Warming up to Berlin

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As a Jew, I never had any desire to go to Berlin.  So, when I was invited to go to there to cover the European Maccabi Games, many thoughts swam through my head.

I never had any desire to go to Berlin.

 

As a Jew, it was never at the top of my list of places I wanted to travel.


 

So, when I was invited to go to there to cover the European Maccabi Games, many thoughts swam through my head. It was an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, but I still wondered, do I want to go to Germany?

 

I knew enough about Maccabi — which, admittedly, wasn’t much — to know that this was a huge sports event. Anyone who is even vaguely acquainted with me knows that sports were never really my thing. To give you an idea of my history of competitive athletics, I wasn’t even good enough to make the jump from junior varsity field hockey to the varsity squad as a senior in high school. I had always turned instead to dance and theater.

 

And yet, there I was on the plane two weeks ago, heading off to a country I never wanted to visit for a unique experience I will never forget.

 

While I didn’t end up covering much of the actual games themselves — which was fortunate, because that would have been a disaster — I did get the opportunity to explore a city that is moving forward without forgetting its past.

 

Anywhere I went in Berlin, I could feel the presence of its horrific past still lingering in the air. On a display in front of the nearest underground station to my hotel was a list of 12 concentration camps with a heading that translated (according to Google) to “Places of terror that we must never forget.” Scattered all around the city are square brass plaques embedded in the ground known as Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, each of which display the name of a victim of the Holocaust. These plaques are laid in the last known place where that person lived. I found two just near my hotel.

 

We took a tour of the Olympiastadion, learning the history behind Hitler’s influence on construction. The effects of the 1936 Summer Olympics followed us as we visited the Jesse Owens lounge and sat on the observation deck where Hitler once watched over the games.

 

I visited the Topography of Terror, an indoor-outdoor museum located on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters. People moved along the outdoor displays in silence as they stopped, read and reflected on the history of the city between 1933 and 1945. 

 

The group of journalists I traveled with — which included other members of the press from the U.S. as well as Argentina, Russia, Iceland, Israel and Turkey — met with a number of officials that we could talk to. The most common question asked was: “Why now?”

 

The fact that the games were being held in Berlin this year was significant for a number of reasons — and for reasons that had to do with numbers. The two biggest were that 2015 marks 70 years since the end of World War II and the Shoah, and 50 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany.

 

The city was trying to show that it was not the Berlin of 1936. It would not be turning away athletes who were Jewish, but instead inviting them in. The games represented the largest gathering of Jews in Germany since the Holocaust. That was not lost on any of the 2,000-plus athletes, family members, coaches, friends — or anyone else who was there for the games.

 

We went on a tour of the Jewish Museum. We met with the director of the Central Council for Jews in Germany. We had coffee with Marcel Reif, a well-known football commentator whose father survived Auschwitz and who gave the trip some star power. We had dinner with ambassadors to Germany from all of the participating countries.

 

I’m not naïve. I know we saw what the German government, which sponsored the press trip, wanted us to see. These experiences were meant to display how much the city has changed — “Look at Jewish life! See how it is thriving in Berlin!”

 

What stuck out to many of us was the fact that all of these places — and any other Jewish place in the city, including synagogues — were still guarded by police and security guards. It is safe to be Jewish in Berlin, yes, but how safe is it when you still need police at the door?

 

That said, there was never a time I felt threatened or unsafe for being Jewish. Was it weird to be in the city? A little. Was it bizarre to be on the high deck in the Olympic stadium that Hitler built and sit where he once stood? Completely. The private lounge behind the deck was previously known as the “Fuhrer’s Lounge,” which gave me goosebumps.

 

I don’t think I was in the city long enough to come away feeling profoundly changed, but I definitely felt something. Walking around a city where, in a past life, I could’ve faced a much worse fate than just getting lost on the way to the underground station — which I am notorious for and did more than a few times while I was out on my own — was sobering. But I really wanted to just take in the enormity of the situation in the time I had there, and I think I did.

 

Now, I’m a sentimental person anyway. I cry at every movie, happy or sad, much to the dismay of whomever I’m watching with. I’ve used that Mean Girls quip, “I just have a lot of feelings” many, many times. I gave the other trip participants hugs before we all left for our varying destinations. But I can’t even aptly describe how it felt to watch Nancy Glickman light the torch to start the games while wearing the shirt that once belonged to her father Marty Glickman, who was turned away from competing for Team USA in the 1936 Olympics simply because he was Jewish. I wasn’t alive then, of course, but I knew about it and recognized that it was an extraordinarily special moment. The overwhelming pride that filled every inch of the amphitheater that night, that collective sense of hope and solidarity was something many may not have imagined they’d feel while being in Germany.

 

When everyone joined together and sang “Hatikvah” at the Opening Ceremonies, I could feel the sincerity in it, the raw emotion emanating from every delegation as they were simultaneously reflecting on being in Berlin. 

 

There were more than 2,300 athletes from 36 countries in Berlin for these games — a fact repeated in pretty much every story I wrote while I was there. But it’s important, because that’s a huge number. That’s 2,300 more than were allowed to compete in 1936.

 

Almost every participant I talked to reflected that the most amazing part of the games for him or her was meeting the athletes from all over the world. That isn’t a cliché; that is amazing. They met pretty much every type of European Jewish person. From the 250-plus person delegation from Great Britain to the lone athlete representing Georgia, the opening ceremonies introducing each delegation was nothing short of a party.

 

It was interesting to watch how excited all the athletes were. It wasn’t just to play their sport in Germany or to represent the USA or whatever country — it was to represent the Jewish community in a city that once turned them away. The players were more than aware of the cultural and historical significance of their being in Berlin. That made it more special for them, many said.

 

As for me, I didn’t even really know what to expect of Berlin. I might have thought it would have been quieter about its past, not as up front about it as it is in reality. I might have thought I would enjoy the food more.

 

In hindsight, I think I liked it more than expected specifically because I was forced to confront the city in its present incarnation, not just what I imagined it to be — whatever that was. It’s a fun city, with plenty to do. And the beer was great. Of course, I was only there for five days and did not have much of a chance to do too much sightseeing outside of the agenda set for us.

 

It wasn’t all sports all the time; I did visit the East Side Gallery. As a street art enthusiast, I enjoyed seeing part of the remaining wall in East Berlin, covered and preserved in art and graffiti. But even the week I was there, the “Vaterland” mural, which features the Israeli flag painted over the backdrop of the German flag, was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

 

When I saw it, the offensive scrawling across the Star of David on the flag in question was already there. I didn’t realize until I read it online when I returned to Philly that the graffiti had only just appeared as the Maccabi games started, which, regardless of whether or not it is connected, is particularly chilling.

 

For that reason alone, I would go back. I would like to see more as the city grapples with its identity as a city where any life — and that definitely includes Jewish life — can flourish without fear of discrimination. As shown by the recent influx of Jewish immigrants from places like Russia and even Israel, it’s clear that it’s getting there.

 

 

 

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