The Milwaukee Jewish Federation Mission to Vilnius and Berlin was a very confusing one for me. It challenged me on assumptions that I have held for 61 years, were taught to me by my parents, and I have used to chart the course of my life. I am struggling.
We started in Vilnius – the “Jerusalem of the North,” learning about its rich, vibrant history of Judaism. This was an epicenter of Jewish life, beginning in the 8th century. There was great prosperity and Jewish culture flourished. Before World War II, Jews accounted for 7 percent of the population.
We visited mass extermination sites and the Ponar Forest where 70,000 Jews were murdered. We were with Father Patrick Desbois and he showed us new places of mass murder; he taught us that the words being used to describe these horrific situations matter. That they were crimes. People weren’t “killed,” they were “murdered.” That when going to places, we shouldn’t just look at the sites of the mass murder, but look at the people. He is working hard to find actual witnesses to these crimes and we were given the blessing of being able to witness these people telling us their first-hand observations. We now are witnesses ourselves – just like I say to the audiences when I tell my father’s Holocaust story. We met a very spry, 94-year-old partisan from the Resistance and she took us into the forest where she scrapped together a life during the war and helped others and fought. This was the story that I was familiar with and reinforced my life. Then we went to Germany – and my beliefs will truly never be the same.
We started in Berlin, innocently enough – if I may use that word, at historic Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate. Studied by children everywhere, it is a symbol of Berlin at many levels for many wars. But just around the corner from that and the governmental buildings of Germany sat my first emotional challenge. We went to the huge, one square block of thousands of concrete slabs dedicated to the Holocaust. The name – the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe! If words matter, this surely isn’t sugar coated. Another name of a monument, the Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism. As we walked through the city, there were other places and plaques that defined how Germany is writing their history today. There is the Women’s Protest on Rosenenstreasse; we could go into Otto Weidt’s brush factory where he hid Jews and saved them; and the Topography of Terror, a museum on the Gestapo and SS headquarters site that described their crimes in all too graphic description. There are grassroots monuments and memorials, also. The Places of Remembrance is art in a very public space – colorful images on one side, the condensed version of the anti-Jewish Nazi law on the other. This is for the citizens of the Bavarian Quarter of Berlin, not for the tourists – they are confronting their past.
Yes, we went to Gleis 17, the main deportation site for Berlin Jews and wondered how the neighbors who lived oh so close to the tracks lived with what they were seeing, hearing and smelling. We saw the place where Jews had to report to before they walked the miles to the station. We saw all and felt all.
And now I am trying to make sense of it all.
I certainly will never forget. But perhaps it is time for me to grow. To heal. The scar will always be there, visible and in my view. I will always view life as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, but perhaps I can now let the scab heal and view life more dimensionally. If today’s Germany is struggling with its past and its future – so should I. I don’t want to be stuck in the past. I tongue-in-cheek state that I ‘live life in the present, remembering the past and planning for my future’. This should include a new dialogue on Germany. Yes, the Holocaust did happen! Yes, innocent people were murdered! But I must go forward. To stay in the past is not healthy. It burdens oneself and carries a heavy weight.
I ended my trip as many a grandparent does – buying a gift for the kinder. I did something I would not have done two weeks earlier…I bought two little toys – one with the word ‘Berlin’ on it and the second, a firetruck with the German word for it printed on its side. I am bringing today’s Germany home.
Nancy Kennedy Barnett is a resident of Fox Point and is vice chair of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. She is on the boards of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, the Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation, the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and is a past president of Congregation Shalom of Fox Point.