I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Berlin. Before my trip, I had some of the anxiety that most Jews of my generation feel about going to Germany for the first time, though honestly far less than I would have had several decades ago. Once there, I found a fascinating, vibrant, and surprisingly multicultural city, easy to navigate and, for a Bay Area resident, familiar in its politics, culture, and style. And of course, I found a city entirely unique in its place in history, deeply engaged in how to hold the weight of its past and make it visible, while still being able to carry forward.
In Berlin, I was heartened by the resurgence of Jewish life and deeply appreciated the magnificent Jewish Museum, powerfully portraying the thousand-year sweep of German Jewish history. And in the heart of “tourist central,” I was struck not only by the power of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but also by its physical prominence. It is unavoidable, as is fitting.
All through my time in Germany, I found myself reflecting on issues of complicity and accommodation, on courage and resistance, and on the grit and luck involved in survival. I was tremendously moved by the German Resistance Memorial Center, located in the former headquarters of the Wehrmacht, site of a tragically unsuccessful coup attempt in 1944. The memorial center stands as a monument to those who resisted in large and small ways—trade unionists, artists, youth, Christians, communists, democrats, intellectuals, and, of course, Jews—with bravery and ingenuity. It was not enough. But it did make a difference.
One afternoon, I took the hour-long train ride up to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women and children. The setting was eerily pastoral, with a long sweep of lawn surrounding well-preserved residences of guards and their SS masters, looking down on a lovely lake. And across that lake, clearly visible and not at all far away, lay the town of Furstenburg, whose post-war residents claimed not to know what was going on in the camp. Needless to say, that is impossible to believe.
Yet it’s too simple to vilify them. It’s more challenging—and more useful—to reflect on what’s going on here in the East Bay that I customarily ignore or do far too little to stop. While nothing compares to the horror and scope of the Holocaust, I, like most of us, am well aware of community violence, of people living without homes, of adults and children being deported back to deadly situations. Simply speaking, most of us are not doing enough about it. I’m heartened to work at an agency that works with children and families in distressed neighborhoods and that helps people seeking refuge in this country. But that doesn’t let me off the hook in my everyday personal life. My eyes and heart could be far more open to what’s going on in my own city, and my daily actions could be far more consistent with the values I espouse.
Yom Kippur is recently past, but every day is a good day to examine our consciences and our actions; every day is a good day to commit ourselves to doing better. I wish all of us a year of sweetness, joy, and health—and at the same time, I wish all of us a year of ensuring that we are not among those who turn their heads and claim ignorance, but are among those who act with courage and persistence.