During the summer of 2018, my husband and I took a Rhine River Boat Cruise to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. As Jews, we never imagined that we would ever want to take such a journey, but Germany today is not the same Germany of World War II. Among all the nations of the world, ironically, Germany is perhaps one of Israel’s greatest friends. In part, we wanted to go to Germany to acknowledge this friendship, but above all, we were going to honor and pay tribute to the memories of the Jewish life Hitler and the Nazi regime had destroyed. Ours was a Jewish heritage tour and at each stop along the Rhine, we visited the remains of what had once been thriving Jewish communities in Germany for hundreds of years.
One such city we visited was Frankfurt, where there is evidence of a Jewish community that dates back to the 12th Century. Even before Jews began settling in Frankfurt itself, Jewish merchants traveled from nearby Worms to visit Frankfurt’s markets to trade as early as the 10th century. By the 1900s, Jews in Frankfurt were extremely prosperous and influential. They became active both in business and politics. Many fought for Germany in World War I.
In 1933, a national boycott targeted Jews, and more and more restrictions were placed on the Jewish community. On Nov. 10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, Frankfurt’s biggest Orthodox and Reform synagogues were burned to the ground. Our tour guide took us to see the museum the city constructed on the land on which one of these great synagogues once stood. It told the story of Jewish life in Frankfurt through the millennia, and we were told German school children visit the museum regularly on field trips to learn about what once was. Like the synagogues, the ancient Jewish cemetery that was enclosed within the city moat and walls in 1349 was destroyed, but to honor the dead buried there and not further desecrate the cemetery, a memorial was built by the city to the 11,134 Jewish Frankfurt citizens killed during the Holocaust. On a wall surrounding what once was the cemetery, are plaques with the names of those people. Anne Frank and her family were born in Frankfurt and we saw the plaques for her and her family.
Then our tour guide brought us to the Westend Synagogue that had been erected in 1908. It is one of the few Jewish places of worship that survived World War II, although it was greatly damaged by fire. It was reconstructed in 1950 and once more in 1994. Only a handful of Jews returned to Frankfurt after the Holocaust, but Germany encouraged the immigration of Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s. For the most part, they comprise the new members of Frankfurt’s Jewish community. Our tour leader came with her husband from Israel in the 90s to study and stayed with her children. Someone in our tour group asked, “Is there much anti-Semitism here today?” She answered without hesitation, “They killed the Jews. They are gone. Anti-Semitism the people drink with their mother’s milk.”
I doubt my children have ever encountered any explicit acts of anti-Semitism, but as a child, in the 1950s, I’ll never forget going to visit my father’s gravesite, and seeing swastikas painted onto his tombstone. “Why are they mad at Daddy,” I asked my mother. She just cried. She had no words to explain. When I was a teenager in the early 60s, I had a party with my friends at my house. The telephone rang amidst our partying, and someone on the phone said, “You and your kike friends better be careful.” Who had called? One of my neighbors? I slept fitfully that night.
On Oct. 27, 2018, a man walked into a synagogue on Shabbat morning in Squirrel Hill, a quiet, peaceful, beautiful Pittsburgh neighborhood, and shot dead 11 people because they were Jews. I lived in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s and my husband and I looked into purchasing a home in Squirrel Hill. It seemed to us to be the ideal place to raise our young son. If we had purchased a home there and not moved, could we have been sitting in that synagogue? Might we have been among those targeted and killed?
Surely, the faithful Jewish citizens of Frankfurt whose grandparents and parents and children and grandchildren had lived there for generations could never have imagined the atrocity inflicted on them. Now I worry: will my grandchildren be safe in America?
Since retirement from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Sandy Brusin has volunteered as an educator for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and most recently with Jewish Museum Milwaukee, among many other places. Brusin’s husband, Rabbi David Brusin, is the emeritus rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash.