ONE EVENING, I VISITED my wife’s family, and her uncle showed me a black-and-white picture of his father, who, as a Wehrmacht officer, participated in Germany’s WWII surrender to the Soviets. He said he gave the Soviet delegation keys and documents, and they shook hands. A photograph of the surrender was hanging on his wall like other pictures.
I asked myself: what should I say?
Shall I curse the uncle’s father in front of him for fighting in an army that was part of a deadly machine? Or should I just say “yes”, and nod my head as if it were just another picture, like Japanese art or an impressionistic print?
I didn’t want to create a scandal, because he was part of my wife’s family. I didn’t say a word. But I asked myself: why did he show me the photograph? Was it because I was part of the Jews who got back to Berlin? Or, was it his guilt he wanted to share with me? Or both?
This odd situation, being confronted with the past in my new world, is part of life now. Every year Israeli army radio calls to ask me how I feel living in the diaspora on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In Israel, I was never asked these questions because I am part of the Mizrachi Jews and not the European Jews, who had family in the Holocaust. What happened? Now, I am also a European Jew; I have lived in Berlin for the past five years.
My Berlin experience has changed me from being a Mizrachi Jew to a diasporic Jew. Last year, I was invited to speak on German Holocaust Remembrance Day in the grand theatre of the Berliner Ensemble with other Jewish writers.
How do I feel on the Holocaust Remembrance Day? Well, living in Berlin is an everyday experience of feeling the weight of the Holocaust on my shoulders.
It starts when I leave my apartment to buy groceries. I always look at my local “stolperstein” – an art project, comprising stones in the pavement that commemorate the victims of national socialism. Each “stone” begins with “HERE LIVED…”
One stone. One name. One person.
And, I have my own stone two houses up the street: Rosa Morel used to live here. She was born on 1868 with the name of Rosa Neumann. She was deported on 1944. No one knows where she was murdered. Rosa was apparently 72 in the year of her death. In Israel, I met many women with this charming name. Rosa sounds to me like a family relative I never met.
A few houses farther along is a cemetery. Among beautiful huge trees and hedges, it’s very strange graves lay very close to the ground like grey, sharp roofing tiles. Something is written about a third unit of the army. I Googled it and found out that it belonged to the Wehrmacht. They got a a headstone but Rosa didn’t.
I have never really understood the question about how it feels. I ask an Israeli radio announcer what diaspora means to her. She doesn’t have an answer.
I back off and tell her that I feel in exile in Israel because the whole culture of the country is far from the culture of my parents. If it is easier for her, I can say that I went from exile to exile. Now, she becomes more specific. How do you feel as a Jew outside Israel? I become sharp. I say, I feel safe not to be included in the war with the Palestinians and others. But this is not the whole truth.
I think the Holocaust is not only a physical memory in the topography of Berlin. It also lies in the undercurrents of the city; in the way the Germans approach me, the way I am talking with the ghosts of the past.
In my last poetry book, I wanted to write an easy poem that reflects my broken German. I wanted it to be funny, but in the end the ghosts of Berlin wrote a different kind of poem – they wrote how I am walking the streets of Berlin with a bible that burns and never stops.
These ghosts are maybe the writers, who wrote before me in Hebrew and other languages – among them my favorites like David Vogel, Walter Benjamin, Irene Nemirovsky and others. When I go to Fraenkelufer Synagogue, which was active before WWII, I know I tread a path that once was walked frequently.
Before the Holocaust, the city was blowing itself apart from its creative Jewish artists and writers. They were sitting in the coffee houses and looking for the political as well as the cultural solution to question of class, sexuality, nationalism, and more.
The Israeli army radio interviewer finally asks me about the German far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). I tell her I heard from a colleague that in his German school more than half his classmates do not understand why they should learn about the Holocaust if it wasn’t their sin but that of other generations.
Just lately, we learn the police in Germany are reporting a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. In that sense I feel the fear coming from my religion and culture and from my Arab background. But, I won’t tell the interviewer that I walk in the streets on my toes like a cat. I don’t want her to feel safe in her studio. In reality, Israel is neither a haven for Jews nor for Palestinians.
Furthermore, it not only harms the people inside it, but also creates hate around the world that harms us the diasporic Jews. I tell the young interviewer that you can’t live in Berlin without confronting the Holocaust on many levels.
As long as we all remember, I don’t give up. In one of my vacations with my wife’s German family, we stayed in Wulkow castle near the Polish border. We walked in the forest, and her cousin finds a stone to remember the forced labour camp of Wulkow.
I can’t help thinking what the young Israeli interviewer would say if I told her that Holocaust Remembrance Day teaches us about forgiving and continuation of our mutual life as Jews and Germans.