Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Paintings by Hitler should be seen - and treated - as historical artifacts, and not as art

Everything made by human hands has a story to tell, a life of its own that cannot be divorced from that of its creator or creators, not to mention the time and place in which it was created. Sometimes the story is clear - for example, we know quite a lot about the Gettysburg Address, its author and context, while if we turn instead to the massive stone heads dotting Easter Island, many more questions remain surrounding who made them, what the impetus was for their creation and what cultural or historical meanings they may have held for the people who once lived there. 

When we look at art objects, whether ancient, contemporary or somewhere in between, we often explore the time and place in which the art was made in order to better understand its meaning and significance. We also look at the provenance as a means for establishing the authenticity of a piece and to better understand the history of the object itself. With all of this in mind, I found myself somewhat surprised by media reports that several paintings by Adolf Hitler were recently sold at auction in Germany, fetching a total of nearly half a million dollars. As The Boston Globe reported online, the sale itself was highly controversial, noting that while sales of works which contain Nazi imagery are illegal in Germany, the paintings in question, which include landscapes and focus on other apparently inoffensive subjects (though clearly reflective, in some cases, of the delusions and fantasies which helped fuel the Shoah)  may be sold. 

This sale and the logic behind it are deeply problematic in several ways, including, primarily, the idea that the sellers are essentially deriving financial benefit from the Holocaust, profiting off of the deaths of millions of Jews, Christians, Poles, homosexuals, individuals with disabilities, Roma and many others. 

The other major problem here is a worldview that sees these paintings as "art," as opposed to "historical artifacts," the latter, in my mind, being a much more accurate way of viewing them. Seen as "art," these works are likely considered curiosities tied to a notable, infamous figure. To me, this is both a morally flawed and ignorant way of viewing them - instead of having the paintings put up for auction and transferred from one private  owner to another, they should instead be seen as historical artifacts and stored in a secure archive somewhere, accessible to scholars, but otherwise invisible. There are likely those who say these paintings should be destroyed, and perhaps they are right, but given the fraught history of Nazi-era Germany's relationship to the arts and culture, such a move would also undoubtedly be controversial, and rather perversely, increase the value of any paintings which managed to avoid destruction.

For all of these reasons, I think there is a strong case to be made for the removal of these paintings from the international art market. Perhaps it is too late now for the paintings and the proceeds from this sale in Nuremberg, but the next time such deplorable items come up for sale I hope that some sense of decency will prevail, and potential buyers and sellers will be shamed out of profiting from mass murder.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, June 19, 2015

US State Department report highlights value of cooperation in countering terrorism

The recently released US State Department Country Reports on terrorism for 2014 isn’t likely to become popular beach reading this summer, but it may well be one of the most sobering publications to appear this month. Outlining both terrorist activity and government responses, this lengthy document provides a useful overview and timeline, on a country-by-country basis, of global terror activity.

A document such as this does not stand alone, and requires much more background information to be understood in context. For this reason, I found comments made by Tina S. Kaidanow, Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism,  and posted on the State Department website, to be particularly noteworthy.  Addressing the need for greater collaboration and engagement by police and civil society actors around the issue of terrorism, Ambassador Kaidanow also highlighted the importance of respecting human rights and the rule of law, saying, “The United States needs partners who can not only contribute to military operations, but also conduct arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration of terrorists with their facilitation networks. Addressing terrorism in a rule of law framework with respect for human rights is critical both for ensuring the sustainability of their efforts and for preventing the rise of new forms of violent extremism.

Trying to strike the proper balance between security and respect for foundational elements of civil society is not an easy thing to do, and has been an endless source of public debate these last 14 years in both the US and abroad. At this very moment, congress is wrestling with this issue against the backdrop of a looking presidential contest, a factor which only further fuels the intensity of this debate.

While many countries are working both domestically and in partnerships across borders to counter violent extremism, there are, as the report notes, several which are doing the opposite. In some places, such as Cuba, the government has taken meaningful steps to demonstrate it is distancing itself from terrorism, while in others, such as Iran, the official leadership continues to actively support terrorism, contributing to instability and violence across the globe. In fact, in the case of Iran, the report notes of the country, that, “While its main effort focused on supporting goals in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iran and its proxies also continued subtle efforts at growing influence elsewhere including in Africa, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Iran used the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to implement foreign policy goals, provide cover for intelligence operations, and create instability in the Middle East.” As author Matthew Levitt and others have extensively documented, such actions by Iran and the IRGC are nothing new and this report confirms that these activities continue apace, raising serious questions ahead of the June 30 deadline about how committed to peace and stability Tehran actually is.

