Reflections: An American in Germany

This plaque is on a cobble stone in front of a house that says that a Jewish person lived in this house, by the name of Eduard Rose, and was deported to Theresienstadt and died.

by Florence Broder

I am an avid traveler but Germany was never on my top ten list of places to visit. It wasn’t even on the top 20 list. However, I was sent by the Jewish Agency to promote a conference via social media for 350 Russian-speakers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland that we had organized marking the 150th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s birth. For many Jews Germany triggers many emotions, but even more so for me because my father was born there, in a displaced persons camp, after the Holocaust. Though he left at the age of two, he somehow still feels connected to the country. He considers it his motherland. He was absolutely elated that I was visiting Germany; it was the exact opposite way I was feeling. It was with this “baggage” that I came to the country.

It was difficult to be the only American in a group of Russian and German-speakers. The first question that popped into my head was how could they leave Russia only to live in Germany?! It seems unnatural. It’s like the Jews returning to Egypt after the mass exodus in the Bible. And so I started querying the participants: “Do you feel at home in Germany?” It was an even split. Some said, it would never be home to them; Israel was truly their home. Many of them were very much thinking of making aliyah. Then there were others among them who said they were quite comfortable living there. In response they asked me, “For how long can you hold a grudge against an entire country?” I frankly don’t know the answer to that question. But every time I saw someone over the age of 60, I couldn’t help but think, “What were you doing then?”

Accompanied by my student guides, one from Germany and another from Austria, we explored Weimar. It was a cultural center – the birthplace of the Bauhaus movement that is so dominates the Tel Aviv skyline, as well as home to great contributors to high culture like Bach and Goethe. And though Buchenwald was a twenty minute drive from the city center, that’s not at all what struck me. It was actually a modest plaque embedded in the cobblestone called “Stolperstein” which impacted me more than anything. Though small and unobtrusive, there was something extremely disconcerting in the way it simply marked the birth, deportation and death of a Jew that once lived there. It was almost too minimalist.

With this backdrop, the student participants convened at the Leonardo Hotel, an Israeli-owned hotel chain, to discuss such issues as the Holocaust and Israel. They heard lectures from Israeli journalists, Israeli diplomats, and rabbis. As translations of the the fascinating discussions were whispered in my ear, I tweeted away. The participants were intelligent and gave the panelists a run for their money. They asked smart questions and tried to find holes in research. Some issues that were touched upon included:

  • Was the State of Israel established because of the Holocaust? Or, did Zionism cause the Holocaust?
  • Anti-Israel media that is leading to its de-legitimization;
  • Anti-Semitism v. Anti-Zionism;
  • Relations between Israel and the US, Russia and England.

On Shabbat, there was much talk about the flotilla crisis and the media. Some were overwhelmed by videos on both sides of the conflict. Many of the participants discussed how it changed relationships with their non-Jewish friends. But there was one girl from who stood out because her best friend stopped talking to her over it. While that didn’t happen to me, the discussion resonated because of my own experience dealing with the anti-Israel sentiment on the Jewish Agency Facebook page at the time.

Over the course of my four days there, many of the participants approached me because of my job. They had never heard of anyone who did social media for a living. Europe is simply not as social media savvy as the United States or even Israel. While I believe most of them were on Facebook, not one of them was one Twitter! They asked me so many questions about how I use social media and wanted to stay in contact to discuss ways to strengthen their local communities with the tools. I am left with thoughts of how we as a larger community can empower them.

Sadly aside from the journey back to the Frankfurt airport, I didn’t have to opportunity to engage with any native Germans. The only one, was a gentleman from Weimar who played the French horn for the orchestra. He spoke English and inquired about the our group and we told him we were a Jewish group who had gone to see Buchenwald. I asked if he had ever been there and he said he had, but admitted that a good number of Weimar natives probably had not ventured. He said he can’t believe how people covered there eyes to the atrocities that happened there in such a center of culture. Those were the facts before us. So many people did that. His recognition of the paradox was somehow comforting to me.

Florence Broder manages social media for the Jewish Agency for Israel.