- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Hi everyone! Thanks so much for tuning back into Saving the Shtetlach, my blog about my travels exploring Europe and learning about modern European Jewry. I’m writing to you now from my cozy dorm room in Berlin where I moved in over a month ago. I can’t believe I’ve been in Berlin for a little over four weeks – it’s gone by so fast. The Fulbright Commission warned us at the start of the grant how fast these ten months would go – now I’m starting to understand just exactly what they meant.
These past four weeks have been pretty adventurous. My life has changed a lot. To start, I moved to a new city, Berlin. I’ve started to make a new group of friends. I’ve begun taking classes at a new university, the University Potsdam and I’ve started to research for my Fulbright project; that is: I’m trying to learn more about the resurgence of Jewish life in Germany, post World War II.
I’ve come to learn a lot about myself these past two months in Europe. For so long, I had this singular vision of how my Fulbright experience would be. I imagined myself sitting in café’s most days, writing my first book, and slowly but casually getting involved in the Berlin Jewish Community. I didn’t expect my life here to be so busy – I didn’t expect myself to be so “on the go” most of the time.
Yet this is a good thing however because life is meant to be a journey. It’s supposed to be something that you can’t plan out. I didn’t expect myself to have so many newfound goals for this year and all these things that I want to accomplish. For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this blog post. For the longest time, I just didn’t know what I would write. I had the title in my head: “The Things We Carry” because one of my favorite books of all time is called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I feel like I’ve been carrying so much this year (not just my two large suitcases). I’ve been learning every day and experiencing so much. I have so many stories to tell and not enough words to describe it all.
Many men died that day. Lester must have known several of them. Lester survived, but he remembers that moment to this day. He told me about this battle just a few months before I left for Germany. Lester thinks of his World War II memories every day. He still remembers the fight on the river Rhine. He still remembers that night. He still remembers all the death. He still remembers the fact that he survived.
I sat on the boat that sunny day in September realizing just how lucky I was to be here in Germany - over half a century later – living in a country that now knows peace. I felt lucky to be an American, a descendent of such a brave and powerful generation. I hoped that one day my generation would live up to the heroism and sacrifice performed by the generations of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
I thought of my great-uncle Lester and the way he smiled at me. I loved him so much and I knew how much my being here in Germany meant to him. Lester never returned to Germany after the Second World War. Very few people in my family have ever been to Germany. But they all supported me in my endeavor to come live here for a year.
As I am here, I will never forget my familys’ lives or their memories, like the one of Lester’s fighting battle here. I have a picture on my phone of Lester with his brother Joe standing in front of a sign in Germany that says Berlin. Although the brothers never made it to the city during the war, I keep this picture with me, knowing that we have finally made it.
But now, that I am here in Berlin, every week I am doing work with members of it’s modern Jewish community. I am going to many Jewish community events and meeting people of all generations who care about building a future for this community. My research revolves around the return of Jewish life in Germany, post World War II. I am given hope by my research and experiences that communities can rebuild, that life can recover. Every day I am reminded of the importance of hope and simply moving forward.
I’ve met some incredible people in my time here in Germany so far. There are too many people to name and not enough space to tell all their stories. One person who particularly inspired me was an 86-year-old man named Amnon who lives in Marburg, Germany. Amnon is Israeli, although he moved to Germany over 35 years ago. Amnon moved to Germany because he met his life’s partner here. His wife wanted to live in Marburg and when Amnon saw that there was no synagogue in the town, he decided to raise the funds himself. “What you don’t have, you make,” he told me. Now the synagogue in Marburg has over 300 members. Most of them are Russian speaking since over 90 percent of Germany’s Jewish population are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The synagogue in Marburg was beautiful with its tan walls, stained glass ceiling, and comfortable chairs that Amnon had specifically installed for the people of his congregation. He explained to me how Jewish people pray the longest out of all the religions. “They need comfortable chairs!” he said to me in his witty Israeli accented English. I was so impressed by him and the synagogue, and for me, it was just so nice to feel apart of a Jewish community again. Even if it was only for one night, I loved going to the synagogue in Marburg and feeling embraced by people who didn’t know me, but still felt connected to me in someway.
