If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

After completing a well-worn Jewish Young Person Rite of Passage of “finding myself” by living in The Holy Land last spring, I went through another rite of passage known to many young Jews: a totally awesome trip through Europe after finding myself in the Holy Land.

One of the stops on my trip was, of course, to Germany from where my grandfather had escaped to Cuba and ultimately the United States in 1939 after my great-grandfather, a curmudgeonly old cattle trader made the cover of the Nazi propoganda organ Der Sturmer (yes, the cover!) over a thoroughly unlikely charge that he, a small town Jewish cattle trader, had hired an assassin to kill Aryan bureaucrats. On my Germany trip, I did all the biggies: Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg, Cologne–you name it. I went to a Charlie Chaplin retrospective where I lucked out in catching “The Great Dictator,” a Hitler spoof, in a room full of Germans. It gave me a whole new perspective on a film I’d already seen before: Every so often I’d duck back in my seat, thinking, “Don’t worry. They’re laughing with you, Sam.” I even got to skip the line at the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. (I know a guy who knows a guy…)

However, my German vacation took one specifically pragmatic (while historically important) turn. I took a day trip to Ellingen a little town in Franconia about half-way between Munich and Nuremberg, not usually a daytripper’s travel spot, though very lovely. This is where my grandfather was born, and I was there to get a tour from the town historian and pick up a copy of my Grandfather’s original birth certificate. I needed the certificate to continue on my quest to gain German citizenship. That’s right: if you have relatives 1 to 2 generations back who were denied their lawful citizenship by the Nazi regime, you too can be a German. (“Being a German Jew–it’s not just for dead people anymore…”)

As my mother and many other family members were to question: Why in the world would you want to be German? (Frankly, I’m sure my grandfather, who never returned to the country, is spinning in his grave.) My original reasoning was the simple and perhaps idiotic: Why not be German?–I mean, I wouldn’t actually be German, I’d just have citizenship. But as I went through the process–somewhat long and somewhat expensive–I began to coalesce around three reasons: 1) I’d love to live and work in the EU. Yes, even Germany. I know many of my relatives would say it’s too soon to “let bygones be bygones,” but, believe it or not, Germans aren’t Nazis anymore. And hey, good for them. 2) I like the idea of having a German passport though I speak no German and have only visited the country briefly. There’s a certain, admittedly childish sense of: They let you do this? Especially given that you can be, like, 3rd generation German-born Turkish and still not get citizenship there. And lastly, and most importantly, 3) I think it makes a political and cultural statement. Let me explain:

When people talk about the Holocaust, they have this sense of the Germans vs. the Jews (which OBVIOUSLY is true,) but what it fails to recognize is that they weren’t mutually exclusive groups. My grandfather was a German. He was 3rd generation just in the town of Ellingen–and his family had been in Germany for God knows how long before that. I’m only 3rd generation American if you consider that my grandfather was not born here–and I’m as American as deep-fried butter.

The town historian took me on an interesting and informative–if fairly macabre–tour of the city, pointing out where the Jewish families had all lived. She even mentioned that “Only one of the Jews actually died.” (Uh, great?) Her English was not perfect, which led to a few grammatically troubling comments: On one street corner for example she simply pointed from house to house repeating, “Und zis vas a Jew house…. Und zis vas a Jew House…”

She took me to a house that still had my ancestors initials etched on the roof. And then to another where an iron “B. B.” for Bernhard Bermann decorated the window near the Garden. It was, needless to say, creepy. This man had adorned his house with the property of a “departed” Jew. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, yes, but come on…

The town historian in some German man's Garden...

The town historian had a little trouble finding the judenfriedhof–Jewish Cemetery–located in a nearby town. It was where my great-great-grandfather’s headstone was, so I couldn’t leave without snapping a picture… I will never forget the word judenfriedhof because every time she would ask someone where it was, they would cock their head to the side or glance at the person next to them and repeat incredulously “Judenfriedhof?” as though saying, “Lady, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we don’t really have any of those anymore…” We did eventually find it. I got my picture.

