Monday, May 16, 2005

A Different History

I've had several e-mails asking me if I'd gone to the new Holocaust Memorial (or the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to give it its official title), and so, since DJ F.K. is currently entertaining me with Disko '82's endless repetition of bad German disco hits and AFN-style country (it's Whit Monday, or Pfingstenmontag, a holiday, today, and he's back), I figured I'd essay a few thoughts about it and other related stuff to see what comes out.

The first thing is an anecdote about my friend Andrew, who wrote that Guide to Jewish Berlin I mentioned a couple of posts ago (out of print at the moment, but he'll be here at the end of June to do some preliminary research for the next edition). He'd just published it, and the J├╝discher Gemeinschaft (Jewish Community) was having a street-fair on Tucholskystr. so he rented a booth to sell and promote it, and, since that's just down the street, I went down there to keep him company and see what was going on. At one point, a German guy came up and asked him what he thought about the then-unbuilt and uncertain monument. "It's not for me," he said. "I'm an American." The guy was flabbergasted. "'re a Jew," he said. "Yes," Andrew said patiently, "but I'm an American Jew."

His point, I thought, was solid. This was to be a monument built by the people who committed the atrocities, to remind themselves that it had happened, and must never happen again. Of course this is commendable, but it's got little to do with him and his history, and even less to do with mine. By the time World War II had happened, his father's family had been in the U.S. for a couple of generations. (His mother is British, and was a nurse in England when his father met her during the war). His father was doing what he could about the situation: fighting the Germans (and, for that matter, doing as much as he could, too, since America behaved rather shamefully towards immigrant Jews fleeing the Holocaust: go look it up). Being American, he had his own issues to deal with in terms of being Jewish, since anti-Semitism was still rife in his country. But it's important to remember: he was neither murderer nor murdered.

For me, the Holocaust is even more distant. I grew up knowing about it, read lots about it in books, heard survivors tell their tales, and saw films and still pictures of the camps, both before and after their liberation. But I, too, am American, and I'm also not Jewish. I know about anti-Semitism because my parents were both openly anti-Semitic, and the town I lived in was very heavily Jewish. But to be honest, World War II was never a particular interest of mine. To the extent that I was interested in European history, it tended to be much older segments of it. Hell, most of the kids I grew up with had fathers who'd fought in the war, although my father's partial deafness kept him out of the Army.

So I neither need to be convinced that the Holocaust happened, nor reminded of how awful it was. Upon coming to Germany, I was naturally very interested to see how Germans themselves were dealing with it, with the history that had happened on their soil, and for the most part, I was very impressed, particularly with the people I knew, who tended to be in their 20s and 30s, and had integrated it into a worldview that was coherent and sane, including a burning desire to see that such a thing never happened again. From time to time I'd be out with a mixed bunch of Americans and Germans, and a couple of times, an American (albeit not one who lived here) would bring up the Nazis and the Jews, only to be slapped down by a German saying "Please tell us when your government apologizes to the American Indians."

Killing fields are not my thing. Although our family took long driving vacations in the summertime and my father was really interested in history, I never was much interested in battlefields. I have no desire to visit the Little Big Horn, and I remember climbing that huge hill in Waterloo, Belgium, and looking out over the farms, trying to make sense out of the diagrams on the plaques up there. "You can just see it happening," a tourist said to his wife. Well, I couldn't.

And my feeling also extends to killing fields where the killing was one-sided, as in Cambodia or here in Germany, at the camps. Yes, I was near Auschwitz when I was in Krakow, yes, there's even a streetcar in Munich which goes to Dachau (which is a suburb -- not that that makes the streetcar sign any less creepy), yes, I could have gone to Buchenwald when I was in Weimar on assignment, and hell, I could get on the subway right now and go to Sachsenhausen, although I guess it would be closed today.

It's not my story. I know the story, and yet I'm far more interested in how the Nazis came to power than I am in what they did when they assumed it. I'm far more interested in the story I've been part of, the integration of the former East Bloc into Europe, particularly because that story includes the very neighborhood I live in. I know that the story of the Holocaust remains important, because, as Serbia and Rwanda have shown, there are still people who haven't learned its lesson.

I do, however, know that there's still a fascination with the Nazis among certain Germans. I've seen neo-fascist newspapers, which were spread around the seats of a train I was riding on once (probably by the German cops who were on the train and ripped up my passport, but that's another story). I know there is a tiny number of neo-Nazis running around this country, and in fact a couple of them just got sent to jail for trying to blow up a Jewish monument. So I know that the reminder still has to be visible. I visited the documentation center in Nuremberg a few years ago when it opened, right in one of the buildings where the great rallies were staged, and I thought it was very well done. It, too, is for Germans: a police academy class was there hearing a lecture the day I visited, and schoolchildren were being led through by docents.

But I'll tell you something else, and that it's really, really wearying being surrounded by this every day. Unlike Nuremberg or Munich, just about the only history Berlin has is the history of Prussian militarism (see: Franco-Prussian War, World War I) followed by the Nazis, and, after them, the Cold War. There are no beautiful old buildings to look at as contrast or relief, no public art from a more innocent time -- hell, very little public art that doesn't have a Message, for that matter. The streets of my neighborhood, as anyone who's taken my walking tour knows, are filled with reminders and memorials, be they the small brass Klopfensteine (stumbling blocks) a German artist has hammered into the sidewalks in front of houses of Jews sent to the camps, or the Transportation Memorial on Grosse Hamburger Str., or the bombed facade of the New Synagogue or the plaques on house walls memorializing resistance fighters (read: Communists), or the few remaining houses pocked with bullet holes from the Battle for Berlin, or the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate just a few minutes' walk from my place, or the signs lining Unter den Linden which talk about each building's history, or even the innocent-looking playground in the housing project not far from the Brandenburg Gate, under which, I happen to know, lie the remains of Hitler's bunker. Then there's Daniel Libeskind's famous Jewish Museum, to which I have no desire to return. No matter where you go in this city, you are reminded of this stuff, at least if you're the slightest bit observant and the slightest bit cognizant of history.

It's the Burden of History, folks, that reoccurring character -- perhaps the reoccurring character -- in every single story that's written about Berlin. It's here, and there's nothing we can -- or should -- do about it.

But, like all burdens, it's wearying. It never stops. It's always there. And it's not my burden, but I'm living in the middle of it.

So maybe you can see why I'm not in a big hurry to walk down to Pariser Platz and see the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. You can see why I was so happy to read Amos Elan's magisterial The Pity of It All, a history of the Jews in Germany that stops in 1933: it was about something other than the Burden of History -- or, rather, it contextualized it and evenhandedly dealt with the fair and decent Germans -- who, make no mistake, also existed, as they do today, obviously.

And maybe you can figure out why, after being trapped in someone else's nightmare for the past eleven and a half years, I want so desperately to shed the Burden of History and move on to another place.

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