A Brief Memoir of a House, Germany, and Prejudice by Jews

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November 9, 1975: Had it been thirty-seven years earlier on that quiet November evening on that quiet Nuremberg street, I would have been standing in the crunch of shattered glass, storefronts gaping darkly like the toothless maws of street beggars, apartment windows tightly shuttered against a darkness stilled with fear and disbelief. Kristallnacht.

Summer, 1975: "Where did you learn to speak German?" Frau Niederlechner asked.

"I don't speak German," I replied. "I speak Yiddish." Clearly I had a chip on my shoulder.

We were interviewing Frau Niederlechner for the position of part-time housekeeper for the large house we were about to occupy in the Erlenstegen suburb of Nuremberg. Actually, she had held that position with the last several families who had been assigned there, and in all likelihood we were the ones being interviewed. Fortunately, we passed. Frau N. took no umbrage with my response to her question, and we enjoyed her help and advice until she died not long before we left the country, four years later.

Of course I had a chip on my shoulder. But what was I doing in Germany, anyway--the land of broken glass, a country I had assiduously avoided till then? Easy. I was in the Army. The point is that I had never asked to be assigned there, they had never offered, and I thought it would never be. Then my five-year-old son changed everything.

Early in the summer of 1973, I was offered a job in Israel, and was considering leaving the Army to accept. My wife, Carol, and I decided that we should go there to see what it was all about. It would be a big trip with stops in Germany and other countries: a great learning experience for the kids. So we packed up the car and set out for the East Coast, where we would catch a space-available flight with the Air Force to Europe and on to Israel.

The turnpike to Dover AFB in Delaware. A food and restroom stop. A friendly waitress.

"Hi, there," she said to my five-year-old son, Joshua, "and where are you going today?"

"We're going to Germany," he said. "That's where they kill Jews."

The silence was thicker than the machine-dispensed milkshakes our daughters were trying to suck through their straws. We paid the check brought by the now subdued waitress, continued on our trip to Israel, decided to refuse the offer, and came home, but we couldn't forget the incident in the restaurant.

We were embarrassed by it, but we weren't sure why. It was true, wasn't it? The Nazis did kill Jews there, didn't they? In great masses, right? Of course they did. Then, so what? What's so wrong with what he had said? What was wrong, we knew, was that it was a child's statement: simplistic, all encompassing, broad-brushed. Not that the Nazis had killed, but that they kill: the soldiers kill, the civilians kill, those in fear for their own lives, the Righteous Gentiles--all Germans--everyone--they kill. It was a very broad brush, indeed; all encompassing and thereby the very root of prejudice. Not something we would consciously teach. Looking back, however, I realized that I was the one who later insisted I was speaking Yiddish, not German. I was the one who had until then refused to visit Germany. Something must have seeped through. We felt terrible, for this was not just about Germany. This was about the essence of prejudice, the poison itself, the stuff that is learned in childhood, that colors observation and twists judgment for the rest of one's life.

Paralleling physics, many words we use in language have their equal but opposite in meaning. Good has bad. Black--white. Up--down. Horse--all that is not horse. Way back in our dim beginnings as we coalesced into a single people, we assumed the identity of Chosen and by implication labeled the rest of the world--Unchosen. What a way to start off on the first day of school. Nobody likes us. I wonder why.

We, as Jews, have walked down the millennia balancing on the precarious banks of antisemitism and periodically falling in. …