Paula R. Stern

Paula R. Stern – It’s Complicated

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Paula R. Stern – It’s Complicated

Last year, I came to Germany for the first time in my life. I did it my way, accepting inside myself that I would do what I felt I could and accept what I couldn’t. There was more that I couldn’t than could. In the end, I attended the conference, gave my presentations, barely spoke outside the framework of the conference, and didn’t go anywhere.

A year later and another invitation and I’m back again. This time, I did better…mostly. I forced myself into conversations with wonderful and kind people. I decided to go into the city using the free pass they gave me from the conference. I went into Stuttgart. As I walked, I looked at the faces. I found myself estimating how old each person was. The young, the middle aged…and then the elderly…very elderly…my eyes filled with tears…I blinked them away.

Stuttgart is a beautiful city. It was warmer last year here in Stuttgart than it was in Israel. This year, it was freezing cold – quite literally, As I walked, I remembered Saba Moshe standing in Auschwitz and telling us about how each morning, they had to run to the “bathroom” which was a large room with a long slab of concrete with holes in it. Each person sat on the hole to relieve himself. They took showers and then, wet and freezing and wearing only the thinnest of clothes, ran back to the bunk. I had on a shirt, two sweaters and a coat…four layers.

I took a train…a train…in Germany. All the emotions are there. But the people were friendly. “I don’t speak German,” I must have said a hundred times. Every single person communicated in English.

And now I sit in the airport in Stuttgart, waiting to go home. A man sits down next to me – also waiting and takes out what looks like a package of tortillas. I’m hungry, I thought to myself and began looking in my bag. I came to the last sandwich I made before leaving the airport. I put it beside me on the empty chair between me and the man and went back to looking for the cheese.

“Israeli?” he asked me. And then said, “Shalom aleichem” (peace unto you).

This is almost exactly the conversation I had the last time I flew to Germany – one German asked if I was Israeli. When I said yes, another responded with “hava nagila” and a third said, “shalom aleichem”.

This time, I answered again, “yes” to confirm that I am indeed Israeli.

“I knew it from the bread,” he said…in Hebrew. A voice from home.

We spoke of where we live…of home…of politics. Last night a friend told him to avoid a street in Stuttgart…where a neo-nazi demonstration was taking place. I hadn’t heard. He saw my Jewish star and told me it was impossible to wear it here. I told him I’d warn it the whole time.

He told me that as bad as it is here, and he felt it was bad, it is much worse in France. We sat for about 20 minutes talking of books and home and family and travels – it felt so good to speak in Hebrew.

We spoke of being in Germany on Kristallnacht, of traveling other places…and it turns out we have the same birthday (the real one ….on the Hebrew calendar). I smiled when he told me and responded that there are no coincidences in life. I feel that God is sending me comfort, telling me I”m almost home.

A short while later, he saw another man coming over and called to him in Hebrew. They and a third Israeli had attended a conference in the same complex where my conference was held.
He stands to go and check in for his earlier flight home – he is flying through Vienna; I am going through Zurich. Before he leaves for his flight, he offers me his remaining food….he insists that he doesn’t need it. Warm soup, he says, a sandwich, some spicy ketchup.
I thanked him and told him he had made this all so much better. I needed home, I told him. I have chocolate and enough food, the Hebrew was what I needed.
“Nesiya tova,” I wish him – have a good trip; he wishes me the same.
A short time later, I went through security. I know it is nothing personal; I know it is how they do security. They frisk an old man; and then a woman instructs me to go through the machine – and then I too am frisked. I hate the feeling of her hands touching me and while I know that it is nothing more than their job, I feel the anger. As I collect my things and begin to walk through towards the terminal, I see a policeman standing there and I can’t help thinking of the guards who watched as the Jews were herded towards the gas chambers.
The Germans have done nothing to cause these thoughts…at least not in this century but the pain is there and I begin to think
All I need is home…I long for home.
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