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Visit to Germany shows that from darkness there can be light
June 20th, 2003
Last month, for the first time in my life, I visited Germany.
Throughout my career as a rabbi, I have had many opportunities to visit Germany, but I have always resisted. Something inside me would not let me go. The pain of the Holocaust is so embedded in the psyche of a Jew that I could not get myself to set foot on German soil.
But these feelings were softened when I and some other American rabbis received an invitation from the German government to witness a Jewish community thriving in a country that had systematically destroyed virtually all of its Jews just 60 years ago.
I reasoned that if I have visited Poland and have seen Auschwitz and Buchenwald, do I not also have a duty to see how we have rebuilt and overcome the atrocities?
With these mixed emotions I embarked on a five-day mission to Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt with 10 rabbis from all over the United States.
The trip aimed to establish ties with an emerging diaspora community that is showing signs of one day becoming an important force in a major democratic country. Germany today has 100,000 Jews, and their communal agencies and organizations are growing in strength.
Our mission began in Berlin in a hotel near the Brandenburg Gate and near the Reichstag and the fields where Nazis held their marches. These ghosts of recent history made our Shabbat celebration seem almost surreal.
We went to the Orienburgerstrasse Shul, built in 1858 and destroyed partially in 1938. In that beautifully restored synagogue, we listened to a Torah reading a portion about freedom read perfectly by a German Jew who had returned to his faith. This Jew was born in East Berlin and was raised as a communist, and here he was reading with full volume, Proclaim liberty throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10).
The synagogue also happened to have been celebrating a bar mitzvah, and the young man did an excellent job reading the Haftorah and delivering a wonderful speech in German.
Talking with students
On our mission we heard talks from two Righteous Gentiles. One was the son of a Nazi soldier who saw what the Nazis were doing and revolted. The father went to a concentration camp and later became a minister, and his son received a Ph.D. in Talmud. It was moving to speak with the son of a repentant Nazi who himself became a teacher to Jews.
We were also joined by one of Germanys greatest pastors, Bishop Johannes Richter, who recently retired as the pastor of the St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig, the most famous church in Germany. Martin Luther had preached there and Johann Sebastian Bach had been one of its music directors.
When Richter was 10 years old, he watched cattle cars being loaded with Jewish children in Leipzig. He pledged to serve the Jewish community someday, and indeed he became the patron guardian of many elderly surviving Jews in Germany.
We also had the opportunity to visit the New Jewish Museum of Berlin. The exhibits are powerful, but what moved us most was seeing large groups of schoolchildren visiting.
Their teachers explained to them the lessons of Jewish history, and some even wore yarmulkes out of respect.
In the Jewish museum in Frankfurt, called the Judengasse (the Jewish quarter), we met other schoolchildren. We stopped them and asked them why they had come to visit the memorial.
They told us they wanted to know what the generation of their parents and grandparents did to the Jews because the Jews were such an important part of the German people. They said they had come to learn to be better Germans, capable of appreciating the creative differences of the citizens who are part of their culture.
At the Jewish community center in Frankfurt, we visited the yeshiva of a dozen students in the beautifully restored, gold leaf-ornamented synagogue. We asked the students there why they were in Germany.
They said, There are other places we could live, but we know that if societies are civilized, then Jews will flourish. Since our roots are in Germany, we must take part in the civilizing of German society.
The day was Lag BOmer, and while we were visiting, 30 students from the religious school were running through the shul playing biblical games finding hidden Jewish treasures in the building. They were led by Israeli teachers, and the scene would not have been out of place in any Jewish school in the United States.
One incident warrants special mention. On our train ride from Frankfurt to Munich, as we rabbis were discussing the significance of the trip, another passenger introduced himself.
He said he could not help overhearing the conversation and that he, in the name of the German people, wished to beg forgiveness for what the Germans had done to the Jewish people.
The man then told his life story. Apparently his grandfather was one of the original bankers of the Nazi Bank during the war, and after his grandfather had wanted to expose a fraud in Hitlers economic policy, he was fired. He eventually became head of the German central bank. The amazing thing is that during the war, this man hid Jews in his attic.
The grandfather of the man on the train was truly one of the Righteous Gentiles, and his grandson felt compelled to express the guilt of his people. It was as if this man was trying in his own way to bring back some of what for many years made Germany the greatest Jewish community in the world. Incidents such as this helped give us hope for mankind.
I was not sorry that I took this trip. In fact, it would have been a shame had I not. I have seen first hand that from destruction there can be life, from desecration there can be holiness, from darkness there can be light.
Rabbi Bernard Reichman is spiritual leader of Congregation Anshai Lebowitz in Mequon.