It was my first year in Germany, and a University friend from Hamburg invited me to her family’s Christmas celebration. Immediately my parents flashed through my mind, Germany is not a place for a Jewish girl. Yet when I finally summoned the courage to tell my friend that I was Jewish, she waved the information aside as inconsequential. Her family welcomed me as their fourth child at their Christmas table and even had prepared gifts for me, so that I wouldn’t feel left out. With candles and old-fashioned decorations, the tree cast a warm glow around the living room, and laughing chatter filled the room. It was all quite gemuetlich, that uniquely German sense of warmth and coziness, until time for church rolled around. But my hosts didn’t leave me an opportunity to object and simply took me along with them. And when the family giggled at the minister’s mention of the Biblical Joseph – my friend’s father was named Josef – I relaxed and let the cross-cultural experience of Christmas in Germany roll right over me.
It was only 21 years after the end of World War II. I was a student at Indiana University who was determined to study abroad. But I was a Russian major, and in 1966, when the Cold War was in full force, it was not possible for U.S. undergraduates to study in the then Soviet Union. So when my German professors invited me into a new program in Hamburg, Germany, I jumped at the opportunity. My parents immediately objected. They regularly left me newspaper articles about the rise of the German neo-Nazi party, questioned my sanity, but then ultimately gave in to my doggedness and reluctantly tolerated my plans.
I was a young American going abroad and very little could dampen my excitement. Radolfzell, where I started my adventure, was a picturesque south German village unlike anything in Bloomington, Indiana, or in St. Louis, Missouri, where I had grown up. Hamburg, where I then enrolled as a university student, was regaining its elegance from the war’s rubble. There was so much to take in. People walked with serious determination, even women shook hands, they stood close together when they spoke to each other, they shopped for groceries with their own cloth bags, the streets were clean, and the multitudes of public buses and trains ran like clockwork. I bought a used bike and rode to my classes on an elaborate network of bike paths. Theaters and concert halls were full, and student tickets were inexpensive. The sidewalk cafes bustled with people watchers.
However, as I moved among the scurrying crowds, I couldn’t help noticing many older women, and relatively few older men in the shops and on the streets. Because of the war, my friends explained sadly. I never really knew my father, offered the student who lived next to me in the University residence hall. He left for the war when I was a baby and died there. My mother and my grandmother raised me, added another friend whose father hadn’t returned from the war. And this scene repeated itself again and again, as I carefully stored my impressions. My classmates were the future teachers, physicians and lawyers who were determined not to let another war start. They were politically progressive. And thinking back to my parents’ concerns, I shook my head. This was an exciting place to be.
Then why did I hesitate when a German friend asked me to accompany him to Friday night services at a synagogue, while I was visiting Berlin? He was not Jewish but evidently had been to the synagogue before. Was he trying to show me that he was a ‘good German’? Or perhaps this was his private response to Germany’s past. No, I was exaggerating. He was a good friend, just curious. And so I went with him to the synagogue.
As a Reform Jew, I felt off-kilter in the Orthodox German service. But I went ahead and joined the women on their side of the sanctuary, causing some distraction in the process, for there were not many young Jewish women in Germany in 1966. A curious woman who could have been any one of my aunts noticed my discomfort and whispered to me, Just follow me, if you don’t know what to do. And follow her I did throughout the service. After some time had passed, she stared at me out of the corner of her eye, then scooted closer and with a yenta’s voice asked, did I happen to be married? Engaged? I shook my head smiling and knew what was coming. She had a handsome nephew in Belgium. Surely I would be interested. This was Berlin, once a vibrant Jewish community, now scraping to create another generation of Jews.
As I left the synagogue, I avoided my German friend’s eyes, and perhaps it was my imagination that he was avoiding mine too. He appeared as deep in thought as I was, and we walked together silently for some time, unable to articulate what was really on our minds. Interesting service, lots of older people, I mumbled in fits and starts. Yes, I’ve been there before …he offered, as his voice faded into the sidewalk.
I heard his feet shuffling for several blocks, then peered at him out of the corner of my eye. Wasn’t the Berlin Philharmonic amazing last night? Have you seen the Otto Dix exhibit in Hamburg yet? Ohhh… it was incredible. How am I ever going to study for exams with so much else to do? We picked up our walking tempo, as our student life excitement grew, and our brief encounter with the past in the synagogue gradually receded.
