What I learned as a Jew in Germany.
More than six months had passed since the Coronavirus entered our lives and our airways. I ambled through the well-stocked aisles of Trader Joe’s. Empty supermarket shelves and panic-stricken faces jostling for toilet paper were distant memories. It was autumn, my favorite time at TJ’s. Give me all that pumpkin spice.
I noticed a tall and thick White guy with leather boots wandering the aisles. On the lapel of his weathered jacket were pins that seemed skinhead-ish. His mask barely covered his mouth. I could see his upper lip, and his nose was fully exposed. I texted a friend: This asshole is kind of scary looking, but I want to say something about his mask. She texted back: Don’t, people are crazy these days.
Right. So I kept my mouth shut. I loaded my cart with Pumpkin Joe Joe’s and Three Cheese frozen pizza. I passed him in the pasta aisle and again near the coffee and tea. His presence felt threatening. His partially worn mask shouted don’t fuck with me. His height and width, his demeanor, those pins, all of it scared me.
He stood six feet behind me in the checkout queue. A young pregnant woman stood six feet in front of me. Her naked belly protruded from her crop top, her lean stems emerged from her running shorts, her long blonde hair cascaded down her back. She was someone you’d notice.
The line moved at a slow but steady clip. A Trader’s employee directed us to the next available register. The pregnant woman went to the register on the left. They sent me to the one on the right. Moments later, the scary dude was told to stand behind the pregnant woman.
I glanced at him. Our eyes locked. Don’t say a fucking word. I looked away, my submission as involuntary as breathing. In that moment, I hated myself for being silent.
As I berated myself — You could have at least told the manager — the pregnant woman turned to the scary man.
“It goes over your mouth and nose,” she said forcefully.
He shook his head “no.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Put your fucking mask on properly,” she replied to his silent insolence.
No response. He stood stone faced, unmoved. She turned back around, shaking her head in disgust. Several of us witnessed the interaction. None of us spoke up.
The pregnant woman paid for her groceries, gave the asshole one last glare then exited the store. He moved up in the line and the young guy working the register motioned for him to cover his nose. He shook his head “no” and the essential worker let it go.
The rules don’t apply to angry White men.
A store full of people permitted a pregnant woman be the only one to ask this man to behave like a human being. To follow the rules. How did we allow her to do the heavy lifting alone? Why the hell did I stay silent? What did it say about all of us?
In November 1989, I went to West Berlin to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. My friends and I made our way through packed subways to join the sea of humanity celebrating at the Brandenburg Gate. We marveled at the people standing atop the wall, arms linked, popping champagne, unafraid of the armed soldiers in towers above.
I’m Jewish. Much of my family died in the Holocaust. I stood amongst thousands of Germans singing in unison, songs I did not understand. I was awestruck, and a little afraid. I looked at people of a certain age and wondered what did you do while the Nazis killed my people?
But I understood what the wall coming down meant for Germans and Germany. I’m an American; I understood their need for freedom and unity. I was inspired by their peaceful revolution. I had faith in their courage and hope.
Last February, at the start of 2020, I returned to Berlin. 31 years after witnessing the first car drive through the demolished concrete; I walked through the Brandenburg Gate.
My first stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Constructed in 2005, the Memorial is a series of concrete slabs arranged in a grid on a sloping field. It resembles a cemetery.
According to its architect Peter Eisenman, the slabs are designed to create an uneasy, confusing atmosphere. The whole sculpture aims to represent a “supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.”
As I meandered, the ground sloped downward and the slabs became taller and taller. I felt lost in an undulating concrete forest. Darkness fell as I made my way through the maze of stone. It scared me.
Uneasily searching for a way out, I turned a dark corner. I looked up. There was the illuminated American Embassy, and an American flag waving in the wind. Like a beacon of light for the lost.
Later that I evening, I visited the rebuilt Reichstag, home to the German Parliament.
After going through multiple security checks, guards escorted us into the building. In small groups we rode the elevator to the top floor’s glass dome. From the dome, visitors can view Parliament on the ground floor. The dome symbolizes that people are above the government. The building’s design symbolizes truth and transparency.
As I walked the spiral ramp to the dome’s pinnacle, I read plaque after plaque honestly recounting German history: Hitler, the Holocaust, Communism. Nothing sugarcoated, nothing denied.
I exited the dome to stand outside on the Reichstag roof. The cold evening wind whipped my hair in my face. From my perch, I looked upon the Brandenburg Gate, the American embassy, and The Holocaust Memorial. I was overcome with emotion.
I am a Jew, standing on top of the building Hitler once ruled.
After losing World War 2, Germany banned Nazi symbols, and agreed to pay reparations to Nazi victims. After German reunification, they set up a truth commission to study the consequences of the East German communist government.
After losing the Civil War, American states named buildings after slave owners, erected monuments to Confederate generals, and passed laws legalizing segregation.
Germany built monuments to truth. America built monuments to White supremacy. Germany paid reparations to its victims. America built prisons for hers.
I felt safe in Germany. I found myself questioning how any Black person feels safe in America.
On that freezing night in February 2020, before a plague broke us open and police murdered George Floyd and Fascism tweeted from the people’s house, before the President of The United States incited insurrection and violent White supremacists stormed the Capitol, I wondered what America could be if she lived up to her ideals.
I imagined how much more beautiful this nation would be if we stopped proclaiming This is not who we are! And instead admitted This is exactly who we are. Then started the hard work of repenting and repairing.
I allowed a pregnant woman to stand up to that man by herself. I was too scared to say something as simple as, “pull your mask up.” All of us who stayed silent that day allowed an angry white man to live by a different set of rules. We colluded with White supremacy.
I thought the emotions I had in Germany meant something. I was certain I would never be a noiseless onlooker.
But thoughts and feelings alone are inadequate. Change requires action. And no action is too small. That day in Trader Joe’s I answered the question often asked about the Holocaust: “How could that happen?”
Silence in the face of lies, disinformation, and injustice is exactly how it happens.