my first year in germany was an archeological expedition – in terms of uncovering the lives of my grandparents and great grandparents but also in terms of beginning to uncover the extent of my own entanglement with this buried inheritance. in studying german and german history in college and going to germany to live, i wanted to connect with the country that had shaped my grandparents, and, in turn, shaped my mother and me. i wanted to understand the societal relationships that existed in the past and the ones that did and could exist in the present and future.
i was very much alone during my year in germany, but i did end up with a network of friends who became guides of a sort as i muddled through the year. one of these guides was gottfried, a colleague at the fritz bauer institute in frankfurt. the fritz bauer institute is a research and documentation center dedicated to the history of the holocaust and its continued impact on contemporary society. i was an intern in the education department, learning about how the holocaust is taught to german school children.
a week or so into my internship, gottfried, who split his time between the institute and teaching high school, invited me to join him and his class on a trip to buchenwald, i jumped at the chance. i would be a couple of years older than the kids on the trip. i would be the only american. i would be the only jew. we would stay for one day and two nights in former ss barracks that are now used to house and give workshops to school groups visiting the camp.
the morning that we toured the camp was bitter cold. the wind cut through my thick wool pea coat. the frost on the trees was heavier than any i had seen. the structures left at the camp seemed to frame a vast space of emptiness – a field of black and grey pebbles and dirt stretching into the frosted forest beyond. i remember the word ‘nichts’ (german for ‘nothing’) repeating itself in my head.
there were five minutes early in our tour during which our guide talked to us outside in the empty field that once had been the camp’s roll call area. he gave us an introductory history of the camp and some details concerning what had happened there. we huddled together, heads down, listening.
at that moment and thinking back on it now, it seemed like we were all essentially involved in the same process of trying to understand and come to terms with something that only confounds. it felt like we were all on the edge of a deep abyss, looking down into nothingness. we stood on different sides of the abyss, them and me, the germans and the jew, yet the choice confronting us was the same: dive in, walk away or become paralyzed at the edge, unable to act.