DRESDEN, Germany -- I stood for the first time before the charred ruins of the Frauenkirche, the magnificent Church of Our Lady that was pounded to rubble in the Allied firebombing here in 1945, and I was glad. For a few seconds -- I cannot deny it -- it gave me satisfaction to view the bleak and jagged remains of Dresden's once-mighty Baroque masterpiece. The shattered Frauenkirche is a desolating sight and the appalling raid that caused it arguably served no military purpose. But in my mind's eye, I saw the flames and smashed glass of Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that served as the curtain-raiser for the Holocaust, and I thought: This is what you get for burning synagogues.
I had come to Dresden as part of a two-week stay in Germany that also included visits to Bonn, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Potsdam. I was one of a group of 18 North Americans who had been invited by the University of Bonn and the German Academic Exchange Service to experience what the university's rector called "a brief but intense encounter with Germany."
For me, any encounter with Germany would be intense: I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. In the spring of 1944, my father's parents, his brothers, and two of his sisters were fed to the ovens at Auschwitz. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, my father himself was nearly a corpse, starved and disease-ridden. Had the war lasted even a few days longer, he would have died. The Final Solution just missed him -- and therefore me.
I cannot remember a time when I was not aware of the Holocaust. As a small boy, no more than 6 or 7 years old, I would write "Hitler" on the bottom of my shoe -- so I could wipe out his name as I walked. Germany I always thought of as a land poisonous to Jews; for a long time I insisted I would never step foot there.
At some point I abandoned that taboo, and when I was invited to take this trip, no one had to twist my arm. Still, there were qualms. I joked grimly that the only German I knew was "Guten Morgen" and "Sieg Heil." I made a point of packing Daniel Goldhagen's scorching new history of the Holocaust, Hitler's Willing Executioners -- as a prophylactic, I suppose, against liking Germans too much.
The ruins of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) after the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945
Not that I expected Germany 1996 to resemble Germany 1936. Not that I wasn't aware of Germany's contrite and conscientious effort, especially in recent decades, to come to grips with its Nazi crimes. I knew perfectly well that the vast majority of Germans today are committed democrats, not crypto-fascists. But I also knew that the ghosts and echoes of my family's past would be with me. I set off to "encounter" Germany with goodwill and an open mind. Yet what kind of goodwill could I feel toward the nation that murdered my father's family?
These contradictory impulses tugged at me throughout my fortnight in Germany.
I would find myself searching for evidence of antisemitism -- but alert for evidence that antisemites aren't tolerated. Jewish sites in Germany, I quickly noticed, are guarded round-the-clock by the police. To attend Sabbath services at the synagogue on Berlin's Joachimstalerstrasse, I had to get past an armed guard and a metal detector. Is it good news that Jews in Germany today are well-protected when they worship? Or is it bad news that Jews in Germany -- even today -- require protection when they worship?
It reassured me when politicians and academics explained that certain German policies -- generous treatment of refugees, for instance, or a fervent commitment to European unity -- grow out of the nation's horror over what it did in 1933-45. But even as I was reassured, I was suspicious: Do they really mean it? Or are they saying it because they have to?
My internal tension reflects the duality of the Second Generation -- the children of those who were the victims of the Holocaust. On the one hand, it is our job to move on, to live for those who died, to build a future for our families and our people. On the other hand, we are charged to remember the past, to cry out against forgetting, to warn that nothing can prevent the rise of a new Auschwitz except undimmed rage and grief over what took place in the old one.
It was a dichotomy I wrestled with repeatedly.
At the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, a new museum of modern German history, the section on 1945 devotes considerably more attention to the condition of Germany's bombed cities and the discomforts of food rationing than to the liberation of the concentration camps and the exposure of the Nazis' savagery. Why, I wondered indignantly, were the curators trying to downplay Dachau and Buchenwald?
But at a panel session later with representatives of Germany's major political parties, I was struck by the honesty and anguish with which they confronted the legacy of the Third Reich.
