ACCESS: AJC's new generation

...engaging today’s critical domestic and international issues. Working at the nexus between the Jewish community and the world, ACCESS reaches out to diplomats, policy makers and young leaders of diverse religious and ethnic communities.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Humanity lost, humanity gained

We’re on our way to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and I’m not sure what to expect. I know what I’m supposed to think and feel, but that that translates into reality remains to be seen.

As we walked up to the entrance it was strange, and a bit disturbing, to see that houses have been built right across the road from the camp. Not across a highway, not across a four lane major street, no, right across the two lane, busted pavement road. Who would want such a house? It simply seemed wrong. As we continued the walk I froze as I looked into the camp and saw smoke billowing from a chimney that appeared just inside the walls. A moment of actual, palpable panic set in even as I realized it was simply a heating vent. Is it maybe we see what we want to see, or perhaps what we were expecting to see? I don’t know, but my heart did race and I did feel a moment of heightened alertness not expected while “on vacation.”

Hours after the camp and the group’s reactions seemed to range from completely indifferent to clearly moved and upset. I also notice a few people having, what appears to me, a delayed sense of distress. My reactions… well, I don’t know. I know, since when am I one to struggle for words? I simply didn’t feel the connection I thought I would. I think there’s two reasons for this. One, I have no personal family connection to this place as my family’s history lies in Lithuania. Secondly, no mass crematoriums. This was a true concentration camp and not a death camp. People were murdered and tortured and humiliated here, but not on the mass scale as a full death camp. The difference has never been as apparent to me as it is now.

I guess I also feel hopeful. Here we were, a group of Jews with varied backgrounds and different family stories, after a near total annihilation of European Jewry, standing at what was, for Judaism, death’s doorstep; living, praying, thriving. What’s more, we’re not here in secret, some clandestine action designed to smuggle Jews into forbidden territory so they are able to feel a sense of history up close. No, we were here, in part, at the request of the German government. We were here not to mourn the past nor as a token gesture of reconciliation, instead, we were here to engage modern Germans in cultural, theological and simply personal dialog. To learn together, to educate one another and to make the “other” take form of someone real, someone tangible, someone with a name and a face. Germans are no longer simply “them” or “they” to me, rather Germans are people with names like Nadine, Sascha, Esther and Johanna. I hope we have made a similar impact. After all, it was humanity that was lost in the Shoah, not just humans.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Berlin Day 3- Shabbos (Matthew)

NOTE: Although the trip is over I want to continue posting my diary comments in order.  The lack of sufficient internet access quite limited all of our ability to upload during the trip, but I will continue doing so over the next few days.

Walking through the memorial of the murdered Jews of Europe was disappointing, if not upsetting.  Let me first explain the structures.  A large plot of land covered with 2,711 gray columns of various heights in a very symmetrical layout.  The ground undulates up and down throughout the exhibit as you walk toward the center.  The varying heights and slight directional confusion of the obelisks, due to the undulating ground, causes moments of disorientation.  The sounds of the city go quieter and quieter as you move to the center until you feel almost alone, with nothing but the sight of cars and people in the distance keeping you centered in your reality.  Below all this is a museum with much more detailed information and is very well setup in its own right.

The physical structure itself is a very well designed monument.  You can agree or disagree with the minimalist nature on the outside, but you can’t argue that is it a work of art and one paying tribute appropriately.  My issue comes with the upkeep and the demeanor of the visitors.  Cigarette butts, gum and trash are strewn about the memorial.  People are jumping from one column to the next and even playing hide-and-go-seek.  Not children, but adults!  They clearly don’t get it and it worries me that the message will be completely lost and the site itself will become a trivial byproduct of what some might view as collective guilt.  The juxtaposition of these activities and attitudes from Germany to that of the United States amazes me.  I thought we were the lazy, lax ones and Germany was the structured one.  Goes to show you what assumptions do.  I was fully expecting the type of cleanliness and reverence I see anytime I visit Washington, D.C. memorials.  You don’t see people climbing up to jump off Lincoln’s lap or cigarette butts and trash lining the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

