It’s been three days in the van and we are on to night four. It’s 11.30 pm and I’ve had a glass of French red. Just giving you all the heads up. We crossed the border from Germany into Holland tonight – it was epic and seamless. I felt the energy shift as soon as we crossed and certainly when we entered our roadside café ‘Mendel’ where we were greeted with smiling faces and warm hospitality. Not that Germans are unfriendly – not at all – but we have certainly encountered a general coolness and sense of caution from many a German. And the energy of the country also feels different. It could also just be me though. Germany is such a loaded place for me – nostalgic for my grandmother and yet pieces of the war are constantly in my thoughts. Today in the shower I thought again about this crossing of the border and how strong the change felt and I think too, leaving Israel – a place that is also laden with questions and trepidation, and then exactly a week later leaving Germany – making this passage to Holland felt quite liberating.
Early on in Hamburg, Guy asked me if everything in Germany was going to be about the Holocaust for me. The truth is it is everywhere for me. On the streets I am taken back in time with every Stolpersteine that I see marking ‘this person lived here’ and ‘died in this camp’ or was ‘sent to this sanatorium’. And I feel somewhat empowered each time I see one. I know these stones are contentious and even my mother is sceptical of their value and purpose. I see a life that was lost and found again and it’s not going to be forgotten. And looking out from our modern, chic apartment on the Lange Reihe where at least four Stolpersteine dot the street, I imagine the round up of Jews on this street. I imagine the terror, the fear, the shame of leaving your home and being publicly ridiculed. I imagine it all.
On the train from Hamburg to Frankfurt, when I gazed out at every farmhouse I wondered, was someone hidden under that house? Did that family help save a Jewish person? Did they all die because they were caught? Every Holocaust memorial catches my eye. Every mention of Juden or Nazi grabs my full attention. I look for swastikas in the graffiti on the walls. Even at the cemetery in Frankfurt where Jews from the 16th century are buried, I check for my surname or names of friends’ families. I feel it is part of my journey in this life to make sense of my past, to reconcile it for myself, to understand and investigate the trauma that has so effortlessly crept its way through my family’s complex grid.
But surprisingly and thankfully, I feel okay about it all. I have accepted that this war has happened and that my family suffered immense, immeasurable pain and loss. And I have accepted that trans-generational trauma is real and potent and deep. I have also accepted that Germany is a different place now. I am enjoying my time in Germany. I have wonderful friends who have helped me traverse the murky waters of war and guilt and dare I say forgiveness. It’s a big word and I don’t use it lightly. And I don’t forgive the Nazis as a whole or many such individuals. But I do try to empathise with all human beings and war is such a test of the human spirit. I ask myself – would I risk my children’s lives, my family’s wellbeing to save another human being? Would I stand for someone else at the risk of being shot? Would I give names of other people to save my own family? What would I do if I saw injustice right in front of my eyes? These are difficult questions and I am grateful I don’t need to answer them but people did. People do. Every person crossing the ocean in a flimsy boat, babes in arms, seeking asylum, wandering to live, must ask these questions. The question of life or death doesn’t come knocking on your door every day but it can.
I think of Elie Wiesel who recently passed away and his quote that rings so very true to me:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
I wish more people had taken sides, not been silent, especially early on, when the hate was brewing. And now …
Anyway. I could write more but I fear I am writing too much about one thing and not enough about others – the kids, the campervan, the big trip! I will elaborate in the book – hint, hint to the publishers.
So back to the big trip… After Hamburg we travelled by train to Frankfurt. I love trains. My business name is Moving Trains Productions and for me a moving train is simply a life in motion. Sitting on a moving train one can be still but life is progressing, evolving, happening. And unlike an airplane or a car or a boat, a train is smooth, gridded, grounded and can only move forward. We got to the train on foot from our apartment with the help of Claudia and co. We couldn’t have done it without them. We walked with one suitcase, two strollers (one for Claudia’s daughter) two large bags, two backpacks, four kids and four adults. It was epic and as we stood waiting on the platform we admired our efforts and stood calmly and confidently ready with our well thought out plan to board the train: Claudia and I would take the kids and reserve a two seater table and the dads would grab the luggage and load it. So well planned. Except that we were standing at the wrong section of the platform and instead of waiting at the second class section we were at First Class. I didn’t know this and continued with the plan running on with the girls to the open doors. Hearing in the distance some kerfuffle sounds and seeing Claudia is not behind me I move on inside and see we are at First Class. ‘Keep walking’ is all I am thinking. Guy will find us. We walk through four carriages and finally we are greeted by an out of breath Guy who has left the suitcases at the other end. Eventually we are all sitting in one cosy cabin and an hour later both kids are sleeping. Unfortunately, the girls and I missed saying goodbye to Claudia, Wolf, Tara and Kira but now we have an excuse to return to Hamburg.
