As a queer descendant of Holocaust survivors, I knew my first time visiting Berlin—a hub of queer life and Holocaust memorials—would not be easy.
I sling my light blue suitcase under the bus, walk up the stairs, and get settled in my seat near my friends. We put the last of our Netherlands goodies beside us. Mini wine bottles. Cheez-Its. Pretzels. Dutch chocolate. Casey is sitting across the aisle in their light blue jean overalls and black Doc Martens. Ilana is behind me, with their multicolored travel pillow slung around their neck. Different snacks and supermarkets await us eight hours later in Berlin. We begin our day of podcasts, bus games, and naps.
It has been one month of queer dance parties, swims in canals, feminist theory classes, and a Black heritage tour of Amsterdam. There is only one student who identifies as straight. I am the only religious Jew.
Yesterday, I chopped off most of my hair and got my first asymmetrical undercut: my first queer haircut. I don’t send pictures of my undercut to my mom, just a picture of me straight on, smiling. She texts, is one side shorter than the other? in response to the shorter curls that hang on the left side of my head. My suitcase below me is filled with my femme clothes—a pink floral tank top for parties and a striped dress for synagogue—that I am dragging from one country to another.
Students walk up the aisle for research and personal check-ins with Helena, our program director, and I walk up first.
I tell Helena how I have found so many interviewees in the Netherlands. I call them ‘the grandchildren,’ because I am interviewing fellow grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in each country we live in for our independent research course. I tell Helena how I met many of them at a Jewish queer synagogue in Amsterdam, and I have started researching some of the Jewish communities in Berlin.
Berlin is described to us as the queer center of the universe. There are endless queer dance parties and bars waiting for us. Ipek, our homestay coordinator, introduces herself using ‘he, she, they, or it’ pronouns. We will live with Ipek’s community of friends, lovers, and ex-lovers in homestays throughout the city. It sounds like the L Word but instead of Los Angeles traffic there are U-Bahn delays.
“Yes, and the stumbling stones. There will be reminders of the Holocaust everywhere,” Helena says. There are a few secular Jews on the program, but Helena knows this will hit me differently.
Berlin won’t be easy.
Eight hours and many podcasts, music albums, and snacks later, our bus drives through the streets of Berlin.
“There’s a great restaurant! This bar has great queer vibes!” our Teaching Assistant tells us from the front.
Berlin is described to us as the queer center of the universe.
Ilana and I are matched with our homestay, Robin. Robin met Ipek years ago in Berlin when Robin and Ipek were the only young lesbians at the bars. Robin teaches music to empower young girls to share their stories in the music industry. She walks her bike beside us and we begin our walk to her apartment. Before we cross the street, a German Shepherd walks by without a leash.
My stomach jumps then sinks. Ilana keeps talking to Robin about Utah, where they are from, and their college. I am grateful they keep talking so I don’t have to.
I am having a flashback to middle school, to a day where I am wearing Delia’s midi-shorts and a t-shirt, probably with a fake bra or shelf tank-top underneath to hide my new breasts.
“We can’t let grandma see that dog,” my mom is saying. “It’s a German Shepherd.”
We are standing on line for funnel cakes and treats from a truck. The field overlooks my cousins’ future high school. Goldendoodles and mutts prance as they compete. Their owners cheer as they win treats. Purple Bark for Life signs are sticking out of the freshly mowed green grass. My grandparents sit together across the field under a tent selling homemade cookies. My cousins, aunt, and uncle organized Bark for Life to raise money after their close friend died of cancer.
I know my mom is referring to the German Shepherds that threatened my grandma in Auschwitz. I cannot remember when my mom told me about the German Shepherds; it is as if this is something I have always known.
My mom buys our snacks. We stare at the dog until they are ready, hoping grandma cannot see it from across the field.
My blue suitcase rumbles against the concrete, bringing me back to Berlin. We continue walking, and I tell Robin about how I am from New York. I am afraid to tell Robin I am Jewish. Robin guides us by the canal, and there is another dog. I don’t want my Judaism to be burdensome for Robin. The dog’s paws scamper on the black pavement by the water. I learn that Germans don’t walk their dogs on leashes. The apartment buildings are on our left. Our new home for the next month.
Ilana and I unload our luggage and fill our mouths with Robin’s warm chickpea soup. We dip multigrain bread in it. Robin doesn’t eat bread. She got it special for us. She tells us about her work schedule, bath schedule, and how she enjoys organic food and yoga in the mornings. The water jar has rocks in it, and in order for the rock minerals to work, the water has to be filtered in slowly. Our water bottles swish with special rock water as we walk to the U-Bahn stop in the mornings for class.
