Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hanukah in Munich

The moment you realize it’s impossible to forget childhood memories — a story for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014

Gate of Dachau, after the American army liberated it (http://www.archives.gov/)
Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period. This year it was observed on April 28th, and commemorated 70 years since the annihilation of Hungarian Jewery.


As a child, growing up in Israel in the ‘70s, I was very fortunate to have all four of my grandparents alive. Almost everyone I knew had lost a grandparent, uncle, relative in the holocaust. All four of my grandparents lost their entire families; and all had a blue number tattooed on their arms, to forever remind them of their loss.

My parents kept mentioning how lucky I should feel, as they never met their grandparents. I heard many stories as a kid — and not just from relatives. There were still many people alive who had personally survived the horrors in Europe. They saw it as their moral obligation to pass their stories on, lest anyone forget.

Speaking of Germany or Germans at home was usually accompanied by a swear word, or simulated spitting. I remember watching football (“soccer” in Americanese) world cups, and rooting for whoever Germany was playing against. This was not strictly an Israeli behavior: in Montreal, where my cousin and his family live, no Jew dares buying a BMW, Audi or Mercedes — even if they could afford it.

Flash forward to 2004. At that point in history, the attitude toward Germany has changed amongst the younger Israeli generation. People had German customers, and even friends. Some Israelis even migrated to Berlin, seeking education and job opportunities. I myself worked with some German colleagues, and found them to be nice, professional, and even possessing sense of humor (which they were rumored to lack). General hatred toward Germany was considered an older-generation affliction.

Of my four grandparents, only my dad’s mom is still with us. (In fact we celebrated her 92nd birthday this past March — may she live to be a 120.) My grandma was livid when she heard my parents and I went to visit Hungary. Her hatred of Germans is only surpassed by her hatred towards Hungarians, whom she considered worse than the Nazis. My visit to Budapest confirmed some of her opinions: to kiss up to the Nazis, the Hungarians voluntarily annihilated their Jewish population in less than a year — starting in 1944, when the war was nearly over.

I had been working as a professional services consultant at a small startup, in charge of European accounts. My week usually started at Ben Gurion airport on Sunday afternoon and ended there on Friday night, or Saturday morning, after a full week on site.

In December of that year, I was assigned a lucrative account: a major German company, based in Munich. I got in touch with our sales guys in Munich over phone and email. We agreed that the training I was supposed to deliver in English, would instead be delivered by one of them in German — to make it easy on the students. I would shadow the class, and assist with questions and exercises.
I told my dad where I was headed the next week. He was not thrilled, to say the least. He asked me to not tell grandma where I was going. He also reminded me that the next week was Hanukah — the Jewish holiday celebrated by lighting a menorah every evening. Sadly, I had forgotten his second point.


Leaving Israel’s always-summer weather, I landed in frozen Munich, just in time for Christmas season. Every place had Christmas trees and decorations; Christmas stores were everywhere. I met my colleague for breakfast and we took his car, a finely-tuned BMW, to the customer’s site. I was introduced to 8 developers and their manager, all of whom were extremely nice and welcoming. They were relieved to hear that they wouldn’t have to strain their English skills to become fully trained. I spent that day sitting at the back of the class, listening to my colleague deliver our slides in German. All conversation was in German. Whenever I jumped in, the pace of the class slowed, to allow for back-and-forth translations. It was a jarring experience.

The next day, I was supposed to get to the customer site on my own. “No problem,” said my colleague, “Munich has one of the best underground networks in the world, and our client has a stop right next to the office.” That evening at my hotel, I downloaded a map and started to plan my commute:
Munich underground map
Scanning the list of train stops, my eyes were attracted like a magnet to a name I recognized immediately: Dachau. You couldn’t have grown up in ‘70s Israel and not have heard about Dachau, the first concentration camp. I never knew it was in Munich itself. I located the line I needed to take, and looked for the last stop, to know which direction I need. My eyes landed on the second Munich landmark I recognized: the Olympic Stadium. A place where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in 1972. My destination was located between 2 places where Jews were killed for being Jews.

A terrorist at the 1972 Olympic Massacre
Memories started flooding in. I left the room and wandered the streets. My dad called: did I remember to light the Hanukah candles? I was ashamed I had forgotten. I started going from store to store, looking for candles. The only ones I could find were small, red, heart-shaped Christmas candles. I bought 5 (it was the 4th night, so 5 candles were needed), rushed back to my hotel room, and lit them on the windowsill. I remember hoping people on the street would look up, see the candles, and know that 60 years later, a grandson of holocaust survivors is back in their city, lighting Hanukah candles.

I Quit

Despite everyone around me being extremely nice and welcoming, the next day was torture. I cringed every time I heard German spoken; I eyed people on the subway suspiciously; I started feeling physically unwell. After work, I rushed back to my hotel room and called my boss. I told him in a few quick sentences how I felt, and told him I wasn’t sure I could continue doing this. I even offered to quit, if required.

I had one of the best bosses one could have (sadly, hindsight is 20-20 ☺). He had plenty of experience working in Germany, and he even speaks German. He calmed me down, explained it’s a common issue with first time visits to Germany by Israelis, and rejected my resignation. He said it’d get better. And he was right — it did.

Since that first time, I’ve visited Germany several more times. I met some very lovely people (and some that were not — but then, you have those everywhere). I helped close my biggest deal ever with a large German corporation. I worked long hours with German engineers. I heard plenty of German spoken next to me, and have not gone into culture shock again.

But I still never told my grandma where I went.

Originally published on Medium on April 29, 2014

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