Saturday, August 02, 2008

Young Germans Looking Back

When we dined in Koblenz, somehow WW2 came up in conversation with our young waiter, who was born in Poland but had grown up in Koblenz. His perspective on the war, the Holocaust, etc., was matter-of-fact. He shrugged and said that what happened was terrible, and of course he personally had not done anything, so didn't feel defensive. That it was a sad chapter altogether.

For me, growing up reading The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, and watching movies like Europa, Europa and watching the History Channel's endless rehashing of WW2 (in which both my grandfathers fought, one a sailor in the Pacific theatre, the other landing with the Army in Le Havre shortly after D-Day), I find it interesting to see how today's green, modern, forward-looking Europeans regard their relatively recent past. To Americans, enchanted by cathedrals and palaces, it's easy to look at Europe and see only the past. Perhaps it has to do with our connection to Europe, the fact that Europe is "the past" for many European-Americans. (I'm thinking of Donald Rumsfeld's snotty "Old Europe" comment). The more time we spend in Europe, though, the more I'm struck by the future-focused outlook in general conversation and in daily life. Still, how does Germany in particular deal with the 30's and 40's?

Our conversation with the waiter seems typical. On several narrated tours, synagogues were pointed out, and mention was made of Kristallnacht and persecution of Germany's Jewish population. During our stop in Bacharach, we came upon what looked like the ruins of a cathedral on a promontory. Some of the windows had very recently been replaced with blood-red glass, and lights were in place to illuminate the windows at night. Puzzling...until I found the plaque explaining that on this site, Christians "re-enacted" a ceremony in which Jews sacrificed innocent Christians. Of course, this "ceremony" was a complete fabrication, one in a long line of what are called blood libel accusations against Jewish people. The plaque further explains that this ceremony perpetuated the kinds of myths about Jews that contributed to the Christian population's complicity in persecution of the Jews. I really wasn't expecting to see this type of thing during our Rhine cruise (again with the castles, fortresses, palaces, and storybook towns in my American head). It really was a modern art installation intended to remind visitors to Bacharach that history, even in such picturesque surroundings, is not always happy romance.

Back in Koblenz, when we left the Hotel Brenner, I noticed a plaque in the sidewalk (I really need to get on a computer where I can upload pictures, sorry!). The plaque said that former residents of this address, the very place where we had just stayed, were taken away during the war and died in Sobibor camp. I did the math and realized that these poor people, who had spent their lives in Koblenz, were in their late 60's when their house was taken away, and then their lives were taken away. Again, here was a reminder that interrupts daily life in this small German town to remind people what happened here, not to forget the past.

So our waiter was a pretty good example of the general feeling I got during our visit to Germany. Yes, this was the site of shameful atrocities. Yes, we are looking forward and building a new Germany. No, we will not forget.


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