Vickie and I among the students we taught at the Gymnasium Kaltenkirchen
Kaltenkirchen was one of the first places Vickie and I visited on our first extended trip to Germany in 2014.
Then we visited a tiny Concentration Camp site and noted the stately houses just across the street where people lived their lives and said nothing.
Two weeks later I became the first rabbi to preach at Michaeliskirche in that village. Their wonderful Pastor, Martina Dittkrist was eager for me to do so because the church’s history was marred by a previous Pastor, Ernst Biberstein, who served during the thirties. Biberstein left the church and became a Nazi officer who was convicted of atrocity war crimes at the Nuremberg Tribunal and held responsible for the deaths of 2000-3000 Jews.
In the Social Hall of the church, a painting by Hannelore Golberg symbolizes the impact of Biberstein’s ministry on the church. It depicts a cross that is uprooted from the ground and tilted on its side. There is also a tasteful plaque in the main sanctuary expressing the church’s sorrow that they had once trusted such a man as their spiritual guide. I named a previous essay about that experience, “The Church of the Broken Cross.”
That sermon was the first time that I used what has become in many speeches in Germany since, my catch phrase:
We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.
It was a gratifying but gut wrenching experience!
Those words could also describe our recent visit to the Gymnasium Kaltenkirchen.
There we met for 90 minutes with a group of combined classes totaling some 80 students. They listened with rapt attention—some had tears in their eyes—as Vickie spoke about her mother and I spoke about my father. We emphasized how her mother and my father were among the truly lucky one’s to escape the inferno before it engulf Europe’s Jews. Still both Vickie’s mother and my father suffered, and it is important for students to understand their history.
Although the message of these two experiences was similar, our mood in the respective settings was quite different.
During the church service people looked back and realized the horror of the era with genuine regret. There was visible emotion, but most of those in the congregation had lived most of their lives.
By contrast the teenagers at the Gymnasium present a different picture. They are part of the group that will shape the future of Germany and Europe.
We left with a feeling of great hope. They seemed as determined as any group we have ever seen to insure that they want to create a better future for themselves, their children, grandchildren and generations to come.
Their responses to the lessons we taught made us very glad that we were there.