Stand Up – A Germany for Everyone

rally1What slogan would you have chosen for a massive rally against anti-Semitism? Does the phrase “Nie wieder Judenhass” (Never again hatred of Jews) effectively guide us toward a stronger German society that celebrates and protects Jews and other minority groups? I would have preferred a more positive slogan, but I was still moved, along with thousands of others, to “steh auf” (stand up) for yesterday’s rally at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. I stood with the crowd to protest anti-Semitism and to affirm that Jews belong here.

rally2The rain held off, the mood was calm and peaceful, and the minor disturbances at the fringes were easily halted by the police. It was my first chance to hear Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Chancellor Angela Merkel speak in person. Their words were firm and came across as sincere as they spoke of the shame that anti-Semitic acts have brought upon Germany and the injury that such hatred causes to all Germans. It was Merkel who said that Jewish life belongs here and is a part of German identity. Most of the speakers also affirmed that not just anti-Semitism, but other forms of prejudice such as racism and homophobia have no place in Germany. In just a little over an hour, Germany’s top political and religious leaders said what the people came to hear.

But the perennial question after such unifying moments is “Where do we go from here?” If it is true that “around 20 percent of people in Germany have anti-Semitic views,” what is being done and what further things must be done to change attitudes and behavior? I’ve been looking for the best way to make my own contribution to this cause, hoping my background as an educator and a repatriated German citizen can be of value. Stay tuned for future updates.

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Do Not Disturb

At my first parent evening of the new school year, my son’s 5th grade teacher stated her desire to post photos of the kids on her password-protected website. She was met with emphatic opposition from a number of parents and I’m pretty sure none of the parental opponents were American. The opposition was so strident that the teacher chose to move on…”next topic!”….rather than discuss moving forward with some sort of informed consent policy.

streetview

Google Street View of our building

our building

Whether they are still haunted by a past when citizens rabidly spied on each other, or are reacting to all of the recent hacking and spying scandals, Germans have good reason to be suspicious of any invasion of their privacy. But how effective are their efforts to protect themselves? Although you can’t see my apartment building on Google Street View, I can still post a picture of it online (I decided to omit the address though).

As a result of an EU court ruling, Google is now legally required to remove links to outdated personal information about users upon request. German requests are coming in by the thousands, but will Google’s removal of these links (on European search engines) guarantee erasure from cyberspace? Can we put up a Do Not Disturb sign and expect to keep the world at bay? We do need policies to protect our privacy, but Europe’s battle to tame Google must contend with the public’s insatiable thirst for information. Our fear of Google shouldn’t lead us to make too many compromises of our “right to know” and our freedom of expression.

Although I will be online every day of the school year, I probably won’t have the chance to look at pictures of my son with his class. I’ll miss having that window into his time at school, but in this case I’ve decided not to resist the German preference for privacy.

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All Cracked Up

get-attachment-9.aspxSome people are not disturbed by the cracks in the concrete blocks of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. They see the decay as part of a natural process that does not detract from the memorial’s powerful impact on millions of visitors. But how does the structural damage affect the visitor’s effort to find meaning in the 2,710 concrete slabs designed and built to memorialize the murdered Jews of Europe?

An argument could be made that the cracks blend in with the otherwise plain concrete columns, but the steel braces around the most damaged slabs are another story. My impression is that they make the blocks look more like coffins and divert the mind from its real and imaginary journey through this cold and sterile expanse. As the decay continues and more steel collars are secured to hundreds of slabs, the memorial and its hefty maintenance costs are becoming an increasing embarrassment for the City of Berlin.

get-attachment-8.aspxThe memorial won’t crumble any time soon and experts insist there is no threat to visitor safety. Whether the construction company or natural forces are to blame for the decay is an open question that is being investigated by a Berlin court. Its findings will comprise yet another chapter in the history of a landmark with an already troubled past. If you have not yet been to the memorial, it’s still well worth a visit. But you might want to come sooner rather than later.

Check out this article for a little more background information on Berlin’s cracked up Holocaust Memorial: Berlin’s Holocaust memorial is falling apart

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Catching the Third Wave

It’s been a relaxed and sultry summer in Berlin despite the demonstrations that have taken place over the conflict in Gaza. The usual crowds are filling the Biergartens, Eiscafes, and coffee houses in search of their refreshment of choice. Absent an invitation to demonstrate for a lasting peace and a two-state solution, I’ve opted for coffee research over political activism for the time being. Little did I know that following the java trail in Berlin would be the latest of many recent “I must be over the hill” experiences.