I am afraid to tell Robin I am Jewish.
Ilana helps me get dressed in the morning and I feel stuck with my wardrobe stored in grey organizer boxes. They offer some of their sweaters and a cropped collared shirt to put underneath. I rotate between three collared shirts everyday. Ilana is making me a Pinterest board for inspiration. They wear baggy corduroy green pants and orange vans. Ilana is inspired by our other friend’s gender-neutral clothes. I am inspired by Ilana’s.
After a few days, Ilana and I almost believe in the rock minerals. Robin tells us they change the chemical makeup of the water so that it is better for our bodies. I’m more focused on the fabrics that are going to make my body feel good from the outside in.
A week later, Robin joins Ilana and me in the kitchen while we are enjoying dinner, and Ilana mentions they are Jewish, and I am, too.
“Jenna’s grandma . . . ” Ilana says, and looks at me.
“Um, my grandma is a Holocaust survivor,” I say. My stomach twists. I don’t want to put this burden on Robin, a German living with a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
“Oh, wow,” Robin gasps. “Where was she?”
“Auschwitz, and then another camp in Germany.” My voice drops.
“My family came here from Ukraine, we are not as German,” Robin says. Robin’s jump to her own family history feels as if she is trying to justify her German-ness to me—perhaps to assure me that her family members were not Nazis. I’ve seen awkward, well-intentioned, and startled reactions to the reveal of my grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust before, but not like this.She tells us about the immigration process, and what it was like to grow up in Germany on the West side of the wall, with family on the East side. She rode her bike and knew the routes based on the location of the wall, and when it was gone, she was lost in her own city. I listen to her story as she avoids my own.
We are walking on a tour of Berlin through the perspective of gentrification when I feel the familiar pang. It’s my IBS talking.
Our tour guide is describing the history of Berlin in our area, and how employees must work twenty-four-hour businesses and restaurants to keep up with the costs of increasing rent. We walk by a convenience store where many workers and community members gather to protest.
I listen to her story as she avoids my own.
The pang is back, and I duck out of the tour to lay down. I’m sluggishly walking towards the U-Bahn and up to the platform. The yellow subway train cars look like they jumped out of a train toy playset. The yellow paint chips in spots. The other day I had seen an ad about stomach pain and conditions on the train. Are the Germans trying to fix my IBS? I write on Snapchat. IBS is related to intergenerational trauma, these fools!
I am standing on the U-Bahn platform and on the opposite platform, for trains going in the other direction, there is a policeman holding a German Shepherd in a muzzle. My stomach sinks deeper into itself. My eyes are watering, and I take out my phone to take a photo, as if showing it to other people will help them understand what my body is feeling right now. I try to call my mom, my dad. I can’t believe the Germans are still using these dogs to police people. Haven’t they learned anything? I call my mom again, 9373629098. Why isn’t she answering, she is the only person that can understand? I turn my back to the dog and opposite platform. It’s just a dog. It’s just a dog.
I experience another flashback: I am eighteen, and grandma is four days shy of her ninety-fourth birthday. I am wearing leggings with a flowy shirt, and she looks cuter than me in her blouse and sweater. Her small feet touch the red carpet.
The dogs jump on us.
A man, we were afraid, you don’t do what the German tell you, then the dog came, and finished [attacked them]. Was terrible. I was there [Auschwitz] four weeks and then, doesn’t matter. I said I don’t care what kind of job I can get, hard or something, but I can’t take it, this. Was terrible. Screaming, ugh.
She is telling her stories beside the Christmas tree. I am standing beside her, recording and asking questions, while another family member nods every so often from his seat closer to the tree.
Grandma is reminded of German Shepherds all day when Ziva the dog is released from the guest room. Ziva is an Australian Shepherd larger than grandma. She barks and jumps near her. Grandma smacks Ziva with her pocketbook. No, no, not me, she says. Ziva’s mom needs to pull her away, but she doesn’t do it fast enough. I try to explain that she can’t keep letting the dog get near her. I hate that my grandma has to see Ziva. Ziva’s mom, dad, and brother go about their day unraveling sheets of red wrapping paper from boxes and yelping in joy.
Next year is the same. Ziva is back, and this time my grandfather and I talk about Auschwitz to explain why Ziva is triggering. I hold grandma’s hand, buckle her seat belt, and we sit in the back seat on the way home together.
Back in Berlin, the U-Bahn comes, and the dog vanishes from my sight as we slide to the next stop.
Jenna Zucker is a senior at Barnard College majoring in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. They are writing a memoir about their relationship with their grandmother, their queer identity, and their grandmother's survival of the Holocaust.