This is where my my father became Bar Mitzvah in February 1926.
This is my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 1930 and 1933, the very year Hitler came to power.
On the occasion of my first visit in 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebesvelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day-long detour to Berlin–where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums–did I receive a visa. All during my visit I prayed that no one would ask me anything about art!
At that time the Jewish communal headquarters was a tiny, dusty, hard to find and cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time that 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. Learning that number chilled me to my very core. In 1935 there were 18,000 Jews in Leipzig. 14,000 of them perished in the Shoah.
By contrast, my visit in 20ll introduced me to a lovely refurbished synagogue, spacious offices and a guided tour of the places where my relatives had lived. I was accompanied by the young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community, which had been revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants.
Last winter when Pastorin Ursula Sieg first proposed that Vickie and I come to Germany to speak in synagogues, School, the University of Potsdam and here today, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. Indeed, in 20ll and 2012, in my capacity as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I was honored to sign papers that led to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. These agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the German students studying Judaic subject including those studying to be rabbis.
In the last months, though, anti-Semitism has arisen forcefully in many places in Europe. Even here in Germany, where law bars public expressions of anti-Semitism, we have seen the simmering of overt hatred of Jews once again. With these developments, the entire timbre of my visit has changed.
When Israel responded forcefully to Hamas’ attacks on its civilians, much of the world blamed Israel. This totally inappropriate reaction to Israel’s thankfully successful efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of those who dedicate themselves to her destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)
Practically overnight, we learned that our generation of Jews is not exempt from Balaam’s prophecy. As the day of our departure from the United States drew near, some friends and family members voiced reasonable concern about our coming to Germany. But my family and I are here: my wife, Victoria, my cousin Irene, whose parents both were born and raised in Leipzig, her partner Joe Azizazoff, and our son, Leo Fuchs, named for my father who was arrested here and sent to Dachau 76 years ago today!
We have come with joy and gratitude for your invitation. After nearly two months in this country, I know that so many Germans are eager to learn about our faith, our history and our way of life. I am here because I believe, as did Anne Frank, in the essential goodness of humankind. I am here because, though we cannot undo the past, the future is ours to shape!
Once, the story is told, an officer gathered the Jews of a small village to the town square. He called the rabbi to step forward. He held his hands behind his back, and sneered. “Since you are so smart, Rabbi, You can save your village if you answer my next question correctly. I am holding a bird in my hands behind my back. Tell me, Rabbi, is it dead or alive?”
The rabbi knew that if he said the bird is dead, the officer would produce it alive. If he said the bird was alive, he would crush it to death in his hands.
And so the rabbi looked the officer straight in the eye and replied: “The answer is in your hands.”
No, We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape!
Will we leave our children a world filled with more hatred, terror, violence, and war? Or will we create a world of justice, caring, kindness, compassion and peace?
I thank Almighty God that the answer to these questions is in our hands!