A Different Germany

by Josh Barkin

Sitting in the Bundestag’s Paul Löbe Building, home to the parliamentary committees of the German government, the high-ranking political advisor was trying to be candid with us, a group of American Jews peppering him with questions on his party’s policies regarding foreign relations.

“We have yet to find a final solution to the oil crisis,” he said, innocently.

Twenty Jews sat around the conference table. Twenty jaws dropped.

Had an American politico uttered the same sentence, we probably wouldn’t have noticed. But in Germany, things are different.

The country has come a long way since the reunification of East and West more than 15 years ago, and an even longer way since the end of World War II in 1945. I was in Berlin as a participant in a trip through Bridge of Understanding, a German governmental agency which invites young Jewish Americans to make their own direct contacts with modern Germany in light of the fact that their feelings about Germany dominated by the overwhelmingly negative image of the past.

Germans don’t want to forget the past, and they’re in no rush to “move on.” It’s just that they’ve spent the past 60 years being ashamed of their culture and of their national pride. If they’re ever going to get that pride back, they need to show the world — especially the Jewish world — that they’re trying to make teshuvah.

So we heard from Israelis about how Germany is Israel’s second-best friend in the world. In Buchenwald, we heard about struggling to erect an adequate memorial. We went to Jewish community centers and old-age homes, and visited with young rabbinical students. We wandered through the new Jewish Museum in Berlin (meant to celebrate Jewish life in Germany), as well as the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (meant to mourn the loss of Jewish life in Germany).

The Jewish Museum is an interesting place. Its architect, Daniel Liebeskind, is the child of Holocaust survivors. The building is shaped like a jagged zig-zagged line, with sharp turns and edges. Its windows look like giant gashes on the façade. Liebeskind won’t let visitors ever forget his architecture. Inside the museum, the walls take sharp angles at every turn.

It’s a perfect metaphor for understanding Judaism in Germany. The museum is supposed to be about the thousand-plus years of Jewish history, but — like the architecture — you just can’t escape the Shoah.

I had this sickly feeling in my stomach every time I got on the subway and saw that the stop after mine was in Wannsee. And when someone yelled for us to get back on the train (even though it was just because we’d gotten off a stop early). And when a German politician innocently used an infamous phrase.

In Germany, things are different.