The Dichotomy of Choice

By Yelena Kutikova

When I was younger, I told myself that I would never visit Germany. Given my family history, it is not surprising why I chose this stance. My great-grandmother was killed in Babi Yar, while many other family members died or greatly suffered at the hands of Nazis during World War II.

However, victimhood wasn’t the only war narrative my family passed on to me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather always told me stories about his experiences as a soldier during WWII and the tough times he endured to achieve victory. This included the final battle in Berlin, from the end of April to the beginning of May 1945, where he helped to win the war against the Nazis.

While I grew up with extremely negative feelings toward Germany, I was also curious. Curious about the people who lived there during the war and what made them do the horrific things that they did. Curious about the people who live there now and if they feel different toward Jews. That’s why when I heard about the Germany Close Up trip with COJECO, I first hesitated, but then decided to join the program with the hope that the country I encountered would be vastly different from its dark past.

On the very first day, our group walked toward the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and I couldn’t help considering the surreal nature of the experience. These were the streets where my grandfather fought in World War II to liberate the world from Nazi Germany. Nazis didn’t want Jews to live in Germany or to be alive at all. Yet there I was, standing there, a Jew and a free person. At that moment, I felt an even deeper level of gratitude to my grandfather and everyone else who fought in WWII for freedom, justice, and peace.

As I was exploring Germany, I was very surprised by the dichotomy I encountered.

On the one hand, I quickly learned about the recent rise of extremists and the continued deep prejudice against Jews that was still held by 20% of the country. Did they not learn anything from the past? Are they even human beings capable of empathy and kindness toward others? Several tour guides even explained that the common belief in the area was that the Nazis were brainwashed and simply followed orders. This is how German citizens currently rationalize actions of the Nazi soldiers, even though the consequences of refusing to kill a person weren’t as severe as people imagine. Yet, as a tour guide explained, 95% of Nazis chose to kill an innocent human being rather than be relegated to administrative work.

And, on the other hand, in my individual encounters, I met wonderful German people who turned out to be friendly, kind, and open about the complexities of their country and heritage. They tried to be extra nice with our group and sensitive to all our needs. I also saw a country filled with beautiful European architecture and scenery, not just the gray depressing houses that I expected to see on every corner. And seeing this side of beauty and kindness in Germany gave me hope.

One evening, we had dinner with a group of young Germans. The girl sitting across from me said, “You are the first Jew I have talked to.” I responded by saying, “You are the first German I have talked to.” It didn’t take me long to jump to the main questions swirling in my mind: “What does she think about the Holocaust? What role did her ancestors have in it? What does she think about rising anti-Semitism in Germany?” The most surprising answer to me was when she stated, “It happened so long ago and I have nothing to do with it, so I feel that it happened in a different country with different people. I don’t think much about it and it doesn’t have a big place in my life.” This perspective is the complete opposite of the experience I have as a Jew: this is an integral part of my family narrative and I am constantly reminded of it. Even though the Holocaust happened several generations ago, the stories that are passed down and the impact that it had makes me feel I am intimately familiar with every detail of the past. I could never forget what happened. I explained this to the German girl and we both acknowledged the contrast we experience in dealing with the horror that happened.

We then proceeded to share our views on modern society, on being career women, on challenges with finding work-life balance and the pressure to be successful in all aspects of life. We quickly realized that we had much more in common than we originally thought. By the end of our conversation, we were both close to tears and the German girl said, “I am sorry for everything that happened. I am glad that you came here and that you are giving Germany a second chance.”

I thought about what she said and about the dichotomy I saw in current German society. I hope if German people ever again face the choice between war and peace, they will show they learned from the lessons of the past and will choose morality, kindness, and empathy toward everyone. I believe this is the recipe for peace and coexistence for all of us. So here I am, giving Germany a second chance.

Yelena Kutikova is a Wexner Heritage Program alumni and a Jewish Community Professional.