I got my picture.

My last stop was at the town hall when in all of five minutes I asked for and received my grandfather’s 1907 birth certificate. Somehow I thought they might not have it or that it would be an awkward conversation. But no, it was quite honestly more pleasant than jumping through the necessary bureaucratic hoops to get the other official documents–including my own birth certificate–back in the States. At the train station I shook my guide’s hand, tucked the German language books about Ellingen she had given me under my arm, and got back on the train to Nuremberg.

A few days later, as I was taking pictures outside the Kolner Dom in Cologne, I spotted some young people in blue shirts handing out flyers. On closer inspection, I realized that, no, my eyes did not deceive me: The shirts actually had the Magen David on them. As it turned out, they were Jews for Jesus trying to spread the good word. I took a picture of them and thought, “At least, I won’t be the only Jew in Germany.”

Yeah, this is a real thing.

What do you think?

About The Author

Samuel Johnson

Sam Johnson was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but is now an LA-based writer/director/producer. Follow him @smorganjohnson on the twitter.

7 Responses

  1. Dan

    I’m a Jew married to a German (non-Jew) and probably spend more time in Germany (Bonn, mostly) than anywhere else besides Boston. They have changed, and I think maintaining a Jewish presence there is important. Thanks for the article.

  2. Yoel Kornblum

    Well written. I am sure it is a great experience to visit the old places and try to imagine the life of the family or Jewish life in general in that area. I am what is called a “second generation Holocaust survivor” and my ancestry are from Ukraine, Poland and Germany. I can tell you that I got no desire at all to visit these places. The “Jewishness” is gone from all these places and moved to Israel so there where I visit. As for the Jews for Jesus in the article that does not surprise me. I think the amount of Jews per Capita who are against other Jews break any known record of any religion. It is unbelievable how many Jews adopt either propaganda or teaching of others and use it against other Jews in the name of many hallucinated causes. You can include in these groups J-Street, the Reforms in general, many of the Haredim sects like Satmer, Belz, Neturi Kartha, Noam Chomsky, Henry Kissinger, Peace Now, and many others. Is this a curse we must with live with forever?

  3. Dina Bauer

    Your third generation, I am not. My late sister was born in 1937 and the Gestapo did not allow our MOM to immigrate with her when ordered by the Gestapo post birth at the Delivery Hospital to leave within 6 weeks or lose her exit pass!

    My first visit to Germany occurred when I was 9. On the public transit returning from Dachau and it’s office of records, a man on crutches, hit my mother and me as we boarded the tram. The man yelled in German “We should have killed you all”, before the conductor hustled him off ! My next visit at 17 with a group of students and teachers from my suburban U S High School,we encountered in Heidelberg teens singing Nazi anthems. At 22 I visited my father’s hometown near Nuremberg. Accompanied by My Great Uncle’s elderly housekeeper I visited with the Mayor’s wife (later local author specializing in towns Jewish History). The Mayor’s wife advised me that my family never lived in the town therefor she could not provide me with any information! Years later the former Mayors wife began writing me to provide information for the placement of the remembrance or StolpherSteine that the town was placing in front of what she maintained were my families only home in that town, actually the sight of my Great Grandparent’s home from the 1880’s. In that same visit at the age of 22 again accompanied by Frau E (my Great Uncle’s Housekeeper) I visited a local stationary store. The shopkeeper insulted the elderly woman as we entered the store in German and then asked who was with her? When I said my name, she asked if I was the Jewish or Catholic one. My reply was my Grandparent’s address 32 Nuremberg Strasse! Whereupon the proprietor asked me,”Oh, is your Aunt Amalia alive, I went to school with her?”

