Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, Germany was off limits. My parents were of the sort who wouldn’t purchase German cars and proclaimed they would never set foot in Germany. “I wouldn’t give them a dime,” summed up my mother’s feelings on the matter.
I couldn’t blame them. My mother’s parents, originally from Poland, fled from the Nazis and survived the Holocaust by living out the war in Siberia and Uzbekistan. Many of their friends and family were not so fortunate. My grandparents rarely spoke about their wartime experiences, but their trauma no doubt seeped its way first into my mother’s formative years, and then into mine.
It wasn’t just my family that maintained a lingering disdain for Germany. I lived in a largely Jewish suburb on Long Island where this attitude was common. It wasn’t overt—people didn’t walk around shouting anti-German epithets—but rather so subtle that it felt like a small detail in the wallpaper to my childhood.
I remember chatting with friends in high school about the harsh-sounding German language. A particularly funny friend did his impression of German, yelling abrasive, angry-sounding gibberish as we all laughed and laughed. It didn’t occur to me or any of my friends that this was offensive behavior. Yes, we were idiot teenagers, but we would have known not to mock other cultures so blatantly.
At the Jewish sleepaway camp I attended, the summer ended with a camp Olympics. The camp was divided into “countries” that competed against each other in sports events—essentially color war but with an international flair. The countries changed every summer and it was always fun to guess which ones would be chosen. After the Olympics ended, plaques decorated with the flags of the selected countries were hung in the main gathering hall. Because the camp had been around since the 1930s, the hall was filled with flags from around the world. Germany was not included in this United Nations-like display. At some point I questioned one of the camp directors about this. He confirmed my suspicion, stating, “Germany will never be picked as an Olympic country.” I didn’t need to ask why.
Nothing about this seemed strange to me. It was simply the culture I’d grown up in. If Germany was brought up, it was generally within the context of the Holocaust or more broadly the world wars. This was pretty much my only association with the country. I didn’t give much thought to the country’s history before or after this time period, and had no inkling of what the larger culture was like. I’d never met a German person.
When I began college in the Midwest and met classmates who had studied German in high school, I was somewhat taken aback. It’s not like German was a completely obscure language; I was just puzzled that someone would actually want to study it. I was similarly confused by a dorm mate’s appreciation for the Bauhaus movement. Not only had I never heard of it, but an avant-garde design movement didn’t fit into my limited idea of what Germany was like.
I remember an upperclassman sharing how excited she was to study abroad in Munich, because she “loved speaking German” and couldn’t wait to immerse herself in it. I smiled in response to her enthusiasm, but in my head wondered why on earth she wanted to study in Germany? Didn’t she want to go to Florence or London like the other study-abroad students?
Admittedly, at this time the idea of traveling overseas had little appeal to me. Even in pursuing my history major, I narrowed my studies to only American-focused classes, with the exception of the two European and world history classes I was required to take. In retrospect, I was incredibly oblivious and sheltered, reluctant to push myself out of my comfort zone academically or socially.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I discovered the joys of traveling and experiencing new cultures firsthand. Over several years, I saw swaths of Europe and Asia, much of it eye-opening and completely different than expected. I pushed my boundaries and questioned long-held views and attitudes. It felt like a delayed coming of age.
As I grew more worldly through my travels, German culture became increasingly tangible and intriguing. By now, I’d realized there was more to Germany than the Holocaust. I was curious to see fairytalelike Bavarian castles and explore the mysterious-sounding Black Forest. I wanted to dance all night in one of Berlin’s famous “anything goes” clubs. I craved hefeweizen and spaetzle; despite having never tasted German cuisine until my early 20s, I’d come to love certain dishes.
And so, a few months before my 35th birthday, my then-boyfriend and I embarked on a two-week whirlwind trip through Germany. It was a diverse trip in terms of experiences: We went from relaxing in Baden-Baden spas, to bearing witness to the atrocities committed at the Dachau concentration camp, to feasting on giant pretzels, to staring in awe and horror at the remains of the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg.
