Reclaiming a German Identity

Watching Germany v Australia at the Berlin FIFA fan fest

As a longtime fan of US soccer, I was hugely disappointed to see the USA lose out to Qatar last week in the contest to stage the World Cup in 2022.  But I still have fantastic memories of the World Cup that ended just a few months ago in South Africa – a tournament that led this American Jewish guy to feel an unexpected surge in pride for his recently-adopted nation: Deutschland.

How could I feel pride in Germany given the legacy of that nation’s Nazi-era crimes against the Jewish people?  The answer begins with a visit I made to Germany in June with 12 other U.S. broadcast journalists as part of a fellowship program organized by the RIAS Berlin Commission.  Its purpose: to educate us about Germany’s media, political system, history, and culture.

The 2010 World Cup dominated my RIAS experience from the outset.  On the day I flew out of Washington to start the program, I staged a World Cup public viewing that managed to draw thousands of people to Dupont Circle – the first event of its kind in the U.S. capital.  The one-day fan festival grew out of an idea that I created in March 2010 and pursued relentlessly in my spare time, recruiting soccer supporters, community groups, businesses, and even diplomats to make it happen.  After seeing the event unfold smoothly and watching the U.S. national team’s heroic 1-1 draw with England, I rushed to Dulles airport to catch my flight to Europe.

The next day, I found myself in the German capital, Berlin, for the first time.  I had been to Germany twice before, but many years previously, as a teenager in the mid-1990s, when I made brief visits to Munich and Trier.  In those earlier trips, I entered Germany as a foreigner.  This time, I was arriving as a German, with a passport to prove it.

I have my dad to thank for that!  As his father was German, he was able to take advantage of a German law that allows descendants of German Jews to reclaim the citizenship that the Nazis took away in the 1930s.  In 2005, his application succeeded.  My siblings and I were now Germans, too.

After unpacking my bags at a Berlin hotel, my thoughts turned to what I could do with my Sunday evening.  It was the night before the fellowship program was due to begin.  I knew that Germany’s soccer team was scheduled to play its first match of the World Cup, and I wondered where to watch it.  Then it hit me – Berlin was one of the few cities in the world hosting an official FIFA World Cup Fan Fest.  I hadn’t yet met the other RIAS fellows, but I called up as many as I could in their hotel rooms, and persuaded some of them to join me for a train ride to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium Plaza.  There, we watched Germany thrash Australia 4-0 on giant outdoor screens with tens of thousands of German fans roaring their approval.   I had just been cheering for America at a Washington fan festival, and here I was in Berlin a day later supporting my new country at an even bigger festival.  I bought my first German flag at the plaza and wrapped myself in it.  My transformation was underway.

Over the next two weeks, the other fellows and I followed the progress of the U.S. and German teams closely as we explored the major sites of Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, and Brussels, in addition to meeting with German, EU, and NATO officials and German journalists.  In those meetings, I learned about how Germany is dealing with major challenges such as integrating millions of immigrants, maintaining the stability of the euro, and fighting climate change.  I also was impressed by Germany’s openness in confronting its Nazi past.  A visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe convinced me that the country is sincerely remorseful for the Holocaust.

Berlin FIFA fan fest.

My focus returned to the World Cup as I prepared to fly back to Washington from Brussels on the same day that the USA would battle Ghana for a place in the quarterfinals.  As (bad) luck had it, the match would be taking place while I was flying over the Atlantic, and I couldn’t find a way to change my flight or follow the match in the air.  I resigned myself to waiting until I was back in the United States to find out what happened.

As the plane descended into Dulles, the pilot suddenly announced that he would be telling people the final score.  I braced myself! I heard him say “Ghana – 2,” and after what seemed like an eternity, he continued: “USA – 1.” I raised my hands to my head in shock.  A Ghanaian lady who, ironically, was sitting right next to me, cheered.  I walked off the plane with mixed feelings: pride for the U.S. team’s achievements, and great disappointment with how its World Cup ended.

