But what do I know?
Yesterday, on the way to Kita after dropping Hugo at school, my pint-size military strategist piped up again from the backseat.
“Why don’t Putin’s men kill him? Like Caesar’s men did?”
I told him I didn’t know, but that it was a good question.
A few moments later, he started talking about the Ukrainian women and children who have come to Berlin. They needed lots of things, didn’t they? They did, I said, which is why so many people were helping them, finding beds for them and clothing and shoes and toys.
But what about the papas, he wanted to know. Who is taking care of the papas?
Germany recorded more than 300,000 cases of Covid yesterday. My husband is one of them, for the second time, despite vaccinations and booster shot. He’s isolating at my father’s apartment and the worst of the illness seems to have passed, so we are lucky. In so many ways, of course. But I’m on week two of parenting alone and I am very tired.
The first few days when it’s just me and the boys feel almost like an adventure. The dynamic of one parent to two children rather than two to two is different, the boys are more cooperative, I’m more permissive. But eventually fatigue sets in. Sniping increases from all sides. We feel out of whack. Someone is missing and the gap around where he should be is more palpable with each passing day.
But I know where he is and that he is safe and it is only a matter of days before he’s home again. At night, when I lie awake in the bed and feel the soft sheets under my fingers and the soft pillow under my head and I hear the quiet snores from the boys’ room and the gently creaking floorboards from the neighbor above us and the cough through the wall from the neighbor next to us, I swim in gratitude for all that we have.
The other night, after the boys were in bed, I watched The Last Days, an Oscar-winning documentary about the final months of the Holocaust, when the Germans knew for certain that they had lost the war, but still persisted in killing as many Jews as they could before it was too late. The documentary features five Hungarian Jews who survived, as well as some American soldiers who liberated Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. White-haired at the time of the interviews, many decades removed from the horrors they experienced, their pain was still not even skin-deep. One white-haired woman could not get through the story of how she locked eyes with her father one last time at the camp without her voice breaking.
What do 50 years mean when your trauma is so profound? Nothing. It could have been yesterday.
I turned off the television after the credits rolled and just sat there for a few moments on the sofa we normally share, under the red wool blanket that Max gave me for Christmas a few years ago. It was very quiet. I thought about the Jews that had lived in our apartment building before being deported and murdered. I thought about their shoulders pushing open the building door the way I do when my hands are full with groceries, their footsteps on the same carpeted hallway staircase, them sitting in their living rooms late at night, listening to the same nearly velvety silence as me.
In that moment, the months and years that lay between the path from their slow but gradual exclusion from regular life in Berlin to their murder in faraway camps to the east felt cavernous. They were people just like you and me once, with jobs and homes and families and a favorite loaf of bread at the grocery store, petty grievances and indigestion and bunions and pets and holey sweaters, bad moods and ecstasy and boredom. And then, later, they died agonizing deaths, stripped of all their humanity, reduced to skin and bones, their figures moving as if being puppeted by an unseen hand.
What lay between is what I think about most right now.
Never Again in large brass letters is mounted on the walls of the entryway to Dachau. Never again. Nie wieder. никогда больше.
And I find myself wondering what never again means exactly to our modern world? Does it mean that specifically Dachau should never again be allowed to exist? Or all of the camps? The gas chambers? The cattle cars? Does it refer to the medical experiments? To the starvation, rape and abuse? When you start to unspool the thread, where do you end up? To the Jews being rounded up and put in group homes in German cities? Or earlier, when they could no longer practice law or medicine? Was it when they were no longer allowed in public swimming pools? Or could no longer own transistor radios?
Now what about the Ukrainian children who have been rounded up and taken to Russia, to what may end up being camps? What does never again mean to them? In the past month, the number of atrocities has piled up. An entire city razed to the ground. Cultural symbols destroyed. Terror and mayhem, rape and murder. Lives irrevocably changed. Children traumatized for the rest of their lives, if they’re lucky enough to survive.
In “The Last Days,” there is footage of some of the interviewees returning to the camps but also to villages they’d grown up in. Those villages are no longer in Hungary; they’re now part of Ukraine. Usually accompanied by their adult children, the survivors pace the streets in front of the houses they once lived in and in some cases even speak to former neighbors. The black and white footage from the horror of earlier times has given way to color film. We see pale blue sprigs on one woman’s print dress, reddish bricks on a house, yellow fields, muddied grass next to the camp huts. How much time has passed? Some of their neighbors who were children in the war remember them still. One survivor’s hand trembles as she tries to speak.
Not much time at all.
To live in Germany, and to love Germans, I believe, is to enter into a contract in which the Holocaust can never stop being a part, in some way and in some form, of your life. You must remain curious about it. It can never stop blowing your mind. It can never lose significance. There is always something new to learn. There is always heartbreak and helplessness and incomprehension lurking. To me, dealing with all of this and continually letting it break your heart, is one of the conditions of living here. And when crises arise, as they did in 2015 and again today, I am not surprised by the number of people running to the train stations to help. I think deep down there is a sense of hoping to make things right.
One month into this unspeakable Russian war on Ukraine, it turns out that a majority of the German public wants a full embargo on Russian oil and gas. Various government officials continue to demur, citing various nebulous reasons why this is a bad idea. It is enough to make your hair stand on end when you believe this would hasten the end of Putin and the war, but what do I know?
I know that, as someone who lives here, as someone who mostly accepts Germany with all its flaws, as someone raising partially German children, as someone who can never really stop thinking about its crimes and yet/also is moved to tears when I hear its national anthem, I believe that Germany will do the right thing. It will take too long for some, and for many it is already too late, and that is unbearable to contemplate. But I must believe that the right decision is coming.
If you’re looking for local aid organizations to support, Berlin-based Be An Angel continues to do incredible work bringing people from the Moldova-Ukraine border on buses to various locations in Germany. They are also helping evacuate Africans stranded in Ukraine, as well as many people with disabilities to find safety and shelter in Germany. The founder Andreas Toelke, a former journalist, was awarded Germany’s Order of Merit for his work during the 2015 refugee crisis.