Returning to Hamburg to complete my year of studies I then moved south to spend a year in Freiburg near the charming Black Forest – working to support myself, studying, biking and hitchhiking with my German colleagues who became close friends. The tiny room I rented from a Freiburg family in a large turn-of-the-century house touted an old fashioned bed with a huge feather comforter, a table and, unfortunately, cold running water. Winter mornings were tough, but I was living like a German student and loving it. The air was fresh, the bread dense and almost tangy, the strawberries sweet, and the asparagus delicate. Day trips into the Black Forest ended in playful banter, coffee and cake, with cheese, sausage and wine accompanying thoughtful conversation later in the evening. I stood on skis for the first time in my life, though my descent down a hill nearly ended in catastrophe. But my best friend had a contagious laugh that colored this and all of our adventures. I was the only American in our group, and they welcomed me warmly into their vivacious camaraderie. We poked fun at stereotypes of Germans and Americans with equal amusement. My religion never came up, and my parents’ worries subsided further.
Returning to the US for graduate school, I was an ocean away from cold running water, late night pub discussions and delicious bread. A laser-like focus on German literature defined my days, interrupted only by protesting against the Vietnam War and periodically visiting my German boyfriend. After three years, my family rabbi from childhood married us in my parents’ living room. My Protestant husband deftly smashed the ceremonial glass, grinned with success, and we moved back to Germany. You see, the world has changed. You just need to open your mind.
And yet, when I began to work in Germany at a non-profit organization, and was filling in the usual tax documents, I stumbled over a box to fill in my religion. Even now, it unnerves me to think about checking the box marked Jewish on a German form. After my spontaneous ‘that’s none of their business’ reaction, I reminded myself that this wasn’t the U.S., and that church and state were not separate. Hastily checking the Jewish box, I covered the paper and looked around suspiciously. But this was 1972, and as I later learned, my checkmark would merely send my tax dollars to the Jewish community in Germany, just as Protestants’ and Catholics’ tax dollars supported their churches.
When in Rome…..I quickly put this out of my mind, until several years later when filling in the same tax form to teach at a German university. This time I thought about it longer. My check in the religion box marked none triggered a phone call from a German official who had noticed the inconsistency with my earlier form. But I explained my decision clearly to him. When filling in the form this time, I did not feel particularly affiliated with organized religion, and my checkmark in each case honestly reflected my feelings. He was not terribly concerned with my overly intellectualized feelings, did not seem to follow me and simply asked if I wished to renounce Judaism. There was a form and a procedure for that. No, no, I gasped with horror, I would always be Jewish, I simply….. and then I stopped, realizing that he couldn’t understand. My tax dollars would simply continue to support the Jewish community.
I began to wonder if my employers ever saw my tax documents that were clearly marked Jew. No one ever said anything, and I did not either. Did it matter to them? My life was too busy to find out. I was making new friends, working hard at my job, finishing a dissertation, and generally settling in to everyday German life.
And how assimilated I felt when several years later, a German friend from out of town asked me to deliver birthday flowers to one of his mother’s close friends. It was a lovely occasion, as we as sat down to a gemuetlich setting of fruit tart with the obligatory whipped cream and good strong German coffee, my flowers capping the occasion as celebratory. Then the conversation turned to my friend’s parents. But her comments did not make sense to me, until she cocked her head with a questioning look. Didn’t I know that my friend’s father had been a leading Nazi in his hometown? And surely I knew that he had taken his life to avoid answering to the oncoming Allied forces at the end of the war. My hostess continued the conversation commenting on the weather. What an early spring we’ve enjoyed. How nice of you to visit me on my birthday. Auf Wiedersehen!
The next time I saw my friend, I searched his face for openings to talk about my unexpected experience. How do you ask someone if his father had been a Nazi?
And how do you talk about the past with his parents’ generation?
In the years that followed, I found myself gradually looking more closely at older Germans I encountered on the street and wondering where they had been during the war. Had they supported the Nazis? Or even been one? Had they perhaps hidden Jews from the Gestapo, helped them escape? Or turned them in? Perhaps they had been part of the resistance.
Then one evening I watched a special TV program about German resistance to the Nazis. It focused on the Stauffenberg group’s attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944. The next day, I went to work irritated that the German media so often focused on this one case of late resistance to Hitler. Could they find no other examples? A retired school headmaster with whom I co-taught a university course noticed my gloomy mood, and for the first time, I spoke directly with the older German generation about the country’s Nazi past. Leaving aside many years of inhibition, I angrily blurted out that Germany should be ashamed that it was unable to show any significant resistance to the Nazis. One assassination attempt from 1944 was all that the media could dredge up.
