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 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.
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.”