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My husband and I recently agreed to be "aunt and uncle" to a 17-year-old Norwegian exchange student who will spend the year in Juneau. While there are a lot of good reasons for accepting this role - which sounds like all fun and no work, like the job of real aunts and uncles - my interest is rooted in my own experiences as an exchange student at age 17.
When I told my grandmother I was going to Germany, I think she said, "Ach, why you go there?" After escaping Hitler in 1933 for the relative safety of Austria, only to flee Hitler again five years later with her husband and three-year-old son in tow, my grandmother wanted nothing to do with her country of birth - and little to do with Judaism, either. Except for the accent and her abiding love of boiled pigs knuckles, she exorcised the German out of her.
But my mother and I inherited little animosity, and something inspired both of us to study German in high school, and to participate in student exchanges. I stayed with two host families in northern Germany. Both were unfailingly kind and generous. Sensitive to my curiosity about Jews in the area, one family arranged dinner with a Jewish music teacher they knew.
I was there during Germany's national holiday, the equivocal of our Independence Day. When I asked what kind of festivities to expect - fireworks, picnics, parades? - my host sister shot me a look of surprise. Nothing, she said; we're not particularly proud of our history.
Not that there weren't unpleasant moments. I saw the occasional swastika and "Juden raus" scrawled in a subway car. I felt a palpable unease at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, where Hitler and his pals drank beer, and where I watched increasingly inebriated men clad in lederhosen sing odes to the Vaterland as the night got going.
In these moment I thought of my best friend's mother, who thought no self-respecting Jewish girl would spend her summer with Germans. I looked for little signs of neo-Nazism, present or historical. My German friends seemed so nice, but somebody's grandfathers had to have staffed the death camps. I asked my host sister what her grandparents did during the was, and she told me they had been part of the opposition against the Nazis. Some time later I learned that this region of northern Germany had indeed resisted Hitler, and its citizens had helped smuggle countless Jews to safety in Denmark.
During that trip I also visited my grandmother's home town of Munster. The mayor had invited the few surviving Jews he could find back for an apology tour, some 50 years after most had fled. My grandmother came along - only because I agreed to meet her there, she said - and so seven octogenarians and I spent a week touring city hall (the "Rathaus") and other attractions as guests of the city. The mayor apologized personally and I think even my grandmother forgave (Austria, which she said never expressed proper contrition, is another story).
Which brings me to Ida, the Norwegian "niece" we are soon to meet. What do 17-year-olds in the rest of the world think of the U.S.? It struck me recently that today's youth might harbor apprehensions about our country, which is increasingly viewed as a global bully - and not, like Germany, just a historical menace.
For all I know Ida doesn't even read the papers. She is probably busy with school and friends and preparing for her upcoming adventure. But it's a good thing 17-year-olds travel the world. It's a good thing they challenge themselves to live with other families and eat their weird foods and abide by their weird habits, and learn that even if the showerhead is located at waist-level (I could never figure that one out), people are people wherever you go, and humanity transcends politics.
Rebecca Braun is a Juneau resident, co-editor of the Alaska Budget Report, is a freelance writer and editor.