By Emma Rosenthal
I: Year: 1969
“Good Germans,” my father muttered as we walked from door to door petition in hand, collecting signatures, working for an end to the war in Vietnam. Some yelled at us to “go back to Russia!” Others politely said they didn’t want to make waves, cause a problem.
“What do you mean Daddy, how do you know they are German?” I asked, only ten years old, not yet having learned the nuance of ethnicity (these matters must be taught.)
“They aren’t German, Em.”
“Why did you say they were Good Germans?”
“They,” my father explained, “are like the Germans who weren’t Nazis. They did not profit from slave labor, did not serve in the army, were just silent. Good Germans did not attract the attention of the authorities, pretended not to know, did not worry about the smoke, the stench. Saw Jewish girls, outside the camp, singing on their way to factory.
“Sieh da! Die Jüdinnen sind froh.”
(“See! They are happy.”) They whispered.
Years later, claiming: “We had no idea.”
“Good Germans;” Jew to Jew, this is not a compliment.
II: Year: 1977
I sit in a hotel lobby in Berlin waiting for my sister to come down from the room. A day of walking, shopping, museums, the insipid kindness of strangers giving me directions.
Peaceful, calm. Bach, not Wagner playing over the lobby hush, a place for guests, tourists, businessmen. Niceties like a tourniquet around my neck. Every man in the lobby, my father’s age and German.
And I am surrounded.
Some hid Jews, falsified documents, killed one so hundreds could go free; unlikely, but perhaps one of these men was righteous.
In 1977 safety, I am caught in the possibility that perhaps, suddenly, I might find myself in 1942, surrounded. My Polish skin not sufficiently hiding my history. My foreign features betraying my identity, ancestry, difference.
The quiet peace of the hotel lobby covers the bones upon which we walk: The lives evaporated, bodies cooked to dust, skin stretched into lampshades, hair woven into rugs, ashes into the soap the Good Germans bathed in to wash away the stench, the soot that coated their nostrils, their skin, their cities, as they breathed in the dead cells of Jews they didn’t know. The Jewish girls, dancing between the camps and the factory just relieved to be outside for the day.
“See, they are happy.”
III: Year 2000
Who are the Good Germans now?
Israeli generals admit to studying Nazi strategy against the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the tactics to bring down the ghetto of Jewish insurrectionists fighting to the death; the suicide missions of desperation by those who had nothing left to lose, holding back the Nazis longer than all of Poland.
I hear of Israeli soldiers marking numbers on the arms of Palestinian prisoners
rounding up all the men
high officials calling the people “vermin”
not enough chemotherapy”
(the final solution).
And the silence, the complicity.
I have met these people, all of them; the Good Germans and the generals, the soldiers who just want to get through the tour alive so they can get a job when they get out. The Palestinian families who want to send the children off to school, pick the olives, turn the key in the door to the house that no longer stands in the village that no longer exists beyond the rubble covered in the pine trees planted by collections taken in Diaspora synagogues: the forestation of the desert. The hope of Europe’s refugees: the invisible destruction of a homeland.
This strange apartheid: the mythical connection to a land but not the people.
The imposition of dominion behind the veil of blood and myth.
Oppressed turned oppressor, consciousness obscured by this twist of history, this betrayal of memory, this strange apartheid, fought on the backs of children and the bellies of women. An intricate labyrinth of false distinctions, of exclusive roads, checkpoints and confiscations.
Hidden by tanks, barricades, checkpoints and armor, we think we are different.
Guns poised, sights set on the image,
We look in the mirror: the distorted likeness.
Or are we the image shooting the reflection?
This is no ancient mythic battle.
No walls of Jerico.
No Midianite virgins
No skin of wine nor loaf of bread.
Just perhaps the two sons, Isaac and Ishmael sacrificed by the father, reunited upon his death
And the women, Sarah and Hagar, pitched in voiceless struggle, breast against breast
For land, bread, water and wombs.
Parched throats seek a hidden well. Tired hands plow a field from bitter dirt. Oranges and olives provide a defiant harvest .
And I know this is not my home
it is not my war
if it were my war
I could not fight!
The land is not for sale or plunder. Nothing can be gained from hegemony. In this betrayal of our history, killing them is killing me.
We have broken the mirror of our own souls and we have broken it upon their backs.