Leslie Ginsparg, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus (Class 16), is a Professor of Jewish History at Touro College. She can be reached at Ginsparg@comcast.net
When I announced to family and friends that I was going to Germany as part of a Germany Close Up/American Jewish Committee student trip, I kept hearing the same response: don’t spend any money there.
The reasoning behind and the implication of that imperative was obvious. While there were hundreds of years of Jewish life in Germany, including famous personalities the likes of Gluckel of Hameln, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Moses Mendelssohn, Germany is associated in the minds of American Jews with Hitler, Nazis and the Holocaust.
This is not without good reason. The Holocaust was the greatest and most horrifying tragedy in recent Jewish history, if not of all time. The inconceivable cruelty, complicity and disrespect for human life on the part of an overwhelming number of German people, occurring a mere 60 years ago, absolutely boggles the mind.
But most of that generation is gone. A new generation is reaching adulthood in Germany. Men and women who were not personally responsible for the Holocaust and yet bear the burden of guilt and shame that is their own national nightmare. Germans today live in a country with no sense of patriotism, where flying the flag and singing the national anthem with pride remain suspect activities. While I think Germans should feel disgusted by their country’s history, I also recognize that this might not be healthy or productive, if preventing future anti-Semitism and tragedy is the goal.
In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, Yaakov and Esav meet after years of hatred on Esav’s part and agree to forget the past and forgive each other. Is it time for us as a community to do the same?
What is the statute of limitations on a crime? When do we stop associating the perpetrators of the past with the people of today? Two thousand years ago, Rome destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. They murdered, tortured and enslaved the Jewish people in Israel. It was a national tragedy that we still mourn every Ninth of Av. But today, Jews visit Rome. No one tells you not to buy Italian cars because the Romans destroyed the Temple. We certainly have not forgotten—there are many Jews who will not walk under the Arch of Titus because it depicts images from the destruction of Jerusalem—but we have disassociated Rome today from the perpetrators of the past. Surely Rome and Germany are far from a perfect comparison and I hesitate to compare the Holocaust with any other tragedy, but the need to disassociate Germany today from Nazi Germany must still be considered.
One afternoon, I met a young man from Munich in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. I was the first Jew he had ever met. We wandered through the exhibits together, he excitedly asking me questions about my life and my faith. There was no hatred there. He was the embodiment of openmindedness and tolerance and genuine positive curiosity about the diversity in the world. I walked away feeling very optimistic towards Germany, its people and its future. I believed that the country had changed and that its people today were not capable of what their ancestors perpetrated. The next morning I awoke to news that the Holocaust memorial had been vandalized with swastikas. The anti-graffiti coating on the monuments does not prevent vandalism; it just makes it easier to wipe away.
Was the forgiveness between Yaakov and Esav genuine? Did Esav speak the truth when he said he longer wished his brother dead, that all his hatred was gone? After the Jews left Egypt, the first nation to attack them was Amalek, descendants of Esav. Amalek did not wage war for political or military reasons, they attacked the Jewish people out of sheer spite and hatred. The Torah commands us never to forget what they did.
Do we forgive Germany? Today? In 50 years? 100 years? When everyone involved has died out? 1000 years? Never? I don’t have the answer to this question. Certainly I acknowledge that I, as someone two generations removed from this tragedy, cannot fully comprehend the feelings of those who went through it themselves. But I am willing to engage in the discussion. After spending time on its streets and with its people, I can no longer write off Germany. It contains the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe. If we, as a community, are truly to have a unified world, then this is a question which the Jewish community needs to engage.