Aside from governments which actual sponsor terrorist activity, there are also a number of places with weak central governments, including failed or failing states, where terrorists and their supporters are able to operate with a great deal of freedom. In such places, the breakdown in political infrastructure has undoubtedly put even greater stress on civil society and community-level institutions, creating an even more fertile environment for crime and terror activity. These places include the southern Philippines as well as those which are more often reported on in the US news as terrorist havens, including Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. In these areas the problem is not that the central government is actively sponsoring terrorism or has declined to work with international partners to combat it for overtly political or ideological reasons, but rather that the governments themselves lack the capacity to adequately muster the police, intelligence and civil society resources needed to prevent terrorist groups from planning and operating within the borders of their state.

These two very broad questions – how to respond to state-sponsored terrorism, and what to do about places which attract terrorists by virtue of their lack of adequate security or political infrastructure – appear somewhat simple on the surface, but are incredibly vexing upon closer examination. In the case of state-sponsored terrorism virtually all of the activity surrounding such sponsorship is carried out clandestinely. The role of Iran in the bombing the AMIA Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in July of 1994 is a good example of this. By acting in the shadows these nations can engage in a thinly-veiled kind of plausible deniability, making it very hard for another nation or international body to hold them accountable. It’s not impossible, just difficult. In this sense, combating state-sponsored terrorism should involve shining a bright light on these covert relationships and activities. Exposure may have the practical, short-term affect of limiting government involvement in supporting attacks and over the longer term could degrade these relationships to the point where they do not pose a serious threat. The other necessary element is to try and hold these nations accountable for their role in terrorism through aggressive sanctions and efforts to limit their influence in international organizations. Doing this will not bring about an immediate end to state-sponsored terror, but it could reduce its efficacy, and by extension, perhaps save some lives.

The question of what to do about failed, failing and under-governed states is equally as challenging. The first hurdle we must get over is convincing citizens of Western countries that vital national interests are at stake when other nations anywhere in the world begin to fall apart. When the central government is corrupt, bankrupt or so distracted by other issues that it does not pay attention to who is crossing its borders or what they are doing there when no one is looking, terrorists who are likely to have western countries in their sights are going to take advantage of this opportunity.

At the same time, people living in the countries which have become unstable need to feel like there is a possibility of a return to normalcy. In other words, the people who will rebuild government and civil society need to see the value in it, and be willing to take the required risks to make it happen. Aside from cooperation between military, intelligence and police forces, this is the kind of collaboration which is needed to make a real long-term difference when it comes to terrorist exploitation of political instability.

Anyone reading the State Department report will see that there are indeed many programs and initiatives designed to do these things, often in conjunction with civil society partners. Outside of such partnerships I think that all people have a responsibility to support this kind of work, because ultimately we all have a stake in its success. In my mind, this is what makes reports like this one valuable, by serving to remind us that the threat of terrorism is not monolithic, nor is it rooted in one particular place or motivation. Instead, what we broadly call “terrorism” is a multi-faceted, ever-evolving threat that takes many forms and requires an equally varied response. I’m not usually one to suggest that bureaucracy, government or otherwise, is often a source of clarity, but as a reminder of the complicated nature of the threats we face, this report offers a refreshing note of clarity amidst so much media noise about the nature and extent of terrorism today.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Attack in South Carolina raises unanswerable questions about hate, violence and society

When Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this year, I wrote on this blog about how these crimes were not only despicable acts of murder, but assaults on civil society itself. This morning when I woke up and read the terrible news about the killing of 9 innocent people at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina,  I had the same thought once again. To attack a place of worship, whether a church, a mosque, a Sikh temple, a synagogue or wherever else people gather in prayer and community, demonstrates a blatant desire to spread terror by undermining the very sense of peace and security that such places are built to foster.

Of course it is for this very reason that terrorists from Hezbollah to the Ku Klux Klan have often targeted symbolically important institutions - any place that serves to bring people together in friendship, anywhere that provides a place for the free exchange of ideas or encourages progressive thinking, is seen as a threat. At a very practical, operational level, I would guess that that the alleged perpetrator chose to target this particular church because he determined that there was a high likelihood of "success" in carrying out this attack. Ideologically, if it was indeed an act motivated by hate as early media reports suggest, this horrible crime was meant to spread fear and damage an important symbol as well. 

Inevitably such moments are followed by national soul-searching, as politicians and pundits try to come to grips with what has happened, attempting to understand how prejudice and intolerance can grow into something even more monstrous. There will be practical questions raised and debates begun around gun control, and how to balance the desire for an open society and the need to provide security. While we know that there are ways to make our communities more physically secure. and we applaud the important work that NGO's do to encourage empathy and connections across ethnic, religious and racial boundaries, we are still left with deep questions about what triggers such tragic events, and where, in the human soul, darkness that leads to this kind of bloodshed, dwells. We may never find an adequate answer to this particular question, but on days like today I find myself asking it, again and again.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 3: Landscape, vision and the future

This piece is the third and final in a series on my recent trip to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office. In this last installment I offer some final thoughts on the experience and look at the enduring memory of fascism and totalitarianism in Germany.

