September 20, 2013

Art of Attention: Recalibrating History.

Photo: Elena Brower

As an American Jew, I grew up with the awareness that Germany was decidedly not a place for me.

The seemingly irreparable anger that hovered around the subject of Germany throughout my childhood had to be respected: again and again I was taught to remember the six million Jews who were needlessly killed in those years.

I’d always felt that the hatred was never mine and this had always been confusing to me—which made it all the more interesting when I learned that the first translation of my book, Art of Attention, would be published in German.

This meant I’d have to go there, teach yoga classes and do book signings in several cities. I’d been there once before, with a different job, to a small city for just a few days. I’d worked hard, seen very little, and had never been back.

I was nervous about all of it.

Planning began: four cities, two weeks. I was relieved to begin in Berlin, where I already had a dear friend, the co-owner of a beautiful yoga studio in the center of the city. Two days before my departure, a New York friend insisted on sending me his private tour guide in Berlin to take me on a field trip, which ended up being one of the biggest turning points in my life.

Berlin greeted me with blazing sunshine, warm breezes and happy Berliners (the weather was gorgeous for the first time in months) and beautiful art seemed to be everywhere I rested my eyes. Most of my weekend there was sparkling bright, so the overcast sky on the day of my field trip with my inimitable guide Burkhard was especially memorable.

That day, the sky took on a periwinkle grey that helped me remember something I didn’t even know I’d forgotten.


December, 1941. My name is Hannah, and I’m 15 years old, living in the heart of Berlin, in a neighborhood of mostly Jews. Required to wear gold stars on our clothing, we were slowly being forbidden from sitting or standing in certain places, nor using certain public facilities, which was confusing and becoming more scary. The feeling of being watched was mountingand everyone else in my neighborhood had begun feeling it too.

I had a little brother, almost four at the time, and a little sister who was nine years old. 

The day I’m speaking of was a weekday, but my brother was sick, so I was at home caring for him. My father was working at his friend’s shop that day, my mother was helping her friend with some housework, and my sister was at the school down the block from our house. It was brutally cold that day, and the wind chilled my bones through the cracks in our windows.

At midday, a Nazi soldier knocked loudly on the door, shouting that we had five minutes to get outside, and we were only allowed to carry one bag. I was too afraid to ask the soldier about my parents and my sister, so I moved quickly. I could hear other soldiers knocking on other doors, shouting, followed by crying and the hasty shuffling of feet. 

I wrapped my brother up in as many articles of his small clothing as I could find, placed a scarf and a few pieces of clothing into a small bag; we didn’t have much and I had no idea what to do without my parents there. I carried my brother and this bag outside, and the soldier shouted, too loudly, to walk. At the next corner, more people from my neighborhood, carrying bags and children, were walking too.

None of us knew where we going. As we passed homes of other Germans, they looked out their windows, but as soon as I saw them looking, they’d move away from the window and close the curtains. I remember wondering what they knew and why they kept doing that. We walked for over an hour, in an eerie silence, through our neighborhood, and then into a part of the city where the houses were bigger, and there were many more trees.

I remember being so cold and being grateful for my brother’s body to help keep me warm as we walked—and wishing we could live in one of those beautiful houses, with trees growing outside. 

We arrived at the Grunewald train station on the outskirts of Berlin, freezing, and were ushered onto a platform in the open air and there were hundreds of other Jews there, shivering in the bitter wind. Babies and children were crying; we were all so hungry and cold. Soldiers shouted in German for us to get closer together so they could fit more people onto the platform.

There were hundreds of us, told that the trains would take us to Threisenstadt, one of the propaganda camps which the Nazis used to show the world “what they were doing” —theatre and art.

That ended up being a waystation between life and death—a front for the concentration camps. 

As the train arrived slowly what seemed like hours later, we were pushed towards it. With my brother in my arms, I came close to the door, and there stood one soldier, the last face I saw before I got on that train. He was the first and only Nazi who didn’t shout at me. Slowly and quietly he motioned with his hand toward the door and said, “Bitte, das ist Ihr Zug.” 

“Please. This is your train.”

My story is the same as millions of others. 


Looking down at my sneakers as I walked onto the platform of Track 17 on that first full day in Germany with Burkhard, all I wanted to do was lay down on the platform, face down and let my tears be absorbed into the ground.

He explained to me that in the creation of this memorial to the deportation of 50,000 Jews from that very platform to extermination camps, each section of the track carefully lists the dates, the number of Jews deported each day and the locations to which they were sent.

