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A German Holocaust Survivor Steps into the Box

The controversial Berlin exhibit gets an unprecedented guest

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(James Kirchick)

“My friend asked me whether I would like to sit in that box when I’m in Berlin.”

Thus began an email from Marion House, a 90-year-old, German-born Holocaust survivor. Marion, who lives in New York City, is a friend of a friend of my grandmother, and she was writing in reference to an article I had published in Tablet back in April about a controversial exhibit at the Berlin Jewish Museum. The crowning display of “The Whole Truth: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Jews,” is a three-sided glass box, where, for two hours every day, a real, live Jewish person sits and interacts with visitors. Initially skeptical of the exhibit, I came away positively affected by my interactions with regular Germans after spending some time in the box myself. She wrote:

“I am very hesitant because my first reaction was, as yours, that it reminded one of a freak show in a circus and furthermore it was a reminder of the Eichmann trial. After your experience you came to a different conclusion. Can you give me a little more insight so that I can make up my mind?”

I felt utterly inadequate responding to such a question, even a little ashamed. Had I made a mistake in participating in the exhibit, as one Israeli visitor told me that afternoon, objectifying myself as a Jew and playing into a German fetishization? Moreover, how could I, a 29-year-old American resident in Berlin for barely a year, tell a nonagenarian survivor of the Holocaust that she should sit in a glass box for two hours and subject herself to the prying eyes and invasive questions of Germans?

“Dear Marion,” I replied. “I understand your hesitation. I think a good idea would be for you to visit the exhibition first yourself when you are here in Berlin and then make up your mind as to whether you wish to participate. Personally, I think it would be beneficial for visitors to meet a survivor, as your experiences are things they need to hear.” 

Several weeks later, I met Marion at the Jewish Museum, where she was patiently waiting for me on a bench in the lobby. Incredibly spry and eloquent, particularly for a woman of her age, she was born Marion Sauerbrunn to a Polish mother and Berliner father. As a 16-year-old girl, she fled Germany on a Kindertransport to England in May 1939, yet returned to the country immediately after the war to serve as a German language censor for the U.S. Army. She was reunited with her parents, who had opted to stay in Germany rather than abandon Marion’s 82-year-old grandfather and had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Upon immigrating to the United States, she worked as a consultant to other survivors, helping them achieve financial redress from the German government (she has also participated, for decades, in a weekly intellectual salon of German émigrés in New York, profiled by the Forward in 2008). And since 2005, she has visited Berlin annually to discuss her life experience with students at the very same gymnasium she attended, and from which she was expelled due to her being Jewish.

Earlier in the week, Marion’s friend, a curator at the Jewish Museum, informed her that there was a waiting list of Berlin-area Jews wanting to sit in the box, and thus no possibility of her participating during her visit. Nonetheless, I became increasingly anxious as we made our way through the provocative exhibit (particularly the section entitled “Are You Allowed to Make Jokes About the Holocaust,” which included Holocaust-themed jokes from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sarah Silverman Program”) concerned about how Marion would react. When we finally approached the glass box, we found a small group of visitors formed around a thirty-something Israeli grad student, whom, as we soon found out, has been sitting in the box one day a week since the exhibition was unveiled in late March.

Marion and I stood and observed as one after another of the guests asked an anodyne question of the man, with the conversation proceeding around the semi-circle that had arisen around the box. All eyes eventually turned to Marion, who smiled and politely said, in German, “I’m Jewish. I don’t have a question.” This led one of the guests to ask where Marion was from, to which she replied, “Here. Berlin.” Instantly understanding the gravity of the moment, the group collectively gestured and murmured, as if by acclamation, for Marion to assume a position in the box. Looking at me for counsel, I could only follow their lead. As the Israeli (whom, Marion later discovered, was the representative of Hashomir Hatzair in Germany, the very same Labor Zionist youth movement of which she was a member as a young German schoolgirl) made room for her on the bench, Marion handed me her purse and climbed up into the box

The most interesting question posed to Marion came from a young woman, asking her if she felt uncomfortable returning to Germany. Marion explained the German term Heimat, “a concept, not just a word,” which roughly translates to “homeland.” “I don’t have one. It was stolen,” she told us. “My home is New York. It would have been Germany. I was born here, I grew up here, I went to school here.” (Later, in an email to me, she took issue with a profile in a Berlin newspaper that quoted her saying that her “Heimat” is New York). This observation resonated strongly with me. As a secular American Jew, my ethnic identity was never a source of alienation; I never felt like a minority because America is a patchwork of minorities and, what’s more, the culture is so imbued by Jewish influences that everyone is, at least nominally, a little bit Jewish.

But since moving to Europe over three years ago, I have been made to feel more Jewish than ever before, whether due to fierce debates over circumcision (a practice, the existence of which I had always taken for granted) or, paradoxically, by the mere fact that there are hardly any Jews left in Europe; the very absence a constant, haunting reminder of what happened here. I was fortunate to be born in a country to which I can proudly call my homeland; something that few, if any, Holocaust survivors can say about their native land. And so not having a homeland — the ethereal feeling of being unconnected from a nation — is something that I’ve never had to confront, and gave a whole new meaning to the notion of “rootless cosmopolitan.”

Marion remained in the box for an hour and a half, speaking on topics ranging from her life as a child growing up in Nazi Germany to answering a question about why Jews circumcise their male children. Occasionally, her interlocutors were moved to tears by what she had to say, or, in the case of a middle-aged American Jewish man who been stationed in Germany decades earlier as a soldier in the U.S. Army, merely by her very presence. “Seeing you here before me is a blessing,” he said, sobbing.

Speaking afterwards, Marion’s perspective on the exhibition was entirely positive, “Especially in view of the fact that, evidently, Germans know little about Jews and feel afraid to touch the subject.” As for the religious Jews who criticized the exhibitionby suggesting that Germans who truly wanted to know more about Judaism and Jews should visit a synagogue, Marion told me that, “The Synagogue, I don’t think, is the right place to go if you want to know about Jews, because that’s about religion,” and for Marion, her Jewishness is defined by things other than belief in a deity. Nor did she feel like an object of lurid curiosity, as other critics of the exhibition have alleged it makes its participants out to be. “I just saw genuine interest,” she said of the Germans who asked her questions. “That’s what struck me. Genuine interest. They really wanted to know something. It seemed that many of the people didn’t know what a Jew was. Maybe they hadn’t even met one.”

Marion’s visit to Berlin coincided with an ongoing, citywide series of museum exhibitions, lectures, and displays commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, entitled “Diversity Destroyed.” Since January, hundreds of giant kiosks have been erected across the city to mark the dark anniversary. Under the imprecation “Show History!” they each feature the story — in words and pictures — of an individual affected by the Nazi terror. For months, I had casually observed the pillars in the courtyard outside my office, never bothering to study them in full. That was, until the day after my encounter with Marion, when I noticed a familiar looking face on the kiosk directly facing the Friedrichstrasse U-bahn station. It was that of Marion, who had been watching all along.

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A German Holocaust Survivor Steps into the Box

The controversial Berlin exhibit gets an unprecedented guest

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