|Gestapo Prison Cell -- Koln|
Among my must-see destinations on the road to dotage are some I've spent my life avoiding -- places in the world that frighten me. And the scariest has always been Germany.
Born in 1942, my first idea of Germans was just "the enemy," the ones who started this all-consuming war. Then in 1946, right after the war, we moved to London and I learned what was meant by blitzkrieg. Bricks and half-bricks were scattered everywhere, cranes were excavating craters where buildings had been. An army manual showed how an incendiary bomb pierces the floors of a home, then blows the place up. I drew picture after picture of planes dropping bombs, blowing homes and people to bits.
Back in America at age twelve, I read the diary of Ann Frank and felt her terror of the Gestapo. It seemed incomprehensible that anyone would want to kill such a peaceful, brilliant child. Germans struck me as uniquely ruthless and sadistic people. And as I grew up, my fears were intensified by my affection and admiration for Jews, who were my best friends, teachers and mentors.
Still, it was clear that Germany did not equal Nazism. History showed it was the very center of western civilization, the seat of philosophy and the arts. How it turned monstrous was a conundrum without a clear answer. Some of my fellow students had no qualms about visiting Germany, but many, like me, were afraid.
Still, I was amazed to learn that some Jews actually went back after the war, to live in the nation that had tried to exterminate them. And recently I read about Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals thriving in Germany, despite continued incidents of anti-Semitism.
If they could go, I should. So this summer, on vacation in the Netherlands, we planned a short side trip -- a weekend in Koln (Cologne) on the Rhine. The prospect filled me with violently mixed emotions. What would we see?