It’s Oktoberfest in Munich. At night we head to the subway station where metro workers line up by the platform to keep the tipsy from stumbling in the rail. Bavarian costumes rule the street. Girls (grown women) wear tidy braids and dirndl. Boys (grown men) adorn lederhosen and suspenders. German rock, German pop; a man with gray hair dances on top of a table. He falls backwards — flips in the air — for a second I think he might be break dancing. Thud. He’s on the floor, his feet land behind his head, he’s on his neck. For another second I think he may have broken his neck. A small crowd gathers around him and I wonder if someone’s called the medics. But he gets up, smiles sheepishly and shakes it off. His friends pat him on the back and start dancing again. The party does not stop.
Coming to Germany after tracing the hardships of my grandparents’ early lives we aren’t sure about arriving in time for Octoberfest. But when I told my grandmother we were going she was excited. Life, she says, started for her in Berlin, with her freedom.
In Berlin she lived in a DP (“Displaced Persons”) camp with her parents and brother, sharing one room in a barrack with ten other families, where they all shared one bathroom. After hiding in a cramped cellar for 630 days this was a luxury. In Berlin she and her friends took classes, went to the opera — they were free.
In Munich, though, she fell in love. Here, she finished university. She celebrated Oktoberfest with classmates and went to school dances. She met my grandfather, who’d been working for Betar helping refugees make their way to start a new life in Palestine.
In Munich, they married and a little over a year later my father was born. In the hospital, they discovered to their horror that they were only religiously married and not civilly married — the hospital listed my father as an illegitimate child. My grandparents quickly went to city hall to get the papers they needed for my dad’s birth certificate. That night, a quartet came to serenade them, a tradition in Munich after the civil wedding. My grandfather ran out and gave the quartet money to leave, they’d been married for over a year — what would the neighbors think?! The birth certificate was quickly rectified.
During the day we look up my father’s first address and actually find it. I wonder how much it’s changed since my grandfather rented two rooms in the building in the 1950s. In this building, my grandfather (the journalist) covered post-war Munich. He wrote about the overwhelming poverty in the city. He wrote about Holocaust survivors living in camps, in ghetto-like conditions. He wrote about Jews bartering for food, unable to get jobs, forced to live on welfare and enduring life as aliens since losing their homes and much, if not all, of their families. Meanwhile, even my father — the son of stateless refugees — didn’t have any citizenship until his 18th birthday in Brazil.
The DP camps in Munich and Berlin have all been rebuilt into regular neighborhoods so there’s nothing to see in that front. We look for the new synagogue and Jewish Community Center (JCC). The synagogue is near the tourist-filled center of the old town, a modern, impressive structure. The JCC is a sleek glass building.
For the first time in our trip a JCC refuses to let us in for a peek into the local contemporary Jewish life. The center is reserved for members only, we are told. We stand our ground until they relent. The JCC is breathtaking. The “small” synagogue seats 400 people and is consistently filled for services, the Israeli security guard tells us. I can’t imagine what my grandfather would have thought of Jewish life in Munich today.
Later, we head for the old Jewish cemetery, built in 1816. We discover a beautifully maintained plot of land and meet Johanna, the woman (not Jewish) whose family has been taking care of the cemetery since before the war. Johanna shows us a registry of those buried in the cemetery, a yellowed book her father-in-law managed to hide from the Nazis during World War II. She lives on her own in a small house inside the cemetery walls and spends her days weeding out overgrown plants and planting fresh flowers for the dead.
In Munich we hardly see any monuments for war victims. Life seems to go on. Then we take off for Berlin and it’s a different story.