In Frankfurt, Germany ornate craftsmanship and modern construction stand side by side. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In my mind, Germany has shifted on the map. No longer simply another piece of terra incognita seen solely through the lens of WWII and the Shoah, it now feels much more real to me.  Perhaps this should not come as a surprise - after all, a place known only through photos and descriptions, a culture never experienced, is like a bygone era - the things it produces can be studied and dissected, but hard to truly understand without the experience of being there. Over the course of 7 days, meeting people, seeing important historic and cultural sites, and simply walking the streets of Berlin and Frankfurt, Germany became much more a concrete reality and less of an abstract idea to me.

Sections of the Berlin wall remain to remind citizens and visitors alike of the damage that totalitarianism has wrought in Germany, Europe and many other places around the world. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 

I think that it was largely the physical landscape and architecture I encountered which caused this change in perception. Walking the streets of Berlin I was struck by many aspects of the built environment, from the imposing facade of the Reichstag, to the life and color of the Berlin Zoo and the expansive green space of the Tiergarten. There were some old, beautifully crafted buildings which evoked the grandeur of Berlin before the war, standing beside much newer construction - both serving as reminders of what happened there seven decades ago. In fact, it felt like everywhere I turned, there were reminders of the impact of the Nazis, the war, and in Berlin, the legacy of Communism and the Cold War. In this way, the buildings constructed after WWII are as much reminders of what Totalitarianism brought to Germany as anything else, rising up as part of the rebirth of cities after the conflict.
A section of the Berlin Wall which once divided East from West Germany still stands where it was placed. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

In Frankfurt, especially, I was fascinated by the post-war construction, much of which was done by companies owned by German Jews, adding a complicated and compelling twist to the story of the city's renaissance. The integration of various forms of commemoration around the Shoah into otherwise ordinary elements of city life, from the Stolperteine set among the cobblestone sidewalks, to educational signs placed at bus stops, demonstrated Germany is clearly not attempting to hide the damage and horror of the Nazi period. The same goes for the legacy of Communism in East Germany, which still appears to play a role in the consciousness of the united country, with some cultural differences persisting between the cities of the east and the West. For me, as an American, to stand beside a section of the Berlin Wall, was deeply moving and intellectually very interesting. For those who may have risked everything to get across to the West, or lost family members who tried, I imagine the feeling they get standing beside these towering chunks of concrete and barbed wire is much more visceral and chilling.
Heavily damaged by Allied bombing during World War two, today Frankfurt is a thriving city and a major center of economic activity in Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Before I went to Germany I read the book “The Germans,” by historian Gordon A. Crag. Well-written and engaging, one of the areas where Craig probes the psychic landscape of the country is in looking at the role of memory and nostalgia in German society. Gordon’s work suggests that in some ways Romanticism, and a sentimental longing for, and idealization of, a past that never really existed, contributed not only to feelings of xenophobia and intolerance, but the violent nationalistic ideology that was at the heart of the Shoah. Craig notes how during the period of economic distress and social upheaval which prevailed in Germany following the first World War, that Romanticism and some of its darker qualities proved highly attractive in German society. He also notes that such a resurgence was not without strong roots, writing, “These were manifest in a burgeoning antimodernity and cultural pessimism that became particularly insistent during the Willhelmine period, made some contribution to the coming war, and survived it in more virulent, and tragically, more seductive forms.”

Craig puts forth the idea in his work that it was a combination of fear, escapism and utopianism that contributed to xenophobic violence on a massive scale. The idea that this distortion, this willingness to fly from reality toward a more ideal and self-fulfilling form of reality, was not doubt deeply destructive for Germany and the rest of Europe. But it might have been otherwise, as Craig later notes in his book, “It is possible that the economic and political problems of the Republic, however intractable they appeared, might have been amenable to rational solution, but these intellectuals refused to place their undoubted talents at the service of reason.”

I’m sure I will continue to think about Germany and my experiences there, and perhaps I will even visit again one day. But as I sit now and think about the things I saw and experienced, I can’t help but think about them in the context of Craig’s analysis – that when faced with seemingly impossible tasks, Germany was all too often, in its past, eager to turn away from reason and decency, instead plunging headfirst into a Romantic mirage, a shimmering image of a nostalgic neverland which does not exist. I think this is a pretty fair assessment of how Germany has dealt with difficult issues and responded to crises in the past, but today, in the Stopersteine’s, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the rebuilt synagogues and Jewish community centers, bus stop signs, standing remnants of the Berlin Wall and many other instances of the preservation of reminders of difficulty realities, there does appear to be a turning toward reason and away from the dangerous Romantic political ideas which caused the murders of millions of innocent people in the last century.

