BERLIN -- We looked sort of alike. We both were in our late 20s and had light brown hair and blue eyes. Both of us covered business news, one for a Washington newspaper and the other for a German daily. We both had been invited to a June conference in Berlin commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.
Now it was banquet time. After the soup but before the main course, I discovered a major difference between us. My grandfather had been a rabbi in Hamburg; his grandfather had been a member of the Nazi party and a soldier in Hitler's elite SS.
I began playing reporter, and he answered my questions diligently. He didn't know I was a Jew.
All of my life I had heard stories, mostly from my father, about the horrors of Nazi Germany. I had never really thought about what it would be like growing up as the son and grandson of Nazis, instead of as the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors. This was my chance to discover the other side.
Iasked how he had learned about his grandfather's Nazi past. Then I moved a step closer and asked about his father. He responded without questioning, givingme the opportunity to explore without revealing.
From the age of 12, he had asked his father about the Nazi era. He learned nothing about the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler in school, he said, because the history lessons emphasized ancient times and the school year always ended before his teachers got around to this dark period in Germany's history.
Like Holocaust survivors who are reluctant to discuss the horrors with their children, his father refused to talk about the Nazis for many years. All of that changed, he explained, once he reached 18 and was deemed old enough to deal with his family's past.
He knew little about his paternal grandfather, other than that he had fought for Germany in both world wars and died in 1946.
His maternal grandfather, he said, joined the Nazis because that's the way the political and social wind was blowing in Germany and because joining the party enabled him to hold onto his business and live comfortably.
Curiously, my companion said that his grandfather, through his service in the butcherous SS, had helped to save a few lives. He added that his grandfather wasn't one of those "bad" Nazis. I wondered whether anyone in Germany thought his grandfather was a "bad" Nazi who joined Hitler for the wrong reasons.
Then my companion's eyes lit up and he beamed with pride as he turned to the adventurous life his father led during World War II, traveling and fighting throughout Europe. His father was captured by the Allies in 1945 but "heroically" escaped at night along with two other men. It took them weeks to get back to Germany, but they were determined and they made it. After the war, his father settled down on the family farm. It was then, after he told me about his father's escape from the Allies, that I told him about my family's escape and let him know that I was a Jew.
When I was growing up, my mom did not like to talk about what had happened in Germany. She was only 12 when she fled with her parents in 1938. The thing that mom remembers most was how thin her father looked, and how badly he coughed, when he was released from a Nazi concentration camp. She also remembers how her mother nagged the Nazi guards every day until his release.
Dad liked to talk about what happened more than mom. I listened intently to his stories about how his father, a rabbi, had delivered sermons in a Hamburg synagogue every Friday night, with a pair of Nazis sitting in the front row, and how he continued to deliver those sermons in a concentration camp after he was arrested. (His release from the camp some months later is a separate family story, involving an American relative's appeal that was carried to then secretary of state Cordell Hull.)
When the Nazis came to get my grandfather, my father slipped out the back window and went into hiding at a deserted summer camp he had attended. He eventually returned home, but by now it was 1939, and the time had passed for staying in Germany -- and even for comfortable exits.
I told my companion how my father, then 18, reached the Netherlands border and paid some farmers to tell him the best time to cross. Nazi guards and dogs patrolled the border, but a barbed wire fence the Germans claimed was electrified was not, the farmers said. My father waited and watched through the night to verify that the farmers' information was accurate. Then, on the second night, he slipped into Holland.
The expression on my fellow reporter's face did not change as I told him about my past. He did not ask me how my grandfathers, both of whom were arrested by the Nazis, escaped from the camps and then from Germany. I didn't volunteer the information.
He did ask me whether my parents had ever come back to visit Germany, and I told him they had not been back and therefore would be interested in hearing about my trip.
When I told him about my grandfather's congregation in Hamburg, he nodded and said he knew the building. It was no longer a synagogue, he said. The synagogue had become a radio station.
One thing continued to bother me. I I asked what he had meant when he said his grandfather saved a few lives through the SS.
"My grandfather was not a hero," he said. He said nothing more. He no longer spoke of his grandfather saving lives. We both knew about the crimes carried out by the loyal members of Hitler's SS. Judging from the look on his face, his grandfather must have been loyal.
RETURN TO GERMANY
My decision to attend the conference in Berlin was not easy. My parents have never been back to Germany, and I had no desire to go if it would upset them. But after two conversations and a positive recommendation from their rabbi -- the son of Holocaust survivors -- the decision was clear. The goal of the Marshall Plan conference was to build bridges for the future by getting to know young people from Germany and 15 other Western European countries. Mom and dad and I agreed that these were important and meaningful goals.
The conference was held in the Reichstag, the massive parliament building which Hitler's thugs torched in 1933 as part of a plot to seize power. Wandering through the dimly-lit halls of the restored Reichstag on the second day of the conference, I felt accosted by the ghost of Adolph Hitler. The ghost and I walked up the stairs to the top of the Reichstag and gazed out upon the cobblestone and grass fields where the Nazis had marched. The ghost surged with exultation; I trembled. A few minutes later, the ghost disappeared and I was alone.
