It was just a hug—a simple gesture of warmth and appreciation between two people who had met only a day before, and might never again. It was just a hug, I kept telling myself for the rest of that day and the days that followed, even as the echoes of that moment reverberated through my soul.
The tour we booked began in Berlin, a city I had been curious about for decades, ever since I’d studied Cold War Europe—Germany in particular—in graduate school. It’s hard now to articulate the rationale behind that choice. The unique ramifications of a divided city in a divided country at the center of a divided continent surely caught my imagination, but as is usually the case, the truth is more complicated.
Warburg is the name of the small town near Kassel in western Germany to which my Italian ancestors migrated in the 16th century, adopting the town’s name as their own. My great-grandfather emigrated to the U.S. in 1895, but several cousins stayed behind in Germany, until in 1938 the last ones fled for their lives, leaving the country that had been our family’s home for four centuries
Standing in front of the burned-and-restored Reichstag building in Berlin on the first full day of the tour, we were introduced to Annika (not her real name), our local guide for the next 36 hours. A native German and art history graduate student, sharp-witted, 30ish Annika quickly captivated our group with both her deep knowledge of her nation’s recent history, and her blunt honesty about that history.
From the Reichstag we moved on through a series of memorials to victims of the Holocaust. First was a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Romani (also known as Roma, or Sinti, or Gypsies) killed by the Nazis. Next was a memorial to the 15,000 homosexuals executed by the genocidal Third Reich. And finally we crossed the street to a vast field (nearly five acres) of coffin-like gray slabs making up Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Standing in front of the looming rows of ghostly monoliths, Annika again told the horrific tale of the 6,000,000 people—my father’s people—murdered in the name of racial purity. She left nothing out, repeating the terrors of the pogroms and deportations and death camps with unsparing honesty. It felt at moments as if she was taking the entire weight of her country’s past onto her own shoulders.
The next day, she brought us to the workshop of Otto Weidt, a Berlin businessman who managed to save a number of Jews from the death camps by insisting he needed them as workers. In the alley outside his workshop, I approached Annika and explained that my grandfather’s cousins had been examples of a phenomenon of which she had spoken that morning, Jews who also identified as loyal, patriotic Germans and couldn’t conceive of their own country turning against them, until it was almost too late.
But I’ve left something out; the part that matters most.
Standing in front of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on that first morning, Annika told us that she wanted to share a personal aspect of this story with us, as an illustration of the difficulty everyday German people have had for decades now in coming to terms with the Nazi era. Her grandfather died a year after she was born, and she never knew him, but she knew that her family was always reluctant to speak of his past and what he did during the war. Finally, when she was 13, her grandmother invited her to ask anything she wanted to know. What she learned shocked her to her core: her grandfather was a German army officer who had joined the SS, the elite paramilitary organization Hitler charged with carrying out his “final solution.”
Annika spoke eloquently of the tension in postwar German society between the need to confront and atone for the country’s past, and the natural human instinct to turn away from a past so filled with horror and shame. For a long time after the war, the country focused on moving on, but, in Annika’s words, Germany has gotten better in the past 20 years about facing up to and acknowledging its past through memorials like the ones she showed us.
As the last surviving witnesses to the Holocaust—Elie Wiesel, for one—pass into history, the mantle of responsibility for keeping our collective memory alive is being passed down. Annika is one woman, one person, but with her integrity and passion and commitment to tell the story of the Holocaust again and again, with unflinching honesty, from her own unique perspective, she is achieving the impossible: she is redeeming the unredeemable. She is helping to ensure that one of human history’s ultimate horrors is never forgotten, and therefore, we can only hope, never repeated.
What is a hero? The great heroes, the ones whose life’s arc has real weight and dimension, are the ones whose primary struggle is not with outside forces, but within themselves. Their journey is not about power, but redemption, not about triumph, but forgiveness.
In this endlessly compromised modern world in which we live, real heroes are few and far between—which makes it all the more important, if you are lucky enough to meet one, to make sure and give her a hug.