I remember sitting with my back to the window. This was mostly because the Wi-Fi in the Leipzig, Germany, apartment I was renting wasn’t great and I needed to use the Ethernet cable, which forced me to sit that way. But whenever I took a break, I would go to look out the window. The blinds were broken, but I would peek through to check on the 140 empty chairs on a raised platform six floors below. The chairs represent the 14,000 Jews who once prayed in this spot. On Nov. 9, 1938, their synagogue was destroyed and in the following years the community was rounded up and decimated by the Nazis.
Like many Jews of my generation, my relationship to the Holocaust is one of remembering, one of learning about the past as a precaution. Though I’m too far removed to have experienced anything firsthand, or even secondhand, as many children of survivors have, I’ve been told about the Holocaust so many times—through school plays, camp activities, heritage trips to Poland, some of my favorite YA novels—that I’ve internalized it; it’s come to feel like a shared memory even though I was spared the trauma. The title story in Nathan Englander’s latest collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, captures the culture of this transferred memory, describing a curiously popular game in which Jews try to figure out which of their neighbors would hide them should the Nazis threaten us again. In one sense, the game plays on Jewish paranoia, but it also taps into this idea of transferred memory. Never having had to hide ourselves, we imagine what it would be like if we did.
I’ve been thinking about that game, and about those chairs, a lot today. Yesterday began the eight-day period designated by the U.S. Congress as Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, which coincides each year with the Israeli day of Holocaust remembrance: Yom HaShoah. These events prompt Jews and gentiles alike to remember the Holocaust—and to consider the best way for memorializing it, a question made that much more pressing as the last of those who survived it disappear.
Earlier this year, I spent a few months living in Germany, where reminders of the Holocaust are around every corner. Every time someone asked me why I was making the trip, I gave a different answer. My Jewish day-school education had taught me to fear Germany, but I fell in love with what the country has become during a visit in my college years. In an attempt to reconcile the two ideas of the place, I boarded a plane. I kept my job and worked New York hours (4-12 p.m. German time) and spent the days learning the cities I visited—I spent my first six weeks in Berlin—and exploring converted post offices, bunkers, and factories all turned into various art spaces. I ate in more than one vegan restaurant that doubled as a secondhand clothing store. I went to bookstores to hear experimental jazz and abandoned buildings to see opera scenes from Faust performed before a packed screening of Mephisto followed by, of course, a rave.
Each Saturday morning I would go to synagogue services, not always the same one: There was the Synagoge Oranienburger Strasse, a rebuilt dome that is an iconic part of the Berlin skyline; Synagoge Rykestrasse, which was not totally damaged during Kristallnacht and was the only active synagogue during the GDR; and the Lauder community in Berlin. I loved participating in the small but lively Berlin Jewish community. It felt like an assertion of power and pride—the ability to be a Jew doing Jewish things in a country where that had been impossible only a few decades earlier.
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