I’ve never truly thought about Germany’s Jewish community. I know, from the basic Holocaust education I’ve received combined with some knowledge of European Judaism, that the Jewish community was devastated in the 1940s and is slowing rebuilding. And yet, seeing German-Jewish teens doing things that I do at home in the United States is something that has never crossed my mind; things like celebrating holidays, eating Shabbat dinner with family each week, gathering at weekend seminars, and attending synagogue.
For nine days in April, I was lucky enough to explore Berlin and Frankfurt’s Jewish communities alongside 14 other BBYO teens from the United States, Canada, and Lithuania. We walked through both cities, eating at interesting restaurants, people-watching on the streets, and exploring markets and town squares. But each street we walked down and neighborhood we visited also had a touch of Jewish history, something I don’t experience in my home in Virginia, or, frankly, anywhere in the United States. It was as if every corner we turned led us to a Holocaust remembrance site or a Jewish landmark. I had never considered Jewish life to exist in present-day Germany, and here I was stumbling across it each hour of our trip.
Two blocks from Berlin’s Embassy Row is the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. It is a 200,000-square-foot site made of 2,711 concrete blocks of various sizes, arranged in a grid pattern on sloped ground. From the outside, it looks like any other urban work of art, placed at an intersection, per the advice from a city planner. There are no plaques, no large signs along the street explaining its purpose. It is just there — 2,711 blocks of concrete of varying sizes, standing tall. Walking down a row toward the center I feel engulfed. The ground tilts downward and the sound of the cars on the road fades into the background. The concrete blocks feel like they are growing around me and I feel overwhelmed yet calm. The sun shines through but I don’t feel the warmth. There is something eerie about standing at the intersection of the grid. Maybe a similar eeriness to what it is like to stand in a concentration camp, or imagining one’s relatives being persecuted.
We walk down a street in Frankfurt, joking, smiling, and jostling each other around. I can hear laughter from the part of our group walking behind me. And then it goes dead silent, as we all simultaneously realize where we are. The brick wall in front of us has rows and rows of small metal rectangles jutting out of it. The face of each piece of metal has a name, birth, and death date, and the name of a concentration camp. Each one represents one Jewish person from Frankfurt who was killed in the Holocaust. A pebble sits atop each one. We walk along the wall in silence, prepared for it to end where the next street begins. Instead, it snakes around alongside the sidewalk, continuing on and on, name after name. The number of Jews from Frankfurt that died in concentration camps feels endless.
Our tour guide and friend, Ilja, points out a gold slab in the sidewalk. We all stop to look, gathering around in a little huddle. “This is a stumbling block,” he explains. They can be found all across Germany, and each one is inscribed with the name and birth/death dates of a victim of Nazi extermination. They’re often placed in the ground where a person lived before the Holocaust. Thousands of people walk and stumble over them every day. They act as a daily reminder about the devastations of the Holocaust.
The seemingly endless exposure we were given to Judaism in Germany — the Holocaust remembrance sites, Jewish museum, three beautiful synagogues, among others — didn’t prepare me at all for our trip to Bad Sobernheim, a small town an hour outside of Frankfurt. This is where we were spending our weekend with ZWST, BBYO’s partner organization in Germany.
We spent time connecting with the teens at their leadership training, engaging in their programming, joining them for traditional Shabbat services, and eating meals alongside them. Each conversation I had made me more interested in their Jewish life. Some of the teens were proud of their weekly Shabbat dinners at home with their families, while others talked about how ZWST was their sole way of engaging with Jewish life. Just like BBYO has impacted each one of us, ZWST is a crucial and ever-present outlet for them. It provides a home, a safe space, and an atmosphere of sisterhood and brotherhood that we all know so well.
We explained what BBYO is, and it all clicked. We talked about our mission as a Jewish organization and how we strive to engage every Jewish teen worldwide. We, an organization founded in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, have the exact same purpose as them, an organization founded in the heart of Germany over 100 years ago. Our Judaism brought us together, but our joint purpose to strengthen the Jewish community worldwide is what will maintain and grow our relationship.
If you had asked me about Judaism in Germany before I went on the Ambassadors to Germany program, I would have told you about the horrors of the Holocaust. I would have told you about the concentration camps that Jews were shipped off to, the persecution that befell the Jewish people.
Now if you ask me about Judaism in Germany, I will tell you about my friends. I would tell you the 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds who are living in Frankfurt, in Berlin, and in other cities around the country, who are growing and inspiring other Jewish teens. I will tell you about the Jewish high school in Berlin and the synagogues that are filled to the brim for High Holiday services each year. Without this trip, I would never have known what it’s like to be a Jew in Germany in the present day, and my passion for connecting with the Jewish community worldwide wouldn’t be nearly as strong.
By Natalia Paley Whitman
Natalia Paley Whitman lives in Virginia and is a member of BBYO’s Northern Virginia Council.