A Visit to Germany

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.

5 responses to “A Visit to Germany

  1. These insightful words are among those of your most beautiful and most visionary Rav Pruzansky. Chazak uBaruch!

    Please may it be G-d’s Will that those of us in Chinuch and Rabbanut and hopefully more and more Yidden at the grassroot, community level will follow the example of Fellowship, Achdut, Ahavat Yisrael the Rabbi in Germany’s Kiruv demonstrates. Following the Rishon or Acharon who explains that Ahavat Ha-Ger begins even before Conversion, for that Ahavah is in reality Ahavat HaShem, for it is a service for HKBH in bringing G-d’s Creation back/closer to Him. So too, Kiruv Rechokeem – al Achat Kamah vKamah! – equates with Ahavat HaShem, for it manifests HKBH’s Own Love for Bnei Yisrael.

    Rav Moshe Feinstein zya ztkllh’h paskened in the late 70s or 80s that *everyone* should perform at a minimum one hour of Kiruv a week. We need to get everyone we can involved in some activity, perhaps Partners in Torah that sets up more learned partners with a chavrusah who wants to learn, or tutoring, or supporting Kiruv organizations. We cannot just go on with our lives watching on the sidelines as literally another Holocaust occurs as millions of American Yiddelach are assimilating and intermarrying into oblivion – largely due to illiteracy and the screaming abscence of Rabbis like the one in Germany and those like the Lubavitch Rebbe and Reb Shlomo Carlebach who epitomized the Chasidic Vorki teaching on Parah Adumah: ‘Sode Parah Adumah…. Ahavat Yisrael.’ Maybe it’s time for us all to become a little Tamei and start inviting non-Orthodox Yidden to our Shabbat Tables and Pesach Seders – even if they’re going to drive.

  2. Él-Ad said:
    “Rav Moshe Feinstein zya ztkllh’h paskened in
    the late 70s or 80s that *everyone* should perform
    at a minimum one hour of Kiruv a week.”

    Dear Él-Ad,

    I invite you to join my web site for kiruv kerovim:

    Every month I distribute 6 quick Torah quotes in English,

    Midrash Tanchuma, Midrash Rabah, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu,
    Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah,
    Pele Yoetz, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Kav HaYashar, Shaarei
    Teshuvah, Sefer Chasidim, Sefer Charedim, Midrash Mishlei,
    Kaf HaChaim, Rabbeinu Yonah commentary on Avot, etc.

    Mr. Cohen, moderator of the [DerechEmet] yahoo group

  3. When it rains it pours. This just came in and I think it is apropos the Kiruv discussion thread for many reasons.

    Lighting Shabbat Candles in Alaska
    Kiruv, Shabbat, Story Archive by lavenda

    From the transcript of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speech at the Chabad Kinus Hashluchim in 2011 (also referenced more recently by President Richard Joel at YU Graduation in May 2013)

    I once heard a beautiful story from a shliach, who had gone to a little town in Alaska, he asked the local town hall, are there any Jews there? They said to him there are no Jews there. So he asked – in order not to go back having not done anything – could he go and visit the local and give a talk to children? And the mayor or head of the school – I don’t know, I can’t remember the story, the shliach himself told me this story – said fine. And he went, and he went in to a classroom – this little town in the middle of Alaska – and he said, “Children, have any of you ever met a Jew?”
    And one little girl put up her hand and she said, “Yes.”
    And he said, “Who?”
    And she said, “My mother.”
    And he was thinking to himself, “What do I say to this girl?” She’s the only Jewish child in this school, this is the only Jews in the entire city, I have to go, and there is no way I can get them to leave and come to a place where there are other yidden [Jews]. What can I say to this girl now that will lead her to stay Jewish?
    And this is what he did; he asked her every erev Shabbos to light Shabbos candles. And he said this to her, he said, “I don’t know if you know this, but Alaska is the most westerly place in the world where there are Jews, it is the last place in the world where Shabbos comes. And when every Jew lights Shabbos candles they bring light and peace to the world. So every Shabbos the whole world is waiting for your Shabbos candle – the last of all to be lit.”
    Can you imagine what that did for that child? He could have said, what are you doing in middle of nowhere where there are no Jews? Instead, in the most beautiful way, he made her feel important. She had a task performed for the whole Jewish people, for the whole world, that is how you change lives, that is how the Rebbe changed lives.

  4. David Kaplan

    Fantastic. Insightful. Unexpected.

  5. There is a memorial at the train station and there are plans for a second memorial.