A Meditation on Reparations

History and guilt in Germany and America

I am in Berlin.

This sentence is a surprise to me, but it is true.

Despite my love of travel and new cultures, I never thought I’d come to Germany. This is something to do with part of my upbringing that found me deeply embedded in an East Coast, upscale, Jewish community formed primarily by first and second generation Eastern Europeans.

In this world, Germany was a dirty word, even for some who were born there. Assimilation was safety, while preserving religious culture was mandatory. It was no easy chasm to span, and created conflicting values. Drive German luxury cars while repeating the mantra of “never again” about the Holocaust.

There is a lot of space given to Judaism and Jews in the public landscape here. Many people recommend seeing the Holocaust memorial. I am reluctant and keep delaying the excursion. The accurate name of the monument is Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas — in English, “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

Coming from the land of spin, I’m unused to this kind of brutal honesty and find it refreshing. There is a Jewish Museum, which I am encouraged to visit. Then there are the tiny plaques on the street. An artist has undertaken to create bronze memorials to all those taken to concentration camps. Just outside the person’s last address is a small tile fit into the ground with their name and details. A friend told me to look for them, saying that once you see them, you can’t stop seeing them. It’s true.

Yet, what I feel when I am walking down the street in Berlin is nothing. Nothing, but the day. No undercurrent of denial, greed, or evil. No looming prejudice or violence. No threat. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling awful about the Holocaust, but here, I don’t, because it is out in the open as a fact of our shared history. I see signs on businesses everywhere that say “Refugees Welcome” and mean it.

In Berlin I find something unfamiliar: peace. It is a quiet city with none of the hum of New York or London, the bustle of Marrakech or the drone of Los Angeles. Things work. Public transit runs on time and essentially on the honor system. I have the feeling of being unwatched, which is odd and freeing in the CCTV society. What is remarkable about this place is that it does not feel at odds with itself. I can think of few places that have this feeling, and perhaps, none of them are urban centers.

At an English-language bookstore, I meet an Israeli Jew. We talk on the street about Jewishness, Christianity, Israel and Berlin. Here he is welcome, appreciated and not complicit in the oppression of another culture. I am invited to an event with Berliners and refugees where I find a conscious effort to build community and to anchor some of those coming from Syria and Iraq to start their lives over. A strong sense of welcome is tangible, as well as a gracious sense of obligation.

The feeling that everyone who lives somewhere is responsible for making it a home for all was beginning to grow on me. The shape of Berlin feels ever changing and adaptive to its population. It is not a wealthy place, but it’s not about wealth. It is not interested in restricting or curtailing your freedoms. It’s not policing you or your body or what you do with it or how late you keep it out at night. It has myriad energetic underground cultures, yet there is a sense of calm that pervades.

I come from the place where we have to proclaim our right to exist daily, loudly, and in the face of those who would have it otherwise. I come from the place that tells us we are free while tracking our every click. I come from a place that claims all are equal, yet values the lives, the work, the hours, the breath of some much more than others. I come from a place where many people I know, myself included, are well aware that we are expendable. We know this, while all the while we hold faith in our freedom and our rights and our country. I come from a place where we make slogans just to tell ourselves we are alive. I come from a place where I am collusive in oppression while also being oppressed. I come from a place that has never come to terms with its own violent and divisive history. In fact, it hasn’t even tried.

I come from the place that won’t use the R word, but will use the N word. I come from a place that knows in its heart that reparations are wrong, a bad idea, chaotic, won’t create any good and will set the wrong precedent. It’s black heart.

Germany bought me a car once. It doesn’t know. But my first and actually only car was a used Acura bought with money that trickled down a lineage to me. This money was from properties owned in Berlin, and which had to be abandoned in order to escape persecution, and what would have been much worse than that in time. For this, decades later, Germany paid reparations. Some of those came to me and I drove them 80,000 miles. Acknowledgement and repayment for stolen property can go a long way.

Atonement is one of the most powerful and beautiful concepts in Judaism. People talk about Jewish guilt, but this is a secular construct. The mechanism to expunge guilt is built directly into the tenets of the religion. Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — is an annual fast and day of prayer. It requires a careful listing of the year’s transgressions and accountability before God for each of these wrongs. It demands a repeated asking of forgiveness. It is meant to leave behind the old hurts on both sides.

In a Facebook chat about the DNC, a friend wrote, “But you can’t talk about America without talking about theft.” There it was, the Ganesha in the room — the obstacle so obvious we refuse to talk about it, let alone remove it. America is stolen property. And so were many Americans — stolen, as property. This disregard for the rights of other’s bodies and other’s human needs, and the claim that it is lawful to defend this disregard with violence, has placed the country in a centuries-long daze of denial and stressed our beautiful and forward-thinking founding documents to the breaking point.

It’s impossible to make amends without first admitting trespasses — denial halts the process. If we cannot talk about slavery, about the land of native populations, about systemic racism, then we can never get to the repayment. Guilt is what you have when you won’t acknowledge the problem. It’s the thing you carry around that eats at your soul and makes your judgment gradually less sound. If you refuse to name it, you cannot heal it. If you cannot heal it, it becomes an open sore. If this sore belongs to millions of people, it becomes the driving shadow force of a nation.

I, too, believed reparations might be too little too late. Incalculable. Pricing lives just as they had been priced before. But like I became Jewish from being Catholic and nothing from being Jewish, I am converted. I am converted by the weight not carried by the people I walk down the street across from or sit opposite on the bus or the U-bahn. I am converted by the genuine interest in Jewish heritage that contains no fear and no judgment and no guilt. I am converted by my willingness to discuss the parts of me that were raised in Judaism and the parts that may be in my lineage. I do not discuss these elsewhere; they are a liability — an attack waiting to happen. They are vulnerable, lying in wait to be viewed with a kind of distaste or hideous wonder.

The country I was born in lives in shame and fear. It lives in dread of being dragged into the light of day. It lives loudly in denial and is quite obviously tearing itself apart. It has a destructive legacy and a long-bred hypocrisy. It has voluminous wealth. It likes to pay for things. Reparations are an opportunity to embrace the good of this country — its ability to produce vast amounts of money — to equalize its debt to those upon whose lashed backs the nation was built. It has the moment to seize to move from a professed even-handedness to an outstretched generosity. It has a blank check and if it tells you any different, it is falling back on its gift of gab.

Yes, it will be troubling, initially divisive, complicated, chaotic and like ripping off a series of super-glued band aids, but there is nothing wrong with putting some skin in the game. In the end though, it is only money. Money and escape from a denial so haunting and devious that it is usurping the very fabric of our society. The beginning of a reckoning and the glimmer of healing.

Reparations are accountability made manifest. That accountability allows a humility and a maturity that is nourishing. As humans, we are supposed to learn from our mistakes. Some humans have done so, making it possible for others to follow in their footsteps of taking responsibility so that they may move on, without one foot stuck in the past, looking over their shoulder, in dread of what is coming up behind them.

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