It is simply not possible to spend this much time in Europe without coming face-to-face with some of the realities of history. We were especially interested to see how European Jewry was and is viewed from the countries deeply involved in the Holocaust.
Our exposure to the grim truths began in Amsterdam with a trip to the Jewish Historical Museum in the former Jewish Quarter. Amsterdam, with its policy of tolerance, had a thriving Jewish community before the Nazis came to power. This was one of the few places in the world where Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews lived side-by-side with Sephardi (Spanish Mediterranean) Jews while keeping their traditions separate. The Jewish Museum begins with an impressive display of religious articles, and detailed descriptions of Jewish life and traditions. It also chronicles the history of Jews in Amsterdam: from the beginnings in the 13th & 14th centuries when Jews were instrumental to Dutch royalty, to the Holocaust when the Nazis herded over 80% of Amsterdam’s Jews to their deaths, to the Jews of Amsterdam today. There are interviews with survivors and countless emotionally-moving exhibits from World War II.
After World War II, many Jews were allowed to return to Amsterdam, but the Netherlands didn’t exactly go out of their way to make it easy for them to reclaim property that had been “confiscated.” One survivor’s story that touched us at the Jewish Museum was about how a former friend of the family had allowed her to stay with him for two days. When she saw some of her possessions including a hairbrush set and a cake set in his home, he responded, “Everything in this home is mine now.” Fortunately, one of the things he had returned to her was a box of photos, in which she was pictured with these possessions. Using these photos as evidence, she was able to get the authorities to order that her belongings be returned to her.
The focal point of Jewish Amsterdam is the Anne Frank house. Of course we read her diary when we were kids, but it’s difficult to absorb it as real when one is only nine or ten. To actually walk through the tiny rooms where the families hid for two years without making a sound is very humbling. Anne’s thoughts in her diary are so mature and so full of hope that it really makes one feel silly for making a big deal out of life’s trivialities.
From Amsterdam, we traveled to Berlin. I really wasn’t sure how to feel about visiting Germany. My whole life, I had been taught from a Jewish perspective that Germans are the bad guys – even today. I know that Germany has made one effort after another to try to ease the pain of the atrocities of the Third Reich, but arriving in Berlin I found myself wondering how 21st-century Germans view us Jews. One of our two couch-surfing hosts even opened the conversation by stating, “I can tell by your last name that you come from a Jewish family.” Although it was a bit unnerving to me, it was simply conversation to him, and I had nothing to feel anxious about.
One of the most telling signs we saw in Berlin was the Holocaust Memorial. Except they don’t call it that; the official name of the memorial is “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Germany is not hiding behind fancy wording. They put it right out in the open that this is what happened, it happened here in Germany by the hands of Germans, and they’re not proud of it. The memorial is a sea of upright concrete slabs that seems reminiscent of a cemetery. At first, they’re only as tall as your knees, but as you walk between them, the ground dips, and you find yourself lost beneath the towering slabs. Stephanie saw it as a symbol of what it feels like to be drowning, in a sea of unfair regulations, a sea of chaos, a sea of fear and uncertainty. I felt as if I was wandering among a sea of faceless, dead souls – determined to remind you of their one-time existence.
There is also an “information center” beneath the memorial. I put this in quotes because although I was expecting about 15 minutes worth of information on who built the memorial and when, there was instead a museum that took almost three hours to get through which presents the Holocaust (and Berlin’s involvement in it) in many ways. There is a timeline complete with hundreds of photos. There are heart-wrenching letters and diary entries from people of all ages who endured the persecution. There is the “room of families” which traces 15 Jewish families from all over Europe and all different lifestyles as the Holocaust disrupted and eventually shattered their lives. There is extensive photo history of each of the hundreds of sites of persecution – from ghettos to death camps -along with audio accounts from the few witnesses who survived the horrors of these ghettos and death camps.
Berlin’s acknowledgement of their role in the Holocaust doesn’t end with Jews either. There are also memorials to the Sinti and Roma (gypsies) as well as the homosexuals persecuted and killed in the war. The whole experience leaves one angry at the country that allowed this to happen, but impressed with the ownership they’re taking of it now. It also left me feeling very proud to be Jewish, and to be a part of the people who survived this attempted genocide.