Forgiving without Forgetting
October 7th, 2016
Praying alongside a Holocaust survivor in a Berlin synagogue, I felt the disorientation inherent in sorrowful joy. I marveled at the strength of the melding of voices—German, American, Austrian. A mere ten-minute walk from the Lustgarden, the locus of numerous Nazi rallies, we were a testament to the survival of the Jewish people.
At the same time, it was impossible to ignore that the twelve Americans of the Germany Close Up
cohort outnumbered the locals in the New Synagogue where we had gathered for the Sabbath. The room where we were praying was small, yet it felt voluminous in the acknowledged absence of what could have been present. We were a flame still burning, far from flickering, but dimmer for all the lives that had been extinguished.
This Rosh Hashanah, the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gazed at me from their perch at the front of my synagogue: “Forgiveness is the only way to live with the past without being held prisoner by the past.” Having participated in the Germany Close Up trip—an eight-day educational program designed to expose Americans to the past and present realities of Germany—I have grown to understand the necessity of these words.
Unsurprisingly, the trip was both an emotional and intellectual challenge as it pushed me to grapple with my own capacity for forgiveness. I strove to remember without letting the horrific past consume my experience of modern Germany. Ultimately, it was difficult not to transpose traumatic tropes of the Holocaust onto my present experiences in the country. Raw from the morning spent overwhelmed by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the museum beneath it, I grasped the arm of my younger brother who was also a Germany Close Up fellow. We were on a bus to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp an hour north of Berlin, and he held me as visceral tears streamed parallel down our cheeks. I could not help but think of siblings holding each other, just as we were, in cattle cars and trains on their way to death.
In Germany’s case, memorializing has been an essential part of the country’s approach to living with the past without being held captive to it. Museums such as the Jewish Museum and Topography of Terror are omnipresent. As we embarked on Jewish walking tours, ambled the streets looking for strudel, and shuffled from museum to museum, glints of brass peered out from beneath our feet. Entrenched in sidewalks and pathways are the memorial plaques, or “stumbling stones,” that sculptor Gunter Demnig inscribes with names of individual Holocaust victims and lodges in front of their last places of residence. In the Tiergarten, the sprawling Berlin park bustling with both locals and tourists, memorials to the homosexual victims and Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust stand alongside the crisscrossing pathways, forcing passersby to at least acknowledge, if not engage with, the sculptures memorializing atrocities of the Holocaust.
With remembrance inscribed undeniably in Berlin’s landscape, the Germany Close Up program encouraged us to probe into the multiplicity of perspectives on the efficacy of this remembrance. An essential part of this program was honest transatlantic dialogue and cross-cultural exchange. German students and public officials opened up about the successes and challenges of Holocaust remembrance in Germany. One guide expressed the irony of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe hiring the same company that had participated in building ovens for crematoria to build the memorial itself. Their willingness to critically examine their own ways of remembering and showing contrition forced me to think of my own home across the Atlantic. Columbia University placed a plaque to commemorate the Lenni Lenape people on whose land the university is built. Commemorating is such a small step, but like in Germany, a crucial one for living with the past, seeking forgiveness, and trying to create a more just tomorrow.
Senior, Columbia University