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  • Memory and the Nazi Legacy: Modern Germany from a Jewish Perspective

    Posted on July 6th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Memorial to Jews in Center of Berlin

    For Jews, German history casts a long shadow over modern Germany. It can be a challenge to know how to make sense of this legacy as we go about building a vision for the Jewish world. In recent years several groups of HUC-JIR students from across the programs and campuses, have traveled to Germany Up Close. This week, Andi Milens, Vice President at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs reflects on what she has learned from her experiences with the program. This January, a select group will initiate the first HUC-JIR alumni travel program with Germany Up Close. Applications for the program can be found by clicking on this link.


    It’s amazing how something as mundane as a bus stop can change your whole perspective on something. I guess the fact that the bus stop was in the heart of Berlin rather than in Manhattan, where I live, might have made a difference.

    It was October 2004, my first visit to Berlin, although not my first trip to Germany. I was a participant in a trip called Bridge of Understanding, a precursor to the Germany Close Up program. Walking rather absentmindedly down the street, out of the corner of my eye I caught the outside of a bus stop. I almost passed it up, but then I realized that it was an explanation of the role the building opposite the bus stop had played during the Third Reich. A few paragraphs into reading it, I realized that the explanation was entirely in English. That struck me as odd until it occurred to me to walk around to the inside of the bus stop. There was the same explanation, in German.

    Andi Milens

    In that moment, I began to understand something about German society. They get it. They know how to do memory. They have accepted their history and figured out how to collectively remember and memorialize it. There wasn’t any German on the outside of the bus stop because Germans won’t stop to read it while they’re hurrying along their way. The German explanation is on the inside of the bus stop because that’s where Germans will read it.

    This thoughtful addressing of both the past and the present struck me in sharp contrast to my visit to Poland two months prior. In all fairness, I met very few Poles on that trip. But based on observation and hearing only about Poles as victims of the Nazis with no acceptance of responsibility for their actions toward the Jews (and others), it made me appreciate all the more how far Germany has come.

    There is any number of examples of how Germany does memory. Shortly after my 2004 visit, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial opened. Beyond the significance of its architecture and its location -in the heart of Berlin, steps from the Brandenburg Gate, is its name: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name is important and powerful, a constant reminder that the Jews of Europe were murdered by Hitler and the Nazis and all those who participated or stood idly by. A memorial to homosexual victims was opened in 2008, across from the Jewish memorial, in Berlin’s equivalent to Central Park. Brass plaques on Berlin street corners bear the names of the Jews from that street who were taken away (granted, a controversial installation). There is no hiding the past; reminders are everywhere and occupy the time and space of everyday life.

    What struck me most, though, was our visit to the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament. From the outside, it looks like the old Reichstag – Gothic, imposing, and intimidating. Much of the building’s interior is made of plexiglass (or some other like material). As you look through a floor to ceiling window on a memorial to those who died trying to escape over the Berlin Wall, you understand the architect’s vision. The purpose of the architecture is to serve as a constant reminder of the importance of the transparency of democracy.

    That’s a powerful thought. There are people who look at any German over a certain age and wonder what they were doing during the Holocaust. Now I look at that same person and consider that here is a person who understands what it’s like to live without democracy. I’m 41 years old, born in America. No matter how angry I am about our civil liberties that have been taken away since 9/11 or that are still denied to segments of our society, I have never known what it’s like to live without democracy.

    In a small town outside Bad Arolsen, where the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains an archive of 50 million original Holocaust records, I visited a tiny Jewish cemetery that has been restored by volunteers. When they restored the low cemetery wall, they inserted plaques with the names of the Jews who were taken away. And they left empty spaces representing the absence the community feels. In the next town they’ve restored the synagogue, and schoolchildren visit as part of their curriculum. In the next town volunteers have turned a house into a museum remembering the Jews that were lost.

    I learned a new piece of history when I was in Bad Arolsen: the week before Kristallnacht, the Nazis did a trial run to see what the reaction would be. If there was no huge outcry, they’d do it on a larger scale. So there was a pogrom in Bad Arolsen. And there was no outcry. Why not? Maybe the Germans didn’t care about their Jewish friends and neighbors; maybe they agreed with what the Nazis were doing. And yet again, maybe they were confused and terrified. Maybe they were afraid that if they raised an objection, their home, too, would be burned, or worse.

    Our guide did not have a definitive answer. I think he wanted to believe the fear theory. Many in the American Jewish community, including those who chastised my parents for letting me travel to Germany when I was 17, would probably choose to believe that none of the Germans in Bad Arolsen objected to the pogrom. I don’t know the answer.

    I have now been to Germany 4 times — to Berlin twice, to Frankfurt, Weimar and Dresden, and to a surprising number of small towns. I’ve been to Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. My experiences in Germany have shown me that as a society, Germany deals with its past. It isn’t easy; it is painful and sometimes overwhelming and unrelenting, perhaps to a fault. They deal in different ways, but they deal with it. We could all learn something from the German experience.

    Most importantly, for me, is this. Germany makes me think. It makes me rethink my view of history. It makes me ask questions. It challenges me to form my own opinion, even if it’s not very popular in some circles. It makes me appreciate the choices individuals and societies wrestle with. It makes me think about the past and the present and the future. I have been forever changed by my experiences in Germany, none of them easy – and for that I am grateful.



    3 responses to “Memory and the Nazi Legacy: Modern Germany from a Jewish Perspective”

    1. Dear Ms. Milens,

      What a fantastic article. No ignorance, no bigotry, no one-sidedness. Instead, a perfectly correct understanding of how Germany has been and still is trying to deal with the darkest part of its history. An admirable openness towards a country which many people around you were understandably biased against.

      Please, write more articles like this! How about publishing your view in a German newspaper? If your view is representative of the U.S. Jewish community, that would definitely be an important message for the German public.

      Greetings from a German student

    2. As a Jew by birth and a physician working for a family owned Germany company, doing clinical research for six months in Germany, I can confrim rabbiruth’s observations. While not very religous, I happened to be near Mainz during Rosh Hashanah, and attended services at the Neu Synagoge. It was a heartwarming experience, watching the rebirth of a Jewish community, most of whom came her from Russia after the Berlin Wall came down, as well as from Israel.

      The bookend to this rebirth, is how Germans are constantly reminding themselves of what happened during before, during, and after WWII. Nearly a night goes by, when there is not a documentary revisiting the war, and what happened. My most amazing experience, when skiing in Garmisch Partenkirchen, was meeting a retired German high school teacher, (and son of a now deceased Nazi party member) who has created a website (in German, but which I hope to translate) describing what happened in Garmisch during that period. His interest was clearly triggered by his family history, his high school students who wanted to know what happened there during the war, and, at the time, Germany’s hope to bring the Winter Olympics to Münich and Garmisch for 2018. He felt it was critical for the world to know what happened at the 1936 Winter Olympics. He also reviewed with me, the history of Garmisch after the war, where over 400 displaced Jews, freed from the camps, were cared for before the next leg of their journey. All but one, went to Israel. The one who stayed, opened a clothing store.

      Here is the link to his historical compilation:

      I’ve also discussed this experience with my German colleagues. Initially, there is a pained expression on their faces, but they open up and clearly, though they are one or more generations beyond that epoque, still sense a great responsibility for what happened.

      These are wonderful people. I will never understand how, from such a civilization, the holocaust could have happened. It must never be forgotten.

    3. Hi there,I just wanted to mention that I loved this article. It was inspirng. Keep on writing of informative blog. Norman

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