Here’s a thing I wrote about 10 years ago after my first trip to Deutschland…
I have recently returned from making a film in Germany. It was a significant event for me, not just because the script was wonderful, my fellow actors were marvellous and all those other well-known Paltrowisms. It was significant because the film was shot in Germany and I am – well, there’s no other way to say it – I’m Jewish. A Jew. Ein Jude.
For any Jew, a visit to Germany (and this was my first) is bound to be significant. Ever since I can remember, the Holocaust has been part of my consciousness. My mother fled the Nazis, my parent’s social circle is full of people who won’t buy German, who won’t listen to Wagner. For them, Germany will always be something they mistrust, something which frightens them.
And it’s not just my parents’ generation who feel that way. A Jewish friend of mine recently flew to Germany with his young family. Having arrived off the plane and collected their baggage, they prepared to board the shuttle bus to the central terminal. His family went on ahead of him, squeezed onto a full bus which then shut its doors and departed, leaving him to get on the next shuttle. All part of the airport experience, you might think. Irritating but perfectly mundane. Not for a Jew in Germany. For my friend – a normal, generally easy-going human being – he felt as if he was watching his young family being driven away by the German authorities, never to be seen again. Such is the power of our cultural inheritance.
I was determined not to be like that. I was the product of an enlightened education, I had studied German at university, I mixed with more gentiles than Jews and though I was of course fully respectful of the legacy of the Holocaust, I knew that Germany – at least the arty Westerners with whom I would be working – had been through a lot of self-examination and had come out the other side ready to plant a lot of hippy love-thy-neighbour flowers. I knew that every moment a Jew spends in Germany threatens to explode with symbolism. But I was determined that my symbols would be positive ones: every handshake would be an expression of Jewish-German reconciliation, every conversation would demonstrate a rebuilding, a fantastically moving renewal of trust. They would make statues of me embracing my new friends Hans and Wolfgang as we laughed over shared memories of deutsche rockstar Nena and her “99 Red Balloons”. I would waltz through Germany, the very essence of magnanimity, distributing absolution and forgiveness to all and sundry. I would be, for want of a better word, a forgiveness Ubermensch.
That was how it was meant to be. But my subconscious had other plans. On Day 2, I was having breakfast in my hotel with a photographer working on the film. He (German) was telling me how he’d hurt his knee and I (Jew, but it really doesn’t matter) was telling him about my own weak knees and how the best thing to do is to rest up with your ankle higher than your hip. I raised my right arm to demonstrate the optimum position – ankle higher than hip, ankle higher than hip – unaware that what I was actually doing was giving full-blown Nazi salutes just feet from the sculpted melon. And so it continued: when the director (English, gentile – though as I said, it really doesn’t matter) told me to do something different from what he had suggested the previous time, I wittily quipped in front of the film crew (all German except – disturbingly – for one Italian) “I was only following orders”. When the shooting of a certain scene which was meant to take a couple of hours was spilling over into its second day, I joked about it as the “Thousand-year shoot”, an unconscious tribute to Hitler’s sense of history. Every conversation I had I seemed to mention something about my background: “Can I have a cappucino my mother left Austria in 1938 two days before the Anschluss”; “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this where my mother’s family had to come in disguise in March ‘39” and so on.
By day 7, my Don’t-mention-the-war-ism was out of control. However hard I tried to avoid it, every little off-the-cuff comment seemed to come out in a comedy German accent so cod Captain Birdseye could have battered it there and then. My efforts to be relaxed and at ease with my German colleagues were collapsing quicker than the Polish army in 1939 (there I go again), and you didn’t have to be Freud to see that my true anxieties were surfacing like the crew of a stricken U-boat (you see, it can’t be stopped). The truth was clear and, like Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg trials, I had to admit it: I was terribly uncomfortable in Germany.
Not that I experienced a grain of anti-Semitism. There were a few unfortunate remarks: one of the German drivers who shepherded the actors to and from the film-set used to herd us into his People Carrier with the difficult little joke: “everyone into ze cattle-truck!” – no doubt a problem of idiom rather than anything more sinister. But Jews don’t need to experience an anti-Semitic act to feel uncomfortable, especially in Germany. Our Rabbis tell us that each and every one of us was present at the giving of the Ten Commandments 3000 years ago, so you can imagine that the Second World War seems like yesterday. We don’t forget easily, especially – obviously – not the Holocaust. And yet that’s what I tried to do.
Thinking back, the strange thing about my behaviour was why had I been so desperate to make things easier for the Germans I met? After all, my people were the victims not the persecutors. For many Jews of my parent’s generation such an overly forgiving approach would have been impossible. Some might even see in it a dangerous, (stereo)typically Jewish desire to be liked and accepted. Maybe it was PC gone haywire – the foolish attempt of a non-sexist non-racist liberal who happened to be Jewish to prove that he didn’t discriminate, that he was above all that. To show that, with the perpetrators of the Holocaust growing old and dying, it was time to follow the lead of every guest on “Kilroy” and forgive but not forget (and there’s a lot to be said for such an attitude). Whatever the causes, when my noble intentions clashed with the cultural baggage I picked off the carrousel at Cologne airport, there were bound to be psychological casualties.
Still, this particular story has a happy ending. I calmed down. I started speaking to Germans more openly. With some of them (including my cattle-truck friend), I discussed the war – how the Holocaust has a defining effect on both our peoples giving us, paradoxically, a bond which other cultures do not share. Gradually, my don’t-mention-the-war-ism was cured. The statue of me embracing Hans and Wolfgang and laughing at Nena’s one-hit wonder became a more feasible proposition. As a result of my stay, there are even a couple of Germans with whom I may have made lasting friendships. How long they’ll last, I don’t know. Perhaps for a thousand years.
This article was first published in The Independent.