I found myself this weekend at a pretty faithful American version of a German Oktoberfest. As I watched the men in lederhosen dance with women in equally traditional dresses and I listened to the oom-pa-paa of the polka bands, I found I could not push a thought from my mind:
Some of their families once wanted all of my families dead.
Was that a silly thought? Or a wise reminder of terrible possibilities?
Second-hand memories of the horrors committed by the Nazis are not hard for me to access. I was born only three days short of a decade after the liberation of Auschwitz. My father was an Army captain in WWII -- Pacific theater, but the Germans were his enemy, too. And as a Jewish kid growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I cannot remember not knowing what the Holocaust was and what it meant.
Some of my parents' friends refused to ride in a Volkswagen, much less buy one, because of the inextricable linkage between the company and the Third Reich. (Mercedes were also cars to be avoided.) That level of distaste did not descend to me. And I happily chowed down this weekend at the Oktoberfest on fried potato bread and winced sympathetically at tweeners playing the Beer Barrel Polka.
These people doing their Germanic best were two, three, even four generations removed from the generation of Hitler. No swastikas were for sale in the craft booths. I realize that the chances that anybody there harbored anti-Semitic, genocidal passions were pretty small. Given the state of American history education, it would likely have been easier to find someone who had never heard of the Nazi death camps.
But the truth about European (and American) politics is that it might not have been impossible to find someone there who had the fraudulent "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" or a translation of "Mein Kampf" in his or her personal library at home.
So a thought came again, unbidden: Did Himmler or Goebbels dance to this music? (The Chicken Dance was composed in Switzerland and well after the Third Reich fell, but that was the Mel Brooks-style image in my mind. Nazis in full dress uniforms, wildly flapping their arms.)
By some standards, the Nazi's era ended a long time ago -- 66 years. Should bygones be bygones?
History isn't like that for many peoples.
The Armenians and Turks are still arguing over whether the brutal massacres of Armenians back in World War I were sufficiently brutal to be called a genocide. It's an argument that leaks into modern international politics.
The Balkan wars that re-started after the fall of the Soviet Union had roots in attacks and counter-attacks that push back centuries.
The Muslim Shia hold annual, emotional ceremonies of mourning for a massacre committed by what became the Sunnis more than 1,300 years ago.
What Jewish kids learn about the year 1492 has nothing to do with Columbus sailing the ocean blue. It's the year the Christian rulers of Spain ordered the members of what was then the most vibrant Jewish community in the world to either convert, leave, or die. Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition.
And it does not lessen the credibility of Israel's demands for national sovereignty to acknowledge that there are Palestinians who hold justified grudges for having had their families expelled from their lands two or three generations ago.
I'm not considering the effects of first-generation atrocities where surviving victims carry realtime memories of the offences: The killing fields of Cambodia, Hutus versus Tutsis, al-Qaeda versus most other Muslims and the larger non-Muslim world, and so on.
I cannot -- nobody can -- begrudge those more recent victims any level of bitterness. But how many generations should this feeling travel? Should we aspire to the vision of John Lennon's "Imagine?" No countries? And therefore nothing to kill or die for? (As if people would not find other reasons for such.)
The only way we get there is through a loss of distinctive identities, a homogenization of peoples where an Oktoberfest or a Columbus Day parade carries no more intrinsic meaning to anyone than Seinfeld's invented "Festivus."
I would argue that there's a value in those cultural distinctions and memories, if they are properly cultivated. All cultural histories include accounts of real offenses. And most of us have ancestors who were winners and losers.
I have an African-American friend who told me she cannot enjoy Civil War reenactments for much the same reason I got the willies at the Oktoberfest. Which started me thinking that, while my direct ancestors didn't make it to the U.S. until after the Civil War, Jewish families I might be distantly related to were slaveholders in the South. And surely included, more recently, merchants who helped enforce Jim Crow laws.
How long should blacks in this country feel a shudder of unease at celebrations of mostly white American culture?
In a perfect world, pace Lennon, we don't forget our differences or our cultural grievances. Instead we remember them as an inoculation against committing such offenses ourselves or allowing them to happen against us again.
So how many generations of Jewish Americans should feel a momentary disquiet at a public celebration of all things Germanic? As long as it doesn't get in the way of enjoying an apple strudel, I hope that feeling persists for a good, long while.