The Nazis had kept meticulous records of all of it and in seeing the numbers and the dates, I told Burkhard I felt like I could hear voices, feel the cold air; I swear I could feel the bodies against mine clamoring to keep warm. It all felt so familiar, the trees, the tracks, the periwinkle grey color of the sky, and I felt inconsolable there.

We left Track 17 after about 20 minutes; I had to teach in a few hours and I needed to rest.

When I sat down to teach my class later that evening, I knew I’d had a life-altering experience on that platform. Both my teaching voice and my singing voice were somehow different—I felt more confident and clear in my instruction, and at the end of the class I sang the closing mantra in a new voice, a sweeter voice I’d never heard before. I felt more connected to my heart and my purpose than I’d felt in a long time.

After class I went to dinner with some of my host’s students and they asked me about my first day in Berlin. I reported my experience and they all fell silent. With a touch of real discomfort and so much deep respect, they listened as I told them of how holy it felt being on that platform.

We all wondered if perhaps some family member of mine had been there.

I learned that Germans in general are still so ashamed of that history and realized it was our time, right there at that dinner, to begin healing it all. I spoke openly about how I’d been taught animosity towards Germany in general and how sorry I was for that. In that moment of that confession, the light changed.

Something shifted—we all felt it.

We stared at each other through our tears for a few moments, in a stunning quiet I will never forget.

The next morning near my seat, a beautiful plant appeared, with two purple flowers blooming. After class, one of the students from dinner the night before approached, and sat down, and told me that the plant was from his grandparents to mine. We obviously hadn’t been there, and yet on both sides, we’re all still victims.

Until we choose otherwise, we hold positions and opinions we haven’t really chosen. In that moment, we made a new choice. We embraced and were transported through the thin veil of time, healing decades of countless interactions between Germans and Jews.

The gratitude has grown in my body since that moment, and cellularly, I feel somehow more equipped to be a leader of peace.

The rest of my days and evenings there were filled with new friends, wonderful meals, stories and walks. Berlin really did feel like my home and by the time I arrived at my next stop, I knew why. What I’d experienced on that train platform, whether you believe this or not, I now realize, was my soul’s memory.

I have lived before, there.

In a long meditation I saw this entire scene and am certain it belongs to me: I know details, smells and sensations I cannot explain, which is why so much of Berlin felt familiar and poignant to me—it was my home. That was me on that platform, carrying my brother, that much is clear.

I only wish I could tell my grandmother about this, about how full of light the Germans are, how beautiful it is to witness their yoga—and how important it was for us to open space for this healing.

I went on and told this story in the subsequent three cities I’d visited and was met always with similar reactions as I’d look around each room.

First, discomfort: nobody knows that I’m Jewish and the shame is still in the air. Then, grief: the profound sadness of hearing about how I felt compelled to lie down on that platform and connect to all the souls who stood there destined for death.

Then, in moments, the discomfort and grief turned to light. Together, each time, we arrived at the conclusion that this is precisely why the book was translated into German and why I was sent to that Track, and why we’ve come together under these auspices to practice.

Die Kunst der Aufmerksamkeit.

No matter what nationality, I was met with a similar sentiment: people from Israel, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Poland had only gratitude. Thank you for talking about it, they said, thank you for being willing to forgive, thank you for wanting to be closer. So many thanks were exchanged in these two weeks. I’ll never be able to express my gratitude for this complete overhaul of my vision, but I’ll have to give it my best now, in closing.

Kai and Tina at Yoga Tribe Berlin, Simone and Fred at Yogawerkstatt Hannover, Ana at Anapurna Yoga Cologne and Isa and Ann-Kristin at Flow Yoga Mannheim: Thank you.

Thank you for your beautiful communities, for your love—and for your listening, without which I wouldn’t have been able to arrive at this understanding. I know how much goes into planning events like this and I acknowledge your commitment and your efforts.

And thank you to Maren Brand at Kamphausen/Theseus, my German publisher—thank you for being the catalyst for this shift.

A special thank you to Spring Groove and her percussionist, Erhard Reyl. In rehearsal for her concert to end my trip in Mannheim, she sang Hine Matov, a Hebrew song which I haven’t heard in decades, since Hebrew school—and I immediately burst into tears upon hearing it.

I realize now that my tears were part of this story too. I’m certain I’d been singing that song to comfort my brother in the cold that day, while we walked, and onto that train platform.

I know it in my bones.

Hine Matov Umanayim. Shevet Achim Gamyachad. 

Translated: “How wonderful we can live together in harmony” or “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

Germany, I see you and I send you so much love.


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 Ed: Bryonie Wise

Thumbnail photo: Chloe Crespi

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