Infighting saps Germanys Jews, says SFSU student on Europe trip

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Sebastian Attie stepped off the train in Munich and looked around. He was struck by the city's stark architecture, its barren landscape, its lack of Nazis.

"I felt so paranoid being a Jew in Germany. Did anyone know what I was? I had this strange feeling and my paranoia got the best of me. But I discovered there were no Nazis waiting for me" at the station, said Attie, a senior at San Francisco State University.

Instead, Attie learned the biggest problem facing Jews in Germany isn't anti-Semitism, but Jews against Jews.

"If you're not traditionally Jewish — born to a Jewish mother, Orthodox, observant — you're not accepted. I met a man whose father survived Auschwitz but his mother wasn't Jewish. He's ostracized. What criteria do you need to be accepted?" Attie asked.

"Of all the places in the world to discriminate against Jews — Germany? This was the birthplace of Reform. It's unbelievable."

The American-born, 22-year-old Attie returned from three weeks in Germany last month, dizzy with ideas and questions about what it means to be a Jew in the diaspora, specifically in Deutschland.

His trip was sponsored by national Hillel and the German Council on International and Educational Exchange, and funded by the German Foreign Ministry.

A total of 120 university students and professionals visited Munich, Worms, Heidelberg, Weimar and the Rhine region in tour groups of about 20. Stacey Roberts, director of student programming for San Francisco Hillel, participated along with Attie and the others in this first joint effort between Hillel and the German government.

According to trip leader Rabbi Toby Manewith, director of Hillel at Syracuse University, the German foreign ministry proposed the trip in hopes of offering young American Jews a more rounded view of the country. Hillel agreed, hoping to help young Jews develop a religious "identity that isn't based solely around the Holocaust," Manewith said.

"In my opinion, it's unfair for a 20-year-old student from America to say, `I hate all Germans. I will never buy a German product,'" she added.

"For a 20-year-old to say, `I hate all Germans because of what they did 50 years ago,' without even going to Germany is unfair. It's possibly even un-Jewish."

Attie's grandfather, a native of Holland, survived the war in hiding. However, the film student didn't harbor any deep-rooted hatred for Germans. He went to Germany in hopes of connecting with his European Jewish roots.

"My grandfather told me he could never step foot in Germany but that I should experience it for myself — that it would be an amazing opportunity I'd probably never get again. It was," Attie said. "For me, the theme was identity."

Germany represented both a Jewish past and a Jewish future, he said. Every piece of painful history caused him to reflect on the present. For instance, just outside Munich Attie met the man whom the character of Itzhak Stern in "Schindler's List" was modeled after.

"He was 80 and vibrant and funny with a vise-grip handshake. He's alive," Attie marveled.

At Dachau, Attie's guide was a concentration-camp survivor. But while visiting the camp today, "I'm free to raise my arms and scream and yell and cry and not be shot," Attie said.

In Munich, author Richard Schneider told the American visitors what it means to be thirtysomething, a child of survivors and living in Germany.

"Schneider wrote, `Jews don't have a place to live here, but we are here. So we live it,'" Attie said. "He talked about what it meant to live in a country and not be accepted by it… But I still think Jews are hated — everywhere."

Nonetheless, it is the Jew-against-Jew attitude, so pervasive throughout the country, that seems the highest obstacle in building a German-Jewish future, Attie said.

"I learned the problems for Jews [in Germany] are with other Jews," Attie said.

The Jews in Germany are not united, he said. For instance, Germany's Russian-Jewish community is not accepted, much less embraced. Outside of Berlin, the Reform movement is faltering. To hear Jews speaking of either group with open disdain is not uncommon.

Nonetheless, "I'd like to return [to Germany], to support fellow Jews there — if I can," Attie said. "To live life you have to learn about life."