Later that afternoon I took a bus tour of East Berlin. When we arrived at Checkpoint Charlie to cross through the Berlin Wall, an East German guard came aboard the bus to check passports.
Without expression, the young guard asked the bus driver to unlock the bathroom door and checked to see if anyone was hiding inside. A chill went up my spine. I remembered a story my father told me about how, lacking the money for a ticket, he had hidden in the bathroom of a boat from France to England for part of a night in 1939.
Before Hitler, there were more than 160,000 Jews in Berlin. I wondered how many there were today. On my last night in Germany, I declined invitations to go to the opera, theater and circus in favor of a search for the remaining Jews.
As I walked the streets I passed many older German women and a few older men. My mind was racing. Where were these people during the Holocaust? What did they do as Nazis? How much do they still think about Hitler?
I found a Jewish community center just off West Berlin's main street, the Kurfurstendamm. It was locked but a guard came out and talked to me through the iron gates. He told me there were about 5,000 Jews in Berlin and that some would attend a concert in this building that evening. I asked if there were any synagogues nearby. He gave me some vague directions, including something about the number 13.
I got lost and ended up walking into a small hotel. I asked the clerk if there were any Jewish synagogues in the area. He gave me a blank stare and I tried again, this time in broken German.
He searched through two telephone books and finally found several listings for Jewish synagogues. I saw the number 13 beside one of the listings.
"Do you know where this is?" I asked.
"Yes, follow me."
We walked briskly through the corridors of the hotel, left by a rear door and walked for three blocks to a large building at Number 13 Joachimstaler Strasse. I asked two old men standing in front if this was a synagogue. They said yes. I thanked the hotel clerk, and he headed back to work.
The synagogue door was locked. I was told to come back in a half hour, around 9 p.m. When I returned, the door was unlocked and I walked in. A watchman behind a desk asked to see my passport. He did not ask if I was Jewish.
I walked through the building, into a courtyard and then into another building where a few men were already gathered in a high-ceilinged synagogue. One spoke English and told me West Berlin has four synagogues -- two Orthodox, including this one, and two Reform. He said his congregation was waiting until sundown to say the evening prayers and would not begin until the rabbi and at least 10 men were present.
I knew the men would have stories to tell about how they survived the Holocaust and why they were living in Berlin today.
One told me he grew up in Germany before Hitler, then moved to New York and worked in a garment factory. In 1966, he returned to Germany to pursue a claim for land his family had owned before the war. I asked why he was still in Berlin 20 years later.
"It was a complex claim," he explained, "and these things take time."
There were about 25 men in the synagogue when the praying began. I was pleased and surprised that there were several young people.
The rabbi had a grey beard, a black hat and coat and a twinkle in his eyes. His white silk tie seemed somewhat nontraditional, but then he was the first Hungarian rabbi I had ever seen. He taught a bit in what sounded like a blend of German and Yiddish, and then the praying in Hebrew began.
In the midst of the prayer, the men suddenly stopped and walked into another room. They invited me to join them. We sat around a horseshoe-shaped table, eating matzah, drinking wine and vodka and, oddly, munching on peanuts. The rabbi sat at the head of the table. Everyone stopped talking when he began to teach, but the sound of cracking peanut shells continued. After the rabbi finished, we went back into the synagogue for more prayers.
One man motioned to me during the prayer to help put the cover back on the Torah scrolls. Another 15 minutes of prayer and song and the service ended, after 11 p.m.
I was ready to leave when the rabbi approached me. I was certain he didn't speak English.
"So where do you come from?" he asked, in a thick East European accent.
"Washington, D.C.," I replied.
"And are you a student there?"
"No," I said, "I'm working."
"So what are you doing?"
"I work for a newspaper."
"Ah, so you are a journalist," he said. "Some paper I've heard of?"
"The Washington Post," I said.
"The Washington Post," he said with a smile. "I've heard of it. Richard Nixon."
We walked out into the night together. It was late on a Saturday night in Berlin, and the Kurfurstendamm was hopping. Bright lights, loud music and the smell of beer surrounded us.
He asked me if I would be attending the synagogue the next morning. I explained I must return to Washington. We walked another block and then bid one another farewell with the traditional Hebrew L'Hitra'ot -- "until we meet again."
Icrossed the Kurfurstendamm and walked back to the Jewish community center. Despite the hour, it was only intermission at the concert. At least 150 young and middle-aged Jews were drinking coffee and soft drinks and catching up on gossip. I walked into the auditorium and sat down alone in the back row. About 10 minutes later the lights dimmed, the concert began and I drifted off in thought.
I was very happy. In the course of an evening I had seen the old and young, the religious and secular, living as Jews in the land that gave birth to the Third Reich.
I knew then that Hitler's final solution-the extermination of the Jews-had failed, even in Berlin. I couldn't wait to tell mom and dad.
David Vise is a Washington Post reporter.