The generations of Germans who have come after the Shoah, and those righteous individuals who risked their own lives to save others in the war, stand out as exceptions to Germany’s brightest minds who might have saved Europe from the cataclysm of World War Two. They have done the exact opposite of what Craig describes in pre-WWII Germany, literally altering the landscape, in ways both obvious and not, to reflect not an idealized romanticized past that has no room for the “other,” but a realistic reflection of what happens when people believe in (and act on) such dangerously misguided ideas. In these actions and intentions they have given Germany another chance, another opportunity to act differently the next time. In this sense these memorials and reminders stand in testimony, calling out to all who see them to resist violent ideology, anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. As long as these things remain a part of the physical landscape they will continue to call out – the question we must ask ourselves, the question only history will be able to answer is, when the time comes again,  what our answer will be. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 2: Jewish life today

The historic Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt, Germany was completed in 1910 and remains a significant Jewish institution in the city today. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
During the week I spent in Germany I had a chance to encounter several different Jewish communities from many angles, meeting lay leaders, rabbis and others who are actively engaged in the important work of building and maintaining Jewish life in the country. What makes this experience all the more remarkable is that such an effort would have been utterly unimaginable 70 years ago, and is happening today in a climate in which minority communities across Europe find themselves at the center of contentious debates surrounding identity and immigration.

Even in very small communities there are differences in opinion, family custom and religious practice. This is true in the US, It's certainly true in Israel and perhaps it should come as no surprise that the same can be said of Germany. In fact, I don't believe there is anywhere in the world where the Jewish community is entirely homogeneous, and I seriously doubt this has ever been the case. Such differences can be harmfully divisive at their worst, but in the best circumstances they actually strengthen the community, providing space and opportunity for robust dialogue about the things we care the most about.

The sanctuary of the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt, Germany. The building did not suffer excessive damage during Kristalnacht or the bombing of WWII, and was restored relatively quickly following the end of the war. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
To add another layer of complexity to the topic of modern Jewish identity in Germany, the community there is supported directly by the government. This means that in order to access most (if not all) services provided by the official Jewish institutions,  Jewish individuals must officially "join" a community and pay a religious tax to the government as part of this arrangement. At the same time, there are individuals in Germany which opt not to join a community, who still live Jewish lives (however they interpret that idea), yet are not eligible for services or counted as part of the "official" Jewish population by the German government.

At the Jewish Museum in Berlin exhibits explore centuries of Jewish life in Germany.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
One thing I was really fascinated by when it came to the question of modern German Jewish identity was how some of the people we met with would tell us right away that, "today there are no German Jews in Germany, the community was rebuilt immediately after the war by other European Jews who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war." For the moment I'm going to leave aside the veracity of the details of this claim, since I did, in fact, meet Jews living in Germany today who told me that one or both of their parents had been born in the country. What really interested me about this claim, though, was that it seemed to contain some very interesting ideas, emotions and notions of legitimacy surrounding identity.

At the Central Welfare Office of Jews in Germany, Head of the Social Services Department Paulette Weber and Director Benjamin Bloch explain the work their organization does to help strengthen Jewish life in Germany today. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
To unpack this a bit further, the first thing that strikes me in this sentiment is that it puts foremost the idea that all German Jews living in the country prior to the war were either permanently displaced or murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Based on other things I heard and saw, this appears not to be entirely true, and yet for at least part of the community, it seemed like an essential foundational myth. Just to clarify, I use the term "myth" here in a value-neutral way, simply in the sense that a "myth" is a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, in order to better understand ourselves. But why? I kept coming back again and again to this question throughout 5 days of meetings - does believing this grant greater "legitimacy" to the displaced European Jews who did indeed form the core of the first new community after the war? Does it simplify the narrative in conversation with the German government and other key interlocutors?  Is it a survival mechanism - a way to provide psychic and emotional distance in a place where practically everywhere one turns there are reminders of the Shoah? I don't know what the answer is, but the question remains in my mind.

In addition to displaced European Jews who wound up in Germany at the end of the war and stayed, the Jewish population of the country has also been bolstered by subsequent Jewish immigration. The largest, and perhaps most influential example of this is the influx of more than one hundred thousand Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who found a new home in Germany following the collapse of Communism. The most recent, and I think most interesting chapter in the story of post-WWII Jewish immigration, is the case of thousands of Israelis to moving to Berlin and other parts of Germany.

