Remembering in the Company of Ghosts: An American Jew in Germany Contemplates Yom HaShoah

The U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah. This day of remembrance is always on my radar, but this year, it merits more of my attention than usual. Crimes against religious minorities have increased since the US election, which has put many individuals with Jewish heritage on edge, myself among them. Although it may be the greatest hope of our ancestors that each future generation is less prone to hatred and judgment, the practice of tolerance, it seems, remains insurmountably challenging for some.

Faced with this reality, it is easy to become paralyzed. Changing a person’s mind about the value of another person to whom they feel superior is no small task. When I begin to feel useless, I take stock of who is on the front line of the battle against undue hatred. Our most important allies in the fight against persecution, discrimination and genocide are investigative journalism, and human rights organizations, whose mission is to protect the rights of the persecuted.

And so turns my typical thought cycle during Yom HaShoah. This year, however, I am observing this day of reflection in Germany, and feeling an entirely new historic weight on my shoulders. I glimpse hints of the former Jewish presence, and subsequent Jewish oppression, all around me.

Plaques commemorating the deported and murdered Jews of Wiesbaden

Installed in the sidewalks all over the country are small brass plaques, each engraved with a name of the Jew taken from the home outside which the plaque sits. It is said that stepping on these plaques is an act of love and remembrance, as rubber shoe soles act as polishing agents, ensuring that they remain visible and meaningful. Each day I exist here, I walk on one, or two, or ten of these plaques, and I contemplate: What would this city be like had Jews been permitted to stay and influence the culture during and after World War II? What must the residents of Wiesbaden have felt seeing their neighbors disappear, one by one?

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The Wiesbaden Holocaust Memorial, names of victims etched into the dark grey stone. Photo by Nic Hall

I could have asked myself these questions at any point while studying the Holocaust stateside, but the answer would have been a hypothetical – a guess. Here, the residents REMEMBER these events. They SAW the Jews being taken away. They personally witnessed the deletion of a fraction of their community. The ghosts surround me, and I feel compelled by them to more deeply connect with their stories.

Germans are extremely careful when discussing World War II with Americans. They never mention the word ‘Nazi.’ In fact, the systematic avoidance of this word reminds me of the name ‘Voldemort’ in the Harry Potter book series – its mention at times evokes wide eyes and quiet gasps, sucking all the air out of the room. Antique dealers don’t sell “Nazi” military medals – they sell “German World War II” medals. Germany has, and may continue forever to have, a guilty conscience, and that guilt is a significant factor that shapes their politics, culture, and infrastructure in ways many Americans can’t even begin to contemplate.

Learning the story of the local Wiesbaden Jewish community. Photo by Nic Hall

During our Host Nation briefing, our German tour guide pointed out the scribbles that cover many of the advertisements in Wiesbaden. The writing, she said, is the work of a man who is thought to have some sort of mental instability. Although much of the writing is actually passages from the German version of the Bible, the graffiti-like manner by which he transcribes the the excerpts onto the ads indicates that he is fighting an internal psychological battle. The police, however, are trained to stand down and allow the defacement of these ads, as the man is clearly not attempting to harm anyone. Police in Germany, she said, are largely reactionary, only taking action of they have judged a person or persons to be in danger. Germans perceive this method of policing as the opposite of the overbearing Nazi-era practices that lead to the death and destruction of so much.

Wiesbaden’s two synagogues were completely destroyed during World War II. The former location of the biggest one is now the site of the Wiesbaden Holocaust Memorial, which recognizes those who were systematically mistreated, displaced, imprisoned, and eventually murdered. Rather than being placed atop the hill where the synagogue once stood, a section of the hill was removed, and the memorial was placed into the enclave at street level so that each passing car must experience it on both sides. There is a video installation built into the wall of the memorial facing the pedestrian square that plays an English-language description of the genocide. It is impossible to ignore if one is within earshot.

The Werner Chapel in Bacharach

Reverence and apology for previous wrongdoing is an essential piece of the modern German identity. Even former symbols of Christianity serve as monuments of remembrance for Germany’s Jews, who it should be known were being discriminated against long before the Third Reich. I visited the ruins of the Verner Chapel, a Gothic church in the small, beautiful village of Bacharach that was destroyed in 1689, and attached to its surrounding fence discovered a plaque dedicating it to not only the persecution of the German Christians in the village, but the Jews as well. The Jews of Bacharach had been blamed for the death of a young boy in the town, whose body had been found close to the chapel. They were viciously attacked for it by an angry mob.

I consciously live in the present. I am incredibly open-minded towards other cultures, and feel extremely privileged to have the chance of a lifetime – to live in Europe and see the world from another angle. I could easily interpret the overwhelming weight of the past persecution of my ancestors as a warning of things to come. But that would simply serve to further paralyze me, keeping me chained to a past that cannot be altered.

Instead, on Yom HaShoah, I have made a promise to myself that I will absorb all the European Jewish history I can possibly handle, no matter how challenging that may be. Ultimately, as I see it, the fact that I am here, in this place, consciously representing my family’s past, able and eager to continue uncovering our history so that it can be preserved forever, is the most sincere tribute I can make to them.

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