November 16th, 2018
This replaces a prior version of this post that was posted with errors. Apologies.
I didn’t plan it that way, but events have a way of happening. So, it was that I found myself in Berlin on 9 November 1989.
The trip changed my life [and, of course, much of the world.].
I was in Germany as a guest of what was then West Germany. A small group of young-ish [today, we would call us emergent] Jewish leaders was invited for 3 weeks to demonstrate how the nation had dealt with its shameful past and the underlying values that defined the new Germany.
The content of the trip was fascinating. Quite appropriately, it included powerful exploration of Holocaust places and remembrances. It introduced us to how education about the nadir of civilization was being taught to all school students, how there is now a policy of the military that enables, indeed mandates, resistance to immoral orders. And, perhaps most telling, it began to show how a nation was moving from memory to myth – how that terrible period will be understood long after those with direct memory are no more.
The trip, though, was not only about The Shoah. It reminded us that Jews lived in Germany for 2000 years. We saw the birthplace of what is known as Ashkenazic Jewry in the Rhine Valley. We visited the birthplaces of Modern Jewry – both Reform and Neo [Modern] Orthodoxy. And much more.
Jews were not suddenly transported to Germany in 1932 to experience the Holocaust; rather there was a long,, complex, and often thriving and robust diaspora there for a long time.
And lest we think that this was only a trip of parochial interest, I have a folio from the Gutenberg printing press in Mainz in our personal collection. We sat in the home of Beethoven’s birth. And more.
And we also saw the great Wall dividing the “free” West from the Soviet East. That divide meant almost certain death for any daring to cross it. Armed GDR troops on one side had their fingers on the triggers, and the armies of 3 other powers were on the alert on the other. That was visible and palpable all the way through the morning of 9 November.
It was coincidence that I remained for a few days after the conclusion of our program. So it was that I was in Berlin that day. Today, few remember that the militaries were all on full alert. The end of the GDR was clearly in the offing. But none were confident that it would be a peaceful end. Truth be told, that no sergeant lost his cool was the real miracle of that historic day.
My own life, as I said, was changed by that – both professionally and personally. As an American, never again could I revert to the provincialism of seeing my world as disconnected to that which was happening across the Pond. And, as a Jew, never again could I view our existence in simplistic terms. History, politics, identities are all interwoven – and that trip brought that complexity to the fore. It became a defining element of my own persona, and my professional work.
The world seemed very binary at that time. When the Wall fell, optimism for a new, different, and better era seemed inevitable. We were confident that the liberties and freedoms, and even the economic success we took for granted in the West would soon become universal. Prosperity and enfranchisement for all. It was just a matter of investment, planning… and learning.
Well, 3 decades have shown us how elusive and illusory that romantic optimism was. We have witnessed nationalist and ethnic backlashes. We have seen that greed, selfishness, and myopia have made sharing the wealth of the developed world with those still in need seem Sisyphean. And, we have learned that painful lesson that not all share our vision of a world with liberties and justice for all – regardless of race, gender, religion, or national origin.
I write this for publication the week of this auspicious anniversary. Looking back now, these days and in this week, as an American, as a Jew, as a student of history, I realize the fragility of civil society, the brevity of memory, and the destructive hubris of leaders motivated by xenophobic rage,
History teaches us to be vigilant. Germany wasn’t – and we weren’t – and it took millions of lives and a radical change in world order to recover from that silence. Today the stakes are even higher. The earth’s climate change is an existential challenge to all human beings. Technology doesn’t allow any but the fiction of isolationism. And the deepest-seated cynicism toward institutions means that too many are simply unwilling to invest any energies in preserving a democratic society – not just in the USA but in too many places.
Looking back, the Fall of the Wall did not usher in an era of guaranteed freedoms and prosperity for all. It did usher in a time of great challenges – and choices. I am trying hard not to be trite, but if there was ever a time to learn from the past, an historic moment with much to teach us, and with moral values that need to infuse our thinking, this is it.