Israeli journalist Tal Alon discusses life in Germany, what brought her to the country and her work as the publisher of "Spitz," the first Hebrew-language periodical published in Germany since the end of WWII. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In discussions surrounding the arrival and integration of Russian-speaking Jews to Germany I heard echoes of similar challenges faced in Israel and the United States. Traumatized by  Communist societies that simultaneously denied them a chance to understand their heritage while at the same time penalizing them for being Jewish, so-called "FSU Jews" and the communities which attempted to welcome them in the US and other places found integration to be a difficult process. In Germany we heard much about the "Russian-Speaking Jews," but only had the chance for an impromptu conversation with two such individuals, who found themselves unexpectedly pressed into service as (clearly nervous) representatives of all Russian-speaking Jews in the country. The story of Soviet Jewry both during and after Communism is long, complicated and will not be explored further here, but suffice it to say that as in many other places, in Germany, work remains to be done if Russian-Speaking Jews and their descendants are to become an integral part of the larger Jewish community.

Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Paz shares insights on business and life as an Israeli in Germany on the terrace of the Max Liebermann Villa in Potsdam, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The question of why Israelis have been moving to Germany, and specifically to Berlin, has been a source of great speculation in the media, and I admit it seems somewhat surprising at first glance. In an engaging conversation with Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Paz and Israeli journalist Tal Alon, I gained some insights into what brings Israelis there and how they feel about living in Germany. In the case of Mr. Paz, it was an opportunity to live somewhere new, expand his view of the world and build a new business. For Ms. Alon, family ties brought her to Germany, where she founded Spitz, the first Hebrew publication to exist in post-WWII Germany.

That this conversation took place in the garden of the Liebermann Villa in Potsdam only added to the somewhat surreal character of the conversation. At the same time, I suppose it’s not so surprising that young Israelis would be drawn to a modern European nation where English is widely spoken. Furthermore, as several Israelis noted, Germany and Israel are not that far from each other, making it easy for those living in Germany to maintain ties with home. The two main questions surrounding the presence of Israelis in the country, both among Israelis and the larger Jewish community, was when and if there would be more integration between the two groups, and, whether this Israeli community in Germany is an historical blip or the start of an enduring trend. Only time will tell, but my guess - and it is only a guess - is that Berlin will continue to attract young Israelis, especially artists, for years to come, but whether a significant number will remain and raise families in Germany seems doubtful to me.

In terms of the infrastructure of Jewish life in Germany it was interesting to visit several synagogues and organizations, including the main synagogue and Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt, as well as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, located at the Leo Beck Haus in Berlin. In many ways the challenges the communities in Germany face are similar to what we see here in the United States and yet there are many important and quite stark differences. To begin with, the relationship between the community and the government is clearly still a freighted, if not fraught, one.

The University of Potsdam in Germany is now home to a thriving program in Jewish studies, attracting students from across Europe and beyond. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In many ways the German government has done an outstanding job of providing vital resources, including funding and security, to Jewish communities across Germany. At the same time, there exists a disparity between the support that Jewish communities get from the government and that which is provided to other immigrant or ethnic communities - this is problematic, since it suggests that robust support for Jewish life in Germany is based at least partly on guilt, something which can, and has, led to some feelings of resentment in some segments of German society. At the same time, this apparent favoritism has the potential to stoke tensions between the Jewish community and other ethnic and religious minorities in Germany. I'm not arguing in any way that Germany does not have an historical obligation to help rebuild what it once destroyed, just that the picture of Jewish community in Germany today, and the relationships that exist with the government and society, is not a simple one.

For me personally there were many moving and encouraging moments as I looked at Jewish life in Germany today. One image that stands out in particular is visiting the Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt and seeing Jewish children playing outside, wearing kippot and speaking German as they laughed and ran around. I also had the opportunity to standing a Synagogue in Berlin, badly damaged during Kristalnacht and now once again home to a thriving community. The idea alone that Jews are willing to emigrate to, and build Jewish lives within, Germany is a testament to both the resilience of the Jewish people and the willingness of the German government to support this Renaissance. Although in absolute numbers there are somewhere around two-hundred thousand Jews in the country, from the conversations we had, it still felt like the active community is fairly small.

In this context, it strikes me that the future of Jews and Jewish community in Germany will really depend on the level of commitment  by current leaders to not only better integrate various smaller communities, but to create the expectation that successive generations will seek to do the same. There were a few signs of cooperation that made me think that this can actually be achieved – for example, the fact that the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt is home to three separate communities which pray separately but share almost everything else, is very positive. There is also some indication that as young Israelis are getting married and beginning to raise children in the country they are slowly reaching out to some of the Jewish institutions in Germany.  In the end, Germany may have the Jewish population to continue to rebuild the community, but if these divisions continue to serve as defining elements I fear that German Jewry will face the same fate which befalls small communities everywhere, which is not a very bright one.

