August 2007

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The Jewish Museum in Munich, part of a new complex on Munich's central Jakobsplatz, which also houses a new synagogue and community center.

Living Judaism

Arrival Time
-- Charles Smolover

Originally presented as a D’var Torah on June 30 at Suburban Jewish Community Center Bnai Aaron.

Journeys don’t always turn out the way you plan. In Parasha Balak, we read about Bil’am, the seer who was hired to curse the Israelites on their way to Canaan. He set out on his mission fully determined to do his client’s bidding. But in the end, he found himself blessing, not cursing, the Children of Israel.

Bil’am came to mind as I thought about a business trip I took to Germany last week. The plane was packed: groups of kids on school trips, teenage backpackers, tourists, shoppers, businesspeople headed for home in Germany or, like me, headed to a meeting with a client.

The flight was so full I wasn’t able to sit with Annemarie, my partner on this account. So I was a little apprehensive about whom I was going to be sitting next to for the next seven hours. Please, God, I prayed, let it not be an extremely fat sweaty person.

To my relief it turned out to be a trim young German man in his late 20s. As he squeezed passed me to get to the window seat, I took a good look at him. He was tan, with blonde hair, a chiseled jaw and blue eyes. I could not suppress the thought that immediately came to mind: SS. As he sat next to me, fiddling with the seat belt and the ear phones and the pillow, I couldn't help but see him in that black uniform, the cap with the death’s head insignia, the swastika arm band, the glistening boots.

But he was not a Nazi. His name was Marcus I learned after we introduced ourselves. He had been living in the U.S. for several years, getting his business degree in California, and was now heading back to Germany to help his father run the family business, an international manufacturer of industrial controls.

The beverage cart came. We both ordered a bottle of Warsteiner, a popular German pilsner often served on Lufthansa. We drank and talked and established the kind of temporary airplane friendship that is so helpful in battling the boredom of a trans-Atlantic flight.

A Revelation

We talked about business, a little politics – nothing too prickly – the future of the European Union, his thoughts on Angela Merkel, Germany’s first woman chancellor. Then the conversation turned to family and it wasn’t long before I revealed that my grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Russia back in the teens. And that I was Jewish.

I could feel the preemptive guilt pouring out of Marcus’s pores. And the resentment. His easy way of talking, a by-product of his years on the West Coast, suddenly turned halting. One minute he was acknowledging -- lamenting -- the terrible crime his nation committed against my people, the next minute he was expressing frustration of being a young German in today’s world, a German who was born long after the war, a German whose country is Israel’s biggest trading partner in the European Union, a German whose country and people will be linked to history’s greatest crime for generations to come even though his generation played no role in its execution. In an effort, it seemed, to establish a sense of solidarity, he clumsily offered that his grandfather had died at Stalingrad.

That battle was the turning point in the war in Europe, where Stalin’s Red Army had halted the Nazi’s brutal advance through Russia. It was also arguably the bloodiest battle in the annals of warfare, lasting nearly six months, and leaving an estimated 1.5 million casualties in its wake. I thought of Marcus’s grandfather. I imagined him a young and frightened Wehrmacht conscript, starving, freezing and bleeding to death in the cold. One more victim of Hitler’s maniacal brutality.

I told Marcus that while we can’t change the past, we can try and control the future. I said that as a Jew, I could forgive Germany, but never forget. He agreed, we must never forget and must never let it happen again. The movie started. I put on my headphones. Marcus took a sleeping pill and quickly dozed off.

This was my second business trip to Germany this year. The first was last August, the first time I had ever been to that country. I went with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was proud of the fact that I had been entrusted by my employers with an important presentation. On the other hand, I was nervous, self-conscious of traveling to the place where the Holocaust was conceived. To Nuremburg, no less, the quaint medieval town in Bavaria that was considered the intellectual capital of Germany, a storied town of soaring cathedrals whose traditions and historical cache Hitler shamelessly borrowed to lend legitimacy to his depraved enterprise.

We landed in Frankfurt, and on my way to the concourse to catch my connecting flight to Nuremburg, I saw a hassid, complete with shiny black coat, long curling peyot and an elegant streimel rushing to catch a plane. My heart soared. We’re still here! We’re in the heart of Germany, we’re wearing streimels, we’re rushing to catch planes! And yo, if anyone has a problem with that, well, I’ll just give the Israeli Air Force a call and you can take the matter up with them.

When we landed in Nuremburg, we had to take a taxi to our final destination of Erlangen, a town about twenty minutes away. The drive took us through rural countryside: little villages surrounded by fields, small old factories here and there with red brick smokestacks. Red brick smokestacks. I thought of the smoke rising into the air, the ashes of millions blown across a continent.


