This 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
School 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).
The 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.
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.
If you’re not a banker, you might not have much of a reason to visit Frankfurt am Main. But my sister and I just participated in the city’s “Visiting Program for Former Jewish Citizens and their Descendants.” No longer novices in the art of tracing our family history, we didn’t go to Frankfurt expecting to uncover any new nuggets of information about our father’s family. Instead, we made the trip to learn more about the region’s Jewish history, connect with the other German Jewish families, and spend time together. Our week of peering into the past with our fellow group members had many highlights, but the biggest highlight was the discovery that some of them were related to us.
During the first night of the program, my sister thought she heard one of the participants mention the Wachenheimers from Biebesheim. But it wasn’t until the end of the week that we determined they were the very same Wachenheimers who also married into our own Adler family from Altwiedermus. While my father’s family fled to the U.S. in the 1930s, this branch of the Wachenheimer family fled to Argentina, and their descendants were members of our group. I think both of our families were emotionally stunned by this unanticipated connection. We’re now quite happy to embrace these newest members of our extended familia!
As the descendants of former Jewish residents of both Frankfurt and Hamburg, my sister and I have had the opportunity to participate in both cities’ visiting programs (see Three Generations visit Hamburg). Hamburg is by far the more beautiful of the two cities, but our family’s roots in the Frankfurt area are much deeper. The many Frankfurt program officials, educators, researchers and Jewish community members who spent the last week with us are quite dedicated to helping Jewish families re-connect with their roots. This reconnection to the place where Anne Frank was born and where 30,000 Jewish residents lived before the Nazi era is an important part of the continuing efforts towards Holocaust reconciliation.
I’m back in Berlin where I’m feeling almost as much a Frankfurter as a Berliner, with a little bit of Hamburger mixed in as well. In case you missed the recent piece I wrote for the Jewish Writing Project, here’s the link: Where I’ll Celebrate Passover Next Year
Coming back to Berlin from Israel last month was a journey back home, a journey to a familiar and comfortable place, but one that is not my native land. My strong connection to Germany wavers at times. Like the other day at the grocery store when I patiently waited behind a woman as she went through the stack of baskets looking for one that met her hygienic standards. When I finally reached in to take one for myself, she snatched the basket out of my hand and let slip a rude remark. I stifled the urge to call her a bitch and calmly walked away. Perhaps this could happen anywhere, but I’ve never before encountered such aggression over a grocery basket.
People in Israel were more open and relaxed than I expected. I felt a kinship with all those short women with wild and frizzy hair and the older women with bright lipstick and flashy jewelry transported me back to my childhood on the East Coast. I also agree with my daughter that a lot of the men were “smokin.” But beyond these fleeting impressions, I developed a better understanding of Zionism through Simon Schama’s excellent BBC series The Story of the Jews, which we watched during the trip. I now have a connection to Israel, not so much as a Zionist, but as another place where I feel at home and where a cherished part of my family lives.
My feelings about Israel were refracted through the triplicate lens of my German-American-Jewish self. I’m glad that I finally made the trip that so many American Jews call upon us to make, if only to gain a better footing in political discussions about Israeli policies and the Middle East. As a German, I also felt proud to be among the many tourists who are promoting close cross-cultural ties between the two countries.
I hope to go back to Israel before long, but it probably won’t be for Passover. Stay tuned for a piece on The Jewish Writing Project with a few further reflections on that topic.
It will take some time to unravel the twisted knot of emotions that wove its way through me over the nine days we spent in Israel. My sensory delight in the sweet smell of jasmine, the warm and inviting limestone architecture, the abundant sunshine, and the rich tastes of hummus and falafel expanded during each day of the trip. While my senses enjoyed this daily barrage of gifts, my brain was constantly working overtime to fill in the multi-colored canvas that is Israel. Each day the land and the people drew me in, but not without moments when my buttons were pushed and I drew back. I felt a bit like Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the gazelle-unicorn whose two heads try to go in opposite directions whenever it moves.
The highlight of our trip was spending time with our cousins who we first met in 2011, but with whom we already share a deep bond (see Shrinking the Family Diaspora). That bond was strengthened as we picked up where we left off three years ago and wrote a new family history into the moments we spent together. But sadness and even anger bubbled up within me while trying to make sense of the ultra-orthdox Jews whose demeanor and conduct sent a loud message that said “keep away — you are not one of us.” Driving through the Mea She’arim area and provoking the rage of its residents was probably a bad idea, but even worse was the feeling we had while walking around Jerusalem of being invisible in the eyes of those who are a part of our history but who reject us as Jews.
Visiting Israel during Passover made it more challenging for us to connect with Jewish life since our family is fairly secular and does not keep kosher for the holiday. We often found ourselves gravitating toward Arabic areas and had our most spiritually uplifting experience at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday. Although we spoke with no one during our brief visit, we felt not only welcome and accepted, but also a sense of peace that spoke of the human potential that has yet to be achieved in the Middle East. I hope to share some further reflections as I unravel my thoughts and emotions and try to get my head pointed in just one direction.
Every Monday morning I board the S-bahn in Steglitz and head south of Berlin into Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg, to teach business English at a scientific institute. If I were to head east, west, or north of Berlin, I would also arrive in Brandenburg, the German state which completely surrounds the city-state of Berlin. The geographical division of the former Kingdom of Prussia that left Berlin as an island in the middle of Brandenburg doesn’t make much sense. But Brandenburgers are somehow different from Berliners, which is probably why they rejected a merger between the two states in 1996.
The Berlin-Brandenburg region has dozens of beautiful lakes, many of which are just the right size for a day hike. Yesterday’s Wanderung was around Liepnitzsee, more than 60 kilometers north of Steglitz. It took some time to get there, but we had all afternoon for the 9 km hike around the lake and a lunch of stuffed peppers and goulash at the Jägerheim Ützdorf Hotel.
Our group of nine included people from Germany, the U.S., Argentina, and Peru. The Berlin-Brandenburg region is quite flat so hiking and holding a conversation at the same time is a lot easier than it was back in Montana. We’ve traded the rugged Rockies for a less dramatic, but still beautiful environment, and one without snow in the Spring! We’re looking forward to discovering more of the region’s lakes, but not before we make our first trip to Israel next week.