A random Wednesday evening in 2021. On my big screen, I look at the zooming smiles of Tobias, the heart collector, of Alex, the unconventional therapist, and of our special guest Eric, an IT evangelist. It’s 9:13 PM when Tobias starts to explain the ice breaker of the night.
Our Stammtisch is a fruit of Covid. In German, stammtisch means the regulars’ table in a bar. Since July 2020, every Wednesday, Alex, Tobi, and I meet and grow together. Our mission statement: “We are looking for big-hearted people who – in an unconventional way – tell their stories, drunk.”
When we have a guest, our young tradition demands an ice breaker from the group. And because all three of us are professional speakers and trainers, of course, it must be a new exercise every time. We have our pride.
Badass team builder Tobias starts to explain the superficial game. “We all choose a philosopher and put the name in the chat. Flo, you take Eric’s choice. Alex, you take Flo’s choice, Eric uses Alex’ philosopher, and I take Eric’s. Then, we all have five minutes to find a cool quote from that philosopher and prepare a short speech. In that speech, you share a story about your life using that quote. Understood?”
After a few seconds, Eric’s choice for me pops up in the chat… Bertrand Russell.
I look up the name in Google. I cannot believe what I see. This quote… In a split second my mind travels back to the year 1990. Back to Israel!
I was 16 years old when the gates opened to one of the biggest adventures of my life. Mr. Dietrich, whom the entire school called Diddy, was my big and big-hearted religion teacher. At the beginning of the school year, I was in the ninth grade, Diddy presented the possibility to participate in the annual student exchange program with a school in Be’er Sheva, a desert town in southern Israel.
The moment I heard about it I was hooked. My dad was not against the idea; my mom loved it. Of course, she loved it. In 1938, at the age of six – she had just learned how to read – my mom would stand in a bakery in her Bavarian hometown and say, “Mom, on that sign it says, ‘Nothing will be sold to Jews here!’ Where can they buy bread then?” My mom was already an Inglourious Basterd at the age of six.
The love for people must be a genetic thing. My dad was a social monster. He would walk into a restaurant he had never been to in his life, and three minutes later he would be standing in the kitchen right next to the chef and discuss the ingredients of a mushroom sauce. Like father like son. I love people. I love to meet their passions, their stories, their struggles.
For me, as a German, with all the heavy historical weight on my 16-year-old shoulders, going to Israel, meeting Israelians, living with Israelians was the nirvana of human connection.
Easter 1990, months before the first Gulf War. Our El Al flight touched down in Tel Aviv. I still remember the dry heat when we left the airport. A couple of hours later, down in Be’er Sheva, I met my host family. And my host student, Bismut Meital. I guess it’s OK to say it 31 years later. I instantly fell in love with her curly oily black hair. And her ever-lasting smile.
Bismut’s family embraced me like their own son. I’d never experienced so much hospitality. I will never forget that couscous lunch. A long table, a white tablecloth, ornamented tableware, the father, an army captain, Bismut’s four brothers, all soldiers, her mother, and Bismut, and me. I had a terrible hangover, the couscous was terribly dry, and the whole family showed nothing but compassion. My longing for connections, for friendship, for love had found a new harbor.
A second genetic trait I inherited from both of my folks is my quest for knowledge. All my life I’ve been curious to know more, to explore, to grow. No wonder I dive so deeply into the ocean of rhetoric.
Now imagine you are 16 year years old and you come to Israel, the cradle of history. The traditions, the conflicts, the wars, the Romans, Masada, the Dead Sea, Jesus Christ, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, … History all over the place! Israel was a nirvana of knowledge for me.
And then, on one hot April day, we arrive at Yad Vashem.
The weight on my shoulders suddenly feels so much heavier. The German guilt. It’s hard to explain. I wasn’t born; I didn’t do anything wrong. But it’s there. It’s always there. For me, it will never go away.
Yad Vashem is one of the best museums I’ve been to. By far. Almost miraculous. History comes to life. The suffering of millions is palpable. We are 20 Germans, 16 and 17 years old. The entire trip I hear nothing but laughter. Not now. Now I see affected faces. I quench my thirst for knowledge, but my heart remains dry.
One of the signs reads ‘The Children’s Memorial’. The memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocaust. I walk into the cavern.
Inside the hall, darkness. A voice in the background states the names of the murdered children, their ages, and countries of origin. In the center of the hall, I count five candles. A multitude of mirrors on the walls, in different angles, project infinite light dots into a perceived eternal space. Every light dot is a child. A murdered child. I feel an unbearable pity for the suffering of those children, for all victims of the Holocaust. I start to cry.
Back to a random Wednesday evening in 2021. Back to stammtisch. I open Google and type in “Bertrand Russell quote”. The first quote pops up. I cannot believe what I see.
I wasn’t looking for that quote. That quote chose me.
This quote is me!