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Op-ed: Old Prejudices Hard to Overcome Even As Berlin Builds a Memorial

July 7, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

I encountered the word “wucher,” or usurer, for the first time while interviewing people on the street about the planned Holocaust memorial for Berlin. It may sound strange — how does one get to the topic of usury when discussing a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe?

I am standing at the site, near the Hotel Adlon and Brandenburg Gate, notebook and pen in hand. “I’m an American journalist. Would you mind sharing your thoughts about this with me?”

Most of the people I meet are between 23 and 40. All are in favor of a memorial, few are in love with the Peter Eisenman design, but all seem relieved that a decision has been reached. Their views seem to reflect what I’ve been reading in the newspapers.

Then I approach an older couple in their early 60s. At first, they seem shy, but soon they warm up and actually compete for my attention.

“It is good that there should be a monument, but I think it is too big,” says the woman.

This is not an uncommon theme. One of my other interviewees said he thought big was appropriate because of the enormity of the crime.

“It will be a provocation,” she goes on. “The dogs will use it and it will have to be watched all the time.”

This is similar to what Berlin’s mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, said about vandalism.

“We also feel bad that it is only for the Jews,” she says.

“The Jewish community doesn’t even want it. They don’t need it. In Berlin there are 10,000 Jews and if they didn’t feel comfortable here, they would go away.”

There were 170,000 Jews here in 1933. They didn’t all just go away. Many of them kept on hoping for the best.

“Young people say, `Enough already,'” she says. Her companion adds, “They get angry. The 18-year-olds say, `We never killed a Jew and our parents didn’t either.'”

“Why should we be ashamed? But Many Jews say this must not be forgotten, and I can understand this,” he says.

“But they also don’t handle the Palestinians well,” says the woman, adding that they have visited Israel.

“Yes,” he adds, “they learned from us. They do it the same way.”

I have heard such superficial comparisons before. They are painful to me because there is no comparison between Israel’s well-founded fear of terrorism and the Nazi persecution of Jews based on insane racial theories.

“Did your parents recall the persecution of the Jews? Kristallnacht?” I ask.

“I asked my mother about the Jews,” says the woman, “and she knew only that in East Prussia there were Jewish money-lenders, wucher, who would give credit to farmers.”

“It’s nonsense,” says the man. She gently pushes him aside.

“The farmers had very little money, and they could not get money from banks. So the Jews would lend money with high interest,” she continues. “And then people would kill themselves if they could not pay it back.”

“We are not against Jews,” says the woman, finally. “They are people like everyone else, like Turks. But if people wanted to make a memorial only for the Kurds, this would be a problem.”

I had asked the pair earlier if they would mind giving me their names. They said they preferred not to.

So I didn’t feel bad about not giving them mine. I had told them part of the truth: that I work for an American news agency. But I thought if I told them it was a Jewish news service they would have stopped talking.

An American Jewish friend of mine faced a similar dilemma this past weekend. She sat silently while the people around her — friends of a friend — hinted that the Holocaust memorial was a result of a Jewish lobby, Jewish money buying the votes in the Bundestag.

I am happy to report that the majority of Germans with whom I spoke were thoughtful, reflective and convinced that this memorial should be a warning to future generations of Germans. By no means did this older couple represent a majority.

But it did show me that there are some ideas, passed from parent to child, that take deep roots and need only a little water. For at least one older resident of Berlin, the image of the wucher is linked — on some subterranean level – – with a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe.

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