The second leg of our Grey Wave adventure took as across another border – this time between Belgium and Germany. Just a short drive, less than 150 kilometres, but since we took to the scenic roads rather than the highways, including a small stop at Signal de Botrange, the highest point of Belgium and one of the weirdest spots on the continent, it took us the best part of the day just to get there. The roads here wind through dark forests and deep valleys, the bottom of which seemed one big campsite at times, as one infinitely long camping seamlessly converged onto the next. And they were all full to the brackets, with elderly wine-drinkers I presume, as the last week of September is the time of wine-festivals here. The Ahr valley, where we camped, looks (and smells) as if it could be in the mountains of Switzerland or Austria, with the steep gorge flanked by numerous vineyards, that, in September, spread an unmistakable odour of rotting fruit. Castle ruins on hilltops and abandoned fruit trees terraces make the romantic setting complete.
The next morning we took the bicycles for a ride down the valley, to the pittoresque little town of Ahrweiler, the capital of the wine growing in the area, where I had a rather curious encounter with the ugly German past. I have visited Germany on many occasions, and I have even lived in the country for several months. I’ve seen and experienced a number of Holocaust sites and of course I am aware of the history. For me as a Jew, Germany will inevitably be connected to this most ugly chapter in human history. But I don’t hold a special grudge against modern-day Germans, nor do I think that the Germans of the past are more accountable for the horrors than all the other people of Europe. Except the Danes, perhaps, who deserve special credit for their courage and success in saving almost all the Danish Jews.
As I’ve said, I know my history and am not often overwhelmed by emotions about the Holocaust. But as we strolled through this peaceful, sunny little town, we’ve come across the old synagogue, which in the Jew-deprived Ahrweiler is now being used as an art exhibition space. This is where it hit me. I stood there and read the plaque, telling about the desecration of the synagogue in 1938, and how not a single of the town’s Jews survived the Holocaust and I just didn’t get it. I could somehow acknowledge that in the relative anonymity of a big city, where you don’t even know your neighbour’s name bad things can and do happen. But here, in this small remote town? How could it happen in the 20th century, in a wealthy European country, that the town’s people, educated, cultured folk, who lived together with their Jewish neighbours for 7 centuries, who probably knew each and every one of the several dozens of the town’s Jews by name, got together and burned down the synagogue, and send their neighbours to the gas chambers? I just couldn’t fathom it, I still can’t, and I was most surprised how despite all my knowledge of the Holocaust, I still fail to understand, and probably will never be able to understand, how otherwise nice and decent people can be capable of unspeakable cruelties to their closest neighbours.
We haven’t stayed too long in Germany. The weather became cold and rainy, and we’ve made our escape, stopping briefly in ancient Trier, before heading to the next country on our list. Attentive readers will probably have already guessed which one it was.