Volume XXXV, Issue 4, May 10, 2013
My head rests against the glass, vibrating with the train’s movement. Across the aisle, two middle-aged Germans, a man and woman, coo into each other’s eyes, their limbs entangled in an amorous mass, totally oblivious to the public nature of their affection. They strike me as far too old to be that deeply in love, but their happiness is clearly genuine, and produces in me a mixture of revulsion, endearment, and jealousy. Either way, I can’t stop looking at them. With an effort I close my eyes and turn toward the window, but I can still pick up the machine gun cadence of their conversation, in what I perceive to be aggressive German. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but I imagine it goes something like this:
“Fräulein. I love you so much.”
“Yes dear. Our Aryan children will populate the Earth. The Reich will live for a thousand years.” And so on.
Soon enough, a rumble of the train shakes the dialogue out of mind, and I open my eyes to the backside of the seat in front of me, while I willfully ignore the romance smol- dering to my left. In my peripheral vision, I notice a bald Nazi man making his way down the center aisle. He speaks to the passengers in front of me, but again, I don’t know what he’s saying. His tone strikes me as combative. My imagination thrusts the man, whom I now real- ize is the conduc- tor, into and out of the 1930s. By the time the Nazi conductor checks my ticket, he has morphed into a congenial old German man. He scans my ticket with a smile that is generic, not genocidal.
The German lovebirds and the conductor are speaking a tainted language. It is tainted because the only German I know I learned in history textbooks. “Sonder” means “special.” I know this because “Sonderkommandos” (“special units”) cremated Jewish bodies in Nazi concentration camps. I picked up another word, “frei” (“free”) from the doors of Auschwitz, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”— “work shall set you free.” And so on and so forth, down through Schindler’s List, Maus, Inglourious Basterds, the Call of Duty series, and Sophie’s Choice. The German language is to me the Nazi language. My German vocabulary is comprised almost exclusively of Holocaust terminology.
This is problem number one. Problem number two is that the Nazis never invented new words to describe the atrocities they committed. The extermination process was called the “final solution.” Roaming death squads were known as “task forces.” The gas chambers were labeled as “baths” or “showers.” The words “kill” or “murder” do not appear in Nazi documents. Ordinary German words stretched to encompass extraordinary horrors and mutilated themselves in the process. Whereas the rest of the world was forced to invent a word— “genocide”—to describe what happened, the German language moseyed along unabashed. The phrase “final solution” cannot regain the innocence it might once have possessed. The German language, in some fundamental way, is complicit in murder. It conspires to produce in me Nazi hallucinations.
Nevertheless, I suspect that re-Nazification is a particularly Jewish affliction, wrought both from a collective consciousness fixated upon the Holocaust as well as a systematic exposure to Holocaust stories and imagery from an early age. The American Jew often traces his lineage to the Holocaust, either in escaping from it, losing loved ones to it, or feeling as if “that could have been me.” The Jewish consciousness is steeped in suffering: slavery in Egypt, the Inquisition in Spain, the Pogroms in Russia, etc. The Holocaust, in some sick way, shines like a neon light over the Jewish consciousness, emblazoned, in blood-red font, the words, “I told you so.” It confers upon us the trans-historical status of “victim,” should we choose to claim it. (There’s an attendant moral absolution here, which is politically sensitive and at any rate difficult to describe. It is best left alone.) It haunts us, even within the cozy confines of DC suburbia. The Holocaust enters the home, my home, when my mother tells me she raised me Jewish because, well, she feels an obligation to the Jewish religion. There are, she adds sotto voce, so few of us left.
The Holocaust exerts a gravitational field that few Jews can escape, even at three generations’ distance. It incites otherwise rational people to experience totally irrational fits of imagined Nazism. And as the train rolls forward—the goddamn train, symbol of a murderous bureaucracy, weapon of a genocidal nation-state—my mind flits between epochs; 70 years ago, young Jewish men, much like me, rode upon these same tracks bound for a more sinister destination. I exit the train and nod at the conductor. I feel conflicted. Vengeful that I am here and he must serve me as a customer; thankful that I am here, knowing that millions of Jewish grandchildren are not; guilty that I feel any of these things toward a well-intentioned German conductor born decades after the Holocaust concluded. The Holocaust ripples through the present; it forbids us from escaping its pull.
I step off the train onto the pockmarked streets of Berlin.
