For a long time after returning from spring break in Berlin, I struggled to answer the question, “How was your break?” There was just so much to say about my trip with University of Vermont Hillel on the Germany Close Up program. The truth is that my experience in Germany was amazing and beautiful and incredibly educational but it was also hard and tense and challenging.
Berlin is a city where the marks of history and war are more visible than in any I’ve ever seen. From bullet holes left in buildings since World War II, to the “Stumbling Stones”- a public art project marking the residences of Jews who died in the Holocaust, to empty spaces left in the center of the city where the Berlin Wall used to stand, traces of the past are everywhere. There is, of course, profound tension between the vibrant, modern, and prosperous city Berlin is today and the difficult past that is still evident. Over the course of the nine days I was there, I came to believe that it is important to let that tension sit with you and to understand what it does to you, in order to even begin to reconcile the past and present.
Travelling to Germany, specifically as a Jew, also presents powerful questions and issues. Over the course of my education, both secular and Jewish, I’ve learned so much about the Holocaust and about World War II. I’ve been to countless museums and memorials, participated in discussion groups, and read books, but it was standing at the top of the field where the barracks of Buchenwald concentration camp used to stand, that I finally felt confronted with the reality of the Shoah. And it was nothing like I expected it would be. I walked around the field and through the oven room and I cried, and I thought, and I eventually understood that what I was feeling was emptiness. I was frustrated and confused by this emptiness. Shouldn’t a trip to a concentration camp simply make me feel sad but lucky to be alive? I soon came to the realization that I could turn the grief, the history, and the experiences over and over in my head forever, but it would still feel futile until I made the conscious decision to do something meaningful with my experiences and knowledge.
I’m still figuring out how to make meaning out of my experiences in Berlin but I’m starting to think that the process of doing so is the most important part. It’s also profoundly Jewish, because learning, questioning and thinking critically are important Jewish values. It was both a pleasure and challenge, intellectually and emotionally, to engage with those values and ideas and many more on my trip to Berlin with Germany Close Up and UVM Hillel.
Sophie Leff is a First Year student at the University of Vermont, originally from Chicago, Illinois. Sophie is majoring in Political Science with a minor in Religion and spends her free time singing in an A capella group on campus!