“Travel is more than the seeing of sights, it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of the living.” –Miriam Beard
Stepping off the plane onto German soil, I feel an instant connection to my past. My father’s family is from here. My Great Aunt was born and spent her youth here before she fled from the Nazis. This wouldn’t be another tick in a box or quick city visit. This is a bond seventy years later.
Mathew and I were lucky enough to take the year after we got married and travel around the world. We married in August of 2009 and left New York that September. We knew each location would affect us differently but being in Germany’s largest city was surreal. My Great Aunt Ruthie grew up just outside of Berlin and loved where she lived. She loved every part of living in Germany. She told me how hard it was for her when at thirteen and knowing no English at all she had to leave her friends and move to America. In 1939 her family had to flee, since the Germany they knew wasn’t safe any longer.
Aunt Ruthie (my mom’s aunt) passed away just prior to our wedding but Uncle Al came to show his love and support. Every 25th of December that I can remember was spent at their house in the presence of the tallest Christmas tree I’d ever seen. Not the norm for a Jewish household, but it made perfect sense to Aunt Ruthie. The tree reminded her of the life she loved and cherished before it was ripped away. She, who knew she was Jewish from birth, remembered the German culture, language and people and chose to honor the good every December 25th with a huge spruce in her house. Her stories of life in Berlin and the image of her father, Grandpa Wally, an umbrella factory worker, riding the trains each night to avoid the SS soldiers were engrained in my memory. Now we were to embark on our journey to walk in the footsteps of my family and so many others we knew.
Every minute in Berlin feels special. We spend almost one entire morning marveling at the artwork covering the Berlin Wall. You can taste the history here. Near Berlin’s Parliament Building there is a small piece of artwork on a low-slung wall. It’s a memorial to those who tried to cross into West Berlin via the river and never made it to their destination. The scent of the river lingers.
Later we arrive at the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most prominent symbols of Berlin and the only gate of the Berlin Wall still standing. It is quite eerie as we are truly standing on hallowed ground but the mood here is nowhere near as somber as Pearl Harbor’s utter silence. Families take pictures, children’s effusive laughter fills the air and for 2 Euro I get a postcard stamped with various stamps and an entrance card for the Brandenburg Gate. Some of my family members were stationed here; yet, another connection.
The chatter around the Gate is full of life. The mood at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is quite different. This memorial is an impressive artistic structure spread over a full city block. Hundreds of stones at differing heights stand equidistant from one another mazelike. We want to capture the image but tears blur the lens. The underground museum is a telling story of the Holocaust. It provides full accounts of Germany before, during and after the genocide. We read, we cry. While difficult to digest the information, the stories are real and the museum, necessary. Feeling somber walking hand in hand knowing Aunt Ruthie and Grandpa Wally are here with us, we leave.
As we journey the streets of Berlin, stopping to click a picture by Ebertstraze (a street sign with my last name) I feel my ancestors smile. We are in their city, their home. This place about which Aunt Ruthie shared stories of such warmth and held in high regard is embracing both of us. Then come the trains.
The U-bahn, the public transport system in the city is on the honor system. You purchase your ticket but there are no turnstiles or barriers to stop you from getting on the train without one. The roar of the train comes first. As the train stops before us it takes me a moment to catch my breath. These are the trains that saved Grandpa Wally. These are the trains that kept him safe for almost a year before they fled. This vehicle that we are about to use to get us from one ‘platz’ to the next did so much more than that. These trains may have just saved my family. This is not just ‘any old train’.
She had spoken with such love for this city and we are finally here. Not only here, but, will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) in Berlin. In the city that she had to hide her religion and flee because of it, I would now be able to celebrate that same religion’s New Year. Prior to our arrival, we’d gotten some information from a college friend about a place to attend services. After our morning spent experiencing Berlin we head in search of the Chabad House and sustenance for the New Year’s meal. We find the Judaica shop with gefilte fish, lox, cream cheese, apples and honey and it starts to feel like holiday. It is different to be celebrating Rosh Hashanah overseas but it already feels like we are meant to be here. And then we meet the Rabbi.
The Rabbi is from Brooklyn. “Seriously!” He lived in Melbourne, Australia (where my husband is from) for his schooling and moved to Berlin with his family thirteen years ago to help improve Judaism here. He’s been here thirteen years and she was thirteen when she left. Our friendly rabbi is so very welcoming and asks the bakery at the house to give us a Challah for the holiday after inviting us back for services that evening. I return for services later that night and it is flooded with locals and travelers alike. It is a community and feels as if Aunt Ruthie has led me here. “Stacey, I’m so glad you made it. Please join us for the Kiddush after services,” says the rabbi remembering my name in a sea of hundreds. I head upstairs and find a seat. After exchanging greetings with the Californian woman seated next to me, I ask how she came to be here. “I had been in Berlin a few years ago at this time and felt so at home here that my husband and I now come to Berlin every Rosh Hashanah just to experience the high-holiday”, she said. The people are warm and the vibe infectious.
We have a few more days on our own in the city before our gAdventures tour is to begin taking us through Eastern Europe and visiting Auschwitz on Yom Kippur. We are to spend one of the holiest days of the year at one of the most sacred sites for Jews on the continent. I spend the next morning back at services where although there are fewer visitors, the high-holiday feeling of community is palpable. On the walk back to the hotel, there is yet another sign showing me again that we are in the right place at the right time. My dad, an avid runner whose entire family hails from Germany, would be in his element. The Berlin Marathon is taking place across the city. Water stations are set up, volunteers in bright yellow jackets guide the path, athletes run and spectators line the streets to cheer on family and friends. This city is sending me messages every which way I turn.
By the time we board our coach to leave, Berlin has a whole new meaning. I have learned about this city for so long but never knew what to expect. In history books, the city’s checkered past is ever-present. The bullet holes in the trains and memorials both large and small echo the pages of those books. But Aunt Ruthie’s stories were the opposite. They showed community, understanding, joy and love. I found that in this city.
Leaving home at the time of a holiday is never easy. Rosh Hashanah, the travel version, was better than I ever expected. I felt enveloped by the community and found peace here. The religion they fled because of has welcomed me with open arms. The trains hold my past. My family is here. Grandpa Wally and Aunt Ruthie are with me and have found a way to show me their city, their Berlin.