Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feeling Guilty About Not Feeling Guilty: Reflections on Visiting Berlin

One year ago a friend of mine called to let me know she was going to Berlin. My knee jerk reaction to her was ”couldn’t you find another place to visit”? That was a pavlovian reaction; my guilty conscience talking, not me. As a matter of fact I’ve been struggling with my putative guilty conscience regarding all things German since I was in my early twenties. Until the moment I bought a Karmann Ghia, (a two seater Volkswagen), I never considered the issue of whether or not to buy German products. It was a non-starter because I had never wanted or needed a foreign made product, at least none that I was aware of. But I wanted that car. Being in my twenties, with a mind of my own, a few bucks and the compulsion to live out my fantasies was all I needed to obsess over that green convertible Karmann Ghia, German or not! After all, the holocaust was history, I reasoned and the nefarious nazi murderers of Jews, thank god hadn’t directly impacted my family. Prior to buying the Karmann Ghia I had mentioned it to several friends and their reactions were universally the same: couldn’t you buy another car? Almost the same reaction I had when my friend told me she was going to visit Berlin forty years later. Interesting!

In examining my feelings then I noted no guilt in owning the car. Driving the Karmann Ghia was fun, especially with the top down, but something had been niggling away at me. Stepping into the car guiltlessly always aware of its German provenance I was concerned over my lack of guilt. Why wasn’t I feeling guilty about driving a German car? I should feel guilty –after all, six million of my people were murdered; whether they were my family wasn’t relevant. They were my people. Had I been in Germany or Eastern Europe immediately prior to or during World War II I would have surely been murdered. On the other hand I took note of the German reparations and the apparent ease by which Jews applied for and accepted the money. I also took note of the fact that Israel’s entire fleet of Egged buses were produced and manufactured by Mercedes and that most of the taxi fleet in around the country were Mercedes. It all boiled down to an awareness that I was feeling guilty about not feeing guilty. This was the kind of stuff turning over in my head until on one starry night my Karmann Ghia irreparably broke down and I settled for a Chevy.

Those feelings lay dormant for forty years until we decided to visit Berlin this past August. Interestingly I arranged my visit to Berlin with a visit to Israel first, notably Jerusalem, where I would conclave for 4 days with a very dear friend. Somehow flying to Berlin from Tel Aviv made more sense to me than flying from Chicago since doing so contextualize Berlin. Israel had become my security blanket noting that twice before, on trips to Austria, I arranged flying from Tel Aviv and not from some innocuous point of origination. To enter German or Austrian territory from any other point than Israel seemed sacrilegious. In other words, travelling to Germany or Austria via Israel somehow was ok, as though there was a hechsher. After all, if Israel has relations with Germany and Austria who am I too scoff at these countries?

I never liked Austria or the Austrians. I had been there on two separate occasions discovering that they weren’t a very friendly nation, nor did they care for foreigners, much less Jews. This observation was derived not on the basis of a quick, run through trip, but founded upon two lengthy stays, once in Vienna and the other time in Salzburg and its environs. Even the German I heard on the street was harsh sounding and evoked troubling images of the not too distant past. I felt good about these negative feelings because by having them I was sharing in the same feelings that so many of my people shared. I didn’t have to worry about not feeling guilty. Indeed it was comforting to be able to have an intense dislike for Austrians for no other reason than they had been instrumental in killing my people. Having had these negative feelings in Austria I was bracing for similar feelings in Berlin.

It was a shock to my system when after arriving in Berlin I didn’t experience any of the same feelings that I had in Austria. Berliners were open, friendly and embracing of foreigners and especially Jews and Israelis. During the time I was there I had nothing but positive experiences and good karma. German no longer seemed the harsh language of Nazis barking death orders to their compliant co-conspirators but an inviting, soft sounding language reminiscent of English. Ironically, this didn’t bode well for my complex Jewish psyche. I found myself once again seated in my Karmann Ghia with the top down, cruising Lake Shore Drive. Can life get any better? Yet niggling away at my psyche was the still small voice whispering about the bad things had happened to my people just a short while ago, robbing me of my ability to really enjoy myself. Here I was, sitting in a beergarten, drinking Berliner weisse beer desperately struggling with that small voice buried deep inside, always struggling to pop up and rob me of a good time. I was determined to keep it suppressed and enjoy the moment, knowing anyway that if I don’t feel guilty about celebrating life in Berlin, I will feel guilty about not feeling guilty.