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.

 

Why I am Going to Germany

In a recent meeting the head of Germany’s United Jewish Appeal, Nathan Norman Gelbart, said in his address that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.”

Random attacks on Jews and Jewish groups in Europe testify that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe as my wife Vickie and I prepare to embark September 14 on a ten-week stay in Germany to work in synagogues, schools, and Lutheran churches to promote greater understanding and mutual respect.

The emotional highlight of the visit will doubtless come on November 9 when I speak at the annual Kristallnacht—known in Germany as Pogromnacht—commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the magnificent church where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.

My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs—a school principal named for my father–heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.

This will be 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, 30 and 33, the year Hitler came to power.

My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebisfelde, 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 Berlin where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums did I receive a visa.

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny dusty, hard to find cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.

When Vickie and I visited in 20ll, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community–revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants—personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.

Ursula Sieg, regional Pastor for Church-School Relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, is painstakingly coordinating our upcoming pilgrimage with a packed schedule of sermons, lectures and dialogues. Her motivation is to have Germans learn about Judaism and further Germany’s yeoman efforts to promote mutual understanding and respect. She has enlisted and received moral and financial support from the  Förderverein Judentum in Schleswig-Holstein (Society for Support of Judaism in Schleswig-Holstein), the Progressive Jewish Community of Kiel and the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and Potsdam for these efforts. We are very grateful to Pastor Sieg and all of those who are contributing to making our visit a reality.

Last winter when Pastor Sieg first proposed the idea to me, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. For example in 20ll and 2012 as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I signed papers that helped lead to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. The agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the new institute, which offers B.A. and M.A. programs to students from Germany and beyond, including those studying to be rabbis and cantors. I Iook forward eagerly to returning to Potsdam to lecture and interact with students and faculty at the school.

With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. Now my joyful anticipation is tempered by the reality that anti-Semitism in Europe –and even in Germany where anti-Jewish demonstrations are barred by law—is surfacing once again.

“Why are you going there,” people have asked? “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly do not believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government—beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel–and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.

Still I am wary. The current war in Israel and Gaza—and the world’s reaction to Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of Hamas whose very existence is predicated on Israel’s 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)

But still I will go. I will go with joy and gratitude for the people that invited me. I will go with the knowledge that many in Germany are eager to learn about the faith and way of life that gave birth to Christianity.

On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.

But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.

I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend ten weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny is calling me to do my best. If enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.