Actually, I’m Jewish.
It’s a phrase I’m used to saying, for one reason or another. What are you doing for Christmas? Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: going to a Chinese restaurant.) Why are you dressed in a suit and walking away from class on the first day of the quarter? Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: going to shul for Rosh Hashanah, and then probably to a Chinese restaurant.) How come you didn’t play Little League? Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: and Koufax I ain’t.)
I’ve been saying it for as long as I can remember, since my second-grade class wrote letters to Santa—and I wrote one to Harry the Hanukkah Elf. I’ve got the tone down, too: inflected enough not to offend whoever makes me say it, but casual enough not to sound offended. Done right, it’s downright diplomatic. Actually, I’m Jewish. (Subtext: but thanks for asking anyway; I mean it, really, and don’t feel bad about it, there’s really no way to tell—not like we have horns or something—and if you’d like to know anything about my culture I’m probably a mediocre ambassador but I’d be glad to do my best to use my bar mitzvah, my Hebrew school, my bits of Yiddish, my ability to tolerate gefilte fish, to use anything, really, to help explain whatever may be on your mind.)
I’ve been saying it for so long, in fact, that I’m completely taken aback when, in the back seat of a luxury sedan in the middle of Berlin, the ethnically Persian, culturally German girl beside me—who’s a bit of a world traveler and has carried on conversations with two people in this car and one on a cell phone in four different languages—turns abruptly in her seat and asks me, without warning, “Are you Jewish?”
“Actually, uh, yeah, I am,” I stammer.
If you’re now expecting me to say that being Jewish during the quarter I spent studying abroad in Berlin was weird or isolating or deeply significant or anything like that, well, sorry to disappoint. Most of the time I didn’t even think about my day-to-day life as a Jew. I didn’t even think about the day-to-day when I applied to the program—Berlin was just another European city, a name like Paris or London or Venice. Unlike Paris, London, or Venice, though, Berlin was faceless. I could picture those other three, could picture Moscow or Madrid or Dublin, without having been to any of them, but Berlin was blank. It had no Eiffel Tower, no watery canals, and for whatever reason the sights and monuments I would fall in love—or at least wanderlust—with had never entered my sphere of world travel awareness. (I’m sure there’s a German word that captures exactly what I’m trying to say here, but hell if I know what it is.) I associated Berlin synecdochically with Germany, and Germany with, well, Bavaria. Munich beer halls, dirndls, fantastic accents. Hans Gruber. The Sound of Music—which, I know, takes place in Austria, but the von Trapps speak German and there are Nazis in it, so cut me some slack.
Of course, there were also the wars. World War I is all spiked helmets and U-boats to me, maybe because I’m hard-pressed to imagine a Princeton professor leading my country to war, or maybe because it’s largely eclipsed in media and high school history by its successor. World War II is the spoiled child of military history, getting all the attention with its whole war-on-fascism and final-battle-between-good-and-evil schtick.
So I guess Berlin wasn’t really completely blank. Stretched over the empty canvas of that city like a dirty film were images of wide streets lined in stark red and black iconography, iron crosses and swastikas, Nazi rallies and narrow little mustaches. But, I told myself, I was young and progressive and forgiving enough to look beyond that, to let Berlin dump its demons into the abyss of the past and travel there with a clean slate that I was ready to fill with beer and pretzels.
My family had other ideas. My parents seemed fine with it—if perhaps a little unsure why, exactly, I was choosing to go to Berlin out of the ten or so other study abroad programs easily accessible to me—but my dad made a point of telling me what his dad would have said if Papa Winger hadn’t snuck so many Denny’s cheeseburgers into his doctor-prescribed, heart-healthy diet. My grandfather, born in the roaring twenties in New York and second youngest of twelve, left Winger Bros. Meat Company to join the U.S. Army as a cook, ended up instead on a command plane in the 82nd Airborne division, and one cloudy June morning in 1944 landed behind enemy lines on a beach in the north of France. His eyesight, like mine, was abysmal, but instead of discharging him the army had taken his rifle, given him a gold bar on his uniform and a Thompson submachine gun, and told him to squint and kill some Krauts.
The point being I can understand, at least superficially, why my grandfather never so much as looked at a Volkswagen for the rest of his life.
My other grandfather had also been drafted into the army during World War II, but hadn’t fought in Europe. He had the same bemused questions as my parents about why Berlin, but went one step further. “What do you think it’s like to be a Jew there?” he asked. I didn’t know.