Perhaps I need to adjust my expectations… then again, there are certain types of respect that don’t need translation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Uncomfortable Jew (Matthew)

Berlin Day 1
Ok, so I had my very first moment of being an uncomfortable Jew in Germany.  After dinner me and two other guys, one local, one participant (Elliot), headed to a local neighborhood bar away from the touristy stuff.  As we walked in I was keenly aware that we were definitely dressed differently and thus, weren’t the average locals.  We walked up the steps and turned right and there, about 10 yards away was the bar with the most Aryan looking guy ever.  Tall, dark facial hair, bald head and wearing a tight black t-shirt.  I swear straight out of a movie.  We walk in and past him and all I can think is, there’s got to be a punch line in there somewhere.  “Three Jews walk into an Aryan bar in Berlin…”  Thus the journey begins.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sachsenhausen 2050 (Mek)

There is no more barbed wire.  There are no more crumbling walls.  No more ARBEIT MACHT FREI.  No more excavated death chambers.

There is a new housing complex.  (Instead of barracks.)  There is a playground.  (Instead of guard-towers.)  And there is freshly-planted grass and flowerbeds. 

Of course: there is a very tasteful memorial plaque, designed and produced at tremendous expense by world-renowned artists.  A tasteful memorial plaque: prominently located and inspected daily for any signs of defacement or disrepair.

Sachsenhausen 2050.  The homes were sold at reduced prices.  Which had to be reduced again.  And yet again.  And most are still empty.

The grass is green—but still dead.  The birds chirp—but only mournfully.  And even when it is bright and sunny, the sky is stony gray.  The playground equipment is pristine.

So it is expected that in the coming days the chancellor will announce, with deepest apologies and sensitivities, that:

The homeowners will be relocated at government expense and the housing complex removed.  The barracks, the guard-towers, and ARBEIT MACHT FREI will be returned to their rightful places.  The death chambers will be re-constructed and the walls rebuilt.  And the barbed wire will be replaced.

Reflections- Erica

The past few days in Berlin have been a whirlwind of experiences and emotions.  It is my first time in Berlin and I must say it is a great city.  With its many museums, cafés, parks and memorials, it is truly a fascinating place. 
The past two days have conveyed a range of emotions dealing with the darkest period of German-Jewish relations, the Shoah.  Our visits to the Jewish Museum, the memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and today’s visit to Sachsenhausen demonstrated how central the Shoah is to German history and identity.
I have to say in advance that I have previous knowledge about the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, having discussed it in history classes at my university.   I came to Berlin on hand with opinions and feelings about these two sites discussed from my classmates and friends.  However, nothing could really prepare me for how I felt.  The Jewish Museum is a great museum, and stood up the challenge of presenting 2000 years of Jewish history in Germany. Its avant-garde architecture and method in which it displays Jewish culture over such an extensive amount of time is truly an accomplishment.  The only criticism I would give about my experience is our guided tour, it was too rushed and gave us a superficial view of how the information was presented.  I could clearly see that the museum provides a wealth of information in a meaningful way- an amusing way as well when visiting the “Heroes, Freaks and Superrabbis” exhibit, which displayed the works of Jewish cartoonists in the twentieth century.  Museums such as this should be visited with ample time to really appreciate its content and the hard work of its curators and historians.
The Holocaust Tower in the Jewish Museum and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe struck the same cord with me.  I felt cold and lost in both memorials.  In both memorials, I could hear muffled voices.  The muffled voices to me represented the voices of those in Europe who could see and hear what was happening to the Jews.  It gave me the sensation that other people during the Shoah were so near yet far to the Jews of Europe.  Near because there were people who came close to Jews and hid them during the war years.  Far because many people during the war years either chose not to do anything or could not.  In later conversations about the two memorials, I found out that Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum was a student of Peter Eisenmann, the architect of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  It made a little bit more sense to me why the two memorials invoked a similar reaction for me.
Today’s visit to Sachsenhausen and my personal visit to the recently opened Typography of Terror museum left me with more question about the Shoah in Germany.  But mostly these memorials and museums left me with a sense of being impressed by the German people and their extensive efforts to portray such a horrible part of their history.  These sites promote education, thought, reflection and dialogue about the Shoah.  They do it in a way that stirs debate among its visitors.  The issue of debate is an imperative one- and leads me to my thoughts about the Oberammagau Passion Play.  Many Germans I have spoken to thus far are shocked that we are going to see this play- conveying an image that we must be crazy for wanting to go to this.  However, I am still confident that this Passion Play will promote inter-religious dialogue in Germany and beyond.  I do think that we all go home and talk about this play for a long time- and discuss what sort of implication it has in the worlds of religion and theatre.  What is absolutely certain is the development of historical and contemporary consciousness for North American Jews about Germany is absolutely essential.  It is also rewarding and even fun, especially over a beer with young Germans. 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In the Now (From Matthew)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, not that that is much different from normal. My mind is almost constantly running at several thousand RPMs. Back in the day they called it “not paying attention,” nowadays I believe they call it attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. I like to call it “multi-tasking.”