When I came to Berlin, after six weeks of studying in Marburg, I was very excited but also nervous because I didn’t know exactly what I was taking on. Would I find my way around? I wondered. Would I make friends? Would I take classes? Was this grant even doable? I had so many questions and little to no answers. I’ve had to get used to this feeling though, this feeling of not knowing. Being in the Fulbright program has taught me to constantly think outside of the box; to work hard and to push myself, even when I don’t know what will happen next.
“I’ll make friends if I try to,” I told myself on my train ride to Berlin. On my very first night in the city, I stayed over at my friend Barbara’s, a friend I had made three years ago at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania. Barbara now lives in Berlin and it was so great to see her. On my third night in Berlin, literally the day after I moved into my apartment, I went to a Rosh Hashanah dinner hosted by one of my friends that I had made last summer. I was so tired that day that I thought I would just skip the dinner – I mean, I had just moved in and all I wanted to do was stay in bed. But in the end I forced myself to go to this dinner and I wound up meeting some of my closest friends here in Berlin so far. I am so grateful for that one dinner because I was introduced to so many great people. I was reminded of the importance of putting myself in the situations where I can meet new people and make new friends.
The Fulbright year has been great so far. It’s been exhilarating, exhausting, and meaningful all at once. I feel like I am pushing myself, constantly, but I am also learning, exploring, growing, and doing all of these good, important things. I am learning how to be independent and I am learning how to make my own schedule. I am trying my best to write my book, I am now taking two classes – a German language class, and a class about German-Jewish history (which is taught completely in German). I commute to my university and research center in Potsdam 2-3 times a week (it takes over an hour to get there). I joined a gym, I am paying my own bills, and I am beginning to plan my research project which will last my entire ten month stay here.
Most importantly, I am just trying to take care of myself and keep building friendships with the people I meet around me. I’ve been so lucky in my time here so far. I truly feel like I’ve met wonderful people and I’ve been introduced to such a warm and vibrant Jewish community in Berlin. I love working at my research center in Potsdam, the Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum for European Jewish Studies. The staff there has welcomed me with open arms. I am now working closely with my mentor, a sociologist at the MMZ, who is helping me plan out my research questions for interviews with different Jewish people in Germany. I hope to learn more about these people’s experiences and the current issues in the German Jewish community. I’d like to raise awareness for these issues and report on the current state of German Jewry in the form of articles for different German and American media publications.
Every Friday and Saturday I am attending different Shabbat events and I’m quickly meeting more people involved in Berlin’s Jewish community. I’ve already gone to some wonderful Jewish community events and I can’t wait to involve myself more intensively and attend more. I’m excited to continue my research and begin interviewing people. I can already tell how many amazing people with amazing stories are floating around in this city. If I work hard enough and try my best, I hope to hear as many voices as possible and write the best stories that I can.
While this Fulbright year might be challenging sometimes - surely starting over somewhere is never easy – I can truly say that I’ve loved this experience – I believe it is changing me in a positive way. It’s taught me to appreciate not only all the wonderful new people I’m meeting here, but I feel even closer now to the people I love at home. I want to send a brief shout out to all of my family and friends in the USA who have reached out to me throughout this experience. Your messages and Facetime calls mean so much to me. You guys are my support group and it’s your faith in me that keeps me going.
This Fulbright experience has been rewarding, exciting, thrilling, and at so many points, really fun. I truly feel so lucky to be here in this amazing city doing this incredible research project. I’m carrying myself and I can’t wait to carry soon the stories of the people that I meet. I’ve come to realize that in life we carry a lot of things – a lot of memories, a lot of fears, a lot of hopes, and a lot of expectations. But in the end, if we can just carry ourselves, carry each other, and carry the stories that we feel are important, then truly, I think, we’ll be doing alright.
As always, thank you for reading. Until next time,