Following two-and-a-half years of intensive reading and writing, fretting over deadlines and grappling with often impenetrable texts, our class trip to Berlin was a worthy ending chord to our experiences in the Amirim program. Our day-to-day tours surveying the historical and cultural landmarks of Berlin were invariably mirrored by an inner exploration of uncharted intellectual and ethical territory. Intellectual food-for-thought habitually cropped up throughout each and every day amidst the solemn, charged atmosphere of Berlin’s past remembrances. In this sense, many of us believe that we got “two for the price of one”; that is, embedded within our trip to Berlin were two radically different tours with two radically different curricula – a tour of Berlin’s glorious, cultural legacy paralleled by a tour of its dark, ominous history. Although seemingly opposed to one another, we believe that the two foci of our trip merely complemented rather than diminished the effect of each other. This was undoubtedly made possible due to the careful planning of our curriculum during the winter semester of 2018-19 that prepared us for the trip that lied ahead.
The main preparation for our trip was a semester-long workshop led by Professor Yoav Rinon on French and German Realism and Romanticism. Throughout the semester we read over a dozen works of French and German literature that exposed us to the development of different literary movements during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. With Professor Rinon, we zipped back and forth between France and Germany on the belletristic landscape, learning to lay bare traces of influence and signs of evolution between the two cultural epicenters. Following our semester-long study, Rinon accompanied us to Berlin in order to aid us on the next step of our exploration of Realism and Romanticism – but this time from a different angle. Having nearly exhausted our literary discussion of the two artistic movements, in Berlin we frequented various galleries and museums in order to deepen our understanding of the two movements by focusing on their visual presentations – primarily via painting. It was apparent to all that Professor Rinon invested great efforts in preparing for our visit to each different museum, having read up on the relevant pieces of art located in each museum that contributed to our understanding of the two artistic movements. Nevertheless, standing beneath the monumental paintings of the masters of old, it was impossible to shake the long shadow of Germany’s not-so-distant, dark past that perpetually shrouded us wherever we went.
For precisely this reason, we received a semester-long course with Professor Moshe Zimmermann that ran concurrently together with Professor Rinon’s. The topic of Professor Zimmermann’s course was memory – German memory. How has and does Germany cope with the memory of Nazi Germany? Does Germany succeed in morphing its painful memories into dignified memorials, and does she succeed in staying out of the shadow of its dark past while not erasing it? After discussing these charged questions during the semester, together with Professor Zimmermann we visited various “sites of memory” such as the Nazi-built Olympic Stadium, the monolithic German Ministry of Treasury that once served as the Luftwaffe’s headquarters, the museum of terror located atop the rubble of the Gestapo’s headquarters, and more. Occurring either before or after our museum visits with Professor Rinon, our visits with Professor Zimmermann colored the rest of our daily experiences in Berlin with different shades of meaning and complexity. Oscillating daily between Berlin’s rich cultural heritage and its atrocious past may have been a disorientating experience, but I remain adamant that any visit to Berlin that seeks to do justice to its multi-layered and complex nature must contain a bit of vertigo. To knowingly do otherwise seems impossible in hindsight.
As stated, the intellectual and ethical challenges that arose during our trip resonated beautifully with the two-and-a-half years of intense study in Amirim, but perhaps more imporant than the intellectual climax experienced was the social and communal climax we as a group experienced together in Berlin. Amirim is an anomaly compared to other fields of undergraduate studies. In contrast to other fields of study where faces change from course to course, we as a group of twenty-four have been studying together for two-and-a-half years. We have all faced the same challenges, have written the same papers, have complained over the same courses, and have gotten to know each other fairly well. I, including many others in my group, may confidently claim that the social aspect of Amirim is no less valuable than the educational aspect. Thus, Berlin was a truly unique experience for us as a group to be together one final time before each goes his or her separate way. On the final day of our trip, we gathered together as a group in Professor Rinon’s apartment for a celebratory lunch - a good-bye to Germany, to Amirim, and to our group.
We as a group are cognizant of the fact that the unique intellectual and social experiences bestowed upon us by Amirim are made possible only due to the generosity of our donors. Speaking on behalf of my group, I would like to specifically thank the Schwartz Foundation for its exceptional contribution that made this trip happen. I truly believe that the thoughts, experiences, laughs, and meditative silences that we all shared together in Berlin will continue to accompany us for time to come – thank you.
Ben Shenhar (Third-year student, Class of 2019)