I guess the difference the last few months is I’ve been really focusing on my upcoming trip, which just happens to start tomorrow. Here’s a brief overview of the trip. I was selected to be one of 15 “young Jewish leaders” (their words) from around North America to go to Germany as part of an AJC (American Jewish Committee) trip focusing on interreligious dialog, and in particular, the Oberammergau Passion play. (Press release) Now I’ll be posting plenty more on this as the trip wears on, providing WiFi access is as readily available as it seems from my reading, but here’s the rest of the itinerary.

After 10 days of the program I’ll head to Freising where I’ll work a few days at my company’s Germany office. After that, I’m off to play! First I’ll be heading to Prague, then Vienna, Bratislava and finally Budapest where I’ll eventually catch my plane home. Sounds like there’s a joke in there somewhere… “A Jewish Texan walks into a bar in Bratislava…” And before anyone freaks out about me posting I’ll be away from my house, as the good folks at have pointed out, I want to ease your mind. First off, I’ve got an alarm. Second, two separate neighbors don’t work and are home all the time, and know I’m out of town and are thus keeping an eye on things. Finally, honestly folks, I was thinking about it and I have nothing anyone would want to steal. An 11 year old big screen? Take it. A dining room table? Have at it if you can figure out how to get it out of the house without taking it apart. My extensive beer collection? Just make sure you close the fridge when you’re done. I was actually kind of sad when I really thought about it. My house would be the worst place for someone to rob! No jewelry, no cash, I’ll have my passport with me, no good financial stuff as every one of my accounts is password protected with a password that’s never been written down; I guess a single guy just doesn’t have that much good stuff to steal. This really did kind of bother me. Oh well, I’m over it.

So, back the point (Yes, there will be one). With all my focus on the upcoming trip I realized something yesterday. I’ve been looking ahead so much I’m afraid I’ll forget to just be in the now when the trip gets here. Seriously, how much do we do that in this day and age? So I’m making a promise to myself to NOT look past a single day of the trip. There’s been lots of planning and there is a ton of excitement right now, but with a 3 ½ week trip looming I can’t constantly be looking ahead. I think I’ve simply gotten caught up in the hustle and bustle of running the rat race. My goodness it’s already May, MAY! Where the heck did 2010 go already? Wasn’t it just yesterday we were in 2005 and feeling like the date didn’t meet our expectations? I mean really, I still want my flying car. But that’s just it, we’re constantly looking to the next great thing. Yeah sure, “stop and smell the roses” is a clichéd saying, but there really is something to it. I think part of what caused this to hit me was reading my buddy Jared’s blog about his travels,, and coming to the part about being in a small bar. I won’t retell the story, it’s there if you want to read it. Search for the part about “Mikos” if you want to cut right to the chase. Anyway, in my mindset from 3 days ago I never would have had that type of encounter because my head simply wasn’t in it. I’m challenging myself to stay in the moment during this trip, and then, to try to do the same when I get back.

