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Friends in Germany

By David Haldane

Feb. 12, 2024



It felt like a tropical breeze.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently announced a trip to Germany in March. “I’m sure that after the visit to Berlin, things will develop,” he told Annalena Baerbock, the first German foreign minister to visit the Philippines in over a decade. “We will be requiring your presence more and more.”

For me, it was a moment of light; the land of my ancestors communing with my chosen homeland. What could be dearer?

Indeed, Germany and I go way back. My mother was born there in 1915, growing up in a picturesque southern city called Chemnitz. But in 1938, with the Holocaust looming, her family—being Jewish—got deported to a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Miraculously, Mom escaped to Shanghai, China, before resettling in America after the war. Her sister spent the war years hidden in the basement of a German military officer. Another half-sister hid in plain sight. And an older brother joined the resistance and survived postwar incarcerations in the Soviet Union and Siberia to become a prominent journalist and top advisor to West German Chancellor Willi Brandt.

The rest of the family—my grandparents and youngest uncle—perished in horrible ways we can only imagine.

Much of this was unknown to me until last summer when I took part in a ceremony, laying several stolpersteine (stumbling stones) in memory of my mother and her family at their last known Chemnitz address. “If the stone is in front of your house,” creator Gunter Demnig had told Smithsonian Magazine, “you’re confronted…To think about six million victims is abstract, but to think about a family is concrete.”

The event was emotional, but by far the most profound fallout from that trip was discovering German relatives whose existence had been shrouded in darkness: two cousins and their descendants in Berlin, and another cousin and her children in Frankfurt.

I’d been to Germany twice before, first in 1970 and again a decade later with my mother shortly before her death. Both trips were memorable, but last year’s stood out in an affecting way; the presence of a new generation genuinely interested in unmasking and coming to terms with their nation’s gruesome past.

Which is why it was gratifying to hear a German official’s recent comments on Israel. “Accusing Israel of genocide,” Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said, “is a complete distortion of victims and perpetrators.”

In fact, the country of my mother’s birth has vowed to intervene on Israel’s behalf at the United Nations International Court of Justice, where South Africa has accused the Jewish state of exactly that unspeakable crime.

The onetime Nazi homeland “decisively and expressly rejects the accusation of genocide brought against Israel,” government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said. In its war with Gaza, he added, Israel is defending itself after “inhuman” attacks. “In light of German history and the crimes against humanity of the [Holocaust],” Hebestreit said, “the German government is particularly committed to the Genocide Convention” signed in 1948 specifically to prevent a repeat of those atrocities. But accusing Israel of genocide, he concluded, is simply a crass politicalization of that charge.

Much has been made of the enormous civilian casualty rate in Gaza which, of course, is tragic by any measure. What many forget, however, is that Israel is fighting for its life against an enemy committed to its utter destruction. And that civilian casualties are part of that enemy’s global sympathy-eliciting strategy aimed at surviving this war long enough to strike again and again.

For me, it’s personal; had the Jewish state existed in the 1930s, my murdered relatives might well have survived.

And so I welcome Germany’s efforts on Israel’s behalf. And look forward to visiting again next year when the celebrated Frankfurt Book Fair hosts the Philippines as an honored guest.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to meet my long-lost cousin.





David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist and author with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.





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