Sam Siskind entered his last name and his mother’s maiden name into a database at a Holocaust museum in Berlin. He didn’t know of any relatives who died in the Shoah, but nonetheless several people with the names Siskind and Tauberg appeared.
Siskind now wants to examine further into his family’s European past, a curiosity ignited while on Berlin: Germany Close Up, a Classrooms Without Borders trip in August.
“As far as we know there is no one in our family who was murdered,” said Siskind, 26. “That really opened up my thinking and interest in doing research to see if or how they’re related.”
While the 25 young adults on the trip, including five from Pittsburgh, learned about the past, the trip was also a window into modern-day German society, which they saw as vastly different from the bygone era of World War II and the Holocaust.
“The world is getting small,” said Zipora Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders. “It’s very important for young leaders to understand what’s happening in the world.”
The group learned about German-Israeli and German-American relations and met some of Germany’s Jewish community. They were led by non-Jewish guides who gave them insight into their vision of Germany’s past.
“It was an amazing opportunity to see from a modern-day German standpoint — hearing from our German guides, all of whom were not Jewish, and the sensitivity and care that they applied to the way that they explain certain events and the way that they put that information into perspective,” said Becca Ackner, 36, who was also on the trip.
The Germans told Ackner that they would ask their parents and grandparents about the past, even though their questions sometimes elicited painful memories. The Germans were also mindful with their wording, using phrases such as “extermination camp” instead of “concentration camp” and in lieu of “Kristallnacht” they said the “November Pogrom.”
“It wasn’t just a night of glass breaking,” Ackner said. “It was a horrible pogrom, where people died.”
While much of the focus was on today’s Germany, the group also visited a concentration camp amid a time of rising anti-Semitism coinciding with the summer conflict between Israel and Hamas.
There was talk among the group about a protest in Berlin a couple weeks before the trip. Ackner said she saw some anti-Israel and anti-Semitic graffiti, but Ackner and Siskind both said they felt safe.
Siskind said the Jewish facilities he went to had security guards. Ackner felt comfortable enough to ride a Berlin train alone one night, something she said she would not do in other places.
Despite some apprehension they may have felt at times, there were parts of Germany’s history that fascinated Ackner and Siskind, and caused more excitement than nervousness on the trip.
Ackner, the operations director of Rodef Shalom Congregation, wanted to learn about Germany’s Jewish history because the synagogue was built by German Jews. Siskind has an interest in classical music, and Germany’s history provides a wealth of renowned composers.
“On the actual tour I was able to see the Jewish history, and then on free time I got to see some of the music stuff as well,” Siskind said, adding that, for instance, he went to an instrument museum in Berlin.
Those interested in going next year can apply online at classroomswithoutborders.org. The trip is open to Jewish adults under the age of 39. Registration for next year starts at the end of September and ends in December. The cost is $1,350 with other charges being subsidized, Gur said.
Andrew Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com.