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Germany: what I’ve learned from living in the country from which my family once fled

I was eight-years-old when I first heard the term Holocaust.

My extended family had gathered together for a reunion, where I happily played games like tag with my cousins outdoors in the California heat.

As the sun started to set and we headed inside, I noticed a map of a large family tree – with branches stretching up to generations who had come before mine. Towards the top of the tree, the same four words appeared next to numerous names, over and over: Victim of the Holocaust.

What does that mean? I would later ask my mom, who explained how her side of the family had squeezed onto one of the last ships crossing the Atlantic during the rise of the Weimar Republic.

Amid rampant pogroms and discrimination, my great-grandmother had scraped together barely enough cash to cross into New York via Ellis Island, like so many other immigrant families, where they arrived shortly before Kristallnacht, 80 years ago to this day.

When their ship docked at the shore, they didnt have money left, nor did they know any English. Yet they were safe, and managed to survive.

But the rest of our family who stayed behind had not been so lucky, she further explained, elaborating on their fate with foreign words I also hadnt heard before, like Auschwitz and Dachau.

Even when she told me the reason why, I could not fully understand why.

With morbid curiosity, I delved into books about World War II as the years went on, still trying to comprehend the level of hate that led to the Holocaust, and the other atrocities of war I would learn about in my classes at school. Horrified, I tried to calm my mind, justifying history as precisely that: a culmination of past tragedies imprinted in a society which has learned from them to become more advanced.

My family, however, held history close, especially older generations who deftly avoiding setting foot in Germany, even on flight-layovers. “Why would you want to learn that ugly language?” my great-uncle told me as I informed him of my newest linguistic pursuit, ironically commenting on the same language he spoke as a child.

Half out of budding curiosity, half as an act of proving that the past cannot rule the present, I visited Germany for the first time in 2008, fascinated to set foot in all of the history of Berlin that surrounded me. Walking around the city on a chilly December day, I read the outdoor placards at the former Nazi headquarters for a long time before I noticed that my hands had become numb.

Back then I envisaged my long-weekend in Berlin to be my only, a pitstop on a pan-European trip to exercise my post-university travel bug before settling back in the States. But increasingly intrigued by Berlin, I came back to live in 2012, working as a journalist in various capacities.

I reported on a lot of stories which showed how much society has, indeed, progressed: be it the Wilkommenskultur following the refugee crisis of 2015 or Israeli-Iranian music compilations. Yet simultaneously I saw the way that hate and discrimination manifested themselves, that past was not its own entity, neatly shelved in file cabinet of Atrocities which could never happen again.

I reported on right-wing demonstrations throughout Germany, dug-up Stolpersteine, anti-Semitic verbal and physical attacks at schools. At first such instances seemed like fringe outliers, and on one hand they are. Felix Klein, who has been Germany's commissioner on fighting anti-Semitism since May, acknowledged that "our democracy today is stable, strong. It's completely different from the situation in 1938 or the Weimar Republic".

Yet on the other hand, there is no denying that the number of incidents is growing, on both sides of the Atlantic. Many American Jews, my own family members included, had read about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, but assumed violent attacks couldnt happen in the U.S. That changed when 11 people were gunned down at a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier this month.

"It would be impossible to mark this seminal event in Jewish history without noting the frightening climate of anti-Semitism and xenophobia currently spreading across Europe and the United States," said Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Living in Germany on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I see how far society has evolved, as shown by the fact that I can still safely and freely live here. There are so many open and honest memorials to victims of the past, and all-far right demos are met with even bigger counter demos.

Yet I know now how ignorance and hate can prevail if left unchecked, if not matched with education – at whatever corner of the globe I am in. In calling Germany home, I dont feel I am confronting the past, as the past that we knew in 1938 no longer exists. But rather I am keeping wide eyes towards the future, both amid rising hope and rising red flags.

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