When I landed in Berlin's Tegel Airport for a nine-day trip, I exited the plane and was surprised to see the baggage carousel right outside my gate. "How efficient," I thought. Then I realized I had just failed my very first test of Break That German Stereotype.
Germany Close Up is a program administered by the New Synagogue of Berlin and supported by a grant from the European Recovery Program of the German Federal Ministry. It aims to present North American Jews with a first-hand experience of modern Germany. When I applied, I was most curious as to how I, a gay Jew, would feel walking around the streets of Berlin.
Arriving in Berlin a day early, some of us toured the city on our own.
"What brings your group to Berlin?" the locals asked.
"Oh, we're here for a fellowship," or, "We're here for a young professionals program," we would respond, always leaving out the part about being Jewish.
As I first toured the city, I had a difficult time seeing Berlin for the beautiful city it was and felt as if I were on the Hollywood set of a Holocaust movie. I was momentarily annoyed with Steven Spielberg for creating this lens of Germany as a state of Holocaust. Normal, everyday sirens would blare and I would immediately think of Jews being arrested. And when I saw the cutest little Shih Tzu on the street and went over to pet him, he started barking at me, and I immediately thought, "Damn you, German Shepherd Shih Tzu," as if he knew I was Jewish. As I people-watched throughout the neighborhoods and saw all the tall, handsome German men, I could have sworn I had seen each of them before -- but unsure if I recognized them from Schindler's List or an H&M ad.
Later, in the evening, I headed over to the local gay bar, where I discovered "athlete night." As all the boys around me changed out of their clothes and into mesh shorts and tank tops, I purchased a set at the counter. The attendant gave me a bag, for my regular clothes and wallet and other belongings. As I gave the attendant my bag of clothes and personal belongings, he wrote "477" on my arm with a Sharpie. There I was, in Germany, stripped of my clothes, stripped of my identity, with a number on my arm. It was quite surreal, but then we drank and were merry.
As the program began and we toured Berlin, I was fascinated by the gentrification of this beautiful city. "Never trust the green grass," Dagmar Pruin, the director of the program, would tell us, as if to remind us that there are many hellish stories covered over by the modernization of Berlin. We had the opportunity to meet with young Germans, politicians, and local Jewish leaders. Meeting local Germans was by far the most valuable learning experience. I hadn't met so many Jewish Studies majors since attending a Brandeis University reunion two years ago. While Germans never shut down a discussion of the Holocaust, they could no longer apologize for it. They wanted a relationship with us as people, not as criminals. Thank God, because I really wanted to hear more about Heidi Klum and discuss the one thing that I still haven't forgiven the Germans for: their love for David Hasselhoff.
As the trip came and went, I realized how comfortable and safe I felt as a Jew in Germany, and it brought back memories of my grandparents, survivors of Auschwitz. Early on in the trip, I felt guilty for returning to a country that committed such atrocities against the Jewish people (and other minority groups), but as the trip ended, I felt empowered and even embraced as a Jew in a beautiful city. On my final night in Berlin, I attended a mostly gay party called Berlin Meschugge, which brought together Israelis and the Germans who love them (and there are many) amid a mix of Israeli pop music and U.S. hits. Many of the local, non-Jewish gay Germans there talked about how as gays, they, too, would have been persecuted by the Nazis. Then our conversation abruptly ended when the DJ played Lady Gaga's Scheiße, and we danced the night away. "Ah, the pop stars that bind us," I thought.
I flew back to New York via Paris. As I settled into my seat, thinking about these experiences in Germany, the flight attendant interrupted my thoughts: "Bonjour, you ordered a special meal, correct?" Yes, I replied. The French man next to me said, "What are you, Jewish?" Not appreciating his tone, I replied, "No, vegetarian," and we pleasantly ignored each other the entire flight home.