Each day brings something new, but usually we’re simply too busy to see it. I’m committing to pull back the blinders and hope you can too. Don’t let it take a major trip, or a major life event to trigger your awareness. Search for the “now” now, not later.

Day 3 in Berlin (from Meredith)

Our first evening here, Dr. Dagmar Pruin, the director of Germany Close Up, told us that at the end of our ten day visit in Germany, we would feel as though we had been here for just 48 hours and all of 7 weeks at the same time.

Only three days in, I would already say that is the case.
Our trip of 16 hails from Texas to Montreal, Denver to New York, and, over a few dinners, we are proving ourselves an engaged and engaging group.  We've already met with with a member of the German Parliament at the Federal Foreign Office, the director of AJC in Berlin; toured the city via bus and on foot; attended services at the Neue Synagogue and elsewhere; visited the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Memorial, and, today, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just north of Berlin.  Though the tagline of Germany Close Up is 'American Jews Meet Modern Germany,' thus far we've spent more time with the Germany of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as we review the narratives of pre-war antisemitism and the Holocaust and visit the memorials (apparently an inadequate translation of the more laden German words, Mahnmal and Denkmal) dotting the Berlin cityscape.

The two most fascinating aspects for me so far have been 1.) our encounters with the Germans who have chosen to work with Jewish history in Germany and 2.) the reactions elicited when we mention our upcoming visit to Oberammergau's Passion Play in Southern Germany.  Each German, from Hans-Ulrich Klose, the coordinator of German-American Coooperation and Member of Parliament for 20 years, to our guide at the Holocaust Memorial yesterday, brings a different perspective and reason for dedicating their professional life to preserving and spreading German Jewish history.  Our guide at Sachsenhausen came into the work through her studies of German history and museum curation, but on a more personal level feels, as a devout Christian, compelled to heal the world through her work; the young woman who led us on a tour of the fomer historic Jewish spaces in Berlin is the daughter of a West German psychiatrist with many Jewish friends and the great-granddaugther of a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity before WWII; our guide at the Jewish Museum, a young Israeli man, did not share his personal history -- which is interesting in and of itself.  I suppose this is where we are best glimpsing 'Modern Germany,' if it is only a slice of life here -- it is illuminating (and humbling? relieving?) to encounter these committed and knowledgible people.

And then there's the infamous Oberammergau.  Most Germans, when informed of our destination, ask, "why?"  Briefly, the Passion Play, a six-hour account of Jesus’s life that stretches from early afternoon into evening, has been performed by the Oberammergau residents once a decade since 1634, when it was first staged out of gratitude that the bubonic plague spared the town.  The rub is, as with many passion plays, it traditionally contains extremely anti-Semitic portrayals of the Jews calling for the crucifixion of Christ.  Jewish and Christian scholars have been working together since the second half of the 20th century to find a way to erradicate the anti-Semitism from the performance while still honoring 1.) the Christian scripture and 2.) historical tradition (fellow bloggers, please correct me if I am wrong).  We will be the first group of American Jews to attend and discuss the play with the Oberammergau residents.  A worthy task, it seems, but most Berliners appear surprised, either laughing with dismay or expressing downrate disapproval for the play.  I, for one, remain excited at this unusual opportunity, and am perhaps all the more curious for the reaction in northern Germany.

Enough for now.  I hope fellow participants will add to these words (perhaps in dissent to what I've written), though I know we're all still getting over jet lag and treasure the rather rare moments of unscheduled time -- especially as today provides the first sunlight of the trip!

cheers, Meredith