I was fortunate to participate in a program that brings young American Jews to visit Germany. I use the word "fortunate" deliberately, knowing that many Jews view a trip there with unease, even revulsion. "I know that they are the Jews' best friends in Europe," a friend told me, referring to Germans, "but I just don't want to ever go to Central or Eastern Europe. My grandparents left there for a reason."
It's an understandable sentiment, and one that I had more empathy for until I learned about a program called "Germany Close Up." Courtesy of the German government, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee, I spent 10 days with 14 other young American Jews in Berlin, Munich and Oberammergau, the Bavarian village famed for its decennial Passion Play. The focus of my visit was Christian-Jewish interreligious dialogue, especially Oberammergau's efforts to eliminate actual or perceived anti-Semitism from its depiction of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Traveling in Germany, the specter of the Holocaust is inescapable. Synagogues are under armed guard around the clock. Holocaust memorials of all shapes and sizes are scattered across the country, refortifying the idea of "never again."
Our visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sprawling, 5-acre site in central Berlin, highlighted a linguistic idiosyncrasy in Germany. Does the "Murdered Jews of Europe" seem surprisingly explicit? It's meant to be, our German docent said, in order to emphasize the enormity of the crime.
"Six million Jews did not just die — they were murdered," said the docent.
This forthright acknowledgment of its darkest period is indicative of the country's desire to rebuild relations with world Jewry, which includes generous support for the growing German Jewish community. The Ohel Jakob synagogue in the heart of Munich was built at a cost of about 57 million euros — about $70 million, at that time — mostly from the city of Munich and the state of Bavaria.
But there are still 6 million murdered Jews, and all the memorials and euros in Europe cannot change that. That's why the program exposes American Jews not only to historical sites, but to contemporary Jewish life in Germany. It also provides time for Jewish visitors to converse with Germans, whose eagerness to learn about Judaism was heartening.
Why should they care about reaching out? After all, they're not personally responsible for the Holocaust. Nonetheless, it's part of their heritage; as one German student said, learning about Judaism and connecting with Jews helps recover something about themselves that was lost.
Once home, I watched Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." In my haze of disgust, the line between Nazi Germany and the Germany I'd experienced began to blur. I wanted to force every German to see this film — to grind their noses into the screen.
This, too, is an understandable sentiment, but then I recalled my time there. I remembered a young German Protestant donning a kipah and joining us at Friday-night services. I remembered our German group leaders smelling the Havdalah spices with us. I remembered the downcast look of sorrow and shame on the face of a young German woman when we told her we would be visiting Sachsenhausen.
I thought of these people and experiences, and realized that even with the Holocaust looming behind us, we must not hate blindly or shun efforts at reconciliation. The scars will never fade; nor should we want them to. But we are not exempt from showing modern Germany the same sensitivity it shows us.