Jews and Germans, bound together in a unique kinship

I was not far from the scene of the Crime. About 12 feet above it, actually. The Fuhrer Bunker, Hitler’s underground lair, the very heart of the Nazi regime, now buried irretrievably beneath a parking lot. Physically gone, but even with the grandson of Holocaust survivors up on top and Hitler somewhere very far down below, it gives pause, an involuntary chill, a peculiar sense of anger and sadness and relief to be On That Spot. It feels a little weird to be there — it’s not a “visit,” because that’s too casual, but it’s not exactly an arduous journey, either, to the middle of the city next to a subway stop. It’s sunny out, but this is a dark, dark place.

At the same time, wow, I love Berlin. How can you not? A liberal city of energy, history, arts and culture, music, food, architecture; the center of the Jewish historic enlightenment; a city that encompasses the Jewish people’s highest highs and lowest lows of the past 300 years; a city that has gone through so many changes and so many meanings that it’s difficult to wrap your mind around all of them.

If you love history, stay away — you’ll never want to leave. Over here the Berlin Wall, over here the graves of Prussian kings, and over there the remains of Berlin’s first synagogue from the 1700s. And everywhere, everywhere, monuments and memorials to the destruction left by the 12 years of Nazi rule.

I was in Berlin with Access, the American Jewish Committee’s young leadership program; Germany Close-Up Foundation; and the international financial services company Allianz SE on a program that joined 10 American Jewish professionals with 10 German non-Jews, all of us of the “third generation” — the grandchildren of the World War II generation.

It could have been confrontational or controversial, this mixing of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and German soldiers, some with Nazis not too far removed, with us delving into our respective histories and the lessons we’ve learned, the narratives we’ve assumed, the societies and communities we’ve constructed in response to those devastating 12 years.

Instead, it was a wonderful moment of engagement and connection, an opportunity I am eternally grateful for and an experience I will never forget.

Jason Harris at the Berlin Wall

I’ve been to Berlin before. I’ve been to Jewish museums and old synagogues and concentration camps — but never with German peers, never with people whom our very recent history tried to permanently separate through hatred and murder. In defiance of all that, we became friends. We said Kaddish at the Sachsenhausen camp as friends, we visited the German parliament as friends, and we encountered modern Germany and Jewish history together as friends.

Here’s what I learned: There is a natural kinship between third-generation Germans and Jews. My new friends know about the horrors of genocide and the consequences of hatred and violence — they’ve had it hammered into them from the same young age as I have. They can look beyond current political events in Israel to understand why a safe and secure homeland is such an integral value for the Jewishh people. They don’t ask for forgiveness and they know we can’t forget, and they carry with them a sense of responsibility that sounds to me like our Jewish notion of atonement.

Because of the Holocaust, Jews and Germans are bound to each other like two friends with a past no one else understands. We must nurture these relationships, share our stories and together act according to the history we’ve experienced. The German people are our natural allies.

On Shabbat our group attended Friday services at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. Many of the German participants had never attended synagogue, and two asked if they could sit with me so I could explain what was happening. A High Holy Days–only kind of synagogue-goer, I’m not sure I was the best person, but I made a good effort and realized that this may well have been the first time I ever attended synagogue with people who had never experienced Shabbat.

What a privileged moment. In this eclectic congregation of a reconstituted Jewish community, we were led by a cantorial student from Hungary with a voice that took us back 300 years and sang prayers that reminded me of so much that had been lost. But after a few minutes it wasn’t about Jews and Germans, the Holocaust and the Nazis, or Hitler’s bunker and a rebuilt synagogue. It was about being there together as newfound friends.


Jason Harris, is a member of AJC-Access San Francisco. He recently returned to the Bay Area after serving as legislative director for Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). He can be reached at [email protected]