Reflections on... Germany.
Germany was never high on my list of countries to visit, but due to perfect timing and the lure of a very subsidized trip, I found myself flying to Berlin last month. I spent my first eight days in the country as a participant on Germany Close Up, a program subsidized by a grant from the European Recovery Program, that offers young North American Jews a first-hand framework to explore Germany’s past, learn about contemporary German society, and encourage a meaningful transatlantic and German-Jewish dialogue. In other words, Germany uses part of their reparation money to bring young Jews to Germany.
There were twelve participants in total; the most diverse group of Jews I’ve ever been a part of. Ramiz, born in Azerbaijan, emigrated to New York on a refugee visa as a young boy and currently is in graduate school to become a therapist. Alex fled to Israel from Russia, eventually making his way to Los Angeles after serving four years in the Israeli Army. Helen, born in New Orleans, bounces from artist residency to artist residency, using her Prius as her home base as she works as a writer. The other Alex grew up very Christian and very conservative, eventually converting to Judaism as a young adult.
Our eight days were packed with a mix of traditional Berlin tourist activities (visits to the former Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, and the Reichstag Building) and unique opportunities that are only available with the help of an on-the-ground organization. I am always hesitant about organized travel – I firmly believe that the best way to get to know a country is by exploring independently – but these opportunities were truly incredible.
We met with Thomas Hitschler, one of the youngest members of the German Parliament, and asked him dozens of questions ranging from Merkel’s opposition of gay marriage to how the refugee crisis has led to a ride in German nationalism. In Dresden, we met with Michael Nattke who works at Kulturburo Sachsen, an organization dedicated to preventing right-wing extremism in the German state of Saxony. Karina Hauslmeier, a white woman whose wife is Muslim, is the Deputy Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations at the Federal Foreign Office, spoke to us on Germany’s mission to strengthen its Jewish community.
Tour guides accompanied us to Sachsenhausen, the closest Concentration Camp to Berlin, the Old Master’s Painting Gallery in Dresden, and the Jewish Museum.
The most meaningful part of my time in Berlin was realizing how many allies the Jewish community has in Germany. In addition to the individuals mentioned earlier, Mark and Natalie, our incredible tour guides, Dagmar, the inspiring woman in charge of Germany Close Up, and almost all of the individuals we met with working to strengthen the Jewish community were non-Jews. An old friend’s German boyfriend, who I met on my last night in Berlin, called this Germany’s “collective guilt.” Whatever the motivation may be, I found it powerful and comforting knowing how many non-Jews truly care about acknowledging their country’s past and working towards building a stronger future.
The three days I gave myself to explore Berlin allowed me to wander at my own pace. I rented a bike and rode through Tiergarten and Viktoria Park, discovered the street art in Hackescher Markt, visited the Topography of Terror, and window-shopped in Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg. I people-watched at Mauerpark’s famous Sunday flea market and devoured delicious Lebanese food with an old friend from college. Hokey Pokey was my favorite place I got ice cream, and Zeit Fur Brot had the most delicious pastries.
I’m thankful that I took advantage of this opportunity, to not only visit this city, but get to understand it on a meaningful level. Totally worth quitting my job a month earlier than planned for :) Now, off to Prague!