"I don't feel patriotism when I see German soldiers," said Friedbert Pfluger, a member of parliament from the conservative Christian Democratic Union. "I don't feel pride from German warplanes in the air, or German warships in the Aegean." Try to imagine a US senator saying such a thing about America's armed forces.
Particularly impassioned was Wolf Poulet, the military-affairs spokesman for the Free Democratic Party. When some of the visiting North Americans suggested that German troops ought to play a greater role in international peacekeeping, Poulet warned of the backlash it would provoke. "Do you think the world wants to see German troops in other countries?" he asked. "We always know that we are hated. Always. Even after 50 years! And we know why. The world is alarmed when Germans put on uniforms. We can't escape this."
President Reagan visits the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where 49 SS men are among the 2000 troops buried.
Fifty-five years ago, the Wehrmacht was conquering Europe and exterminating innocents. Today German politicians recoil instinctively from any form of martial self-assertion. And even I, a Jew whose family was so scarred by German brutality, could be moved by their sincerity and sorrow.
And yet . . .
At one point, to illustrate that distrust of Germany is never far below the surface, Poulet brought up President Reagan's 1985 visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg. Just look, he said, at the uproar set off in America because the president was going to a cemetery where "it happened that two SS were buried."
Something snapped in my skull. "Fifty-four!" I exploded, abrupt and hot and angry, startling everyone in the room, myself included, with my vehemence. "Not two! Fifty-four!" I knew he wasn't trying to deny the SS contamination of that cemetery. But hearing a German minimize anything about the Nazis -- even unintentionally -- prompted a visceral reaction, and proved the point Poulet was making: that the scars of the Hitler years are still painfully tender.
(As it happened, I was in error, too. The actual number of SS men buried in Bitburg -- I looked it up afterward -- is 49.)
At times, the creepiest things -- creepy to me, anyway -- came out of the mouths of people I met. Hansjurgen Rosenbauer, the polished and influential director of East German Radio Brandenburg in Potsdam, argued for generous government subsidies to a wide range of industries, including his own. "After all," he said, "in many ways we are still developing. You know, during the war, most of the Jews were killed or they left. This was a terrible brain drain, and we are still catching up from it." Aha. We perpetrated genocide, so now we need government handouts. His brazenness repelled me.
In this Berlin villa in 1942, senior officials of the Third Reich met to coordinate Hitler's "Final Solution" -- the destruction of European Jewry.
And yet I also met Germans whose decency is manifest, and whose shame and misery over the Holocaust -- though it began and ended before they were born -- never leaves them. Annegret Ehmann has transformed the House of the Wannsee Conference -- the Berlin villa where in 1942 the Third Reich's senior bureaucrats met to coordinate the slaughter of the Jews -- into a reference library on the Holocaust. She has made it her life's work to explore how something as sinister as genocide could have been planned and carried out so routinely. Tirelessly, she runs seminars for German civil servants, sensitizing them to the moral consequences of bureaucratic behavior -- and using the Wannsee Conference as a case study.
Why, I asked. Why make this your career?
"I am a German," she answered after a pause. "I grew up in the 1960s. We had many questions. Many questions." Another pause. She struggled to explain herself. "I am a German. What else can I do?"
Whether Germans today, in their heart of hearts, are more like Annegret Ehmann or more like the Nazis who convened at Wannsee, I cannot say. Nor can I judge the permanence of Germany's transformation from the Gestapo state of the 1940s to the democracy of today. But this I can say, as the child of a Holocaust survivor seeing Germany for the first time:
There is no forgiving and no forgetting. But neither is there blind hatred.
The firebombed Frauenkirche lies in ruins in Dresden, and it was a sight I was glad to see. Now the great church is being reconstructed; it should be finished in 2006. That is a sight I will also be glad to see. Who knows? Perhaps I shall travel to Germany to see it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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