Speaking from the pulpit of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig:
And Elijah heard the voice of God: Not in a whirlwind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but “in the still small voice of calm.” (I Kings 19:12}
Two years ago, I stood in the pulpit of the Thomaskirche (Bach Cathedral) in Leipzig and told of my father’s arrest in that city on Reich’s Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) on November 9, 1938. I told of how the German soldiers rounded up Leipzig’s Jews and made them stand in the stream that flows through the city zoo. I told how the Nazis commanded citizens to curse the Jews, spit on them and throw mud at them. I spoke of how I imagined my father in that stream.
I posted my message on my web site blog, and in the days that followed I received a number of heartfelt comments about it.
But I have received no comments about that message since then … until two years later, the day before I was to preach in the Thomaskirche again. In the middle of the night I woke up and felt compelled to check my email. There was a response to my Thomaskirche post from two years ago.
The message I received touched my soul!
It came from an American artist living in Leipzig named, to my amazement, Stephen Lewis, who shared this story with me:
When just by chance I came across your blog post, “Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech: A Trip I had to Make,” I read it, and now feel I must do my best to tell you a story told to me by a dear friend that I briefly new for a few years before he died. I am a painter and not the best with words but hope to be able to bring it across to you in the most sincere way.
One day shortly after moving my art studio into an old storefront on Arthur Hoffmann Str. in Leipzig, I was welcomed to the building by a kind elderly couple named the Bernstein’s. They lived on the first floor above my studio. My German was very poor and the Bernstein’s spoke only a few words of English but they told me many stories about their families, the war, and the GDR. The stories started out easy and simple and were often followed by questions for me asking if I had known about such events. Herr Bernstein would visit me while I was painting, but I was soon helping them carry groceries or delivering coal to them from their basement. These chores were always followed by sweet coffee in their kitchen and occasionally a session of show and tell.
As time went on the stories became deeper and it seemed to me as though they had not been told before.
Once, while Frau Bernstein was out having her hair done, Herr Bernstein told me about a bright young man that was his mate, his friend, someone whom he quite adored. They were pals. He told me about the boy’s family and then mentioned they were Jewish.
Herr Bernstein froze standing at the edge of the table with his age-worn hands clenching the sides of the tabletop and he began to cry.
I could see him relive the moment when as a young man he was ordered to go to the Leipzig Zoo where many Jews were being held in a place where you could look down into the space from above.
Herr Bernstein wanted me to understand this story. It was important. He was confessing of his disgust for the Nazis and failure to do the right thing. He explained that as he went over to see what was going on, he went by a group of German soldiers and looked down in the pit. He said he was shocked to see all of the people. He could not believe it. He was ashamed and horrified. Soldiers were yelling down at them, spitting on them, one soldier even urinated on them from above.
Herr Bernstein was outraged and tried to shame the soldier to stop. Herr Bernstein was struck and knocked to the ground.
With tears running down his face he looked at me and pointed to the kitchen floor. He sobbed and told me he saw his school time friend down in the pit. He was so ashamed to confess he was not able to help his friend. That young man look up at him and recognized Herr Bernstein. He could see Herr Bernstein being kicked and spit on. He was silenced. Mr. Bernstein was there, saw the horror, but was not able to save his friend.
I share this story with you not to make light of your experience visiting the Zoo or to try to make excuses for the Germans. After reading your account of the captured Jews at the Zoo, I thought that if you knew about how at least one person tried stop the madness, how the victims might have witnessed how at least one German young man knew what was happening was wrong and tried to stop the soldiers, that this might mean that God was at work during this terrible and hopeless event.
Herr Bernstein said he could see strength in his friend’s eyes looking up at him. He could still see him and was crushed while telling me about this event.
The peculiar reason that I came across your blog–and somehow this article–is because you and I share the same name.
I wish you well.
A Jewish legend that I love teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise know they are loved and they rejoice. “**
After I shared a summary of this story with the worshippers, and announced with joy that Stephen Lewis, the artist, was in attendance, I said:
“Herr Bernstein, I stand here tonight with the hope that you rejoice in the knowledge that we remember and cherish your remarkable act of courageous resistance to Nazi terror.”
For Jews, Elijah the prophet represents the hope that one day we will have the world of peace and harmony that God has yearned for humans to create.
For that reason there are more Jewish stories and legends about Elijah than any other biblical character.***
One of my favorites tells that because of his righteousness, the third century Sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had the privilege of visits by the prophet.
One day the rabbi asked Elijah, When will the Messiah come to redeem the world?
“Today,” Elijah answered.
Rabbi Joshua waited expectantly the whole day, but he saw no Messiah.
When Elijah visited him again that evening, the rabbi asked, “Why didn’t the Messiah come?
“He is here, Elijah answered.
“Where,” the rabbi asked?
You can find him on the outskirts of town, among the outcasts, among the lepers.”
“How will I know which one he is,” the rabbi asked?
“He is the one who changes the bandages of the lepers,” Elijah answered. He changes them one by one.
We can no longer wait for a grand sweeping act of redemption. We must each do what we can—one by one—to make the world better.
In the Bible, Elijah perceived God’s will not in a whirlwind, not in an earthquake and not in a fire but in a ”still small voice (I Kings 19:12).”
The still small voice speaks to all of us from time to time. Though the price he paid was very dear, Herr Bernstein heeded it when it spoke to him.
How will we respond when it speaks to us?
**Though I have tried I cannot trace the source of that particular legend further back than Noah Gordon’s wonderful 1964 novel, The Rabbi. I first read that novel when I was 18 years old. That is long enough for me to quote, with gratitude to Mr. Gordon, snippets of it as authentic Jewish folklore.
***Think of it, Moses, is the subject of four of the five books of the Torah. Elijah stories only take up 15 pages of text in the First Book of Kings. Yet we have far more rabbinic legends and stories about Elijah than about Moses.