In Frankfurt we were greeted on the platform by Leonie – a friend for life. Leonie and I met at Kibbutz Kinneret in 1999. We didn’t spend that long together there but we did cement a deep connection and mutual admiration that has seen us meet up many times since – in Australia, Israel, Germany and one transit day in Switzerland. I have met Leonie’s parents, stayed at their house and Leonie has met many of my relations. It is an easy friendship and I treasure it. We parked our van at Leonie’s brother Jakob’s place in Offenbach and spent two nights there in the car park for sleeping and then had all our meals and showers and hanging out at Jakob’s place. Once again we were met with a soft landing and it was perfect for the kids to have time to acclimatise to the van and travel. The Frankfurt stop was mostly practical (huge appreciation to Leonie for helping us). We tried to sort out our SIM card (failed), looked at a camping ground for our next stop, ferries to get from Scandinavia to the UK, things we needed for the van. We also went into town one day to see the former Jewish Ghetto, the Judengasse (literally Jews’ Lane):
Here : The Jewish population was forced to live for over 400 years in Frankfurt’ s Judengasse. It was located outside the city walls in the East End of the city of Frankfurt and ran in a slight curve from today’s Konstablerwache almost as far as the Main river. It was about 330 m long, 3-4 meters wide, and had three town gates. These were locked at night and on Sundays and (Christian) holidays; when they were closed, the Jewish population was essentially locked in.
In the beginning probably 15 families lived in the ghetto; in the 16th century the number of inhabitants of the Jews’ Lane had risen to some 3,000.
At the end of the 19th century, the Judengasse was torn down. The work took place in two phases. Most of the inhabitants moved to the East End. At the southern end of the former Judengasse, which was renamed Börneplatz in 1885, a new synagogue was opened in 1882. The area was left derelict after 1945. It was used first as a car park, then as a petrol station and finally as the wholesale flower market – until the Municipal Utilities decided to build its administrative center there. A fierce debate ensued nationwide as to what should be done with the archaeological remains uncovered during the construction work. Of the original 195 houses, 19 foundations were found – today five of them can be seen at “Museum Judengasse” and are used to present everyday life, living conditions and the religious customs of the Jewish inhabitants.
The museum itself was okay. The cemetery outside was most memorable. It was both haunting and beautiful. The oldest cemetery I have ever walked in. Once inside the locked gates, the rest of the city just faded away. Then outside the gates the walls were covered with small stones, similar to stolpersteine as each stone named someone who had lived in Frankfurt and perished in the Holocaust. I saw a person ‘Hecht’ and of course I wondered. Again, I feel it is a subtle but serious testament to remembering that Jews lived in Germany. They flourished here for centuries. They lived.
I have decided not to explain such things as the Holocaust to my kids. It’s difficult with Noa though as she asks questions and always senses my feelings about things. I generally explain some facts about a place and she knows we are Jewish. What does that mean to be Jewish she asks? The best answer that I have come up with and one that feels honest and sits well with me is that being Jewish means we are part of a bigger family outside our actual family. We were born into this group of people and they are like a bigger family to us. At this point there is no mention of God and I await that vast conversation. I have also been working on a book of Holocaust photographs with a UK photographer for the last 8 years (still working on it while I am traveling right now) and again I tell Noa the minimum but answer her questions. She prefers I don’t work at all so in a sense her interest in the project is minimal. We will see what transpires as we travel as to what questions she and Lina will ask. I can already see the benefits of travel in Noa’s confidence and Lina’s great love of life itself. The other night Lina declared with gusto and open arms to the dinner gathering of friends at the campground that she loves us all. If this is what travel brings to the conversation – we are on the right track.