city.

The project "We don't forget, we go dancing" tells the story of 19 of them. It casually describes the awkwardness, the emotional detachment ,and the sense of oversaturation when it comes to defining our role as third-generation Germans and Israelis.

What I know is just a tiny fraction of reality

Can we remember the Holocaust in a way that enables us to live, love and argue side by side? This weekend I'm sunbathing with Amir from Tel Aviv, dancing with Adi from Jerusalem and speaking with the Israeli writer Sarah on the phone.

I'm very aware of the fact that I bring my own baggage, too. I was raised in what German writer Bernhard Schlink described as a state of shame, revulsion, and guilt about what humanity and my ascendants were capable of doing.

"We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion," Schlink wrote in "The Reader," a book that has left me searching for the "right" way to come to terms with the past.

The generations before mine were too busy finding their voice, yet most of the time it ended in helpless silence. My own voice became a mix of anger about the way Germany responded to the legacy of the Holocaust and plain guilt that has never fully worn off.

Without me noticing, my perspective has changed. What I know is still just a tiny fraction of reality, made up of fragments from books, movies, travels, and conversations. I left the country for a couple of years thinking I would never come back to the German heaviness, the omnipresence of guilt in pop culture. But then I did - and so did a bunch of Jewish friends who are occasionally annoyed by my paranoia and overly cautious ways.

Berlin in 2015 is a platform for real cultural exchange and for new beginnings. For the first time since the 1920s, we're all in it together, trying to deal with the messy leftovers of history that we don't necessarily feel an emotional connection with.

Berlin is like a 'haunted house'

Israeli culture is actively shaping Berlin today. There's Zula, the legendary hummus café in Prenzlauer Berg, the Hebrew magazine Spitz, and, as of this year, Topics Berlin, a bookshop in Neukölln run by two Israelis. Amir Naaman, 31, the co-manager, moved here just a year ago.

Young people looking over the Berlin cityscape, Copyright: DW / C. Schmitt

There's a lot of energy in Berlin and it's filled with weirdos, says Amir Naaman with a smile

"Berlin is sexy; people are good-looking; there's a lot of energy going on; it's filled with weirdos. I kind of like that it's the haunted house; horrible things happened in this town for the past 100 years. That's interesting to me," Amir says.

With Tel Aviv's skyrocketing rents and political instability, it was hard to sustain himself as an artist in Israel. He initially only wanted to stay for three months, but, like so many other young people here, ended up staying. Here he has opportunities he "just wouldn't have" in Tel Aviv. Together with a friend from home, he kicked off a career in publishing.

What about the past? I ask. His grandmother survived Auschwitz. Her pain had a deep effect on him and his family. Amir's eyes get a little watery; he'd prefer not to talk too much about this personal aspect.

He does tell me, though, about when he used to live with a girl who had a strong academic interest in the Holocaust. "We actually talked a lot about it in late-night discussions. There is a certain lightness to it. I'm not carrying the victimization of my grandmother around, and I don't think anyone should carry the guilt that belongs to their grandparents," he says.

"Germans studied 'Oh no, we're guilty, guilty, guilty,' and we studied 'We're victims, victims, victims.' I think both of us want to disassociate from that," adds Amir.

I nod.

Amir Naaman, owner of Berlin bookshop Topics Berlin, Copyright: Amir Naaman

Amir Naaman owns the bookshop Topics Berlin

Berlin's ghosts 'will wake up one day'

Sarah Blau is one of the Israeli authors in "We don't forget, we go dancing." In her story "Nice," she explains that Berliners often expect her to be crushed by the city's living reminders of the Holocaust, especially since she's devoted much of her professional life to researching and teaching about it.

"I'm a little tired of thinking about what I should say, or what is expected of me, I want to be free. When I was in Berlin, I thought its ghosts would come, but they didn't, so I let them sleep. But I know they will wake up one day," Sarah tells me.

And then there's Adi Cohen. Adi is 23 and moved here from Jerusalem in September 2014 because she fell in love with the German language. So far she hasn't come across many ghosts. "I like new beginnings; I like building my life over again. I could be a different person here in Berlin, no one knows me here," she says.

Unlike Amir's friends in Tel Aviv, some of Adi's family and friends in Jerusalem weren't impressed by her decision to come to "ugly and harsh" Germany. "All they associate with Germany is Hitler speeches and shouting. In a way, you can't blame them," she says. "I have no idea what they went through, not just with the Holocaust but with building the country as a whole. I just couldn't relate to it emotionally on any level."

Maybe that emotional distance is what helps her focus on how the "collective memory" - a term she uses often - can be strengthened. I ask her whether she feels German have a certain duty to respond to Israelis in a particular way.

Adi replies, "If the third generations of Germans feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, and they don't do anything with it, then it's pointless. Caroline, I don't need you to cry over my grandparents." I need a moment to process that.

Isreali author Sarah Blau, Copyright: Yanai Yechiel

'This is the end of an era,' says Israeli writer Sarah Blau

Tearing down walls, tearing up the dance floor

Back in the Kreuzberg bar, an old music video is helping us tear down some of the walls in our heads. Dancing feels a bit awkward and we laugh nervously, but there is a clumsy beauty in it. We are poignantly aware that Adi's and my parents and grandparents could not dance together.

May 12, 2015 officially marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. Sarah Blau has a feeling that something is going to change soon: "This is the end of an era. When the last survivor and the last Nazi will have died, something will change."

Adi isn't quite so sure what the future will hold for her, but she's looking forward to it: "I want to believe that we can march into a better future of no boundaries, no borders, no history weighing us down." Until then, she'll do everything to keep the memory alive. "Our grandchildren will only find out about this time from their history books."

And I will try and stop carrying the baggage of the past on my shoulders, I will read Bernhard Schlink to my children, and I will try to leave out some of the tears. I will tell them about that light weekend in spring 2015 when I danced with Adi, listened to Amir talk about comic books with sparkling eyes and arranged a coffee date with Sarah. This summer, I'll finally be dancing in Tel Aviv, too.

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