“Berlin Diary” was the title of a book by William Shirer (author of the classic “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”) describing his experiences as a reporter in the dark days of Berlin in the late 1930s, as the early steps toward the Shoah were taking place. As with many of us, Germany occupies a place in my thinking reflecting the unimaginable horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people by the Nazis. I have always refused to travel to Germany; I have always refused to consider buying a German car, despite the quality. It is with this is mind, that my wife, Carol, and I spent a week in Berlin, returning to Israel just before Pesach,  z’man herutanu, the time of our freedom.
A few factors affected my decision to go. It was not an easy decision for me. First was the relatively recent creation of Jewish sites in Berlin, such as the Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenmann, and the refurbishing of the dome of the Neue Synagogue (seen burning on Kristallnacht in all the old newsreels). Additionally, trade between Germany and Israel is extremely strong; I see German products (with Hebrew on them) in Israeli supermarkets all the time. An important component of this is the warm and strong diplomatic relationship between the two countries. It’s fair to say that after the United States, Germany is Israel’s most important friend — this at a time when European anti-Semitism and condemnation of Israel is unfortunately quite prominent. And last, I was curious to see what the Jewish community was like, as it has grown proportionately due to Russian Jewish (and Israeli) immigration. So, off we went.
Everything we did, saw and felt was influenced by the 20th century history of the country. It was never far off. The city itself is dynamic, consisting of classic old European architecture and museums and multiple modern structures rebuilt after the destruction of the war and the communist era. There is a vibrant cultural life, beautiful parks and rivers. Underlying this, we spoke to people about the current approach to history now that most of the perpetrators have passed on.
As noted, the Jewish community is growing in numbers. However, Jewish life is not terribly vibrant. Interestingly, the German government contributes about $20 million toward the community, much of which goes to Russian resettlement. There are active synagogues, but they struggle. It was special to spend Shabbat in Berlin’s Great Synagogue (as opposed to the Neue Synagogue),a beautiful Moorish building that was not destroyed during the war.
Wherever we went to a site related to the Shoah — museums, memorials, statues, the Wansee Conference hall, synagogues — there were always crowds of high school students visiting with guides. On most occasions, the students themselves were making presentations to the group as part of the tour — they had obviously studied the history and were involved in the learning. As one member of the Jewish community had commented to me, it is important for the German community to learn about its past and not sweep it under the rug. He strongly believed that it was socially accepted to be “pro Jewish” and that anti-Semitism is definitely passé among most (although not all). Repeatedly when people inquired where we were visiting from and we replied Israel, we saw only positive body language and people were interested to talk about Israel with us.
Despite the phenomena above, we never ceased to feel that we were at the location of the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people. It is sensed, felt, and seen constantly. I believe Carol and I felt rewarded for deciding to make the trip. It was an opportunity to visit another Jewish community, but also to help to move to a higher level of feeling as a Jew and now as an Israeli.
Dan Karsch is a former Tucsonan whose community involvements included serving as co-chair of the Weintraub Israel Center and president of the Desert Caucus. He and his wife, Carol, made aliyah in November 2012.