*Since the events recounted in this memoiristic piece, anti-Semitism has not only spread throughout Germany but has exploded globally. Thanks to Judith Tannenbaum whose posting here of the names Rodriguez and Smith--both poets were on the tour-- inspired me to blog this article. A.K
Between 1991 and 1993, as news reports warned of a new anti-Semetism globally on the rise, I received three invitations to perform my poems in Germany. They came like sinister nods from fate.
Each time before leaving I anguished: How would I tell my mother, one of four thousand Jewish children arrested by Germans in Paris July 16, 1942 for deportation to the gas.
I am her “memorial candle,” her personal affirmation of Jewish victory over Nazi annihilation, and the one in the family whom she had chosen to carry the message of the 6 million into the future.
I couldn’t bear to tell her, anticipating her fear: since the original Nazis had failed to kill her, perhaps neo-Nazi skinheads rampaging in a reunified Germany might yet succeed in killing me.
Out for my first grand auto tour of Berlin in March, I expressed this very concern to Thomas, my host, the director of a prestigious literary institute. He is a German who has made the pilgrimage of conscience to Auschwitz. The confidence with which he pooh-poohed the neo-Nazi threat as so much media hype set me at ease. Moments later, however, he had to swerve to avoid hitting a police van loaded down with riot troops, its siren shrieking toward an angry mob of skinheads.
In Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin, audiences and media turned out to hear my poetry in a way that I have yet to experience in the United States. Germans love American poets. On television, before an audience of 60 million viewers, I performed “Who Are We?” my poem about the need that I feel as the son of a survivor to bear a message of social justice. But off mike, when I spoke further of the Holocaust, eyes turned hard. Conversation abruptly changed. Germans give the definite impression that they are sick and tired of hearing about “all that,” their attitude toward the worst crime in human history like that of people living near the site of a popular tourist attraction: a kind of blasé weariness.
So, on performance tour, I led two lives: by night hanging out with the literary avant garde and by day visiting different sites of Nazi destruction. I saw deserted cemeteries with defiled, toppled stones and gutted synagogues still undergoing reconstruction 50 years after Krystalnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass.”
And yet, for the most part, I got along just fine with Germans of my generation. Some cared. Werner, who took me to see the museum of the former Gestapo headquarters. burst into tears when he discovered in the sign-in guest book the words: “Hitler was right,” left by the last visitor. I was less surprised.
But the hearty seniors whom one sees everywhere, with their snow-white hair and smug blue eyes, sparked rage in me, which I struggled to conceal. “What did you do in the war?” I wondered. And there was that doddering old man in Frankfurt, who knew at once that I was an American Jew and seemed to come all alive on the quaint street, screaming in good English: “Jew Filth! American Kike!” and so on, then lapsed back into senile fog. As he wasn’t long for this world, I let Death respond for me.
In East Berlin, my well-meaning hosts led me into districts riddled with bullet holes. Here, smiling long-haired young squatters worked at re-gentrifying ruins into architect’s offices and underground discotheques. My guts wrenched as my hosts nonchalantly announced: “This was a Jewish quarter before the war.” Sure enough, I saw on a brick wall
a faded advertisement for Goldstein’s furs, and further on, another for Cohen’s Bookstore. Gritting my teeth, I wondered: “Where is Goldstein? Where is Cohen?”
As I walked the Judenrein streets of the new Germany like a ghost of Europe’s vanished Jews, as I watched those smiling, long-haired youths with crowbars, tearing up the flagstones of old Jewish streets to plant gardens and build playgrounds, I thought: Maybe Hitler has won his war against us after all.
Months later I returned to Germany with a group of spoken word poets from America’s cultural melting pot, including Paul Beatty, Patricia Smith, Luis Rodriguez, Neeli Cherkovski and Dominique Lowell. In an increasingly xenophobic Germany, we did a crazy thing, for me a dream come true. Rather then reach our gigs by rail, we hired a Peugeot bus. The route we mapped ran straight through the heart of skinhead country. I don’t know what possessed us, some spirit of Kerouac maybe, or Ken Kesey, with a touch of the freedom riders tossed in for good measure.
We were “On the Autobahn” doing 100 all the way. Patricia wrote poetry while Paul snoozed, Dominique DJ’d, Neeli kibbitzed, Luis drove and I navigated.
We began to notice a proliferation of Confederate flags in shops and restaurants, and adorning everything from key chains to automobile fenders. They serve as a far right symbol in lieu of the outlawed swastika. Cars packed with skinheads drove past with Dixie flags prominently displayed. What an irony, I thought: that Jews and blacks riding together should once again recoil from that racist flag, only this time not in Mississippi but in reunified Germany. When we piled out at rest stops, we earned ourselves some bone-chilling stares.
During our tour, the Kohl government revoked its liberal asylum laws in an effort to end acts of skinhead terror through appeasement. The next day, Paul and I stood at a roadside newsstand studying a headline. We didn’t need Berlitz language skills to deduce that neo-Nazi skins had murdered five Turkish women and children in Solingen, birthplace of Adolph Eichmann.
“We have no cause for rage,” shrugged a young writer during the question-and-answer period following one of our Berlin performances, “we have none of your interesting American problems.” He was explaining why Germans can’t write the kind of in-your-face style poems that we perform. “Tell you what,” I suggested, “Write a poem about the agony of a Turkish woman as she burns alive with her children dying all around her.” He stared blankly at me. “Or for that matter,” I added, “try to imagine and perform the suffering of six million murdered Jews.” The next day, Paul Beatty was verbally threatened for the color of his skin by a car full of skinheads, not a block away from the place of the performance.
In 1993, I returned to Germany for a third time as a guest of Berlin’s Jewish community. I joined many prominent performing artists, writers and thinkers including Allen Ginsberg, Michael Lerner and Kathy Acker for a festival that paid tribute to the vitality of California Jewish life.
The event was held in a cultural center that had been founded on the site of a synagogue destroyed in the days of the Nazi terror. Above a blue-lit stage framed by fake California date palms hung an enormous Star of David. The effect was of a garish wedding reception. An odd, incongruous assortment of Jews crossed the stage, some with tattooed shoulders and reading cybersex prose, and others chanting Buddhist-style Beatnik blues. Imported Klezmer bands played sets and a radical feminist Jewish juggler juggled. The audience consisting of as many young Germans as Jews, showed their love with effusive applause. Before taking the stage to do my bit, I thought: “As a show, we sometimes make no sense, but the important thing about the Jewish people is that we are here, alive, vital, together, expressing ourselves on the ruins of our near-destruction and that is everything.
This time, before leaving on the trip, I called my mother.
“Festival?” she said crossly, “What is there for Jews to be festive about in Germany?” But after repeated warnings to be careful and making me promise not to stray too far from the hotel, she confessed that she was far less worried about my going than I feared. “You’re a survivor,” she said “You take after me.”