Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

(BERLIN, Germany) – I always knew that Germans did stuff by the book, but I didn’t think I was going to get a taste of it so soon, right after taking my first steps on German soil coming off my El Al flight today.

We were all herded onto a bus at the bottom of the stairs and waited about 10 minutes or more until it filled up.

We then proceeded to drive across the street, a distance of about 10 meters (and I’m being generous), and the doors of the bus opened. Nobody understood what was going on for a few seconds, and it took a while to grasp that we had actually arrived at the terminal. We got off the bus and looked back at the plane behind us – it was so close I could have thrown an apple and hit it straight on the nose.

Go figure…

Anyway, I’m in Berlin as a guest of the Heinrich Boll Foundation (disclaimer: the Heinrich Boll Foundation supported +972 Magazine in 2011 and 2012), which is holding a conference on German-Israeli relations and the future of democracy in both nations.

When I was offered to come, I had to think twice.

I mean, let’s face it, it’s Germany.

Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

There are still a lot of people in Israel who get the creeps from this place. Although there probably aren’t many left who still refuse to buy anything German (maybe a few), there are still those who just can’t bring themselves to come here. But on the other hand, there are those who love this place. Berlin especially is enjoying a huge influx of young Israelis who love the openness, the art, the culture, the gay scene – and the low cost of living (compared to Tel Aviv, of course). You really can’t beat 3.00 euros for a beer, compared to 7-8 euros in Tel Aviv.

Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. My mother’s side of the family was wiped out almost entirely in the Holocaust. So, it’s a bit strange to come back where it all “began.” When my mother first heard I was going she was surprised. But then we went into our old routine: “Be careful of the Narzis!” she said to me. In the “2,000 Year Old Man,” with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, they have a routine where the 2,000 year old man is mad at Winston Churchill. According to the 2,000 year old man, in one of his speeches, “Churchill said ‘We must conquer the Narzis.’ All this time we were looking for Nazis! We dropped everything and started looking for Narzis! It prolonged the war!”

Over a year ago, I wrote about lighting my family’s Hanukia. It was actually in a post about the big Carmel fire. I recently got to tell the story of this Hanukia to a group of college students from the United States on one of Aziz Abu Sarah’s MEJDI tours. I don’t believe in God, but every year I get emotional while lighting the wicks of this Hanukia. It belonged to the family of my Grandfather, Poppy, who lived on a farm outside of Bratislava. Poppy always had good instincts. He left for the States before the war. As the Nazis were getting closer, the family buried the Hanukia, a beautiful piece of Judaica, in their back yard. After the war, and after everyone was killed, Poppy came back and dug it out. When he passed away, we took it to our place and light it every Hannukah, with olive oil.

Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

I love lighting that Hanukia. And I love the fact that my children light it together with me. I’m not a religious man, and don’t believe in God. But when I light that Hanukia, I feel like there’s a reason for my being in Israel.

The problem is, that with each year that passes, Hannukkah catches me in a different state of mind. And this past year it was the most complex for me. It was the year that, at least in my opinion, the two-state solution died. Yet since then I’ve been in some sort of limbo state, where I still don’t come out and support the one-state solution, the only option left. It seems like some sort of mourning period, which I’m coming to grips with. And it’s not easy, because it’s scary. And I presume it’s scary for many Israeli Jews. It means, in a way, giving up on Zionism and maybe even on Jewish self-determination. And that’s extremely difficult, given all we’ve been through.

And it’s this state of mind where I suddenly land in Berlin. It’s this state of mind that I began reading “Alone in Berlin,” just before the invitation to come here.

The Holocaust comes up every once in a while during the conference. But it comes up quietly. It kind of reminds me how some people whisper the word “cancer.”

And nobody seems to really want to open it up. Why should they? Hasn’t it all been said before anyway?

But even for me, Holocaust remembrance is changing. And despite what my family went through in Europe, I understand more clearly how Israel uses this for its own purposes. How it justifies things it does. Crimes it perpetrates.

And it’s not easy to release oneself from this grasp of remembrance. Growing up in the Israeli school system, I went through quite the brain-washing. Only distancing myself from those schooling years has enabled me to see more clearly. Merav Michaeli wrote recently in Haartez on this topic an amazing op-ed that should be read in whole. She wrote it after a poll was published that said 98% of Israelis consider it “either fairly important or very important to remember the Holocaust, attributing to it even more weight than to living in Israel, the Sabbath, the Passover seder and the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people.” Here is an excerpt:

The Holocaust is the primary way Israel defines itself. And that definition is narrow and ailing in the extreme, because the Holocaust is remembered only in a very specific way, as are its lessons. It has long been used to justify the existence and the necessity of the state, and has been mentioned in the same breath as proof that the state is under a never-ending existential threat.

The Holocaust is the sole prism through which our leadership, followed by society at large, examines every situation. This prism distorts reality and leads inexorably to a forgone conclusion – to the point that former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau announced at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony three years ago that Moses was the first Holocaust survivor. In other words, all our lives are simply one long Shoah.

Remembrance is an issue that follows me around Berlin. It is a city full of monuments, like I’ve never seen in any other.

They even remember the leader I used to believe in, the man who had my vote.

Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

And suddenly I try to remember if there is a sign in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Did they just change the name from Kikar Makchei Yisrael? No sign? Maybe we should learn some basics from the Germans.

Alone in Berlin: Unsuccessfully trying to forget

As I walk around Berlin, I try – with no success – to forget about the Holocaust. Just for a few minutes. To see it clean, tabula rasa.

But I can’t.

And I won’t.

(My next post will be about the Heinrich Boell Conference)


Read also:

Alone in Berlin (Part II) – A powerful memorial, mistreated