Simon Goldberg Reflects on What He Saw on a Recent CJF Mission to Germany and How the Country is Coming to Terms with its Past
Jul 21, 2010 — Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future recently sent students to Germany on a mission to learn about the Shoah and Germany’s transformation and to engage with the local Jewish community. Participant Simon Goldberg shares what he learned.
It’s blurry in Berlin, but I suspected no different. I cannot see a thing, but I know—I know that I am here for a reason.
On June 7, nine Yeshiva University students—I among them—arrived in the heart of the German capital for what would be a life-changing experience. I concede: It was unlikely that any of us truly knew the purpose of our trip. I acknowledge: We had absolutely no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I reflect.
Students prepare for departure
Upon arrival, I felt dazed: partly because I knew not what to expect from a modern-day Berlin; partly because I had not slept the night before—mostly because I was in Germany.
The airport; the sights; the black, the red, the yellow; it all became very real, very soon. As we strolled out of the terminal and first touched our feet on German soil, I struggled with internal confusion. Simon to self: If I were alive then, would I have come here in 1945? Would I have come here in 1950? I’m in Berlin. What am I feeling? What am I supposed to be feeling? Is my mere presence recognition and validation inappropriate in and of itself? Am I voicing in affirmation of the German government, perhaps consenting that it has handled properly its Nazi past? Am I forgiving? Forgetting? Do I have a right to either?
In Berlin, spaces are empty
They took us on walking tour that traced the evolution of Jewish life in Germany. We began at the foothold of what was once the first synagogue in Berlin. We stopped at a Jewish cemetery where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. In large part, the cemetery was destroyed and today could be mistaken for a park. They told us not to trust the green grass, and we didn’t. But hold on for just one moment. Flowers grow here. Could it be? And how is it that birds chirp here? That the sun shines here? Very quickly inside of me, a volcano of sorts had erupted. Amid the unprecedented levels of disorientation, I felt anger.
But I saw children running and playing and laughing, worlds removed from war, anguish and hatred. These kids, I tried so hard to trust, would not be subject to the ploys of Nazism. These kids, I believed, had a choice in the molding of a democratic ideal for a keepsake of their unmistakable identities. In this, I found solace.
Some graveyards are bigger than others
It was blisteringly hot when they took us to the dens of death.
We visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg. Starting in 1936, it existed largely as a forced “labor” camp for political prisoners and as an institution for the military training and development of SS men and women. That is, Sachsenhausen graduated them to Auschwitz. But there was no denying that the camp functioned also as an extermination site for “enemies of the state,” among them 10,000 Red Army officers who were executed systematically by being shot in the back of the neck in the late stages of the war. Our tour guide showed us the crematorium, which was left almost entirely untouched. He told us that the history of mass-murder is the history of things you can no longer see.
In the suburbs of Berlin, lies the House of the Wannsee Conference. There, on Jan. 20, 1942, senior members of the Nazi administration met to define in writing the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” We stood in that room—that same room where Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich once stood and decided to destroy the Jews of Europe. They left no Jew out, sparing not even the Jews of Albania who numbered a mere 200. Tears of agony and frustration accumulated under my eyes, waiting to explode. And they did.
An unlikely but likely Jewish future
Shabbat never ended in Berlin. We welcomed the Queen early, and bid farewell, well into the night. For lunch on Shabbat afternoon, we split up and were hosted by local Jewish families. The couple that welcomed us into their home was warm and friendly. Their boy, Kobi, was on the lookout from his window on the second floor when he spotted us, a group of wandering Jews. Kobi was shy, and his lack of fluency in English brought joy to my heart. The only languages he knew were Hebrew and German. He was intelligent for a boy in the fifth grade, and, proud to demonstrate his family’s tradition, made a blessing over his own two Challiyot at once with his father. We chatted as we passed the salad bowls up and down the table. I asked him what his favorite subjects were in school and what he learns in Yeshiva. I was touched when I realized that this boy today has opportunities that existed—at best—as stolen dreams under Hitler’s rule. Who would have ever imagined that in 2010, a young Jew in Germany would taste such freedom?
Simon with Berlin’s chief rabbi
In darkness, there is light
Standing above the plaque at the German Resistance Memorial in Berlin’s Mitte District, at the historic site of the attempted July 20 coup—the basis for the Hollywood film Valkyrie—a pool of emotions rushed to my head, heart and stomach. There, it became real. I was sincerely proud of the German officers, visionaries of peace and protectors of a Sacred Germany who sacrificed everything—albeit late in the war effort—to save the world from Hitler’s depravity. I looked to my right and admired the courage and ambition of our German tour guide, Anna, who has dedicated her life to dialogue and who spends weeks at a time exploring her country’s guilt and shame with various Jewish delegations. It was then and there when I realized an underpinning theme that guided my journey. Amid the blurriness, I saw clarity for the first time.
The author reflects at the German Resistance Memorial
The duty of a cock-eyed angel
We have to preserve hope in humanity. To achieve that, we must be willing to do our part in paving a road towards reconciliation and mutual understanding. Our task cannot be to accept forgiveness, for who are the German people of today to offer an apology and who are we—the Jewish people—to ask for one? We are in no such place. But if we fail to recognize the possibility for change in a country and a people, then we are ultimately guilty of a crime. If we are to be expressive of ethics, we must lean back and forward at once. It is the duty of history’s cock-eyed angel: to learn from history and establish it as platform on which to build a better future. And so, I turn one eye to the past, shedding a tear and screaming voicelessly in anger and desperation at all that was lost and my inability to comprehend.
I turn the other to the future.
Simon Goldberg is a third-year student at Yeshiva College majoring in history and political science. He is originally from Jerusalem and currently resides in Fair Lawn, NJ. In 2009 he founded SHEM, the Student Holocaust Education Movement at Yeshiva University.