Experiencing Germany Today

By Jessica Schwartz
Special to HAKOL

What do Americans think of when we hear the word “Germany?” OK, yes, obviously it’s a country; maybe it’s where our family came from. Or maybe you think of Oktoberfest, beer or Weinerschnitzel. However, for many Jewish Americans, we think: Holocaust. As much as we wish we didn’t have to, it’s ingrained in our history to remember. I was lucky to participate in an educational and exciting program this summer called Germany Close Up – American Jews Meet Modern Germany, a program in cooperation with Classrooms Without Borders, a 10-day, affordable, organized trip for Jewish young professionals designed to introduce you to Germany today, learn about its past and understand its goals for the future. Most of the trip is geared toward Jewish history, Holocaust remembrance and present and future Jewish relations; however, we also learned about general German history and current politics, including the hot topic of immigration and refugees in Germany.

The very first day at orientation, we learned that this program has no agenda – it is not designed to convince us to love Germany, and did its best to present an unbiased viewpoint of German society. Instead, GCU’s goal is to introduce us to the country, its culture, its history, and provide opportunities for discussion so that we could process what we saw and heard and come to our own conclusions. Some of us were second or third generation Americans with parents or grandparents who survived the Holocaust, some of whom came from Germany; and some of us, myself included, had no known direct connection, but felt it important to see the history first-hand. A diverse group of thoughtful, interested and bright Jews, led through Berlin, Nuremburg and Munich by non-Jewish German leaders, who left a mark on all of us with their compassion and perspective. A very unique opportunity.

Some highlights from the trip included: a Berlin bus tour seeing the Berlin Wall and Eastern Gallery, Brandenburg Gate and Bavarian (formerly Jewish) quarter, among other historic stops. Seeing memorials for many of the different groups targeted by the Nazis and artist interpretations of Holocaust and World War II remembrance. Learning about the “German guilt” and efforts for reconciliation, remembrance, and having eye-opening discussions about the other perspective: how present-day Germans carry the weight of their ancestors and World War II. Many exceptional guided tours through Jewish Berlin, museums, synagogues, Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Track 17 and other important sites related to the Holocaust, the city of Nuremberg, the Nuremberg Trials, the documentation center and Zeppelin Field and the city of Munich. Shabbat services with German and other international Jews, followed by a lively, crowded Friday night dinner singing loudly and beating on tables – taking me back to summer camps and connecting to others from across the world through song and prayer … and food! Thought-provoking and heart-felt group discussions, and panels on Jewish life and politics. A tour of Berlin from the perspective of a Syrian refugee and the life of an immigrant. And lastly, learning about German culture, experiencing a new country, and meeting amazing people. Truly an experience that I could not have possibly achieved on my own.

One noteworthy takeaway from this list was the ever-present notion of “reconciliation,” German guilt, and the idea of public representation of shame. I learned that many Germans – not all, but many – find it important to contribute to the “Never Again” mentality that we as Jews work to maintain. To restrict freedom of speech to persecute anyone who supports Nazi idealism; to provide government funding for organizations like GCU and Action Reconciliation Service for Peace to promote positive relations and atonement for the Holocaust; to educate their youth in school; and to commission artists, architects, historians and other professionals to create and preserve public memorials to commemorate such events and historic sites. Nothing can take away the frustration, horror and sadness I feel when I think of what the world would be like had the Holocaust never occurred. However, learning about and seeing Germany “close up” has reaffirmed for me that while we cannot change the past, we can work for a better future. Germany is making a strong effort, and I think it’s important to try and recognize this. But more importantly, I encourage you to go and see for yourself to make your own decision, feel your own emotions, and interpret what you will from this experience.

You can learn more about the organization and trip opportunity through GCU’s and Classrooms Without Borders’ websites: www.germanycloseup.de and www.classroomswithoutborders.org/seminars.

Jessica Schwartz lives in Bethlehem and is a member of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley's Young Adult Division.