The German-Jewish Encounter: Adam Moscoe’s Summer in Berlin

Adam Moscoe

My name is Adam Moscoe – I am interested in the intersections between cultures and faiths, and their interactions on the international political sphere. Growing up Jewish in Canada, and currently serving as one of the leaders of the Canadian Federation of Students, I constantly encounter the memory of the Holocaust (“Shoah”). I believe that through interaction with Survivors of the Holocaust, youth of all backgrounds can derive inspiration for creating a more just world, free of racism and discrimination.



Unlike many of the youth I know who are active in campus Holocaust Education Weeks and similar initiatives, I am not a child or grandchild of Survivors.

Yet I have been so blessed to be able to hear – and share – some of their stories. What I have missed, like so many of my peers, is the opportunity to understand Jewish life in Europe, specifically Germany, from the 18th century until the Nazi Era. That’s one reason why I’m here in Berlin for six weeks, participating in the Leo Baeck Summer University program at Humboldt University. I am uncovering what academics politely call the “German-Jewish Dialogue” alongside 22 brilliant students – Jewish and non-Jewish – from Israel, America, Canada, Germany, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

Living together in the hip, bohemian Turkish-infused Kreuzberg district, we are freely enjoying what Berlin has to offer – affordable culture! We are exploring themes such as the perceptions of the Jewish Body in both anti-semitic and early Zionist discourses, uncovering layers of painful history, and asking pivotal questions about Holocaust remembrance (what do Berlin’s endless memorials and museums seek to accomplish, and are they succeeding?), multiculturalism, and the challenges of maintaining the heavily-polarized Jewish community here (wherein the vast majority of Jews are from the former Soviet Union, and many are not officially Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, Halacha.)

We’re also learning about one another – each of my peers has a unique purpose for being here. They are pursuing doctoral degrees in everything from the iconography of comic books, to “conscientious objection [to completing one’s military service] as a social movement” in both Turkey and Israel. There are Germans trying to grasp the horrors perpetrated by their grandparents’ generation, and there are Jews from all over the diaspora and Israel wondering if they can somehow “forgive” Germany. Many of the participants are accustomed to examining Jewish identity as a subject of rigorous academic study. For me, however, it’s the first time I am doing so. In the following paragraphs, I offer a few snapshots of my experience here thus far.

Visitors to Berlin are able to see some incredible sights, such as the Weissensee cemetery (left miraculously untouched by the Nazis), the Sachsenhausen early concentration camp, and the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse which was nearly destroyed during Kristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”) but today serves as the centre of the Jewish community. There is also the subtle, yet affecting underground Library at Bebelplatz (right beside the opera house on Unter Den Linden), where Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the burning of 20,000 books by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and so many other writers who were disagreeable to the Nazi party’s thought police. Tourists peer through a glass window, and see rows of empty white bookshelves extending far below the ground. Designed by Micha Ullman, there is approximately enough space on these shelves to hold one copy of each title burned. While crowds of young people screamed with joy at the destruction of these “un-German” works, today’s students at Humboldt University manage their own used book marketplace across the street. They are proud to actively promote the dissemination of free thought, in addition to commemorating the reality that “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people” (Heine).

Trying day by day to connect with layers of intractable history, it is overwhelmingly Wunderbar (!) when this sort of ‘connection’ finds you! During our first weekend, many of us attended a Saturday night party hosted by Jung und Judische, a organization run by and for young German Jews of all denominations. I was overcome with joy when the guests began to sing the familiar tunes of the Havdallah ceremony, which marks the end of the Shabbat (Sabbath). Last summer, I experienced many of these powerful moments of Kehilla (community), as I was working at a camp for Jewish children with developmental disabilities. This song-filled ceremony, followed immediately by Israeli dancing, was a highlight of the week. Instead of swaying and singing by the Skeleton Lake sunset in the Muskokas, I found myself doing the same motions, yet this time I was in a Friedrichstrasse cabaret venue where Kurt Weill was once the keeper of the (piano) keys. Cool!

Being in Berlin allows me to come face to face with endless contradictions. I admit to being a Wagnerite (ie: I have been succumbed by the beauty and irresistible idealism of Richard Wagner’s operas). Yet Wagner was a true pioneer in the development of early anti-semitism, accusing German Jews of being incapable of creating German art. Loving Berlin, yet unable to shake off the grimness of the past. At the same time, I feel fortunate to see the fruits of Jewish icons – Heine, Kafka, Moses Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein (who lectured at Humboldt!), Kurt Weill, Magnus Hirschfeld….all the way to Daniel Barenboim, the Israeli Music Director of the Berlin State Opera. Speaking of which, I am about to begin researching the rise of this Maestro to his current position in German cultural society, and what this says about German-Jewish relations. I will also explore Barenboim’s extremely public stance on Israel, as well as his noble work bringing together young Israeli and Palestinian musicians to form the epic, deservedly-famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Stay tuned!

This is a city with two of everything – one for East Berlin, and one for West. Now, Berlin is pushing itself to show itself to the world as a unified German capital – and beyond that, a European capital. In pursuing this quest, Berlin is often teased for punching above its weight. A “poor city”, it is impossible and aimless to look for ‘logic’ in the city’s ability to subsidize three opera houses (here, a career as an opera singer doesn’t seem so strange or impossible!), countless museums, and plans to spend a hundred million Euros rebuilding a royal palace for a country that does not even have a monarchy! Where the Berlusconi days of cultural cuts in Italy are causing major tensions, Berliners keep building far above and beyond their means. The mayor here has said, “We Berliners are poor but sexy.” They sure are!

I have three more weeks in Berlin to soak up the life of the city, and continue to learn from the 22 stellar individuals from around the world who live alongside me in the bohemian borough of Kreuzberg. Thanks for joining me!