Where were you when…?
I tried my best to suppress the thought. It hadn’t really occurred to me since my train had crossed the Dutch-German border, a queasy feeling of suddenly being on enemy territory, an irrational fear of being found out or discovered somehow.
But those feelings slowly faded away as I checked into my hostel and chatted with the cute blonde receptionist with the tie-dye hair band and yellowing teeth. The feelings receded further by the time I was laughing with the jovial German waiter with a Schwarzenegger-esque physique working the pizza place in Wittenberg. And the Holocaust stayed far from my mind as I danced with French, Aussies, Brits, and Germans at a three-day electronic music festival located in an old, abandoned coal mining industrial park by a lake 90 minutes outside of Berlin.
But the second I hopped into a cab back in Berlin on the way to try to find my great-grandfather’s grave, the ugly thought pierced through. I looked at the cab driver’s shock white hair and couldn’t help but wonder, didn’t want to think about anything but… Where were you when?
The receptionist, the waiter, the other festival-goers– they were all my people. Bright futures, short and interesting pasts. They were all as personally guilty and responsible for the Holocaust inasmuch as I am for the crimes of American slavery and Jim Crow. (And perhaps even less so considering the exemplary way post-war Germany has owned its terrible legacy.)
But the cabdriver was different. I stared at the back of his head and the shock white hair taunted me, full of the life and years that his people had robbed from mine.
Where were you when…?
I wanted to shout, but instead I asked him where he was from. Berlin, he responded. Born and raised here.
We drove past the imposing Reichstag building, where my bike tour group had formed a human pyramid three days before. My gaze returned to the front seat.
Who were you when…?
The question burned inside of me, demanding an answer from the man I’d shortly be paying. Instead I pushed the anger down. I studied his face in the rearview mirror and was surprised to discover he was probably no more than 60. The white hair had misled me. His features were soft and young. He was most likely born in the ‘50s. He was safe.
We continued driving and headed towards Alexanderplatz. In the big square, a Mohawk-sporting German friend I had met at my hostel bought sausages from a vendor there the day before. The vendor’s ketchup red umbrella and portable yellow mustard grill were both somehow hitched on to his belt. My friend and I sat as he ate, listening to a shirtless man with orange and white tiger facepaint blast out old jazz numbers from his trumpet.
The cab driver coughed a few hard times. I waited for the fit to pass.
“Where are your parents from?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Also from Berlin. My whole family is from here.”
“And how did they meet?”
“In school. They were, how do you call it? High school sweethearts.”
I felt the anger bubble up inside me again. I saw the driver’s parents. He was young, the spitting image of the driver, but with jet-black hair. She was plain, but pretty with the driver’s thin reedy nose and high, feminine cheekbones.
I saw the driver’s dad pass his mother a note in the back of their Jewish physiognomy class. I felt the heat as he stole a first kiss on a Berlin balcony while breaking glass and dancing flames sounded Kristallnacht a few streets over. And I tasted the saline of the tear that escaped from her eyes as she turned down the bottle-green collar on his Wehrmacht military uniform and wondered if she’d be saying goodbye for the last time.
What monsters made you? I bit hard on my tongue to keep the question from escaping.
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
“Yes, three! And now six grandchildren,” he responded with another laugh.
And what God gives you the right to talk to me cheerfully about grandchildren while my grandfather’s mother and baby brother were burned at Auschwitz? What sort of evil are you?
But I stayed silent as we pulled up to the cemetery. For the first time I took notice of the monster that had taken me over, only seeking the wicked in the perfect stranger in front of me. I tipped him a few extra Euros and headed through the cemetery’s towering iron gates.