Berlin is the second most-visited destination by Israelis. So last week, my wife, twin daughters and I bolstered this statistic by spending almost a week in the German capital. The decision to go wasn’t easy. My father is a holocaust survivor. Growing up, I heard his firsthand accounts of his captivity at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Seventy years later, he has yet to set foot in Germany. It’s a sore subject. At 87, he’s done well for himself, married, raised a family, and has 7 grandchildren.
So what made me go against the grain and travel to Berlin, the underbelly of tyranny? Could it be that time did its thing? Could it be that Germany today is not the Germany of yesteryear? I went to find out.
Berlin’s neither pretty nor romantic; it’s not Budapest; it’s not Paris. There’s only a handful of neoclassical buildings. Berlin “owes” its look of 1950s and 1960s square, unflattering residential blocks to the British and the Americans. During WWII, the allies bombed and leveled 80% of the city. So communist East Berlin and democratic West Berlin built itself out of the rubble and into present day.
We started out on a 3-hour walking tour of the city with an English guide who’s doing his PhD in German history. The Berlin wall, the Holocaust Memorial, the Brandenburg Gate where Hitler delivered his speeches, are all mobbed by tourists. Young students are everywhere. Cafes are full. Boutiques and storefronts are blocked by curious onlookers. Double-decker sightseeing buses swallow and vomit tourists at regular intervals. The city vibe is palpable. People appear to be relaxed, smiles all around. So I asked our guide to explain this unbound energy. Not all is rosy, he explains. Berlin is financially broke. The German government pours billions to prop it up, to eventually make it worthy of the title “capital city.” Berlin’s mayor was quoted as saying: “Berlin’s poor but sexy.” The reunification of East and West Berlin was costly. Many companies fled to Munich and Frankfurt. Every year, there’s a negative migration of five to ten thousand. But you wouldn’t know it by the revelers in the streets, in the malls, in the parks, on the bicycle paths. “Poor” in German is relative.
The guide escorts our group to an open square. It was the place of book-burning rallies before the War. He then speaks of Germany’s economic miracle. Germany’s the 4th largest economy in the world, and the strongest in Europe, the envy of all. It reached this pinnacle because of one important reason ignored by the British, the French, the Hungarians, the Poles. Germany is dealing with its past. The Holocaust memorial is next door to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Hate-crimes are punished at the source. Tolerance is key to any education program in school. During last summer’s Soccer World Cup, the Germans won the title. The were champions. The national anthem was played in the streets, yet few knew the lyrics. They’re uneasy with any sign of nationalism, content to raise a team flag or a jug of beer, instead.
I don’t buy this remarkable transformation, not all of it. After the War, the German courts handed light sentences to Nazis. In East Berlin it was different. The communists rounded them up and sent them to gulags. But still, I couldn’t help but notice that Israelis flock to Berlin by the thousands, to live, to study, to invest – and they are welcomed.
What a difference seventy years make. I can’t adopt President Kennedy’s words of 1963 just yet. This week was Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dark memories still haunt us. Man is capable of unspeakable atrocities. One man, Willy Brandt, West Germany’s former chancellor, Berlin’s mayor, and Noble Peace Prize winner made a difference. He fought tirelessly to bring Germany back into the family of nations, fought communism and brutality everywhere. In 1988 he said: “My real success was having contributed to the fact that in the world in which we live, the name of our country [Germany] and the concept of peace can be mentioned in the same breath.”
It’s a good start.
Dad, I went to Berlin to see, to learn. I wish you well.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com