BERLIN — We have looked out across this city from atop the reconstructed Neue Synagogue, its ostentatious dome again affording breathtaking views. We have stood in silence next to the memorial sculpture on nearby Gross Hamburger Street, which marks the spot where tens of thousands of Jews were gathered for deportation to Nazi death camps, and at the simple sign outside Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station which lists the camps to which they were dispatched.
We have toured the “Topography of Terror” exhibit on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, which charts the year-by-year advance of Nazism.
We have made our way around Daniel Libeskind’s vast, clever and curiously non-engaging Jewish Museum.
We have walked in eerie late-night darkness through the city center’s 2,711 concrete-slab memorial to Europe’s murdered Jews.
We have spent hours at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, standing numbed by cold and the reverberations of evil in the roll-call area, the barracks, and at the site of the crematorium.
We have been to the elegant villa in the suburb of Wannsee, to the unremarkable room where Reinhard Heydrich convened 14 of his colleagues in January 1942 to work through the logistics of what had by now become the official Nazi policy of genocide for the Jews.
Amid unfailing courtesy in the new Germany, we have been transported into our people’s terrible history.
Forgive me the question, but should today’s Germany really be taking public pleasure in having hosted the Nazi Olympics?
But here, now, at the stadium where Hitler’s Berlin hosted the 1936 Olympic Games, the sense of oppression is modern: By sheer coincidence, we have chosen to visit the Olympiastadion on an afternoon when its current tenant, the soccer team Hertha Berlin, is playing a game — hosting Bundesliga rival Borussia Dortmund. The train, the punctual, modern, clean German train, is tightly packed with strapping, close-cropped, overwhelmingly male fans in the blue of Hertha and the yellow of Dortmund, drinking beer and chanting. The mood is no more threatening than it would be at any other routine, well-attended top-division European soccer game. The discomfort is solely in our heads.
More than 75,000 tickets have been sold for the game, and so we walk amid vast throngs of German soccer fans along the wide avenue that leads to the stadium entrance.
Soaring like crematoria chimneys ahead of us are the same twin towers that rose to hail Hitler 78 years ago. The clock still ticks on the left-hand tower; only its partner is bereft, now, of the curved swastika it once boasted. Between them, the five-hooped Olympic symbol hangs high and proud. Forgive me the question, but should today’s Germany really be taking public pleasure in having hosted the Nazi Olympics?
We pass the Marathon Gate, where chiseled stone immortalizes Jesse Owens’ dominance of the short-sprint and long-jump events; a black American athlete’s four gold medals, though inconvenient, failed to dent the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy.
Barely damaged in World War II, the stadium has a new roof, but its core architecture remains as it was on the August day that Hitler opened the games and teams from 49 ignoble nations paraded beneath his gaze.
We’ve purchased guest tickets — the only way to enter the stadium on a match day — and find ourselves high in a section reserved for supporters of Dortmund. Next to us, a father in his 30s stands with his young daughter in front of him, embracing her protectively. But, again, the atmosphere is unremarkable, unthreatening, in relative terms.
One wonders why neo-Nazis would wish to destroy what are also, after all, inadvertent memorials to the murderous racism they idolize
Team flags are waved. Fans in our section loudly and humorlessly abuse the Hertha players when their names are called out by the announcer. The Hertha fans reciprocate. As kick-off nears, the shouting gets more intense, and is punctuated by the brandishing of fists.
Then, in an evidently familiar ritual, the Dortmund fans fall silent, and hold out both arms, outstretched, shoulder-width apart. They keep this silent pose for quite a while, and then return to shouting and waving and fandom as usual. The discomfort, again, is all in our heads.
GERMANY HAS not entirely escaped the shadow of the swastika. After prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Sachsenhausen in 1992, neo-Nazis broke into the camp and set fire to the barracks where Jewish prisoners were held 50 years before — just one in a running stream of such attacks on Holocaust memorial sites. One wonders why neo-Nazis would wish to destroy what are also, after all, inadvertent memorials to the murderous racism they idolize.
Jews, the ostensible source of all Germany’s ills, constituted precisely 0.77% of the German population when the Nazis came to power
The central Berlin memorial has been daubed with swastikas; a man was filmed urinating atop one of the slabs last New Year’s Eve. Germany’s own domestic security agency estimated earlier this month that the country has 10,000 potentially militant neo-Nazis.
Germany has certainly tried, but anti-Semitism, it becomes ever clearer, merely went into remission after Hitler’s fall; it was not shamed into extinction. The scourge is again on the rise across Europe, spearheaded by the improbable but familiar coupling of radical right and Islamism. And no matter that Europe is practically bereft of Jews, the communities never having recovered from the Nazis’ horrors (leaving perhaps a million today in the EU countries and a few hundred thousand in Russia). A striking display at the Wannsee Villa reminds us that Jews, the ostensible source of all Germany’s ills, constituted precisely 0.77% of the German population when the Nazis came to power.
