My dear Jewish friend 11: Forms of Identification and Responsibility

Preparing for an upcoming lesson I had dug out my seasoned passport. My thumb ran over the rounded edges and the large white registering sticker of my visa that was placed over the federal eagle and had almost been rubbed off. The many travels I had made with this faithful companion had given this important document a soft appearance.

For the upcoming week I was asked to be part of a role play to help my police cadets prepare for a standard situation: I would play a passenger, who needs to identify herself to the authorities while traveling. „Pretty straight forward“, I quietly said to myself. I love being part of these vital practises as they help our young trainees to grow into their new, responsible role as representatives of the German government. But this practise would have a different, very deep meaning as it the responsibility growing from its day to day practise at German airports, train stations and borders was rooted in the darkness of the German past.

How many times had I taken for granted that I would not be in danger when handing my passport to an immigration officer? I can’t recall how often I had presented it while travelling from the United States to Germany and back. My German passport comes along with a lot of privileges citizens of other countries do not have. According to the Henley Passport Index it is listed on 3rd place worldwide for visa-free travel. Whenever I was holding this small, but powerful form of identification in my hand, I always felt secure when handing it over.

But there have been times in Germany, when certain forms of identification haven’t been a protection, but an endangerment for those holding them. Inge Auerbacher, who is a Holocaust survivor and whom I was honoured to meet in New York, knows through hurtful experience. Just a few weeks ago I stood with in front of an exhibition about „Kennkarten“ at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin as tears rolled down my cheeks. It was exactly on the day when Inge had left Germany. This day was marked by authorities in red letters across her German identification card, which was back then called „Kennkarte“.

(Picture right : by the courtesy of Inge Auerbacher)

The „Kennkarte“ was the basic identity document, which was used during the Third Reich. The murderous regime quickly used this form of identification as a weapon of control and fear. Unfortunately, Germany back then had been very efficient in the layout of bureaucracy. Letters on the outside of the „Kennkarte“ were introduced to mark each ethnicity – J for Jews, U for Ukrainians, R for Russians, W for Belarusians, K for Georgians, G for Goralenvolk, Z for Roma and Sinti.

I can’t possibly imagine what kind of fear it must have evoked as a person with such a letter had to produce their ID to an officer. After seeing Inge´s Kennkarte I will never ever take such freedom for granted. Encountering her story, took my teaching at the Federal Police to a deeper level. As long as I am allowed to, I will talk with my cadets about their responsibility to be guards of democracy and human worth. Back then, the police force was a terrible accomplice of the murderous Nazi regime enabling fear and becoming an instrument of its terror. Today, as long as I am permitted to teach, I will tell the stories of hurt, loss and disaster to help the young police officers to remember this terrible time in Germany and become a vital part of resistance against any form of exclusion, dictatorship and executive terror.

I sighed deeply as I slid my passport into my bag. What a privilege and responsibility. Maybe this is one of the reasons I was called back to Germany: that we remember these horrible times and stay committed to democracy and justice so people feel safe as they enter and life Germany.