Later, I remembered that I still had one team left in the tournament – Germany!  I spent much of the World Cup’s remaining two weeks at my favorite DC soccer bar in my newly-acquired German regalia, watching Deutschland make an exciting run to third-place, and making some new German friends in the process.  And I have the RIAS fellowship to thank for inspiring me to embrace my German identity.

5 replies
  1. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    I too am descended from German Jews. In 2005, I found out that I was to be stationed in Germany. I ended up spending 2005, 2006 and 2008 in Bavaria, a state in south-west Germany. Despite initial ambivalence, I loved my time there. I found that Germans are overwhelmingly deeply ashamed of their country’s actions in the 1930s and 40s and are suprisingly well-informed about Judaism. As I became more observant, the Germans whom I knew were incredibly understanding and supportive and went the extra mile to accomodate me in observing kashrut and Shabbat. Germans are so informed about Judaism that, more than once, someone who had accidentally bumped into me would see my kippah and say “Slicah” (“Excuse me” in Hebrew). I even traveled to Israel with my friend Klas, who was, at that time, an officer in the Budeswehr (the German Army). He wants to go back.

    Jewish life in Germany in thriving. Thanks to a decision to grant visa preference to Jews from the former Soviet Union, Germany is the only European country with a growing Jewish population. The synagogues I visited were packed on Shabbat and fesitvals with Jewish emigrants who were eagerly re-discovering their Jewish heritage. Jewish schools have waiting lists. In Wuerzburg, where I was stationed, the synagogue doubled the size of its physical plant, due to demand. In 2003, Judaism became an official religion of Germany, with the same status as Catholicism or Lutheranism.

    I experienced anti-Semitism Germany once – when a Middle Eastern immigrant began to shout at me and a group of other Jews, in heavily-accented German about “die Juden” in the middle of the Nuernburg Main Station. The Polizei speedily responded to this violation of Germany’s anti-hatred laws.

    In short, I too am proud of my German Jewish ancestory.

    Reply
    • Michael Lipin
      Michael Lipin says:

      Rob – thanks for sharing your experiences of Germany’s Jewish revival! Your insights about German attitudes and Jewish immigration are interesting and match both what I have seen and heard myself.

      Reply
      • Michael Lipin
        Michael Lipin says:

        Unfortunately, I didn’t visit any German synagogues on my trip due to the hectic schedule of the fellowship program. But, I also had a sense from the Germans that I met of their deep respect for the Jewish faith and Israel.
        And the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a stunning tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, given the vast area over which its concrete slabs are spread and their location in the heart of Berlin, just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate. The museum beneath the concrete slabs contains fascinating exhibits detailing the history of the Holocaust, with photos to illustrate how Jews went from being persecuted to exterminated. I hope that I can go back to the museum and see more of it on another occasion.

        Reply
  2. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    I will admit to being disappointed by the murdered Jews of Europe memorial. This memorial, which consists of gargantuan blocks of concrete, strewn about so as to (supposedly) resemble a Jewish cemetary, conveys no horror. Every time I have visited the memorial, I have seen young children running and laughing through its rows. A Holocaust memorial at which children can run and play does not convey the enormity of the evil about which the young must learn and against which they must guard.

    The German taxpayer paid 25 million euros to build this memorial; I think he got bilked.

    I attach a link to the memorial below, so that the reader may see the memorial for himself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_to_the_Murdered_Jews_of_Europe

    Reply
  3. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    I will admit to being disappointed by the murdered Jews of Europe memorial. This memorial, consisting of gargantuan blocks of concrete, strewn about so as to (supposedly) resemble a Jewish cemetary, conveys no horror. Instead, young children run and laugh through its rows. A Holocaust memorial at which children can run and play does not convey the enormity of the evil about which the young must learn and against which they must guard.

    The German taxpayer paid 25 million euros to build this memorial; I think he got bilked.

    I attach a link to the memorial below, so that the reader may see the memorial for himself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_to_the_Murdered_Jews_of_Europe

    Reply

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