Jewish identity in 21st century Berlin – it’s a story of Gratitude

I don’t know if many of you know this, but yesterday (Tuesday 27th January 2015) was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised. I certainly didn’t take note of this date before yesterday. And nobody I know has ever mentioned anything about it to me in the past.

We all have various, almost reflexive emotional reactions to the mention of the Holocaust. If you check in with yourself now, ask yourself how the word “Auschwitz” makes you feel. What feelings or thoughts are stirred by conjuring up the mental image of those poor, desperate souls who were dragged out of there in 1945, barely alive? Not to mention the millions  whose lives were taken…

For a very long time, I have been relatively detached from my Jewish identity and even more detached from any connection with the Holocaust. Which is odd because my maternal grandmother is herself a Holocaust survivor. As a young child she was smuggled into France and later South Africa, where she is currently living, having just turned 82. Her parents were not so fortunate. They were sent to Auschwitz.

Without going into too much detail, you should know that I have been detached from these facts. And that suddenly this is changing.

It all started with moving to Germany I guess. This place is a physical reminder of what happened. Not only has being here allowed me to imagine what life in Germany is/was like but there are many memorials around the city as well, like the Stolpersteine or “Stumbling Stones” that can be found outside the homes and workplaces of Holocaust victims on the streets of Berlin and the rest of Germany.

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And so here I am coming to terms with my German identity as well as my Jewish identity, in a place that has historically divided the one from the other.

Yesterday, as an attempt to commemorate the anniversary for myself, I went to the Jewish Museum here in Berlin.
Without giving a whole long spiel, I will say this. It was both banal and profound, empty and meaningful. It thrilled and bored me, brought about intense feelings and left me cold.

The highlight for me was the architecture. Architect Daniel Libeskind created a building that communicates more succinctly then any worded museum display ever could. He uses space, light/darkness, volume, and the natural surrounds to produce profound effects on one’s vision, sense of balance, sense of hearing, and of course emotions.

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For example, when you enter the main exhibition area you are confronted with a series of passages that intersect one another. He calls theses the three “Axes” – The Axis of continuity, The Axis of Emigration, and The Axis of the Holocaust. The Axis of the Holocaust leads into a dead end. There is a door that leads you into a hollow, cylindrical tower called “The Holocaust Tower”. It is scary in there – tall walls surround you, the air is frigid as it is unheated, and the only light comes from this thin slit in the ceiling. You are instantly transported out of the cozy, safe place you were into a cold, uncomfortable and eerily quiet zone of what can only be described as death and desolation. All that you can hear are the faint sounds of traffic that seep in from the outside world, giving you the distinct feeling of being trapped and excluded.

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Believe me, I’m not one to gush about architecture and its deeper meaning, but that shit was real!

The rest of the exhibition left me cold compared to that experience but it was nice to be reminded of the positive elements of Jewish identity – learnedness, prosperity, intelligence, business acumen, and most importantly devotion to family and togetherness.

Along the way, there are a couple of interactive exhibits where visitors can write down messages of peace and goodwill.
It reminded me of a question I was asked recently, at the end of an interview with a German journalist who questioned me about being a 3rd generation “Auschwitz survivor”. In fact this interview is what got me started on the whole anniversary thing in the first place…if you want to see the article in question, here it is (unfortunately, it’s in German).

The question he asked me was, “Will you talk to your children about the Holocaust and what will you tell them?”

I had to think about it for a bit. All I could come up with was this. Yes I would tell my kids, I would tell any kids. I will tell stories of Apartheid too. It’s important to remember your history, take stock of where your ancestors came from, the world they lived in, and how it came to be that you were born. But more than that – and this is for anyone, Jews and non-Jews, Germans, South Africans, and everyone the world over – there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust.

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Standing in the Jewish Musuem in Berlin, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, I felt a wave of immense gratitude wash over me. When I allow my mind to wonder what life might have been like for me if I’d been born here just 50 years earlier, I honestly can’t even imagine it. But I wasn’t. And currently Germany is a safe place for me to live in. I am sorry that my ancestors were not so lucky but I am grateful that their lives were taken in such a shocking and disgustingly inhumane way that the world had no choice but to notice.

Let the Holocaust forever be spoken about as the event that showed the world the far extremes of violence and destruction that humanity is capable of. Because without that knowledge, there is no fear, and without that fear, it could all happen again.

Today I am grateful for my freedom, to be who I am and to speak these words and to know this carefreeness. I know that there are many other human souls living on this planet today who do not have access to these freedoms. Let us always try individually and collectively to remain conscious of these injustices and do what we can to fight for freedom for all.

 

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