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You cannot be Jewish and not wrestle with the role of Germany in Jewish history. It is a place where Jews experienced tremendous success, spiritually, intellectually, financially and socially. Before there was an affluent and influential Jewish presence in America, it existed in Germany. The great reforms of Jewish modernity started in Germany. Germany gave us, or helped to give us, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Isaac Mayer Wise; to name a few. Germany nurtured Jewish artists, writers, musicians, the early Zionist movement and was, for many Jews, a promised land. Yet, Germany also perpetrated what is probably the greatest crime against a single ethnic group in human history. So we Jews wrestle with our relationship to Germany.

There is a parallel, I think, with the relationship the people of ancient Judah had with the land of Egypt. Egypt was the place of enslavement. Yet at the same time Egypt was held out as a hope for Judean survival in the face of pressure from the great empires of Assyria and Babylon. Egypt is at once seen as a source of dread, yet also a place of potential alliance. The prophet Isaiah warns against depending on Egypt, telling Hezekiah in the 8th century to have faith in God, not Egypt. Language in the Tanach describing Egypt condemns its moral depravity. To ‘yored Mitzraima,’ to “go down to Egypt,” is not just a matter of geographical direction, but of spiritual and moral descent as well. Yet, after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, a Temple was built in Elephantine, Egypt. One of the first great Jewish communities of the diaspora was formed in Egypt. Egypt was a conundrum. It was the place of enslavement and the place that nurtured the growth of a strong Jewish community post Babylonian conquest; and did so for centuries.

I am about to leave tomorrow for Germany. It is the birth place for all of my ancestry, i.e. my father’s and mother’s families. It all begins for us in Germany. Our family is a great example of how much Jews integrated into the fabric of German life and culture. As I wrote a few days ago, Alfred Romberg was a commissioned officer in the German army during WWI. My father’s uncle, Richard Stern, the man who raised him in the absence of his biological father; was a decorated German soldier in WWI. My great, great grandfather, Nathan Moses Romberg, was a successful merchant who helped organize a Jewish community in Lengerich, Germany. He was originally Nathan Moses, but changed his last name to Romberg in what can only be an expression of his integration into the German society of the early 19th century.

But just as our family is an illustration of Jewish involvement in German life, so to is it a symbol of the consequences of the Shoah on Jewish life. Of my grandfather Walter’s 13 siblings, we know of 3 that died in German concentration camps. Walter himself was placed into slave labor that eventually killed him. His brother Oskar avoided the Gestapo for much of the war, but was eventually caught, sent to Theresienstadt and survived – rejoining his family in Essen, Germany. Others made it to America by various routes. One went to Sweden, others went to South Africa.

Yet, in spite of this history of our family with Germany, almost every family member I meet has been back to Germany, or wishes to visit Germany. My father, who not only experienced a lot of Nazi oppression before he barely escaped in September 1939, but was an American GI fighting against Germany in WWII; visited Germany many times for business and for pleasure. My brothers have both been to Germany and my youngest brother lived and worked there for a year after college. This will be my 3rd visit to Germany – 2nd within a year.

I totally understand that a person who survived the concentration camps, and who was not born in Germany would cringe at the very thought of not only travelling there, but of having anything to do with German products. I do find it strange that American Jews who have no family connection to the Holocaust boycott German products or scrunch up their face in displeasure when I mention I am returning to Germany. Other than using their displeasure as a peculiar method of ethnic identification and solidarity, what do they really know about my feelings regarding Germany? Or the feelings of any Jew of German descent?

So now I will be honest. As an American there is no better place to travel in Europe. It is friendly, interesting, dynamic and easy to navigate. As a Jew, I do feel just a bit tentative. I find myself looking for (and usually finding) signs of German atonement for what was done to my family. I soak up every German museum, display, memorial, or sign of respect about Jews. As I leave for Germany, I wonder how my family that ended up staying there navigated the post war years. What did they feel about their country? Did they ever wish to leave?

Yes, Germany is our generations Egypt. For it is Germany, for better or for worse, that has shaped the unfolding of Jewish history in my time. It is Germany that embodies the nascent hope of Jews of the 19th into the early 29th centuries. It is Germany that influences the Jewish dynamic of my generation, and I feel sure, of many to come. We cannot escape it.

So I close with a thought, really a question. In a thousand or so years, what country will be that generation’s Germany? And will they know it when it happens?

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