From Germany to Israel
Visiting Wannsee gave me a far deeper appreciation of Israel.
I’ve gotten blasé about my trips to Israel. I come very frequently and usually take the direct flight from Los Angeles. It’s about 14-1/2 hours and I manage to complain about the length and the discomfort. I try to talk myself down by focusing on how lucky I am, how my ancestors dreamed of coming here and were unable to, how it used to take three weeks on a boat. Sometimes it works and sometimes my baser self just rears its ugly head.
So it was when my husband told me that he had three missions to Israel this August and suggested that it made sense to spend the month here. Instead of leaping at the chance, I began the complaints. A month away from home? What will I do? I’ll be bored. I’ll be lonely. And on and on. Adding fuel to the fire my (adult) children chimed in. How could you leave us? What kind of parents are you?
So there I was. Despite the direct flight and the accommodations at a luxury hotel and the break from cooking and cleaning, I complained. (One small word in my defense: I did work the missions. I did put myself out there and try to make relationships. I didn’t hide in my room fussing. I’m not quite that immature.)
Once I actually landed in Eretz Yisrael, my attitude softened. As I gaze out from my balcony on to the walls of the Old City and watch the light change throughout the day from sun rise to midday to unset and night time, I am awestruck – and grateful. I indulge in a moment of introspection and appreciation.
And then I revert back to my baser self again, whining and demanding a new room when things don’t work out as planned (But the carpet was dirty and the air conditioning didn’t work!).
Until last week. When everything changed. We had a few days off between missions so we decided to go to Berlin. We weren’t looking for a “fun” vacation but an interesting one. In that respect we weren’t disappointed.
As everyone knows, the Germans have dealt with their past in the most upfront way possible. On the grounds of the former SS headquarters in the middle of Berlin stands the Museum of Topography and Terror, an indoor and outdoor exhibit that pulls no punches.
We visited the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial – where the Talmudic precept “Silence is Your praise” seemed to inform this exhibit. There were – and are – no words.
We engaged in other tourist activities as well, biking through the Tiergarten, visiting the Brandenburg Gate, marveling at the Bundestag building (formerly known as the Reichstag) and even visiting the American Embassy, itself a lesson in post-Benghazi security.
On our last day we took the train to Wannsee. This was our most chilling experience. First we took a boat ride around the lake (we mistakenly got on the German-speaking tour so we couldn’t understand anything the guide said except that everyone sat up and took notice when he pointed out the Wannsee House on our right, the site of the conference on “The Final Solution”).
The lake was peaceful and tree-lined. Elegant houses bordered the shore. The beauty of the setting seemed to highlight the horror.
Upon alighting from the boat, we caught a bus to the house. We toured the building, now yet another Holocaust memorial and appropriately so. We stood in the rather nondescript room where the conference took place.
We looked out the window at the view – the trees, the calm blue water, the shining sun, the sailboats. Could it really have happened? Could a group of men really sat in this room and hatched a methodical plan to destroy my people? It seemed inconceivable and yet…
Reading the bios of the attendees to the conference, I was struck by two thoughts. One – I have never heard of most of them. Other than Heydrich and Eichmann, no one sounded familiar. Their deeds so disastrous and their names unknown, anonymous cogs in a machine – yet they set so much in motion.
The second item of note was their enthusiasm for the project. Contrary to popular belief, Eichmann et al were not merely bureaucrats crunching the numbers. They were excited participants. They desperately wanted the plan to succeed. They were committed to the goal. Heydrich even insisted on getting the credit!
It’s a big house but none of the fancy furniture remains. Just a record of the deadly plans and deeds of a few men – passed on to thousands of others – and enacted as the sun shone warmly on the sparkling lake.
Yet again, silence seemed the only appropriate – and possible – response.
We were very glad that our flight back to Israel was scheduled for the next morning. While everyone we met was very friendly, often stopping to offer advice is they saw us peering in puzzlement at a map, we were ready to go.
We were uncomfortable, chilled and unable to get warm. We wanted our home and our people.
And last night, as I gazed out over the Old City at twilight I finally felt truly grateful – to be here, to have this privilege, to have a home. If I lose sight of this preciousness, of this moment and this opportunity, I can now use the experience at Wannsee to help these feelings come rushing back. But I hope I won’t need to.