One of our most fascinating experiences in the recent months did not take place in Israel, but somewhere else entirely. The day after Yom Haatzmaut, Karen and I flew to Germany where we spent almost a week – five days in Berlin and one day in Cologne. Both are very interesting places, but also very sobering places to visit. One visits Germany, if at all, with solemnity. Certainly, I have no grievances against anyone who doesn’t want to visit Germany or buy German products; indeed, I still cringe when I hear the Volkswagen commercial that extols “the power of German engineering.” Such technological expertise was not long ago used to murder millions of Jews.
But there is no country in the world (outside Israel) that has a keener memory of the Holocaust; Germany is saturated in the Holocaust. There are dozens of signposts on the streets erected several years ago commemorating 75 years since the Nazis rise to power. Each signpost contains stories and pictures of what happened in that very place to Jews with real names and families and businesses, Jews who lived there, were persecuted, fled and escaped or were deported to their deaths. Nothing is concealed. Outside the train station nearest our hotel – on Tauentzienstrasse –there is a permanent sign listing the various concentration and death camps to which Jews were dispatched – from that very train station. The Holocaust simply cannot be escaped, a conscious choice that German officials have made.
Remarkably, there are brass plaques called “Stolpersteine,” or “stumbling stones,” on the sidewalks every few blocks – if you look down you can see and read them. These plaques – the tireless work of a non-Jewish German artist – are embedded in the sidewalks in front of apartment buildings where Jews lived, and record (in German), for example, “so-and-so Jew lived here, born 1892, deported to Auschwitz 1942, todt”. In both cities we visited, they were frequent and eerie sights, and the artist continues to add to them every year.
The recognition of the Holocaust is pervasive; in Sachsenhausen, just about 30 minutes north of Berlin, large groups of Germans – young and old – were touring the camp, on a Sunday morning in the spring. And the awareness of the inhumanity of the evil monsters who perpetrated the Holocaust grows and grows. In the bucolic setting of Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, where the infamous conference took place in a beautiful lakeside villa on January 20, 1942, the site now houses a museum that revealed, among other things, that the meeting to decide on the extermination of Europe’s Jews took all of 90 minutes. And not one person there objected to the mass slaughter in which they would all have a hand – and four or five of them escaped real punishment after the war.
Germany is not an easy place to visit –although I thought it would be harder – but it is astonishing that tens of thousands of Jews live there, including thousands of Israelis. In the main shul in Berlin, the Chief Rabbi and the chazzan, fine people, are both Israelis, one older and one younger. They work very hard reaching out to Jews. But I could not suppress one thought – why do Jews live there? Why do they come? Why do they stay? (You can ask that about the Jews of Teaneck too, but that question is coming from a different place.)
In reality, 90% are from the former Soviet Union, and they are awarded substantial benefits and pensions from the German government as soon as they come – as descendants of people invaded by Germany during WW II. There are very few German Jews, very few native Berliners – although I did meet some. Some young immigrants from the old USSR find out – quite suddenly – that they are Jewish and begin investigating Judaism. (The day we visited the shul in Cologne, a large group of much older Jews were practicing for a Russian-Yiddish concert they would soon perform.)
And here is what surprised me: the Kabbalat Shabbat was the most inspiring I had experienced in many years. The singing, the dancing – it was “Carlebach” as Shlomo Carlebach himself would have wanted, not routine but exhilarating. The dancing during Lecha Dodi went on for 25 minutes, but each minute represented a year or two that these Jews had been deprived of their heritage. That morning I had visited the site of Hitler’s bunker where he killed himself – and literally spit on his grave. I enjoyed it – but not as much as I enjoyed each foot stomping during the dancing that night during the davening.
At dinner, the Rabbi told me that almost everyone present was a Baal Teshuva, even those in religious garb. One young man, about 20 years old, is studying engineering, now wears black hat, sports a little beard and soon wants to make aliya. He knows that is his only real chance of remaining Jewish; the rest of his family – they all live near the Belgian border – are uninterested. Another boy recently celebrated his Bar Mitzva, and graciously accepted the Rabbi’s gift of a pair of Tefillin but only on condition that he commit to wearing them every day. He attends public school and is desirous of living a Jewish life –but only time will tell. For him, the next decade will be decisive.
And I noticed one other thing: every shtender (locker) in the shul was locked, and no one had a key. The owners of those shtenders are no longer in this world and took the keys with them. What a message: you can daven in Berlin, and even live there, but there is no future there. The shtender is locked. One cannot leave any inheritance for the next generation.
Why is the Rabbi there? Because there are thousands of Jews who will otherwise be lost to the Jewish people forever. That is his job – to ignite sparks, for this is the last round up before Moshiach. If not now, then when? That is his attitude, with all the hardship that he has– all his children and grandchildren live in Israel, there were recent threats to criminalize Brit Milah, and there are still sporadic attacks on Jews, sometimes from Germans but more often from the large Muslim population. There are great challenges – but the opportunity to save souls is exalted and fleeting. And, of course, that is the attitude of the local Chabad as well, that maintains in Berlin a beautiful, multi-million dollar facility with a kosher restaurant.
Each Jew is a precious soul and each Jew is a nation and a world in his own right. Jews who wish to make a difference lift their heads, step forward and put themselves on the line – even when others are quick to take shots at them. They are the saviors of the nation and the rescuer of souls. What is more exalting than seeing souls reborn and rejuvenated; what is more daunting than knowing that time is short; what is more challenging than knowing that if we too lift our heads, we can have a share in the rebirth of the Jewish people, and see G-d’s blessings descend on His people and His land.
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- A History of Israel, Part 7: 1940's - Devastation and Renewal [audio]
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- History of Israel, Part V:"Arabian Fights" [audio]
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 16: Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg [audio]