BERLIN — Berlin. -- As I walked out of the synagogue in former East Berlin, the first thing that caught my attention was the police van on the left across the street. The cantor's words from this afternoon came back to me.
"Now it's just like western Berlin," he had said, "the police in front of Jewish institutions on guard against extreme rightists."
I crossed the street and headed for the subway station, my head full of the Friday evening service and the week's worth of information that I had taken in on the Wannsee conference -- the meeting 50 years ago this coming January that coordinated and gave approval to Hitler's planned genocide of European Jews.
Busy sorting out these various thoughts, I didn't quite get what I was hearing.
"Juden raus!" or "Jews get out!" started to filter in.
It was so absurd that for a second I almost laughed. The past week really had been emotionally taxing, I thought. First you hear all the details of the 1942 conference and the resulting murder, and now you hear Nazi slogans before a synagogue. Get a grip on it.
But a half second later I realized it was true, somebody behind me was saying in a voice just loud enough for me to hear: "Juden raus!"
At this very moment I reached the other side of the street and turned around: Two young men were walking by the synagogue, staring at me and mouthing the words that had struck me dumb.
I suppose several things caused me to stand stock still and stare -- the week's events, for example, had filled me with a thousand unresolved (and unresolvable?) questions -- but more than anything were the youths' appearance. Usually able to tell whether army boots and camouflage pants herald the foreigner-hating rightist or the leftist who may be screwy but still for foreigners' rights, I was completely confounded this time.
One was wearing the U.S. college or high school-style "letterman" jacket with a (for Germans at least) meaningless letter sewn on the front to show that the wearer is supposed to be some sort of a Big Man On Campus. The other had bleached hair that was punked out in a dreadlock fashion.
While the letterman jacket is typical of the rightist kids who hang out in subways and on commuter trains, the bleached hair wasn't.
All of a sudden I realized that it really didn't matter what they were wearing and that they were getting away. The one with the bleached hair lifted his head up high and, now safely away from the synagogue and police van, acted the hero by talking even louder. "Juden raus," he said directly to me.
Outnumbered and my hand-to-hand fighting tactics only barely beyond the groin-kicking stage, I ran back to the police van and banged on the door.
"There," I pointed, "They're shouting anti-Semitic phrases. Racial incitement. It's illegal for heaven's sake."
The policeman stared at me for a moment and jumped out of the van, probably expecting to see a dozen skinheads with torches and megaphones.
The street was empty.
They're around the corner, I explained with a sinking feeling. Just moment ago, really. Shouldn't we go after them? The policeman shrugged his shoulders. It was dark and foggy.
"I don't see anything. Are you sure?" After assuring him that I was, he magnanimously said he'd back the van up to have a better view of the entrance in case they came back.
We left it at that and I walked away, back toward the subway. The streets were empty; the youths nowhere to be seen. Feelings of failure and uselessness set in. I should have done something -- a swift kick at least. But instead I was rooted to the sidewalk for the five seconds when they were still in view.
Although I wasn't feeling particularly heroic at this stage, their cowardliness became apparent as I walked through the early winter evening: the street empty, past the police van, a few people coming out, mostly old, alcohol and a few slogans said in a loud speaking voice.
Was it planned? At first I was convinced it was, but later not so sure. They probably lived in the area and knew that the Ryke Strasse synagogue, which miraculously survived the Nazi pogroms and Allied bombs, was the only one in the area. They probably walk by the synagogue everyday and just used today's chance to get in a dig.
And yet to say such slogans in front of each other, if indeed it was so spontaneous, must mean that such racism in their circles is completely acceptable.
It not only made sense in terms of the recent spate of attacks against non-Germans, but also as part of the latent German anti-Semitism that researchers have been warning against for years. There may be few Jews in Germany, but hating Jews has remained in the blood.
A couple of minutes later, another participant of the seminar caught up to me. An English and history teacher, he never stopped saying throughout the seminar that he was only 10 when World War II was over.
"Tonight's just like London in a Dickens' novel," he said. I nodded in agreement. The gas street lamps, the fog, the cobblestones. "Just like 'A Christmas Carol,' " he added.
"Remember what the cantor said," I said. "The first Hanukkah candle is to be lit the day after tomorrow. It's more like 'A Hanukkah Carol.' "
He looked at me and forced a laugh as we skipped down the stairs into the subway station.
Ian Johnson writes frequently for The Sun from Berlin.