“How many people do you have in your life that you can talk like this with?” she asked.
Hmm. Interesting question, “Not many,” I replied.
One of the things about the International experience is that you make many friends but have few soul mates. Those who can “get” you are few and far between. And then there are those back home that “get” you but they definitely don’t “get” the international experience.
And for my dining partner and I, it can be even more complicated. You see we met because the Nazis killed 11 million people with their Final Solution. We met because we felt drawn to the topic all our lives, yet at the same time we felt compelled to seek the other side of the story. We met because we were educators trying to find ways to make sense of all of this for our students. We became friends because we felt comfortable in the grey area.
The grey area is a place of questioning. The grey area is the place where you are about to find answers. The grey area is where we rest in the idea that we may never find the answers we seek. Being comfortable in the grey area is what bonds us together.
But what is comfortable with us, can make others uncomfortable. People will ask “Why would they vote for him in 1933? He killed 11 million people? He created the Final Solution?” And we will reply, “Don’t judge Germans for 1933. You can’t judge 1933 based on what we knew after 1945.” We don’t excuse the outcome, but we don’t blame those who made a decision in time of economic chaos.
Those not living here, those who don’t know Germany, want to condemn the whole lot. But those who live here, those who have gotten to know her, know that we can never condemn those who were asked to choose between their family or the friend they were hiding. We cannot condemn those teenagers, empowered by a regime, and for the first time in their young lives felt like they could make a difference. We can only show our students what history presents us with: a human tragedy so horrific that we must now fight to shine the light on intolerance, in all of its forms, so that it never embodies itself again in such a monster.
So, last night we sat in the grey area. We walked amongst the ghosts of Berlin and called upon those spirits to guide our conversation. We stroked our hands along the shrapnel fractured columns that hold up this city’s history. We passed the Steles of all shapes that represent Germany’s pride of accomplishment and the power of her oppression. We stood looking through the bars at Käthe Kollwitz’ Mother with her Dead Son, cloaked in her cape of snow, and mourned along with her. We stared out at the frozen Spree and wondered who else was asleep with Rosa Luxembourg far beneath the fissures. We are Auslanders, we are American, but we are at home here, in the grey.