Strangely at Home

The Germans I met in Erlangen were invariably kind and polite. Like the shop keeper in the department store who convinced me, in her broken English, that I should not buy the larger pair of sandals I was trying on, but to trust her and go with the smaller pair. "They will fit you better once they stretch a little," she assured me. She was absolutely right.

I began to feel strangely at home, using the few words of German and Yiddish that I knew to decipher signs and order rounds of beer. I felt so comfortable that an elderly lady mistook me for a local and asked me for directions.

I toured the grand cathedral in Nuremberg, a 12th century masterpiece that was almost completely destroyed by allied bombing. The cathedral was part church, part museum, with large photographs set up around the periphery of the nave that chronicled both the devastation of those attacks and the years of repairs that eventually restored it to its former glory. I felt no guilt seeing the cathedral transformed into mounds of rubble. I was glad that our boys in the 8th Air Force had smashed it to pieces with their B-17s. At the same time, I was glad that the survivors were able to restore it.

My second visit, the trip I took last week, was less conflicted. The town we were in, Forchheim, was a lovely collection of cobblestone streets, red sloping roofs, and that exposed timber Tudor-y architecture you always see in postcards. All that was missing was an ompah-pah brass band decked out in lederhosen.

My Deer Zaydie

Every German we met was kind and welcoming, doing their best to make me and Annemarie feel at home. One night at a restaurant, the waitress struggled to tell me about a special appetizer, a forschpeise. Was it fleisch, I asked, because ich est nicht schwein. No, no, she assured me. Not schwein. It is ah, ah, she hunted for the word… Bambi! she proudly declared. Venison. I later asked someone what was the German word for deer. It’s hirsch. Hirsch? My zaydie, z"l, was named Hersch. Hersch Tzvi. Tzvi is Hebrew for deer. A chance encounter with a venison appetizer in Germany had brought my dear zaydie, who died when I was 17, to mind. I went to sleep that night thinking of him, the first time in quite a while.

In the lobby of our hotel there was a travel magazine, in English, with an article about the top ten or twenty best cities in the world to live in. To my surprise, one of them was Munich. And in the few paragraphs of copy that accompanied each featured city, the blurb on Munich mentioned, of all things, its beautiful new Jewish center, complete with a synagogue, museum, day school, library and kosher restaurant. In Munich. Where the Nazis first gained power. Where the Israeli athletes were murdered. An article in the Forward said this about the center:

The construction of the new complex near the city center, symbolizes the physical return of Jews of Munich from the urban periphery back to the core. Indeed, since the synagogue is the first to be situated within the historic boundaries of the Altstadt, the historic city center, since the Middle Ages, it has been viewed widely as symbolizing the city’s long overdue acceptance of the Jewish community into its historic heart and, by extension, the beginning of a more normal relationship between Jews and Christians. Meanwhile, the willingness of the Jewish community to settle its institutions at such a highly visible and prestigious location reflects its readiness to abandon its postwar penchant for anonymity, embrace a more public and integrated presence in the Munich cityscape, and pursue what community leaders have described as the "normalization of daily life."

On the last day of my trip last week, we had a long meeting with the marketing team responsible for the launch of a new product line this fall. They were nervous. The new line had new features offering new capabilities, but those advances were mostly software-based. The new hardware, the new machines, looked pretty much like the old line they were replacing.

"It doesn’t look new." they complained. "And truth be told, some of the software has been released already." It is new I assured them. And my company, this client’s advertising agency, will present it as such in a compelling way.

"I know you think we don’t have much to work with," I told them, "But as my grandmother use to say in Yiddish..." Wait. Did I just tell a room full of German engineers and product managers whom I hardly knew that I was about to quote my bubbie in Yiddish? Was I out of my mind? Or was I just feeling at ease. "Don’t worry," I said. "Like my grandmother used to say, fon dreck macht men gelt" (We’ll turn crap into gold.) The room erupted with laughter.

On the flight home back to Philly, I thought of Marcus and his acknowledgement that we must never forget. Then I recalled the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica by Serbs just a few years ago. Seven thousand people murdered, less than 700 miles away from the Black Forest region of Germany where Marcus’s family lives. You did forget, Marcus. All of Europe forgot. It's so easy to forget. A few weeks ago there was a rally in Center City for Darfur. I couldn't make it. I had something else to do. Something more important, precisely what I can't recall just now.

Journeys don’t always turn out the way we plan. We set out anticipating some result and end up being pleasantly surprised. We arrive at our destination tired and little weary, with our critical faculties blunted by fatigue. We let go of our preconceptions and take in the scenery at face value. A sea of goodly tents pitched on the plains of Moab. A new Jewish community center in the heart of Munich. Or ourselves looking back at us in the mirror: conflicted, confused and wondering if the time will ever come when we can all be at peace with the past. I guess all have a ways to go.

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