We barely figure; they hate us just the same.
And so 70 years later, Israel, the historic Jewish state that we lamented had been revived too late to serve as a refuge for the Nazi-hounded Jews of Europe, turns out to be needed as a refuge for European Jews after all. Some Israelis may have chosen to move to Berlin for cheaper pudding. Lots of French Jews are moving to Israel — for all the world as though their lives depend upon it.
VISITING BERLIN in what turn out to be the early days of an unexpected Israeli election campaign provides an injection of both perspective and heightened imperative.
When you are nauseated by the stench of the lavatories in the barracks at Sachsenhausen three-quarters of a century after Hitler’s victims were crammed in here, it is hard to care too much about Yoni Chetboun leaving the Jewish Home party. (Now there’s a sentence I don’t suppose anybody came close to writing before.) The party-to-party ego trips and other self-serving maneuverings of petty Israeli politicians, which seem marginal even inside Israel, are of no remote consequence when you step outside it.
But overall, Israel’s political twists matter profoundly. A campaign marked thus far by insults and falsehoods belies the fact that, three months from now, we will entrust somebody with our collective destiny in a Middle East that guarantees nothing but instability and hostility.
You want to scream out afresh at the irresponsibility of any Israeli politician who would make it easy for a critic to contend that the Jewish state was moving to legally render its Arab minority less than equal
The steady return of anti-Semitism is gradually rendering Israel a potentially more vital refuge for European Jewry than at any time since its founding years. But simultaneously, the emboldening of radical Islam, championed by would-be nuclear Iran, finds Israel as existentially challenged as ever in its modern history. We battle to survive, furthermore, in a climate of mischaracterization that would sometimes do Goebbels proud; the under-internalized, great, big, undeniable fact is that the Israel widely misrepresented abroad as a viciously aggressive empire, murderously scapegoating deprived innocents, would be immediately destroyed if it were to lay down its weapons.
As ever, therefore, the Jewish nation needs towering leadership to guide it. The complex interplay with the Palestinians requires remembering, always, that neither people is going away, and that our Israeli interest therefore requires creating a climate in which we can eventually live together, without being seduced into misguided policies that exacerbate the dangers we face.
No matter how uphill and unfair the battle, moreover, we must also strive to maintain our international legitimacy, because it is central to our continued capacity to resist those enemies. When you internalize afresh, visiting all these museums and memorials in Germany, how the Nazis steadily deprived German Jewish citizens of their equality in the 1930s, you want to scream out at the irresponsibility of any Israeli politician who would make it easy for the hordes of waiting critics to contend that the Jewish state is moving to render its Arab minority less than equal. No, I’m not drawing a parallel between the Nazis’ racist laws and Israel’s mercifully aborted “Jewish state” bill initiatives; I’m saying don’t be a facilitator for those Israel-bashers who would seek to do so.
Ahead of the Wannsee Conference, Adolf Eichmann prepared lists of Europe’s Jews by country, separated into two categories: those under Nazi control, those not yet quiescent. His alphabetized accounting totals 11 million European Jews. As of Wannsee, only Estonia could be approvingly marked “judenfrei.” Progress would be much accelerated in the wake of the meeting.
Two months earlier, Hitler had told the visiting Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini that his sole interest in the Arab world was in the annihilation of the Jews there.
Make no mistake, they were coming for us everywhere.
At indescribable cost, and after indescribable loss, the Nazis were defeated. There’s a small, typed sign on the front door of the Wannsee Villa nowadays, telling you to push to open. Telling you in German. And in English. And in Hebrew. Seeing that thoroughly unremarkable sign was actually my happiest little moment in this hip, cosmopolitan, efficient and inexorably stained city. The aim of the gathering at Wannsee 73 years ago was to ensure that no Israelites would walk the planet. Now our remnants return to view the scene, received with a polite notice in our insistently living language.
But the Jews’ war of survival was not won when Hitler lost. It continues to this day, against enemies with more effective tools of mass murder at their disposal.
And we’re easy to find now: Jews constitute 0.5 percent or more of the populace in just six countries on earth: Uruguay (0.5%), France (0.8%), Canada (1.1%), Gibraltar (1.9%), the US (2.1%) … and Israel (75.4%).
A trip to Berlin reminds you that the Jewish nation-state dare not be complacent, weak, selfish, foolish, or short-sighted. And that when the silly political games are over in Israel, we need to be sure we have chosen leaders with the necessary wisdom, in this unforgiving region, to make the astute choices to keep us safe and help us thrive. If that sounds banal, reflect for a moment on the consequences of Jewish vulnerability. Looking out over Berlin, it’s impossible not to.