The quick answer is that being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else.
I found out a year after that conversation with my grandfather that, Jewish or not, my going to Berlin was probably more of a homecoming than I had ever thought. I always assumed “Winger” was an Ellis Island name, assigned by lottery to replace some Polish construct held up by an arch of consonants pushing on the weary keystone of an O. But one of my dad’s cousins did some digging into the family’s past, unearthing the earliest recorded Winger sometime in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe—a long time before any huddled masses yearned to breathe free, before any of my relatives, tempest-tossed by Teutonic turmoil, washed up on the shores of America.
This cousin’s guess about the origin of our name? It evolved from the German word for our ancestor’s profession. Some Winger progenitor followed the German vineyards that were exported to Poland in the middle of the last millennium. We’re winemakers. Winger. Weinmacher. Pass the Manischewitz.
But back to that luxury car idling in Alexanderplatz traffic, and the question from the high-class German-Persian girl next to me, mercifully in English, but otherwise out of nowhere: “Are you Jewish?”
Actually, no, I could have said. I’m German. More German than you, even. Or I could have told her I was Swedish, since my ancestors lived in what was technically the Swedish Empire, which swelled into eastern Europe in the 1500 and 1600s. Or Polish, or Hungarian, or Czech, or Ukrainian, Silesian, Russian, Lithuanian—borders that swam around the Winger clan so often that different generations were often wildly different nationalities.
But that’s just it—the borders changed so much, and so long ago, that I have no connection to any of those countries. When I think family history, I don’t think of German wineries or Hungarian dairy farms. I think bar mitzvah.
So I say what is the obvious answer, even if I am a little caught off guard. “Actually, uh, yeah, I am.”
The girl leans back in her seat, looking pleased with herself. “I thought so,” she says, and makes some vague hand gesture that could be referring to a nose, some hair, maybe even a circumcision. It’s hard to tell.
It’s not hard to tell, apparently, that I’m new to Berlin, despite my efforts to blend in. I bought a trendy European jacket and by sheer luck already owned the same pair of Adidas that dots the aisles of every U-Bahn train like a conspiracy of leather ravens, bobbing their heads rhythmically with the sway of the train car. Within a week of getting to the city I made a point of not carrying the subway map with me on my commute to class. But I reek of America. It’s in the way I walk, the way I quickly look away when my people-watching is discovered. It’s in my plaid shorts and my cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and hopelessly ingrained into the English copy of Lolita I’ve been reading on the train.
I expected all of that. I’m a Californian and proud of it, and trying to blend in came from a desire to distance myself from tourists, not from my country. But I didn’t expect to find out that it’s also apparently not too hard to tell that I’m Jewish.
Less than a week after I was called out in the car in Alexanderplatz, I’m having dinner with my host mother in her apartment. She’s middle-aged, single, and—I’m extrapolating—lonely in her tiny two-bedroom flat, with only a stream of one-quarter students keeping her company. Ten weeks and they’re gone, absconding in the early morning to catch a flight back to their homes, their loved ones, their families, just like I’ll do in a month and a half.
My host mother isn’t German. She’s a Bosnian immigrant, speaks German as a second language and English as a third. Between my rudimentary German and her passable English, we manage to communicate in hybridized, halting Deunglish, though I can’t help but feel something’s always being lost in translation. Perhaps by necessity, our conversations are usually curt and simple. I can’t do anything more in German. But tonight, over steamed spargel and boiled potatoes, she breaks new ground.
“So. You,” she says, out of nowhere. “Are you, ah, Juden?”
I’m caught off guard again, but this time I manage a smile and take a bite of asparagus. “Ja.”
“Ah,” she says, leaning back in her chair. “I had thought so.”
Again with the certainty.
The long answer to my grandfather’s question—what’s it like to be a Jew in Berlin—seems to be this:
Being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else, except that you’re thinking, all the time, about that question your grandfather asked you and wondering if maybe things are different but you’re just not noticing them, wondering if the fact that acquaintances come right out and ask about your religious identity in a way that’s almost unheard of in America is indicative of a cultural difference, a shamelessness akin to nudity at a public beach, or if it portends some lingering Semitic sensitivities—not necessarily anti-Semitism, mind you, but maybe just some sense that German history was different for these Jews, diese Juden, these once-yellow-starred and starving people, and that this is something to be aware of, something to note, to observe.