(This piece is the second in a series of three on my recent trip to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office as part of an international group of 16 Jewish community and civil society leaders, representing nations from Uzbekistan and the Ukraine to Argentina,  Australia, Canada and Slovenia.  My fellow participants, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as our guides, brought a wide range of perspectives and ideas to the experience, something for which I shall be eternally grateful.)

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 1: The legacy of the Holocaust

(Introductory note: From June 7 to June 13, 2015 I visited Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office as part of an international group of 16 Jewish community and civil society leaders, representing nations from Uzbekistan and the Ukraine to Argentina,  Australia, Canada and Slovenia.  My fellow participants, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as our guides, brought a wide range of perspectives and ideas to the experience, something for which I shall be eternally grateful. In this first piece in a short series on my time in Germany, I look at the impact of the Holocaust on the country and how the experience and its lessons continue to reverberate today)

At a city bus stop in Berlin, Germany those waiting for their bus are reminded of the crimes of the Nazi party which were often orchestrated in the city and carried out across Europe. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.  
In my life, I have learned about the Holocaust many times, in many ways: I have met survivors, read books, visited memorials and museums in the US and Israel. And when I traveled to Germany this past week I added another piece to the puzzle, the seemingly ceaseless question of how and why this maniacal, murderous vision found such fertile ground in the soil of Europe, and how those inhuman ideas led not only to the murder of millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs and others, but to the very destruction of Germany as it existed. A week is not much time to explore any place, and Germany, which I found to be a fascinating, complex nation, certainly requires more time to comprehend. That being said, in the time I spent there, speaking with people and visiting important historic landmarks, I do think I gained a few insights, and like any good learning experience, I walked away with many more questions than answers.

More so than if I had been travelling alone, or with a group comprised solely of other Americans, the diverse nature of my company added immensely to the quality of the experience I had. These new friends, who shared amazing family and personal stories of connections to the Holocaust or experience with totalitarian regimes enriched my experience in innumerable ways.

At the site of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in former East Berlin, visitors are invited to walk among 2,711 blocks of gray stone. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

On my first morning in Berlin we took a bus tour of the city and I was immediately struck by the degree to which memories and images of the Holocaust were woven into the fabric of the city itself. Apart from formal memorials and museums, there were reminders at city bus stops and under the feet of pedestrians in the form of Stolpersteine's, small memorial stones placed in locations where individuals killed or persecuted by the Nazis lived. Honoring the memory of both victims and those who resisted the Third Reich, these “stumbling stones” make it impossible for anyone walking through Berlin to ignore the Jews, members of the LGBT community, Communists, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others whose lives were either lost or changed forever simply by virtue of who they were. 

The Stolpersteine project by artist Gunter Demnig honors victims of the Nazis in cities around the world. In the image above several stones can be seen on a sidewalk in Frankfurt, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
During my trip I had a chance to see a new one of these Stolpersteine laid by Gunter Demnig, the artist who created this project, at a moving ceremony attended by the daughter and granddaughter of Hans and Ruth Gosler, who were murdered by the Nazis. More than just a memorial stone or point of curiosity for visitors, these artifacts are a daily reminder to everyone walking by the homes of these victims that they were not some abstract “other” person, but real people who walked down these very same sidewalks, who may even have lived in the same buildings or houses that they do today. I like this way of honoring Nazi victims because it has a solid and (quite literally) grounded feel – there is really nothing abstract about it, which is part of the appeal.

Artist Gunter Demnig lays one of his Solpersteine's (literally "Stumbling block") in honor of Hans and Ruth Goslar who perished in the Shoah. Attendees included members of the Goslar family, as well as the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Germany, German government officials, students and teachers from a local school and others. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The memorial, which was created by architect Peter Eisenmen was designed so that visitors are swallowed up by the stone blocks around them as they walk. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
By contrast, I was struck by the way that several other memorials and museums we visited used the idea of “disorientation”  in rather abstract ways to evoke the Shoah and its attendant dread and confusion. I first noticed this when we stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a massive field of stone columns spreading out before us, with the ground below dipping in the middle, creating a sense, as one walked among the stones, of sinking down into an unknown place, of the walls collapsing and the sun blotted out. I felt this again at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where the section on the Holocaust was set in a lower level of the building, with the floors purposely at angles, seemingly to disorient the visitor and convey a sense of confusion, and once more in the outdoor “Garden of Exile,” at the museum where a similar technique to the one employed at the memorial in East Berlin makes visitors feel off-kilter and unsettled.