Berlin gets it. Berlin and the Holocaust go way back. Berlin undulates with the memory of the Holocaust. Plaques adorn the railway stations, listing the concentration camps to which Jews had been deported. Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) are shorn into the cobblestones in front of former Jewish homes, memorializing their former tenants. Finally, on the outskirts of the primeval Tiergarten, in high-value commercial real estate, a 5-acre field of stone blocks canonizes the “Murdered Jews of Europe.” The memorial appears som- ber in the twilight haze. The U.S. Embassy stands stern watch on the memorial’s north end, as if to reprimand the German people even now. I set up atop one of the memorial’s stone blocks and begin to write in my journal.
Two children arrive and proceed to jump from block to block, laughing. A few young people linger at the memorial’s edge. I think they’re trying to pay their respects, but it’s unclear what that would look like. They content themselves with a pensive look and a slight nod of the head before disappearing into the Tiergarten. Twenty yards away, a policeman stares at me while I pretend not to notice. The jumping children grow loud enough that the policeman is forced to break his gaze and stride toward them, hollering for them to stop, or be respectful, or something. (I still don’t understand German.) The laughter didn’t bother me, at least.
The episode with the policemen and children is synecdochic of Berlin writ large. Part of Berlin is like the laughing child: born after World War II, determined to have fun. Berlin seeks to earn its place as a “hip” city in Europe; the many clubs and bars testify to its aspiration. The music and arts scene bustles and the economy is growing. This part of Berlin isn’t ignorant of the past—far from it. It just wants to be known as more than Nazi Germany’s beating heart and home of the Führer. It hopes for a legacy that can overcome, or at least rival, the crimes of its history. Like the children, it treads on ves- tiges of the past but refuses to succumb to perpetual handwringing.
Yet part of Berlin is like the policeman: protective of its shameful history. The city tries so very hard to atone for, or at least acknowledge, the past. Plaques, Stolpersteine, monu- ments, refurbished synagogues, museums. The contrition is genu- ine. It felt like a younger brother who breaks a vase, and in a fit of apology, tugs on your pant leg chanting, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The only difference is that 11 million people are not a vase, and Berlin is not a little boy. How can Berlin apologize for 11 million deaths? A 5-acre graveyard? A 500-acre graveyard? Yes, I appreciate that you’re sorry. I do. But the vase is broken, and modernity must pick up the pieces.
My final stop is Baden-Baden, a German spa town in the Black Forest of Western Germany. Bill Clinton once praised Baden-Baden as “so nice you have to name it twice.” It is beautiful and secluded and thrives with the energy of young families and active retirees. It resembles eyewitness accounts of Germany in the 1930s: peaceful, bustling, almost Elysian in its verdure. So far as I can tell, the Holocaust never visited here, and that’s part of its allure: It pretends to be outside history and exempt from historical responsibility. There’s not a memorial to be found. I flirt with the idea of getting indignant, but the town won’t let me. It is relentlessly, charmingly naïve. I decide to visit the spa instead.
I reach the spa-cum-hotel in the evening and approach the front desk where an attractive middle-aged German lady is typing on a computer. A sign on the table reads “21 euros” for the basic treatment. To my regret, I am one euro short. I explain this to the hostess, and throw her a sheepish grin for good measure. She looks at me with displeasure before sighing and reaching into her purse.
“I have a teenage son myself,” she informs me in clipped English. She drops a euro in the register and hands me a key. “The clothes locker is up the stairs, to the left. An attendant will assist you there.” She gestures behind her and smiles out of the corner of her mouth. I thank her profusely and ascend the stairs into the palatial interior.
The signs are in German, unhelpfully, and I am soon lost. I stumble into a bald muscular German man who, speaking no English, ushers me toward the locker room. He gestures for me to take off my clothes—all of them. When I’m undressed and standing naked, true to my name, he points to a doorway on the far side of the room, adorned with a sign in German, which I’m able to translate.
“Baths,” it reads.
I walk in the direction of the door and feel agonizingly self-conscious. I’m naked. A muscular German man guards the door behind me. I twitch involuntarily, perhaps because the floor is cold. I feel self-conscious. My gait slows, again involuntarily. Glancing over my shoulder, I receive a curt nod from the muscular German man. I tiptoe forward and through the doorway.
The inside of the bath is lined with showerheads. The shower is pristine, like it’s never been used. I am naked. And here, at the apex of my fever dream, a Jew entering a German bath, history behind me, the showers in front of me, here—a naked Chinese man trundles in from a posterior doorway. He grabs the handle and turns it. Hot water pours out of the showerhead and onto his generous haunches, which jiggle as he moves to and fro. Unthinkingly, I too turn the handle and let the hot water pour over my body. I sit down in the open shower with my back to the wall, legs stretched before me, and rest my head against the marble. With the water beating against my chest, I breathe in, slowly, the hot steamy air.