    When I was in my 30’s my husband and I visited with our young children,relatives who had moved back to Frankfurt. My son described the Rhine River as beautiful and the history of the Holocaust as old. We walked through the then Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt for a meeting of the Bnai Berith and you could feel the feet of the hundreds of girls who trod those same stairs before they were carted off for transport, our relatives were on those first transports of November 1941! Until recently my families records were always reported as unknown and missing “vershollen” but we now know they were marched to pits upon arrival in Kaunus and machine gunned. My Grandmother, then the same age as I am now. One of my late father’s teachers at School was Henry Kissinger’s Father. Our family can trace it’s history back to the 1720’s and branches can trace further back to the 1500’s in those German towns and villages. My mother’s Father died in 1920 his gravestone in Munich’s Thalkirchner Strasse Cemetary has been vandalized numerous times SINCE the Nazi era! My husband’s Grandfather’s cemetary in another section of Germany has likewise been vandalized often. Finally, did you know all residents in all German towns must register with their local police for permission to reside in the locality and register to pay your Church Tax. Just as it was before 1933.

    On the last visit we took our local relative to lunch in a favored Frankfurt spot, nearby German’s were complaining loudly as they drank their tankards that the economic climate was the result of …the same 1933 motifs

    Dina Bauer

  4. Yoel Kornblum

    Your story is certainly in contrast to the story portrayed by Sam and your story is similar to many stories of many survivors I grew up with in Israel. Such things happened also in Poland, Russia, France and in many other places where Jews lived and tried to return after the war. You and others can blame all kind of people and hallucinate about a better world where things as you described do not happen. However a lot of the blame is with us, the Jews too. We got Israel and it is difficult to comprehend how many Jews are against Israel. We advocate the rights of all kind of other groups but forget advocate our rights. Is this because we are afraid? Is it because our enemies sense this fear and therefore act as they act? You mentioned Henry Kissinger’s ancestor and Henry himself caused a lot of problem for Israel and consequently to all Jews. Why not discuss the effect of J-Street on Israel and consequently on the future of all Jews? Why talk about few drunks in a German restaurant and not about the damage of J-Street and similar to the Jews? As I recall the German Jews prior and during the beginning Nazi era considered themselves “German” and looked down on Jews from Poland and other places. I think we see a repeat of the history.

  5. Andreas

    The story from Dina Bauer is absolutey shocking. There were still a lot of old nazis around in Germany in the 60s, that is very different today. Very few Germans living today have anything against Jews.

  6. kosherkingdom

    Dina, what happened to you and your mother when you were 9 is awful. Which decade was that? However, your non-issue with church taxes and “Germans should not be allowed to drink and sing cause I, Dina Bauer, equate that with Nazis” is BS. Narishkeit is a-okay. Even in Germany.

  7. Jennifer Spier-Stern

    Everyone’s reason for visiting or not visiting Germany is valid. I am 2nd generation Holocaust survivor. We immigrated to the US in 1963 from England. I am 55 years young. About 18 years ago I started doing my family tree. The obsession has not left my soul. Though the years of discovery the tree was not just names and dates on a sheet. It developed life. It was life that I needed to see first hand.

    I did not want to visit Germany and see a concentration camp. I didn’t need to visit the various Holocaust memorials. I wants to see where my father lived, where my grandfather walked, the trees that they saw. I wanted to walk in their footsteps.

    My father’s (who passed in 1998) has three siblings in NYC and one in Bielefeld, Germany. My husband and I traveled to Frankfurt and from there we drove to Marburg. A wonderful man, an editor of the local monthly newspaper took us all over the area.

    I stood in front of my father’s ancestral home and cried. No one was home at the time. I so wanted to go inside, perhaps another time. We walked to the cemetery and these were the same paved stones and grass that my grandparents walked when they buried family members. We walked in the garden of the Schloss, castle where I know my father would have played. I felt them in my soul.

    I will go back. I still have more to see and feel. I am not angry, I know my uncles are. They survived Auschwitz. I spoke to many 2nd generation of Nazi SS. Today their catharsis is to help people like me learn more about my Jewish heritage. They are ones writing the books and creating school curriculum for high school.

    I’m not sure how long it will continue that my generation will teach the next Germany generation. I can only hope that one student will continue the mission to make sure people know, especially those that live in the smaller towns/villages where my ancestors all came from.


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