At first, my reaction to this theme of “disorientation” and abstract representations of the Shoah was wholly unfavorable. I walked away feeling that while it was perhaps true for the victims of the Shoah there was a profound sense of instability as they saw their families, friends and very existence being destroyed before their eyes. Yet at the same time, for the perpetrators of this crime, both those who led the effort and the vast, vast majority of those who went along with it, there was nothing disorienting at all about the experience. In fact, for the Nazis and their collaborators, what they were doing was not an attempt at destroying the world, but a carefully planned effort to impose upon Europe – and whatever other parts of the globe they could reach – a carefully ordered new reality, reflective of their own deeply disturbed ideas about race, religion and identity. That such notions are abhorrent does not mean they were illogical to those who held them. My worry is that if someone were to visit only these memorials which are largely devoid of context and explanation, they would come away from the experience thinking that the Holocaust was unique not because it represented the horrific ultimate expression of hate, intolerance and centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, but rather because Hitler was a master manipulator who was somehow able to brainwash otherwise normal people into doing abnormal things in a topsy-turvy world in which no one had freewill.

In my final analysis,  I’m not sure how worried I am  that visitors are likely to base their total understanding of the Shoah solely on these kinds of memorials and exhibits, since there are other places which do explain, with great clarity and depth, the events of the Holocaust.  Taken together, things like the Stolperstein and the East Berlin memorial work best in concert,  speaking to both head and heart about what took place in Germany some 70 years ago.
A round-table discussion on fighting Anti-Semitism and Promoting Democracy included, among others, German journalist Anetta Kahane and Israeli journalist Daniel Dagan. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

I also had the chance to hear from leaders in civil society and the Jewish community, about how the legacy of the Holocaust influences the community today and its relationship with the German government. For Germans, it is abundantly clear from many conversations that a great deal of shame and guilt exists in the country when it comes to the Shoah – whether expressed in the form of philo-Semitism, outright Anti-Semitism, or a quiet sense of injustice, my sense was that the way that Germans seem to feel about this period in their history is complicated and continues to play a significant role in modern German identity, even for those who were born long after the end of World War II.

When documentary series on the Shoah began to be shown in Germany the reaction of many young Germans, who had been taught very little about the Holocaust, was one of guilt, and members of the Jewish community we met with spoke of how this impacted their non-Jewish friends. It was hard to judge to what extent these previous experiences with hyper-xenophobia and identity are applied when it comes to contemporary questions around immigration and identity in Germany. Although I asked a few people if the experience with the Holocaust was having an impact today, for example, on relations with the large immigrant Turkish population in the country, I didn’t get much of a clear answer.

After decades of sitting in disrepair the Max Liebermann Villa and grounds have been authentically restored in Potsdam, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The former home of the artist Max Liebermann now stands as a monument  cerebrating the work and life of his tremendously influential Jewish artist. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In another part of this series I intend to explore what I learned about Jewish life in Germany today,  but it is clear that the impact of these events goes far beyond the physical destruction of buildings and lives lost, raising very painful questions about identity for a community whose antecedents often saw themselves as "Germans with Jewish religion.”  During a visit to the villa of the German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann in Potsdam, located just a short walk from the house where Hitler and his generals planned the final destruction of the Jewish people at the Wansee Conference in January of 1942, I was reminded of this. As one of the informational boards at the museum noted, Liebermann clearly saw what was coming in his country and lamented shortly before his death in 1935 that the dream of true assimilation for Jews in Germany was lost.

At the front gate of a home not far from the Max Liebermann Villa a sign in German, English and Hebrew tells passersby that this was the site of the January 20, 1942 meeting presided over by Reynhard Heydrich, at which the Nazis finalized details for their plans to murder all the Jews of Europe. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
Through the bars of this gate the home were the Wannsee Conference took place can be seen. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
However one views the particular ways in which Germany has chosen to engage with and memorialize this history and these crimes against humanity, it is abundantly evident that they have not shied away from this experience and what it did to the world. Throughout the trip, often in conversation with other participants or in speaking with community leaders, I experienced a wide range of emotions, but one of the stranger things I felt was a sense of gratitude – gratitude that the majority of my family left Europe  before the war, gratitude that I had a chance to see for myself what Germany is like today, and gratitude that the same spirit that sent the Partisans into the forest to fight the Nazis and inspired righteous gentiles to risk their own lives to save the persecuted, still seems to exist in Europe.

It would have been easy, I think, for Germany to present the Shoah in fairly black and white terms – portraying the Nazis and their allies as a malevolent force beyond comprehension and everyone else as hapless victims. Instead, I saw this determination to fight back against hate and intolerance in both leaders and ordinary citizens, whether discussing the problem of growing Islamist Anti-Semitic ideology in Germany among a small segment of the community, or when we emerged from a train station to find fresh anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on a sign marking the location of Rothschild Park in Berlin.  The energy, the focus that I saw and felt in these cases was perhaps the most encouraging example of the idea that Germany is a far different country than the nation which sought to murder or enslave a significant part of the world’s population, laying waste to Europe in its path.

