Street Art Near Warschauer Bridge

I feel like a sinner confessing to a priest. I apologize for my blogging neglect; it has been nearly two months since my last update.

Previously I was discussing my plans for a move to Berlin. I have started and promptly ended a new entry about my stay in Germany a dozen times. The problem was not that I had nothing to say, but rather, was what I had to say particularly Jewish, or the same ramblings of any American 20-something doing the whole ‘globe-trotting’ thing? Was the star around my neck the driving force of my experiences or the Bruce Springsteen hoodie clinging to my body with pride?

Currently I am in the Netherlands, and with distance comes the possibility to unpack certain scenes that happened in Berlin that a non-Jewish American or other traveler would have experienced differently, or not at all:

* My first shower in Germany. I was seven when my mother tried to explain the horrors of the Holocaust. It was always her policy not to sugar-coat things in baby talk (but how can genocide be sugar-coated anyway?), and she said that the Nazis (or did she say Germans back then?) killed the Jews in showers of poison, instead of water. She probably explained the whole history leading up to that ending, but all I retained from her lesson was the poison water. The next time I turned the faucet on to take a shower, I stood there for minutes, staring at the water. How do you know if it’s poison or not? My mother screamed from outside the bathroom, “Do you think I own ComEd (the utility company)?” My mother’s disapproval was more real to me than evil ghost Nazis in our pipes, and I promptly jumped into the path of the water. Fast-forward nearly two decades: I stood outside a shower in a town called Neuenhagen, outside of Berlin. I knew the water wasn’t Zyklon B and that, regardless of the NPD story on the front page of the local newspaper I read that morning in the breakfast nook decorated with medieval-style woodcarvings of saints, no Nazis were operating the piping system. But it felt weird. Taking a shower in Germany. Normal events bringing up atrocities in my mind. I finished with the shower and brushed my teeth. It felt like brushing my teeth.

* Finding this book in my host family’s bookshelf:

Needs more Natalie Portman, less of this guy.

* Polizei outside delis. I was leaving a bar where I had met up with some friends near Oranienburger Strasse. It was 1 in the morning, and as I walked further down the road, I noticed a couple of police officers and a sign that warned of the area being videotaped. I expected to see a synagogue (I had already become accustomed to the idea that protection was warranted there). I looked to the left and saw what was an ordinary Jewish deli/restaurant. The deli needed police protection? How many more police officers would have to be hired in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles just for that job? They would have to create a whole Deli Protection Unit. I’m thankful for the officers who work there, but I never went into that deli. I didn’t know if I could eat seeing guards standing outside the windows.

* Walking to class on Jews. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the sentiment of the Stolpersteine. They’re little golden squares with the names of former Jewish residents with their birthdate and their date of death or deportation. I haven’t been one of those ‘avoiding cracks in the sidewalk’ people in quite some time, but since seeing the stones, I came to look down wherever I stepped. I began to write the names of each one down in a notebook. My classmates were writing down each other’s information and I was busy writing down 10-year-olds that never made it to 11. I didn’t want them to just be stones. I wanted to know when I turned the corner that I was nearing Rita, Ellen or Karla. I went on a tour through Jewish Berlin-Mitte, and the guide was so pleased about the stones. “I have a woman and her four children outside my apartment!” he seemed to say with pride. It was nice that a German man was so open to having Jewish residents, but it’s a shame they’ve been dead for seventy years.

* Meeting ‘Frankfurt’. I hope he’s not opposed to my writing about him, but at any rate, I shall stick to his nickname. I was at an apartment near Warschauer Strasse that belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend. So many degrees of separation make for an awkward beginning. However, the guy was an avid couchsurfer and had many other random people staying with him at the time. I stared at the Bukowski books on the bookcase until my eye fell to the monstrously large Hitler biography at the bottom. The Anti-Fascist signs in the living room made the face of Hitler on the book’s spine less threatening. Suddenly I heard a male voice from the corner talk about Hanukkah. It was October, when one is not usually expecting to hear someone explain the Festival of Lights to total strangers. I heard an accent, but it was slight and not the same as the Berliners in the room, so I thought he was perhaps Israeli. “Where are you from?” I asked, expecting to soon be exchanging Tel Aviv tales. “Uh, I’m German.” He sounded offended, like someone who has had a lifetime of practice defending his birthright. I was taken aback and thought that perhaps I misheard what he was talking about before, or, worse, that he was one of those Germans obsessed with Judaism out of guilt. “Oh, I thought I heard you say something,” I replied. “Oh, well I’m a German Jew.” Now I had been looking for a living one for two weeks at this point, only to find stones on the ground or destroyed Jewish cemeteries, so I failed at being cool. “OH I FOUND ONE!” I shouted. Unfortunately he lives in Frankfurt and traveling 5 hours through the Harz Mountains just wasn’t in the cards. Ironically one of the main reasons I wanted to study German in Berlin was an interest in new German-Jewish culture — since 90% of the population is there — and when I finally found someone with whom to speak, they’re not a Berliner. It’s how I imagine a child on Christmas feels when they think they’re going to get the newest ‘must-have’ playstation game — running frantically down the perfectly decorated staircase — only to be told that their beloved family pet just died.

Now that I think about it, it was not one or the other that colored my experiences in Berlin: the proverbial star around my neck or the Springsteen hoodie. It was the fact that the objects couldn’t be separated. I reacted to the above experiences as a Jew who was not used to such things in their native country. As with everything, I am not sure whether my experiences were more positive than negative, just that I want more of them.