Too often, I find myself guilty of getting distracted while on travel. I become too consumed with learning, with experiencing new cultures, and with seeing things that will inspire articles that I fail to stop and to pay attention to what I am feeling.
This trip to Germany gave me a lot of feelings, and today I want to talk about those. What was it like for me to be in a country with which I have such a unique relationship? I was able to experience Germany from a few different perspectives, and those all play into what I feel, sitting here three weeks after returning to California, when I think back on the experience as a whole.
As a Tourist
This is the easiest to talk about. Germany is an awesome place for a tourist. It is not as crowded as Italy or France. It is safe, comfortable, easy to navigate both logistically and culturally. It has largely pleasant summer and fall weather, good food, friendly people.
It was the second week of my trip, the week I spent in Bonn. I had just finished an incredible morning at Beethoven’s childhood home, and was sitting at a gasthaus (basically a German pub) up the street for a lunch of schnitzel and kasespaetzl (German mac and cheese). In that moment, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of peace, that feeling when there isn’t a single thing I’d change. It’s rare for me, especially with my mental health struggles.
This is certainly not something unique to Germany. I’ve had “perfect” days all over the world. But it is something not possible in destinations overrun by tourists, especially by American tourists. And Germany, while popular, still offers that slightly more quiet experience that is just not possible in Paris or Barcelona.
What Germany has in spades is cute city centers (other than Berlin). It seems that every minor and major city has a rebuilt – thanks to Allied bombing during World War Two – historic center. It has churches, a town hall, a square or two, shops, restaurants, and some pedestrian only streets. Of these, Dresden was my favorite. There is a sense of history in German cities missing from many others, where the historic sites sit among modern – or more modern – looking buildings. It is a sense of Europe of old, and I love it.
As a Jew
This one is much more complicated. This is the country that, not even a century ago, tried to eradicate my people. Had my grandparents – all of whom were German – not escaped, I’d not be here. And had the Nazis not existed, I’d be German by birth in all likelihood.
Monuments to the Holocaust are all over, in large forms and in small, like the stumble stones outside of homes and businesses that Jews once owned. Those things are disturbing, but easy enough to avoid if one really wants to.
What isn’t able to be avoided? The German people. I recall walking through Berlin and suddenly being overwhelmed with the realization that the majority of the people around me were descended from Nazis. Were their parents and grandparents actively involved in the attempted extermination of my people? Probably not, though some certainly were since so few former Nazi officials were punished. But most joined the party, and said nothing when their Jewish (and communist, and gypsy, and other) neighbors were rounded up and shipped off. Many of them may have attended a Hitler rally, or a book burning, or silently watched as synagogues were burned to the ground.
Germany does a great job at remembering the terrible events perpetuated by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, much more than any other country would likely do under similar circumstances. (I’m looking at you, Japan.) And I am totally aware that not only is the modern country not the Nazi regime, but also that anyone currently alive who was alive then is both very old now and was very young at the time. Modern Germans are not Nazis. But for many, their parents and grandparents were, and that’s a weird feeling.
As a Citizen
I’ve seen a lot of places as a tourist, and sadly, given the history of the world, been to a lot of countries that have mistreated their Jewish populations. I have never before been to a foreign country for which I had citizenship.
I acquired German citizenship at the end of 2019, with the intention to visit as soon as possible. Covid made that visit take three years to come about. In that time, I have learned a bit of German. (While all of my grandparents spoke German, obviously, they deliberately chose not to when not absolutely necessary. Given the trauma of much of their extended family being killed in the Holocaust, I understand.) I have learned a bit about German history, politics, and culture. So in a way, I am glad that the visit was pushed back to allow for that knowledge base.
My German citizen experience was full of small positives and negatives. The border official who scoffed at my lousy German when I entered the country on my German passport started the trip off on the wrong foot, but was soon replaced with a sense of pride – yes, personal pride – at some of the amazing aspects of the country, from the huge wind farms I passed to the weird and intricate features of the Reichstag dome.
During my time in Munich, I took a brief side trip to Liechtenstein. As the train back crossed the German border, it did occur to me that I was home, though I don’t know if it was due to my citizenship or due to my having spent the prior three months in the country and feeling comfortable.
My time in Berlin was where this all really hit home. After the war, my great grandfather returned to Germany, helping to rebuild the country that had forced him to flee in the middle of the night in fear of his life and those of his family. For his work, he was honored with awards. In addition, there is a housing development named for him, and a bust of him displayed publicly down the street. Visiting these, and later his home, where my father even lived for a couple years, I was overcome by feelings, though it has taken until now to sort through them.
First, I am proud. I am proud of what the country has accomplished, and immensely proud of my family’s small role in that. But I am also angry. I am angry that this life was denied to me. (I am happy of the way things turned out for me and my immediate family, but there is still a sense of loss.) It is a contradiction in feeling that is hard to come to terms with.
I wonder what he would say, knowing that to date, two of his grandchildren and two great grandchildren have chosen to reclaim that citizenship he was obviously so proud of. For that matter, I wonder what all the branches of my family would think.
So did I feel at home in Germany? No, but I also don’t feel at home in Texas or New York. But I did feel a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, in that I was legally allowed to be here.
I am publishing this article midway through the schedule of publishing for the more travel-themed writings from the trip, which will extend through February, I believe. (I wrote 45 articles in total!) It is my hope that doing so will offer some perspective in what it might have felt to be there, and to be doing the things that the other articles discuss.