Dec 2010 Journal

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Witnesses in uniform

I visited Berlin for three days at the beginning of June 2010. I had been to Berlin before, in 2000, with my father, my late mother, and my two elder children but this visit was special in another way: I was there in the uniform of the Israel Defence Forces.

The Israeli army regularly sends groups of officers and under-officers on educational visits to Poland which include Warsaw, Lublin, Crakow, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz. Often, reserve officers are invited to join these groups, called ‘Witnesses in Uniform’. I have been invited on a number of occasions, but have always felt that the place would be put to better use if occupied by a young officer who did not grow up living and breathing the Shoah and could benefit from the lessons to be learned. This time, however, the trip was to be preceded by three days in Berlin, the city in which both my parents were born and which I grew up knowing in song, story and reminiscence. Before emigrating to Israel in my early twenties, I grew up in London, in a community of German-Jewish refugees. We spoke German with the one set of grandparents Hitler had left us. We had the works of Goethe and Schiller at home long before we acquired a one-volume compendium of Shakespeare. And here I was, a reserve officer of ZAHAL, invited to be in Berlin as a guest of the Bundeswehr. How could I refuse?

We saw the Reichstag and the Holocaust Memorial, went to Sachsenhausen and Villa Wannsee, and visited the Weissensee cemetery, where we had a joint ceremony with the Bundeswehr, commemorating the Jewish fallen of what is now known as the First World War (and where I have more relatives buried than in any other cemetery in the world). We also had fascinating discussions with serving German officers. I personally had the pleasure of a number of friendly and informative chats with a representative of the Protokoll department of the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung.

In the turmoil of emotions the visit created, through tiredness and tears, two events stick out in my memory and one impression remains in my mind.

On the way to Grunewald station, where Gleis 17 has been made into a memorial for all those deported ‘to the East’, I showed a bus full of Israeli and German soldiers the medal awarded in 1933, and again in 1934 (I have both citations, including the one in the name of the ‘Führer und Reichskanzler’), to my paternal grandfather, Karl Cohn, for his service in the First World War. Having established my credentials as a real German, I asked the bus to stop outside 34a Koenigsallee. In almost flawless Hebrew, and in less good German, I spoke about the family that used to live in that house. I spoke about the Konditoreien they used to own, about founding the synagogue in the neighbourhood, and about how they sent their 12- year-old daughter on a Kindertransport to England in April 1939. I believe that, just for a moment, I brought them back to life. But then we moved on to the station and I led my colleagues to the plaque marking the deportation of 12 January 1943 to Auschwitz. There I showed them the Gestapo index cards allocating the couple a place on that transport as guests of the Reichsbahn.

That day in June was the day that anybody learning the Bible as part of the regular cycle learned Chapter 56 of Isaiah, where we read: ‘I shall give them in my house and within my walls a place and a name [‘Yad Vashem’ in Hebrew] better than sons and daughters; I will give him an eternal name that shall not be erased.’ I never knew the couple of whom I spoke. I don’t even know if they made it alive to Auschwitz - though, if they did, they would apparently have been gassed on arrival - but I am quite sure that nothing they suffered, no indignity and no pain, came close to the agony of knowing, as they stood on the platform in Grunewald station, as they doubtless had so many times before, that their only child was being left alone in the world, among strangers, in a foreign country that was at war with her country of birth. No, I was deprived of the pleasure of knowing that couple, but they were my grandparents, Isidor and Rosa Dobrin, and their daughter, Miriam, was my mother; and I know that she would have looked at a delegation of Israel’s defenders in Berlin and called us an ‘eternal name that shall not be erased’.

My second memory is actually from the last day of the tour, in Auschwitz - where, unlike my grandparents, I marched proudly in, and out - but it is connected to Berlin. At the head of the column as we marched in was a Hungarian-born Israeli, a 79-year-old survivor who has participated in every war Israel has fought and who still voluntarily does reserve duty in the Israeli army. This was not the first time he had been in Auschwitz in uniform - that was in 1944 and his uniform then was striped pyjamas. Next to him was an army rabbi carrying a Sefer Torah. Now, we only have three pictures of my grandfather Isidor and in one of them he is completing the writing of a Sefer Torah that was donated to the Synagoge Grunewald. We know what happened to the synagogue (my father lived right opposite and is still waiting for the fire brigade to respond to his father’s call); and we know, more or less (see above), what happened to my grandfather. We also know that the caretaker rescued all the scrolls on Kristallnacht and brought them to my grandparents’ house. We have no idea what happened to them after 1939. So, when my son became Barmitzva, we had a Sefer Torah written to replace the one my grandfather had had written some 70 years earlier. My son finished writing the last words at the Western Wall, the last remnant of our holy temple in Jerusalem, and half an hour later read from it for the first time. I read from this Torah scroll, seven years to the day later, in Berlin, and it accompanied us from Berlin to Auschwitz, and from there back to Jerusalem.

The impression I would like to share is the following: I speak, of course, only for myself, but I feel more than a little uncomfortable with the culture of commemoration. It is difficult to see anything in Berlin without some sort of reminder of what once happened there. I also detected a remarkable openness among the young German officers I met to address past events. However, both elements appear to be a little clouded in euphemism. I do not consider all Germans guilty of any crime. I certainly do not believe that any post-war generation bears any personal shame, let alone guilt. But I cannot escape the impression that to blame everything on ‘National Socialists’, as every plaque and every person seems to do, is to evade the simple truth that the atrocities were committed, or abetted, or approved, or even just allowed, by Germans, in the name of Germany. Not today’s Germans, not all Germans, but Germans nonetheless. The Nazis did not arrive from outer space in 1933, they did not ‘seize’ power, and they did not disappear into thin air in 1945 - and to pretend otherwise is dishonest. The record, however, must go to Grunewald station, where it wasn’t even real live Nazis who did the job but Nazi trains, for the plaque there reads: ‘Zum Gedenken an die 1941-1945 durch Zuege der Deutschen Reichsbahn in die Todeslager Deportierten’ (In memory of those deported to the death camps between 1941 and 1945 by trains of the German National Railway). I do not believe for a moment that if my grandparents had had to contend only with a train, rather than with the Gestapo, the SS and their myriad admirers and supporters, that the train would have won.

I thank the Berlin police, the Bundeswehr and the Bundesministerium der Verteidigung for their hospitality and friendship.

Jeremy M. Cohn,

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