An information sign about the Rothschild Family, defaced with 
Anti-Semitic, Anti-Israel graffiti. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 
The truth is that Germany will never be free of its association with the National Socialists or the damage they did, but there is honor, I believe, in how the German government and many of the German people have responded to this legacy in the last few decades. At first reluctant to look into the mirror from the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s, through reparations, education and diplomacy, Germany has shown that it understands it is responsible for what happened in the war and Shoah. We must not, and cannot, ever forgive those who designed and executed the Holocaust – from the leaders of the Nazi party, to willing Hungarian and Ukrainian collaborators, to otherwise “normal” Poles who murdered surviving Jews attempting to come home after the war. I do think, however, that those of us in the Jewish community (and many other communities) who care about these things have an important opportunity to engage in a dialogue with Germany and Germans not only on the Shoah specifically, but more broadly on issues of democracy, civil society and totalitarianism.

Graffiti on a poster protests a planned Neo-Nazi rally this month in Frankfurt, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
A poster In Frankfurt, Germany calling attention to an upcoming Neo-Nazi rally and asking people to come and protest it, highlights both the continued existence of Nazi ideas at the fringes of society, as well as the willingness to speak out against hate in 2015. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Perhaps this is the most emotionally complex lesson and inheritance of the Shoah, that those of us who live after the devastation of the Holocaust, whether as a survivor or someone born 60 years later, bear a responsibility not only to remember the humanity of the victims and the cruelty of the perpetrators, but to speak up when we see racism, intolerance hate today. Some people have written that the only real response to the horror of the Holocaust is silence, that words cannot begin to help us understand or process what happened in this period, but the real lesson of the Shoah is that silence is not an option, not then and not now. It is a lesson that is at the core of any healthy civil society, and one which was clearly on display in many parts of Berlin, Frankfurt and Potsdam.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Preparing for the complexity of Germany

This weekend I’m headed to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office and the German Consulate in Boston, to learn about contemporary Jewish life in the country. As part of a group of twenty Jewish communal leaders from around the world, I’ll have the opportunity to meet with scholars, journalists and clergy, as well as civic and community leaders, in an effort to get as holistic a view as possible of the country today. Or at least the best sense one can get in 7 days – but looking at the itinerary, which includes opportunities to explore both Berlin and Frankfurt, experiencing cultural and historic sites, it looks like the organizers of the trip are focused on providing a wide range of opportunities to see the country from many different angles.

When I first learned that this trip might be a possibility I spent a good deal of time thinking about how to prepare for it – whether I should look for a good history of the country, talk to others who had been there, etc. in the end I settled on reading the World section of the New York Times to see the latest news on what’s happening in the country and at the recommendation of the former director of AJC in Boston, I ordered a copy of an interesting book called “The Germans” by Gordon A. Craig, which offers a succinct, erudite overview of various aspects of German history and culture.  

One idea in this book that really caught my attention was Craig’s suggestion that the mass trauma inflicted by the 30 Years War (in the mid-17th century) was passed down from one generation to the next, finding perhaps its most horrific expression in the sense of obedience to central authority that abetted the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Another really fascinating aspect of the book was its exploration of how the German people themselves dealt with this inclination toward obedience following World War Two and the ways in which it influenced their sense of national identity, attitudes toward the military and ideas about political reform. I also spoke with friends who had visited Berlin in the last few years who talked non-stop about the vibrancy of the city as a major center of cultural and artistic creativity.

As I finish packing there are any number of thoughts going through my mind about what it will be like to actually be there and what I will learn from the local people, as well as our tour guides and my fellow participants. I’m also looking forward to having some time during the week to pause and reflect about what I’m learning and seeing, although I imagine that with such a packed schedule the bulk of my reflection will come once I am back in the United States. In 2015 the temptation also exists to retreat into smart phones and other electronic devices, something which I plan to try and avoid – I’ll be sharing some thoughts and photos via Twitter (@DanielELevenson) as the week goes on, and I may post short pieces on this blog, but as much as possible I plan to immerse myself in the experience and spend time absorbing everything around me.

Whenever I speak or write about Israel (the country other than my own which I happen to know best) I am always reminded of the intense complexity of the Jewish State and its people – so it is for other nation-states, especially in the case of those which have entered the modern era with a complicated and conflicted history, a category which clearly includes Germany. It is this complicated past and the ways that Germans navigate their sense of individual and communal identity today that fascinates me, something I look forward to sharing my thoughts on here on 36 Voices.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.