July 19, 2006
Overcoming Germanophobia During the World Cup
It was more than six decades ago that the Germans were trying to kill me on a nightly basis. Every evening, my family and I would stand at the bottom of our garden in London and listen to the buzz bombs approaching.
Many were shot down, but many more pierced the defensive guns. And when those flying bombs -- progenitors of the guided missile -- ran out of fuel, they fell to earth, destroying houses, killing neighbors and turning streets into rubble. They whined, and then they were suddenly silent. It was that terrible silence that indicated they were about to drop.
During the heaviest bombardments, we would spend the night in the concrete shelter we'd built at the bottom of the garden. And this went on throughout the blitz.
Now more than 60 years later, I had finally plucked up enough courage to visit Germany for the first time. Once again, they tried to kill me, but this time it was with kindness.
I must admit that in countless trips to Europe, I had carefully avoided visiting Germany, having no desire whatsoever to see the Fatherland that had left me with such dark memories. But then came the summer of 2006, and as a football (soccer to you) devotee, I headed to Germany to cover the World Cup for a Southern California radio station.
At the airport, everything was ultramodern, well lit, clean, efficient -- "Like a giant Ikea," one of my companions quipped. All pretty run of the mill until my entry into Nuremberg.
I'm a dual citizen with U.S. and British nationalities, so when I travel in Europe I do so on my Euro-British passport. It's less complicated. Not this time. The German passport control officer smiled, took one look at my British passport and politely asked me to step into a private room, where I was confronted by two British policemen in uniform.
With thousands of British fans expected in Germany for the "fussball," the police were ready. English soccer fans have been known to imbibe alcohol excessively and then behave in a most disorderly fashion.
Some 70 British police officers had been loaned to Germany for the duration of the World Cup to help the local cops identify and detain the names on England's "1,000 most-wanted thugs" list, who were to be made decidedly unwelcome in the Rhineland.
A few minutes later the constables admitted I was not an "undesirable" and then politely sent me on my way. And so I headed into the medieval city of Nuremberg, whose name carries such freight for anyone who was around in World War II -- and for Jews so much more.
Bavarian history is steeped in anti-Semitism. Hundreds of Jews were massacred in the 13th century. And in the 20th century, the Nuremberg name was placed on a restrictive set of laws that marked the beginning of the end of life and liberty for Germany's Jews.
In the '30s, it was the place where Hitler displayed his might to the world, the scene of his most fervent rallies -- the Nazi national shrine where filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl captured the frenzied Fuhrer in her 1934 propaganda movie, "Triumph of the Will."
It was also in Nuremberg that from 1945-1949 the most heinous war criminals had their day in court. Where the "I was following orders" henchmen -- Hess, Ribbentrop, Goring, etc. -- tried to defend their bestial behavior. And finally, it was also a city that was totally decimated by British and American bombers. Now it had risen from the ashes to act as a World Cup host city.
Here we were in a downtown area known as "The Fan Zone," and on a gorgeous summer's afternoon, thousands of young Americans strolled happily through the streets, their faces painted red, white and blue, wearing the Stars and Stripes as a cloak, with some dressed as Capt. America, George Washington and a handful sporting Nixon and Elvis masks.
It was as if I had walked into a bizarre fancy dress party -- an unreal carnival as the fans marched through the streets chanting, "U.S.A., U.S.A.," before the American team took on Ghana. (They lost, in case you didn't hear.)
It was hard to realize that 70 years ago, these self-same streets were filled with strutting, swastika-clad Germans in a preamble to what turned out to be the bloodiest chapter of a bloody century.
This summer, the Germans were on their best behavior, acutely aware of the need to project the image of the new Germany -- friendly, hospitable, open, tolerant -- greeting all comers, no matter their race or color, trying their best to demonstrate that at last, Germany is a nation just like any other: little Germany, normal at last.
German flags hung from houses, shops and car windows. Germans unselfconsciously sang their national anthem before their games. Germans painted their faces in their national colors, just like the Americans, the Brits, the Portuguese and the French, and they appeared to be enjoying themselves extraordinarily with good spirits and a complete lack of über-nationalism.
A local journalist explained: "There is such a history with our flag. Before the World Cup if you had a flag in your window, it meant you were a right-winger, possibly even a neo-Nazi. This is the hot topic being discussed on local talk radio every day."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told The New Yorker that the World Cup had finally enabled Germany to "reflect a beautiful sense of normalcy." A Jew can visit Germany today without that nasty feeling that a greater percentage of the population here wishes him ill than in any other European country.
It was impossible not to share in the Germans' newfound delight in their relaxed position in Europe and their new image in the world. Unlike their former ally, Austria, which has somehow managed to sell the world on the idea that it too was a victim of Nazism, rather than an enthusiastic participant, Germany has confessed its sins, made its mea culpas and paid its reparations to the victims worldwide and to Israel.
Germans have made an attempt to educate their children about their awful history in the last century, and they have the most stringent anti-hate laws in the world. Expressions of racism, supernationalism or discrimination are jumped on quicker here than in any other country in Europe, certainly more than France and more than England.
In 2006, Germany is a beautiful country with nice people. Go and enjoy. While Germany didn't win the World Cup, it reached the semi-finals, quite an achievement. But a far greater one was to run a World Cup without serious scandal or unpleasantness and to show the world that Germans know how to have fun.
"We were so serious before," a German fan told me before I left, "but now we've shown that we can party. And we've surprised the world."
Museums and Memorials Can Be Found Across Nation
I had limited time to check out Jewish museums in Germany, but there are many. There are museums and memorials around the country in Frankfurt, Munich, Buchenwald, Dachau, Wannsee and Bergen-Belsen.
What should not be missed is the Jewish Museum in Berlin (www.jmberlin.com) at Lindenstrasse 9-14, which tells the entire history of Jews in Germany. The subterranean museum designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who was born in Poland and is the child of Holocaust survivors, offers a unique underground series of hallways that house the Axis of Death, the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Continuity, chronicling the history of Jews in 20th century Germany. It also offers rocking horses and crawl spaces for kids, and an exhibition of household goods and personal family photos supplied by survivors of pre-war Jewish families, along with recordings of the voices of Max Reinhardt and Albert Einstein.
During the World Cup, there was even a special tribute in the museum garden to Walther Bensemann, a German Jewish businessman who brought soccer to Germany. He died in l934.
The museum is closed for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Christmas Eve. Back on the streets of Berlin you can wander everywhere with a Jewish cultural map in hand, pinpointing memorial sites, shuls and cemeteries. You can also simply be a normal tourist and partake of the goodies at Gabriel's Heimisch Bakery and Cafe on Konstanzer Strasse, Bagels and Bialys on Rosenthaler or the Kosher Beth Cafe on Potsdamer Platz Arkaden on Alte Potsdamer.
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