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Germany: what I’ve learned from living in the country from which my family once fled

Eight decades after Kristallnacht, The Local's editor Rachel Stern looks back on her own family history and the members who became victims of National Socialism, as well as what calling Germany home means to her today.

Germany: what I've learned from living in the country from which my family once fled
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photo: DPA

I was eight-years-old when I first heard the term Holocaust.

My extended family had gathered together for a reunion, where I happily played games like tag with my cousins outdoors in the California heat.

As the sun started to set and we headed inside, I noticed a map of a large family tree – with branches stretching up to generations who had come before mine. Towards the top of the tree, the same four words appeared next to numerous names, over and over: Victim of the Holocaust.

What does that mean? I would later ask my mom, who explained how her side of the family had squeezed onto one of the last ships crossing the Atlantic during the rise of the Third Reich.

Amid rampant pogroms and discrimination, my great-grandmother had scraped together barely enough cash to cross into New York via Ellis Island, like so many other immigrant families, where they arrived shortly before Kristallnacht, 80 years ago to this day.

When their ship docked at the shore, they didn’t have money left, nor did they know any English. Yet they were safe, and managed to survive.

But the rest of our family who stayed behind had not been so lucky, she further explained, elaborating on their fate with foreign words I also hadn’t heard before, like Auschwitz and Dachau.

Even when she told me the reason why, I could not fully understand why.

With morbid curiosity, I delved into books about World War II as the years went on, still trying to comprehend the level of hate that led to the Holocaust, and the other atrocities of war I would learn about in my classes at school. Horrified, I tried to calm my mind, justifying history as precisely that: a culmination of past tragedies imprinted in a society which has learned from them to become more advanced.

My family, however, held history close, especially older generations who deftly avoiding setting foot in Germany, even on flight-layovers. “Why would you want to learn that ugly language?” my great-uncle told me as I informed him of my newest linguistic pursuit, ironically commenting on the same language he spoke as a child.

Half out of budding curiosity, half as an act of proving that the past cannot rule the present, I visited Germany for the first time in 2008, fascinated to set foot in all of the history of Berlin that surrounded me. Walking around the city on a chilly December day, I read the outdoor placards at the former Nazi headquarters for a long time before I noticed that my hands had become numb.

Back then I envisaged my long-weekend in Berlin to be my only, a pitstop on a pan-European trip to exercise my post-university travel bug before settling back in the States. But increasingly intrigued by Berlin, I came back to live in 2012, working as a journalist in various capacities.

I reported on a lot of stories which showed how much society has, indeed, progressed: be it the Wilkommenskultur following the refugee crisis of 2015 or Israeli-Iranian music compilations. Yet simultaneously I saw the way that hate and discrimination manifested themselves, that past was not its own entity, neatly shelved in file cabinet of ‘Atrocities which could never happen again.’

I reported on right-wing demonstrations throughout Germany, dug-up Stolpersteine, anti-Semitic verbal and physical attacks at schools. At first such instances seemed like fringe outliers, and on one hand they are. Felix Klein, who has been Germany's commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism since May, acknowledged that “our democracy today is stable, strong.  It's completely different from the situation in 1938 or the Weimar Republic”.

Yet on the other hand, there is no denying that the number of incidents is growing, on both sides of the Atlantic. Many American Jews, my own family members included, had read about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, but assumed violent attacks couldn’t happen in the U.S. That changed when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier this month.

“It would be impossible to mark this seminal event in Jewish history without noting the frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States,” said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Living in Germany on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I see how far society has evolved, as shown by the fact that I can still safely and freely live here. There are so many open and honest memorials to victims of the past, and all-far right demos are met with even bigger counter demos.

Yet I know now how ignorance and hate can prevail if left unchecked, if not matched with education – at whatever corner of the globe I am in. In calling Germany home, I don’t feel I am confronting the past, as the past that we knew in 1938 no longer exists. But rather I am keeping wide eyes towards the future, both amid rising hope and rising red flags.

Member comments

  1. As child I watched the troop trains rushing up and down the rail road tracks across the street from where we lived in Gaffney, South Carolina. Then there was a practice air raid with the fire station siren sounding warnings. Then my father was drafted and went off to war. This created an interest in me for Germany and for World War II as I grew into my teenage years.

    For some reason I always wanted to meet a German girl. After three years service in the US Army I was called as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and assigned to the South German Mission in Baden-Wuertemberg where I served for 2 1/2 years. I grew to love Germany and the German people although they can be as bull-headed as any people I have ever met…especially the Swabs.

    After returning home I was accepted as a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. While at school I reacquainted myself with a beautiful, German girl I had met in Reutlingen. A year later we were married and today have 7 children and 8 grandchildren.

    In 2015-16 my wife and I served an 18 month mission in Friedrichsdorf and in Dresden. I love Germany and we were very happy living there but when it comes to a choice I choose to live permanently in the United States of America, the greatest and most free nation on earth.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.