As if I hadn’t already been left in the dust by all the newest technological and cultural trends, I’ve now discovered that I’m on the sidelines of Berlin’s “third wave coffee” culture. While I prowl the streets of Berlin in search of old world cafes that remind me of the places my nana and papa brought me as a child, the rest of Berlin’s coffee addicts are sipping flat whites in bare bones coffee shrines tucked into hip little pockets of the urban landscape. Even the rich and blood-pumping brew that I used to drink on a daily basis at Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley no longer makes the cut among those who’ve relegated that cuppa joe to the Second Wave.

endederwelt.aspxTo initiate ourselves, Brian and I are making our way through Slow Travel Berlin’s Guide to Berlin’s 3rd Wave Coffee Shops. Aside from a few lukewarm espresso drinks at places I won’t mention, our third wave coffee tour has pumped some energy into our limbs during hot summer afternoons in the city. Am Ende der Welt has come closest to serving up the perfect cup, and it’s not as hard to find as the name suggests. But I’m not yet ready to give up my quest for old world cafe culture. Fortunately we’ll be in Leipzig next week where we’ll have a chance to stop in at one of the oldest coffee houses in Europe.

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The Next 100?

imagesThis is my 100th blog post. My self-indulgent musings on this forum over the past four years have been a kind of word therapy for me. I felt gratified when the words came together in just the right way, and inspired when my posts built bridges to people in over 100 countries. Although I felt compelled to hit the keyboard on a regular basis, I often struggled with insecurities and creative malaise. I wanted to share our experiences as a German American Jewish family in Berlin, but why be so public about it?

I’m now ready to try something different and am mulling over whether to change my focus, start a new blog, or just disappear into cyberspace. While I’m figuring this out, I’d like to invite my readers to become writers for Full Circle. Many of you have incredible personal stories that will resonate with a broader audience. If you are an aspiring or novice writer like me, this is a place where you can share your work. I’ve posted some guidelines for guest submissions and encourage you to get in touch (dswartho@aol.com) if you’re interested.

Thanks to everyone who has followed along with my reflections and reached out to me. I’ve corresponded with many of you and even met some of you in Berlin. If you have comments or suggestions for the next 100 posts, please let me know.

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School’s Out

breitenbachSchool is finally out in Berlin and the year brought some changes for our family. When our kids were little, I used to teach them German, but now the tables are turned. I often find myself asking them the meaning of a word and feel like they’ve left me in the dust. While all of my work is conducted in English and mostly done from home, the kids take classes in German and speak it daily at school. At least they’ve helped to expand my vocabulary with words like “Dingsbums” (thingamajig), “verprügeln” (beat up), and “Depp” (twit).

dfs_wl_d_berlin_steglitz_stern_sfcThe school year went quite well aside from my daily battles with Sam about the importance of school work over soccer. Now that he came through fourth grade with stellar marks, I can admit to developing an obsession with soccer myself. Sam’s got talent and is about to step up his game with his new membership in SFC Stern 1900, the Berlin city team that plays in our neighborhood. Long before the first signs of World Cup mania, Sam had saturated our brains with his unrelenting stream of commentary about the world’s top teams and players. Sam is especially inspired by professional soccer players who started out at local clubs in Berlin.

The two teenagers didn’t wreak as much havoc on our domestic life as I expected this year. They were absorbed with thirteen classes each semester at the John F. Kennedy School, getting their social lives and after-school activities underway, going through puberty, and various electronic devices. I’m not sure what secrets they’re keeping, but from all appearances they are well-adjusted. With an absence of drama at home, at least there’s plenty of drama on the streets of Berlin to keep us all occupied in our free time this summer.

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Who will tell your story?

Listening to David Grossman speak at Freie Universität Berlin the other night left me suspended somewhere between inspiration and intimidation. I was so emotionally ravaged by his book To the End of the Land that I couldn’t find the words to talk about it with anyone after I recently finished it. Yet on Tuesday night, when speaking about the Holocaust, Grossman told us “we need words even when there are none.” I continue to struggle with the effort to find the words to tell my stories, but as Grossman also said “you find your identity by finding your own words.”

There are many people in Germany who want to tell part of the story of what happened to the Jews during the Shoah. Some have a professional resume and others are citizen historians. They collect names, addresses, photographs, dates of deportation and death, but they cannot collect memories. They help us learn who we are and where we came from. We need them, but they cannot tell our stories. When I parted company with the members of our group of former Jewish residents of Frankfurt earlier this month, my hope was that they would take ownership of their stories and find a way to share them.

I can’t imagine my own words having the emotional impact of someone as gifted as David Grossman. Yet I have seen my written words touch people in different ways, restore the memory of forgotten relatives, and help me dig beneath all that is superficial in my life. That is the power of storytelling.

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