My retired colleague was about 70 years old and a kind-hearted man. He listened to me patiently and then told me about his family members who had been active in the German Protestant church branch that had opposed the Nazis. His family had been outspoken members of this church and had been harassed for not compromising with the Nazis. But this had not kept Hitler and his consorts from conscripting them into the armed forces. My colleague spoke gently, without faltering, and he made no excuses for his compatriots. For all of my anger before, I now could not find a response. He was not seeking absolution, nor could I provide it. There was no resolution, and I wondered if we could find anything more than a silent understanding, as we shook hands and walked together pensively to our waiting class.
During the 15 years I studied, lived and worked in Germany, my religion was rarely a topic of conversation, both while I was married to a German and after we separated. What did I expect? A curious question after being introduced? So tell me, are you Jewish? First and foremost, I was an American. I could walk, talk and act like a German, though my Anglo first name gave me away, and I smiled a bit too readily to be German. I was an American in Germany. Would anyone but my friends and close colleagues know that I was Jewish? And did it matter to them? How much did it matter to me?
It mattered enough to set me on edge the week that German TV broadcast the American mini-series Holocaust. One day during that week, I was walking down a busy city street in my neighborhood and saw a man coming toward me with what looked like a yellow star pinned to his jacket. That was it! I saw myself in Nazi Germany, and my heart beat faster and faster, until the man came closer. For whatever reason, he was wearing a shiny toy sheriff’s badge on his jacket. I felt like sinking into a puddle with relief and could only laugh at myself. But it didn’t feel funny.
A few days later, I visited a number of local jewelry stores. Taking a deep breath, lifting my head and in the most detached manner I could muster, I asked for a charm in the shape of a Star of David, until one shopkeeper finally pulled one out of a drawer. For weeks thereafter, I wore this small Jewish star on a silver chain around my neck. At first I wore it under my blouse, with it peeking out only very slightly. And gradually I let it become more and more visible. But this did not elicit a response from anyone except one student who helped me quiet a rowdy class one afternoon, Listen to her, be quiet ! Shut up ! His name was Rosenthal. He had never spoken up like this before. But now we exchanged knowing glances, as my Jewish star reflected the light in the classroom. Why didn’t a conversation ensue? I wanted to know what his family’s history was, who survived the Holocaust, what it was like to be a Rosenthal in post-war Germany. Perhaps he wanted to know why I suddenly wore a Jewish star. But we only nodded at each other with a silent understanding, perhaps unsure about intruding upon the very personal issues of being Jewish in Germany.
A couple of years later, my uneasiness somehow ebbed while I was serving as a panelist at a German conference on cross-cultural topics. In speaking about migrant workers in Germany, I asserted that the Turks in Germany were Germany’s Jews of today. A few heads nodded in slow thoughtfulness. Emboldened, I then added that I myself was Jewish. Complete silence followed. Perhaps I had spoken the unspeakable. Perhaps I had not found an effective way finally to say aloud in Germany I am Jewish! Please talk to me about it. Or maybe recent Jewish history in Germany was still too difficult for many people to articulate in words.
During the conference break, several prominent German men my parents’ age came to speak with me individually and assured me that they had had nothing to do with the Holocaust. I listened impassively. Did they want me to declare them ‘good Germans’? Were they telling me the truth? Unable to respond, I inadvertently moved a step back and simply listened.
Shortly after this, as I was preparing to leave Germany and return to the U.S. for good, I was saying goodbye to a German friend who worked in journalism. She was quite dear in her farewells. Then, as we talked further, she pondered aloud that it might have been difficult for me to live in Germany as a Jew. But my grateful nod to her froze, when she continued. Surely I understood that some of the German reaction to Jews during the Nazi period stemmed from the Jewish monopoly on fields like journalism and entertainment. Everyone knew that the Jews had kept others out.
It was indeed time for me to leave Germany, after living there for 15 years of my adult life. What had happened to the ‘innocent abroad’? Perhaps I was now reacting to Germany more as a Jew than as an American. And somehow my German peers seemed to mirror this.
One friend began touting her Jewish lineage from a great grandparent. Another talked about the special bond he felt with Jews, and many years later he even converted to Judaism. Another friend expressed her unabashed anger at her parents’ involvement with the Nazis. And many criticized their schooling for ignoring this part of their country’s past, while those who were teachers began to rectify this.
I was the Jewish American who sometimes felt like an American Jew. Imagine, lamented one friend, I think my grandparents might have lived in a house that the Nazis seized from Jews. We were having coffee on a dark winter’s afternoon in her family’s cozy home that had been built after the war. It was a gemuetlich atmosphere, with candles burning and the scent of Christmas trees in the air. I had no words to offer her, and she seemed to know that. For the first time, silence felt comfortable. Sometimes it was all right simply to take in anxieties together and think about them. And we both nodded, as we gazed at each other knowingly.