Thursday, May 28, 2015

Visiting Germany to better understand the past, as well as the present

In May of 2015 departing German Consul General Rolf Schutte thanked friends and colleagues at a reception held at the Goethe Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In a little more than one week I depart for Germany -  a someway strange thing to write, and perhaps even stranger to contemplate. And yet, this trip feels oddly natural: As someone who has taken on many different volunteer and professional leadership roles in the Jewish community, I figured in the back of my mind that one day I would visit Germany, but I had no idea when or how. Within my own family, my maternal grandparents traveled all over Europe, but as far as I know they never went to Germany, while my great aunt Betty, an inveterate world traveler, visited both East and West Berlin. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I don't know whether any of the family members who stayed behind when my great-grandparents came to America survived or perished in World War Two or the Holocaust - I do know that sometime in the 1920's or 1930's the last letters from those who remained in Eastern Europe, written in Yiddish and describing conditions of desperation and poverty arrived, followed by silence.

So for me, Germany - as well as Poland and Russia and the Baltics - sit in my mind like distant ghosts shrouded in a fog, present, but somehow not quite real. In thinking of these places I am reminded of "A Tale of Love and Darkness," the great, sad memoir of Amos Oz, in which he evokes the vanished Europe of his mother's youth, rendering it as some combination of terra incognita, mythic homeland and blighted landscape.

In most of my work and writing I tend to focus on events in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes touching on Central Asia and Europe where relevant, but when an opportunity to visit Germany came up, at the invitation of the former German Consul General to New England Rolf Schutte and the German Foreign Office, I jumped at the opportunity to go and see for myself what Germany looks (and feels) like today.  But it's not only this invitation from someone for whom I have great respect and admiration that made me want to go - there are other important factors as well. In my work for the American Jewish Committee, the Israeli Consulate and the Jewish Federation I've had the chance to get to know several representatives, both official and otherwise, of Germany, and in getting to know them I've been struck by the ways in which they connect with the Jewish community are not for show but have real meaning and depth.

The connections that I saw Mr. Schutte and his predecessor, Friedrich Lohr, form with Jewish organizations and individuals, was not merely intellectual, but clearly based on mutual respect and genuine friendship. This was on display at the farewell reception for Mr. Schutte, which was attended by Israeli Consul General Yehuda Yaakov and Israel Arbeiter, a leading figure in the Holocaust survivor community in Boston. As I stood there listening to remarks by friends and colleagues of the departing Consul General, especially those who represented the Jewish community, I was struck by the impact that German diplomacy has had, at least in New England, in furthering German-Jewish relations.

The other thing that makes me feel like I should go to Germany is that there has been a significant revival of Jewish life happening there. I'm sure I'll learn more about the composition and character of this revitalized community while there, but I'm especially looking forward to meeting Israelis who've made their homes in places like Berlin and finding out more about what it's like to be Jewish in Europe today.

When I come back from Germany I plan to write more about the experience and share some of what I saw, learned and felt, and when I'm in Berlin, Frankfurt and Potsdam I'll try to Tweet (@DanielELevenson). I hope that if you find this topic to be of interest that you will follow along with me on social media. I don’t know exactly what I will find when I get to Germany, but I'm looking forward to learning as much about the present and future of Jewish life in Germany, as I am about the past.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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