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JewishJournal.com

May 1, 2008

Ghost of holocaust haunts visitor exploring Germany

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/ghost_of_holocaust_haunts_visitor_exploring_germany_20080502

Swans in the Baltic Sea, near the German shore. Photo courtesy Merissa Nathan Gerson

Swans in the Baltic Sea, near the German shore. Photo courtesy Merissa Nathan Gerson

It took me more than a year to buy my ticket. My sister was living in Berlin, and I was supposed to visit her. What she didn't know each time she asked me to come see her was how present the Holocaust was for me in my work.

I was unveiling the war's history in my own writing while she was living, post-war, in Germany. To visit, I knew, would be to bring myself even closer to the traumas that had been passed to me through the thickness of blood.

In one week, three years of thoughts and feelings were opened up. They are leaking now that I have returned.

I had gone from partying with the people I love most in the world to the land of the Germans and the history. I shifted to the life of my sister, plus the emotions of myself. The land of many bike rides, swans in the Baltic Sea and the most beautiful river and coffee shops, all a little tainted with the stain of the past. It was a week that spanned years.

I did not want history lessons. I was full already, between the sirens that had the same sound as the pogrom sirens, the train tracks that carried us to vacation and my ancestors to their deaths and the forests, our bike riding and leisure domain despite once having served as the hiding place for so many.

My constant remembrance was irritating for my sister, but I couldn't help it. Remembering in Germany and remembering in America are not so different, only one holds physical markers of the images that flash through my head anyway.

We went to synagogue the first night in Berlin, the shrouded shul. It was guarded by men and wrought iron and glass and walls. Inside was a small group of Jews, including Holocaust survivors.

Everything Jewish in Germany felt like the other side, as it is, to a war. It was clear that something happened, that this locale was not just a transition of space but actually held the history that haunts me even though I was not there and did not live it.

The morning after synagogue, we took the train to an island on the Baltic Sea, Insel Poehl. We biked like maniacs with Jessica the porcelain artist and met the Russian flea market people at the supermarket. It was barbecue and wine in a box for dinner and a drunken bike ride back to the guesthouse.

It was on the island in the German countryside that I understood that the war was over and had been for 60 years. I was Jewish, and they weren't coming to get me, and I had a right to lie there and cry on a bench. A right to ride my bike. A right to vacation.

The next morning it was hippie brunch at an artist's residence. After the Baltic Sea, it was Germany and the Gerson twins. I biked further than I thought my body could handle and sang Ricky Payton songs loudly -- American loud -- through the streets of Berlin.

We ate Moroccan hummus near the soccer game bars and Thai food with an Israeli DJ friend who lived on Ibiza. He and his Italian music partner had us to dinner, and we listened to trance and danced with a 6-month-old baby in one arm and wine in the other.

Then there were museums, and there were walks, and on those walks there were random memorials. Memory became a curse when concentration camps were remembered in shopping districts and Jews were given homage on street corners. I was a racialized other, despite their attempt to kindly honor 2,000 years of Jewish history. God explained on a placard, and Jews lumped together as a people; I question my name now.

And then I was stopped for having the wrong subway ticket for my bike. I cried when they took me off the train. I cried because they were rough. I cried because I hate police. I cried because I was in Germany, and I was wrong, and I didn't listen to the blond angel with the diamond in her tooth who warned me about this.

The ticket for 40 euros somehow made me think of the $20 a month they sent my grandmother as a scant apology for the murder of her family.

An Ethiopian woman advised me to forgive and forget, contrary to the advice "never forgive, never forget" from my upbringing. Who am I forgiving now? And how do I forget?

I am racializing to cope with my racialization.

And yet, I loved graveyards in Germany because they exhibited the privilege of a marked grave. I loved the candles burning in coffee shops and the bike paths. I loved the eggs and the Vietnamese food and the graffiti. And then the architecture and the art and the beautiful people and the thrift stores and the hot pink dress I never bought. I loved my afternoon with Anya, Russian girl of steel, and the immense seesaws and the 3D triangle lawn.

I loved Germany in the present and wasn't sure what to do with Germany in the past, let alone America in the past, and then I was suddenly in South Africa and Israel and back after those trips, and again, I question the choices in the construction of my reality.

Another Holocaust survivor died this week. Memory is the question that remains. Selecting memory, discarding memory, finding a balance between retention of past and obsession with it.

When I returned home, there was a gift from the Holocaust Museum in the mailbox. They sent me a calendar with a different drawing of war for every month. Something about bearing witness, as if memory were not innately indelible.

If we stop bearing witness will it happen again? Or will we maybe get a chance to breathe in the present without being terrified of the resurgence of the past?

I am a grandchild of the Holocaust.

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