I had never set foot on German soil before now. Having read countless books and articles on the Second World War and having visited with great emotion the invasion beaches in Normandy in the fall of 2013, I was looking forward to learn more - in Germany itself - about some of the cities and regions that suffered from battles and massive bombings.
The river cruise on the Danube, Main and Rhine that I had undertaken with my wife had first brought us to Budapest (Hungary), Vienna (Austria) and Bratislava (Slovakia). All these cities still bear the scars of the 39-45 war. But contemplating the Viennese balcony from which Hitler pronounced the annexation of Austria to the Reich in 1938 is nothing compared to the shiver of horror felt as we rode across the Zeppelin Champ in Nuremberg, where the Nazis held their historic rallies.
Downtown Wertheim today
However, it was in the small town of Wertheim (pop. 11,000), just north of Bavaria, that I experienced one of these pivotal moments you hope for during this type of voyage. The municipality was left relatively unscathed by the Second World War and has lost little of its medieval charm. The day on which British bombers were set to flatten it in 1944 or 1945, a heavy fog coated the town and the planes flew to their secondary target, destroying Wurzburg, 30 km away.
My wife and I had chosen, this October 7, to join a city centre walking tour and a complimentary visit to the Jewish cemetery in Wertheim. I don't remember the name of our guide (I should have jotted it down), but she was not a historian. A simple housewife, she insisted, who had studied enough about the region and its history to enlighten tourists. I wish I had had more teachers like her at university…
Assembled in a downtown square, across the street where there had been a Jewish synagog until the 1930s', with a Jewish community nearby, we listened to her talk without reservation about the fate of German Jews and millions of other Jews from countries overrun by Hitler's armies. At the end of the war, she quipped, most of the people here said they had not been aware of the atrocities.
The same spot in 1938...
Expressing her skepticism, our guide showed us a 1938 photograph of a Nazi rally - banners with swastikas, soldiers, a crowd of people from Wertheim - on the very same spot we were standing. Her message was clear: A majority of people here and elsewhere in Germany were favorable to Hitler and his brand of antisemitism, and the German nation must bear collective responsibility for "the final solution."
But - there always seems to be a "but" somewhere - she reminded us that before the war, Hitler had not yet resolved to kill all the German Jews (there were still 200,000 of them in 1939, in Germany). He mostly wanted their possessions and their money. These Jews could have left Germany if other nations had been willing to welcome them. However, except for the United States and a few others, the doors of immigration were closed.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, said the guide, had declared that one more Jew was one Jew too many… At least that's what I heard (she spoke to us in English). (I checked upon my return and the exact quote, concerning the immigration of Jews, is "None is too many", attributed to a high-level Canadian official and not to the Prime Minister). In substance, however, she was right…
Having accepted the legacy and the responsibility for the horrors committed by her own people, she could, in all fairness, tell visitors that they should also search their own back yards and possibly nuance their judgments accordingly.
Walking to the Jewish cemetery, a few minutes later, our guide showed us a banner hanging from an apartment balcony on which was written, in English: Refugees Welcome. She took the opportunity to mention that Germany was getting ready to accept 1.5 million Syrian and other refugees in a country of 80 million people roughly the size of the state of Montana. I got the feeling that in doing this, Germans are still atoning - in their souls - for the crimes committed by their fathers and grandfathers…
The entrance of the Jewish cemetery
At the cemetery, which is perched on a hill so steep that standing can become a challenge, the destruction of tombstones was only partial. For reasons that escape me, considering the barbaric nature of the Nazi regime, many of the tombs are unharmed. Little stones placed on them, in the Jewish tradition, suggest that people still come here to honor the dead. A place of pilgrimage for some no doubt, a place to reflect about humanity for us.
Having returned to Québec, I find myself once again surrounded by the events of this interminable federal election campaign (much shorter than ours, said many of our new American friends) and the major issues that confront our little North American French-speaking nation. I feel, however, that part of me will be forever changed by this short sojourn into territories where, from my point of view at least, the heartbeat of humanity seems to be felt with much greater intensity!