I was moved by the way the German government chooses to deal with the truly horrible parts of its history. To my eyes, the country doesn’t shirk its past or try to downplay the Holocaust or other WWII and Cold War human-rights atrocities. It owns these awful events, forcing its citizens to confront an upsetting past. Every German schoolchild is required to visit a concentration camp as part of their education. Memorials to Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and other groups murdered at the hands of the Nazi regime can be found everywhere.
Beyond the Holocaust-related sights, several other aspects of Germany surprised me. For one, it was a beautiful country. I hadn’t expected to find Munich and Nuremberg so charming, or the countryside so lush and picturesque. It was also a lot more diverse than I’d expected. All over the country I saw people of seemingly every background speaking German. A ride on the Berlin U-Bahn reminded me of the New York City subway, with riders from all walks of life squashed up against each other. I didn’t see much evidence of the small (though growing) Jewish community, but I smiled at the sight of several Israeli restaurants.
I also found myself completely fascinated by Communist East Germany. It was a topic never really covered in school, likely because the country had recently ceased to exist. I delved into what it was like to live in a dictatorship where government-run media spewed out propaganda and often outright lies to citizens. This was #fakenews before it had become a dinner table topic. I’d previously seen videos of the Berlin Wall’s final demise. But now, after understanding the courage it had taken for East Germans to rise up and reclaim their freedom, the iconic footage moved me to tears.
In short, Germany was one of the most challenging, inspiring, and ultimately satisfying places I’d ever been. My boyfriend and I were floored by how much we loved our time there, and how strong our desire was to return.
We shared our enthusiasm with my parents. While they never objected to our travel plans, they remained firm in their refusal to visit Germany. My boyfriend’s parents (also Jewish, his mother also the daughter of a survivor) felt similarly.
But Germany stayed with me in the weeks and months after we returned home. I reflected on how meaningful my experience in Germany had been, and how much the country had surprised me after a lifetime of indifference at best, reductionist stereotypes at worst.
I understood my family and community’s coolness toward Germany during the ’80s and ’90s when the Holocaust was still in recent collective memory. It would have been impossible for my grandparents to change their views, and given what they lost, I can empathize. But nearly 75 years had passed since the end of WWII. Germany had condemned the actions of its past and made significant amends to survivors and the Jewish people. Between that and having now experienced Germany firsthand, I simply couldn’t see the country in such a narrow, hateful light. My view of the country had expanded and evolved. I had grown.
Meanwhile, the Trump presidency unleashed a Pandora’s box of homegrown anti-Semitism and white nationalism in the U.S. that had become increasingly radical and violent. I was horrified by stories of swastikas scrawled on playgrounds, white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, and the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. My country was no longer the land of religious tolerance that it likely felt like to my grandparents upon their arrival. Continuing to hold a grudge against Germany for the sins of its past felt completely out of touch with the reality of this terrifying new America.
My now-husband and I returned to Germany earlier this year as part of an extended honeymoon. We spent 10 days in Berlin before moving on to nine other countries in Europe. Even though it was our second time there, Berlin was our single favorite destination. Perhaps because with its gritty aesthetic and international feel, Berlin reminds me of my beloved Brooklyn home. There’s also so much to see, do, and eat. During our stay we toured world-class museums, watched Turkish musicians and drag queens perform side by side for May Day, and enjoyed delicious meals: schnitzel and currywurst, steaming bowls of pho, honey-soaked baklava, and, yes, Israeli hummus and falafel, too. There’s still so much more I’d want to see and experience there. I know we’ll be back.
I’m in touch with almost no one from summer camp, and just a small group of people from the town where I grew up. I’d like to think that with each passing generation, the negative feelings toward Germany subside. Even my parents have softened a bit in recent years after seeing my photos and hearing my travel stories. I think they’ve also been moved by the German government’s continued commitment to making reparations to Holocaust survivors. My mother is no longer adamantly opposed to visiting, but now merely claims Germany is “not at the top of my list.”
Rachel Leventhal is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She recently spent three months traveling through 15 countries in Asia and Europe.