As a child of Holocaust survivors, I have always managed to avoid visiting Germany. Part of my parents’ legacy was never to visit the country, with its dark past — not even to own any products in our home that were made in Germany.
Despite my reluctance to visit Germany, an opportunity arose that I could not forgo. A professional group to which I have belonged for 10 years was holding a meeting in Wiesbaden — the day after Yom Kippur, no less. As the international group of about 40 includes many friends and people with whom I regularly do business, I felt compelled to attend. I also felt that Michael, my German host, would feel slighted if I chose to stay home. After all, Michael is in his 40s and should not be blamed for the sins of his grandparents’ generation.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Wiesbaden a most beautiful city with many stately buildings dating from the mid-19th century, when it was a popular spa town for the rich and the royalty of Europe. It was a town that showed no visible scars from World War II, never having been bombed.
But in fact, there were less visible scars that tarnished the history of Wiesbaden. At the onset of World War II, the city was home to 1,500 Jews who had built a most inspiring and architecturally noteworthy synagogue that was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938. Subsequently, Wiesbaden’s Jews were deported to concentration camps, leaving no survivors.
In my research before I arrived, I discovered that the town had built a memorial to those victims on the very spot where the synagogue was located. I was determined to visit the memorial, so that this trip, which seemed like a betrayal of my parents’ memory, would take on some semblance of deeper meaning. I had no idea when I would have the opportunity, as the meeting left little time for anything else.
Michael, who was raised in Wiesbaden, is a sophisticated man who spent his younger years living in the United States and London. As part of the meeting’s program, he had invited a speaker to discuss German history, and the speaker began with the reign of Charlemagne. Much to everyone’s astonishment, when he discussed the 20th century, he never mentioned the Nazi period. We were all deeply offended and at the break expressed our disappointment to Michael, whereupon he stood before the group and apologized with tears in his eyes.
Suddenly I realized that here was my opportunity. I suggested to Michael that it would be appropriate for him to invite the whole group to visit the memorial to the Jewish victims. Michael eagerly agreed and later that day, most of the group walked to the memorial, not really knowing what to expect. Appropriately, the site is somber with a gray brick wall inscribed with the names of those who perished. I felt that I needed to seize this moment.
I asked my colleagues to gather around while I put on my yarmulke and recited the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer for the dead. Although the words are in ancient Aramaic, somehow the meaning was felt more than understood. In a spontaneous outpouring of emotion, everyone burst into tears, hugging each other. The group included Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims, but at this moment we were simply people bound by our common humanity and the sadness over a terrible tragedy. As we stood there, many of the cars that passed by blew their horns in recognition and sympathy.
Michael then led us to a house in front of which was embedded a brass plaque in the sidewalk with the name of a Jewish occupant who had lived there and was deported. We all crouched down to read the name in an act of homage, each of us mouthing a prayer in our own way.
Later that evening, as we walked back to our hotel, Michael turned to me and said, “We learn all about the Nazi period and the Holocaust in school, and we take trips to many sites related to that time, but as Germans we never talk about it. That is a mistake. We need to talk about it so we won’t forget; that’s what I learned today.”
The following day as I rode the train to the airport, I reviewed that simple yet profound event. I realized that coming to Germany was an act of closure for my own personal history. Even my parents would have understood.
Adam Friedman is a public relations consultant who lives in New York City.