Then again, neither of the people who asked me straight out about my Judaism were truly German. They were, undoubtedly, Berliners—but Berlin is a city of immigrants and emigrants. The street signs just happen to have umlauts.
There’s a long history of Jews, those eternal immigrants and emigrants, in Berlin—lives lived well before the Holocaust, which in both my secular and religious education was the only facet of German Jewish history ever discussed. The city’s grown around them, but the sights are still there: majestic synagogues, ancient Jewish day schools.
Berlin is a new city, shining metal skyscrapers erected out of bombed-out rubble, jockeying for skyline space with the few crenelated nineteenth-century low-rises that survived the Allied assault and the dull gray Soviet housing projects that dominate the east. The new construction didn’t leave the Jews behind—their ghosts are etched in the jagged lines of the Liebeskind Museum, in the ivied statues of the Rosenstraße memorial, in the endless field of concrete blocks dedicated to die ermordeten Juden Europas.
I’d be lying if I said the thought of experiencing the more infamous side of German Jewish history didn’t enter my mind when applying to study in Berlin. But I didn’t know these memorials existed, that architects and sculptors had attempted to recreate in concrete and granite the terror and inhumanity of the Holocaust. What I did know about, what I was prepared—what I hoped, even—to see was a concentration camp.
I had my chance one week before people started confronting me about my heritage in cars. A group of students was taking the train to a camp, led by a German history professor. I went along.
We didn’t go to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, though—not to any of the names that had been painted in blood and tears and human ash on the inside of my skull by history teachers, Sunday school rabbis, Spielberg movies. We went to a little town north of Berlin called Oranienburg, and visited the monster slumbering in its belly: a camp named Sachsenhausen.
There are a lot of reasons you’ve probably never heard of Sachsenhausen. I had certainly never heard of Sachsenhausen. It wasn’t a death camp, first of all, which would be a distinction worth something if 100,000 people hadn’t died there. And though it was a concentration camp, it was largely used for communists and political dissidents. (Somehow in the wash of history people always seem to forget that Nazis murdered not just one multitude, but many.) The focal point of the camp’s grounds is now an enormous memorial the Soviets erected after liberating it, a giant obelisk depicting brave communist comrades who stood up to their Nazi jailers. Unlike other camps, Sachsenhausen is more Soviet museum than mausoleum.
I thought about all of this hours after I left the camp. The entire time I was actually there, I could only think about how goddamn beautiful it was. The sky wasn’t dull gray as I had imagined it would be at all these camps. It wasn’t cloudy or brooding or menacing.
It was blue. Fucking blue.
And it was big and beautiful and stretched on forever to the horizon, forever up to the heavens, forever back in time, oblivious to everything that had happened beneath it. At the time I thought it had no right to be so be beautiful.
I realize now that I had no right to tell it not to be.
I came to Berlin partly to be a part of history—the history of the twentieth-century European Jew, a history of my own aunts and uncles and cousins whose names I don’t know, my history. The skeletons of crematoria still stand in Sachsenhausen, charnel houses to hold sepulchral the shadows of burning human flesh and the echoes of desperate screams. There are also gravestones, large stone blocks placed evenly around the footpaths, granite slabs with memories interred.
The thirty or so people I was with walked past the first grave marker, but I hesitated. I kicked the dirt around at my feet until I found what I was looking for: a rock, irregular, small, and a little dirty. I picked up the rock and rolled it in my palm twice, then placed it slowly on the granite block. Everything looked for a second like the rolling green hills from my childhood, like Mount Sinai Mortuary in Los Angeles, the bronze plaque of my grandmother’s plot, the embossed words, Ruth Winger (née Felder), beloved wife and mother and grandmother, the little rocks to lay by her name that my brother and I would run around collecting, frolicking in the cemetery—and then it was gone. A pebble on a slab of gray. The blank slate of countless futures, the single point of the present, the weight of the past.
When we left Sachsenhausen, one of my classmates asked me why I had stopped to put the rock on the gravestone.
“Well,” I said, and paused, trying to find the words to sum up a long funereal tradition, wondering how much detail to delve into, if other customs—rending clothes, covering mirrors—should be brought up. How do you talk about one part of tradition without giving the whole story?
“Well,” I said, as I realized all that needed to be said. “Actually, I’m Jewish.”