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A Trip I Had to Make

Thomaskirche photo

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Fall, 1968

I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.

Summer, 1982

As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.

The Zoo

Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … Three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”

When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”

“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.

In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.

67 Jews in Leipzig **

The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.

While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there.   He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.

I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”

“67”, he answered.

“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”

“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”

“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.

“14,000,” he replied.

The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.

But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.

He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.

I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German — which he never spoke at home — that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.

And they were—by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.

Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.

The word, “Genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.

And so we command ourselves: זכור  (Zachor)  Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.

How could God allow the Holocaust?

People ask me all the time, “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.

God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.

A Miraculous Vision

As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.

At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.

The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.

On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogue one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).

No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is, “Where was humanity?”

We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.

We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.

Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes:

That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage

To clothe the naked,

Feed the hungry,

Teach the unlettered,

Foster understanding among all people,

And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—

To choose life, and

To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!

 

 

 

**Today, because of immigration from the Former Soviet Union, some 1300 Jews live in Leipzig.

 

8 thoughts on “A Trip I Had to Make

  1. Steve, an excellent poignant recollection & lesson. I will relate this to my grandchildren. Thank G-d they have only a distant understanding of the Holocausts horror although most if not all have been to Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum here in DC. Yet your personal story I think will resonate with them and of course Donna & Kenny have always cared so much for and about you, and especially me and much later, Pam. So just a “thank you” for this and to let you know that in this way (and others) you’re still a part of our lives.

    Fondly

    David

    David Bernstein

    Enterprise Information Systems Consulting LLC

    3131 Connecticut Ave NW

    #2711

    Washington DC 20008

    703-798-8719

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good, good writing, Rabbi. Meaningful, powerful, and straight from the heart. Thank you for sharing this painful part of your family’s history. When you saw the mother wolf and her cubs proves, to me, that love really can annihilate hatred.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for posting this Rabbi. Yes it was a trip you had to make painful though it was and in the re-collection and reflection on it. And a reminder that ‘On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogue one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).’

    Like

  4. My first visit to Leipzig, one of Houston’s sister cities, was in November, 2011. I was invited there by Christian Leipzigers in order to participate in Kristallnacht commemorations. I took Cantor Robert Gerber with me. After a memorial service across the street from the zoo, the site where Jews, including your father, were brought for deportation in 1938, and interfaith services at St. Nikolai and St. Thomas Churches, there was a candlelight march to the Holocaust Memorial Wall where Cantor Gerber chanted Kel Maleh Rachamim, Prayer for the Soul of the Departed.

    The residents of Leipzig are eager to increase their Jewish population. Jewish Week is held every other year, bringing any survivors (including one in her 90s) and their descendants to visit the two cemeteries to honor the memory of the departed. Then, for the living, they celebrate with music and the arts. One of the most amazing survivors that I met was a man who, when freed from a concentration camp, was asked where he wanted to go. He responded, “To Leipzig.” They asked him why, and he said, “That’s my home. Where else
    would I go?”

    Two of the community leaders are Rabbi Zsolt Bala and Kuf Kaufmann of the Jewish Center, Ariowitsch-Haus.

    Residents of Leipzig have reached out and have tried to repair the damage done to our people. And they’re succeeding, as you found during your trip to the city in recent years.

    Like

  5. Thank you, Ellen, for sharing these details of the wonderful efforts the city of Leipzig is making to atone for Nazi actions. Rabbi Bella has been very helpful and hospitable to me during my visits to Leipzig since 2011.

    Like

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