One of my signature stories is about a German juggler who forced me to look at my preconceptions. Many of you are aware of my history as the first-born son of Holocaust survivors. I was raised with a distrust of Germans that bordered on frank hatred. You can’t carry around that much suspicion and anger because it interferes with your ability to heal. I wanted to unload some of it, but it took until my mid-forties when I went Germany for the first time.
I had been feeling pretty good — visited my parent’s hometown, was surprisingly comfortable with language and customs — when after a week, I heard an anti-Semitic remark. I joined a circle of about 100 people outside a museum who were surrounding a young juggler in his early twenties. Riding a unicycle, he juggled everything from fire to fruits, all of which he also ate while delivering a hilarious comedic rap. While juggling grapefruits, which he was catching with his palms facing downward, he said, “ Wenn Juden es so gefangen hattet, dann werde die ganze geschichte von welt verendert.” This translates to, “If Jews had learned how to juggle this way, the whole history of civilization would be different.” The audience laughed, but I didn’t laugh. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t funny.
He passed around a hat, and when everybody was gone, I walked up to him and told him something he said upset me. How could he have made such a crack? He looked at me in amazement and asked what he’d said. “When you were juggling those grapefruits,” I told him. “What did I say,” he asked pleadingly. So I told him, and then with a hint of recognition he said, “Ich habe nicht ‘Juden’ gesagt.” (I didn’t say ‘Jews’ [Juden]). “Ich habe ‘Newton’ gesagt.” (I said Newton.)
Sir Isaac Newton. In German they sound almost identical, he said “Newton.” I heard “Juden.” If Newton had learned to juggle that way, he would never have discovered the laws of gravity. I heard what I wanted to hear, what I was prepared to hear so I could keep seeing and doing it like I’ve always done it. Many of us are similarly crippled by our preconceptions. I hugged him, thanked him for helping me to grow. He had a profound impact on my life, and I never saw him again.
I’ve gone back to Germany several times since, and I recently conducted a workshop for mental health professionals where I told the juggler story. Afterwards, Brigitta, a psychologist, came up to me and said she thought she knew who that juggler was. She said he was quite a renowned street artist and asked me if I’d like for her to find out for sure. I told her I’d be delighted, and then it dropped from my consciousness until Brigitta wrote to me a year later and said she’d found out about the juggler.
His name was Holger “Ernst” Riekers. She learned about him from an old teacher. Ernst had graduated from the German gymnasium in 1980, after which he performed civil-service to fulfill his status as a conscientious objector. He later studied at the University, but dropped out of school to become a well-known street artist. He was married, had two children, but developed stomach cancer and died in 2002, at the age of 41.
When Brigitta told Ernst’s teacher my story, he said it sounded very much like Ernst and that he would have loved being part of such a healing experience. He asked her if it might be possible for me to get in touch with Ernst’s wife and tell her about our encounter. He felt it would close the healing circle and give her a story to share with their two children. Brigitta asked him how I could be sure it was really him, and he said to her that Ernst had a signature closing. When he passed the hat around he always said, “Don’t just throw in coins, because I’m not using the money to make telephone calls, this is how I make a living.” Maybe I’d remember that. When Brigitta wrote this to me, I remembered it immediately, and I remembered that I didn’t laugh, because at that point I was so angry with him. Ernst was the guy.
Ernst’s early death saddened me, but the beauty of the story still touches me. We are all connected; the way it was is not the way it is, and we can heal all wounds. I’m going to meet them when I next go to Germany and tell my story to Ernst’s wife and children.