By Paul Lewis
Screw you, you bastard! We won!
You must be turning over in your grave with all that is happening in your beloved Berlin this week. You should have seen it: more than 2,000 Jewish athletes from 39 countries around the globe just paraded through your Olympic Park in the Opening Ceremonies of the European Maccabi Games, sort of a European Jewish Olympics.
That’s right – the same complex with the iconic stadium you built for the 1936 Olympics, as you were planning the Holocaust, was filled with Jews tonight. You banned German Jewish athletes from participating 79 years ago but tonight Yids filled the Olympic Park. There were Jewish swimmers from Argentina and Jewish runners from Australia; Jewish basketball players from Canada, Jewish tennis players from South Africa and Jewish soccer players from the USA.
You came so close to exterminating all the Jews of Europe, but, tonight, European countries, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and France, were proudly represented by Jewish athletes. We’re still here.
Oh, and there’s another country here this week. It’s called Israel, the ancient and modern homeland of the Jewish People, reborn from the ashes of the Shoah. Israel’s existence guarantees that your Final Solution will not be implemented again.
Not that there aren’t people who would still like that to happen. At the same time there is a resurgence of Jewish life in Berlin, the antisemitic sickness you nearly perfected is alive and growing again in Europe. It’s worse now than any time since you were in power. Every week brings another incident – a firebombing or an attack on a school, a museum or a kosher market. Why? Simply because they are Jews.
Frankly, with all the history of Jew-hatred in Germany, I never thought I would be here. My father came to Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam, at the end of your reign of terror. He was part of the Allied force that liberated Dachau. Like so many of the Greatest Generation he never talked about it, but was changed by it forever. Maybe that’s why I was determined never to come. Besides, it may be ignorant and impolite to say, but no matter what words are spoken in German, they all sound to me like achtung and mach schnell.
And while the Holocaust is history for me, I remember all too well the massacre in Munich of 11 Israeli Olympians in 1972. No, Germany was never on my “must visit” list.
But I’m here and glad for it. Fortunately, Germany today is far different from the way it was in your time. Berlin is a complex, fascinating city, full of energy and culture. The Nazi past is openly acknowledged and appropriately memorialized in several ways and places.
This week I toured your first concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, just 22 miles north of the Berlin. You started housing political prisoners there in 1936, the same month you used the Olympics to hoodwink the world into believing Nazi Germany was peaceful and tolerant.
By 1945, 30,000 inmates had died at Sachsenhausen from disease, malnutrition and execution. It was the testing facility where the SS learned and practiced the mass killing methods they would later use at other Nazi death camps. Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Makes You Free – appears on the ironwork entry gates, just as it does at Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt.
Even though the Holocaust didn’t happen on American soil, it deeply influenced the post-World War II American Jewish experience. Perhaps that’s a nod to the Jewish value that all Jews are responsible for each other; perhaps it’s a bit of guilt that we didn’t raise our collective voices loudly enough while you were in power.
Either way, American Jewish education and philanthropy over the last 70 years have been heavy on the Holocaust and antisemitism. So much so that in a recent survey of American Jews, 73 percent said remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. That’s even more than the 69 percent who said leading an ethical and moral life is essential to their Jewishness.
As important as it is to remember the atrocities you unleashed on our people, the Holocaust and antisemitism can not and should not be the central, defining reasons for our Jewishness. Some call it an obsession; others call it a continuing siege-mentality and fear for survival. Whatever it is, over-concentrating on it runs the risk, it seems to me, of overshadowing the richness and beauty of our tradition that provides real answers to the question Why be Jewish?
Of course, I recognize it’s easy for an American Jew to say that. Not so for European Jews who really are facing existential questions every day. Again.
As the parade of athletes continues through this historic place it’s as though someone is repeatedly pressing a TV remote control’s “previous channel” button. My mind switches between the old newsreels and the scene I am witnessing in person.
On the 1936 channel, the Berlin Olympic stadium, in black and white, is draped in swastikas alongside the Olympic rings. On the 2015 channel, the Opening Ceremony is a sea of color as each delegation joyously enters the arena. The uniforms are all different but have one thing in common: a Jewish Star of David. But unlike in your time, these stars are not yellow.
In the 1936 newsreels you are smiling with your right arm raised. Thousands of Germans in the stands eagerly return your Nazi salute. In 2015, thousands of Jewish family members and friends are in the stands, waving their arms at the Jewish athletes parading by. The symbolism is lost on no one as 15,000 Jews from throughout the world join as one – in Berlin of all places – and sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. We survived. We are still here.
We won. Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish people lives.
Paul Lewis is a Program Officer for PJ Library at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. He is in Berlin, Germany, this week attending the European Maccabi Games, where his daughter is a goalkeeper on the USA Women’s Soccer Team.
© Paul Lewis 2015