I last visited Munich in 1986. British Airways was running a last minute travel deal that, with our student discounts, cost us something like $50 for round-trip airfare between London and Munich. One of my classmates at Oxford had a cousin who was studying in Munich and offered to put us up— it seemed like a great plan. So we purchased the tickets and left the following afternoon. I hadn’t really taken the time to think through the experience of being an American Jew visiting Germany for the first time. I didn’t have any German friends. And though my Great Uncle was a professor of Germanic literature and had many friends in Munich, that world was never part of my own experience. I de-planed (though I don’t think we had that verb back then) and hearing the flight announcements amidst the bustle of the Munich airport, freaked out. I felt as if I had been thrown into the plot of some old WWII film and felt on edge and oddly vulnerable for the entire trip. My decision to visit Dachau focused my attention even more in the past rather than the present. And to add insult to injury, my friends and I only seemed to end up in restaurants with not a single option for a vegetarian—so meal after meal of beer, bread, pretzels, and pickled vegetable side dishes left me cranky. I didn’t open myself up to really experiencing the city or meeting anyone who lived there and to this day remember mostly what was going on in my own head rather than anything about where I was visiting. So I was especially delighted to have a chance to have a second date with this fabulous city.

The Jewish Museum in Munich

It is still poignant for me to visit Germany. But my social experiences over the years have shown me how deeply many Germans have tried to bring their history to the forefront. I really loved spending this past week in Munich. I was very touched by my visit to the Jewish Museum, run by the city of Munich. The museum is part of a three building complex with the museum, a Jewish community center, and a synagogue. Each building is only a few feet from the others. The design of the building is stunning– restrained and even a bit severe. While the synagogue has a glass crown on its stone base, the museum is the opposite– a completely transparent glass base supporting a building entirely clad in smooth natural stone. The glass surrounding the museum contains contemporary quotes of how various Germans who agreed to be interviewed feel about the museum and what it represents. Although the main floor has walls entirely of glass, the building is a black box that reveals absolutely nothing about what one might find inside. What I will remember most is a part of the permanent exhibition housed in the basement. It consists of a small number of objects—actually, it is eleven objects. I counted them. And most of the collection isn’t even full objects. They are partial objects; they are nothing: a one inch by three inch torn fragment of an ordinary letter, a broken dish, one pocket sized prayer book. A sign on the wall explains, simply and directly, that it is impossible for the museum to create a display of Munich’s Jewish history because these few fragments are all that remain. All aspects of Jewish life in the city were eradicated in 1938. I spent a bit of time looking at these 11 ordinary objects and am still thinking about them now.

Enjoying Bavarian cakes with Markus and Paula outside the Jewish Museum.

My favorite day in Munich was a morning spent at the Viktualienmarkt, Munich’s gorgeous and frenetic outdoor market in the heart of the city’s old town. It dates back to the early 1800s. We snacked on amazingly delicious sandwiches of pickled herring and raw onion stuffed into hard rolls, drank fresh squeezed fennel and pineapple juice, and consumed an obscene number of huge soft pretzels. Our friend Markus had picked us up at the airport clad in his authentic Bavarian lederhosen and our friend Paula had helped make all sorts of arrangements for our family. So we shopped at the market for a dinner with them, their children, and Markus’ mother, who lives in Munich.

Our apartment in Munich.

Jenny had rented us a fabulous apartment in the Schwabing section of the city that is owned by an artist. The apartment had very tall ceilings and the owner’s stunning and colorful artwork in every room. Through our market exploits, we covered the long dining room table with local Bavarian cheeses, three different kinds of pickles, a selection of olives (including the show-stealer—a large green olive marinated in rosemary and preserved lemon), dark seeded breads, grilled octopus, marinated shrimp, a bounty of vegetables, chantarelle mushrooms, yogurts, dips. . .at one market, the owner gave me a bottle of lovely olive oil just for buying so much.

Enjoying a final pretzel at the Munich airport, en route to Copenhagen.

We had a terrific dinner—and Markus’s mother told us that Thomas Mann had lived in the same block as our rented apartment. The thick, soft Bavarian pretzels became a regular part of our life in Munich—we ate them for breakfast, as well as between meal snacks, and sometimes as meals themselves.

Auf wiedersehen - but we will be back!

The city has such a great vibe that we all left wanting to return. We hope that our friends Martha and Pete will do a sabbatical there next year to give us a good excuse to return!

— Seth

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