From Geiger to the Thomaskirche with Joy

Crowd lined up outside Leipzig’s Thomaskirche to hear the St. Thomas Boys Choir sing the Motet service Friday afternoon. I had the honor of delivering the sermonic message at that service.

Last Friday** was one of those days I dream about but rarely experience.

In the morning, I had the joy of teaching a two and a half hour seminar on Repentance and Our Ability to Change in Jewish thought to rabbinical and Cantorial students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.

Then Vickie and I traveled by train to Leipzig, the city where my father grew up and was arrested on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. There in the famed Thomaskirche, packed to the rafters because the famed St Thomas Boys Choir was singing the afternoon Motet service, I accepted the invitation of Pastorin Britta Taddiken and Pastor Martin Hunderdmark to be the main speaker in the service..

My theme was one I have touched on in many of the speeches I have given in synagogues, schools and churches during our stays the last four years in Germany:

Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen Machen aber wir können gemeinsam an einer besseren Zukunft arbeiten.

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

I spoke of the Torah potion read in synagogues that very Shabbat in synagogues around the world, a portion which contains the words inscribed on the Liberty bell in Philadelphia: 
“Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10).”

I noted that no country yet has achieved the type of world the Liberty Bell and the Bible urge us to create. God’s desire is for humanity to create a world of Freedom for all:

  • Freedom from hunger
  • Freedom from sexual abuse or harassment
  • Freedom from homelessness
  • Freedom from fear

And freedom from so many other things that testify to our failure to create the just, caring and compassionate society God has yearned for since the time of creation.

How grateful I am for the invitations to do these things that uplifted my spirit so.

But the next day was more sobering. I walked to the Zoo where the Nazis rounded up the 500 Jewish men they arrested that night known to the world as Kristallnachtbut in Germany as Reichspogromnacht.

There I stood at the monument where on Kristallnacht in 2014 I read a letter to the memory of my father (search for “A Letter to the Memory of My Father as I Stand at the Leipzig Zoo” on the blog). I also visited the site of Leipzig’s main synagogue, burned to the ground that fateful night. There a monument consisting of rows of empty chairs honors the memory of the 14,000 of Leipzig’s 18,000 Jews whom the Nazis murdered. I spoke there on Kristallnacht of 2014 as well (Search for “Synagogue Site Speech”) but on that night, I focused on my presentation. Today I slowly absorbed each and every word on the commemorative plaques, and I realized once again how blessed I am that my dad was rescued by political means from Dachau by his uncle and brother in the USA, which still had diplomatic relations with Germany at the time.

I also spoke at the Thomaskirche (search for “Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech – English Version”) that night to a much smaller crowd than attended last Friday. But that was a sorrowful commemoration. This year’s message was of aspiration and hope.

From the standpoint of emotion, speaking at these three places in 2014 exceeded the feelings of this past Friday, but the difference which made this years’ visit more exhilarating and joyful was the morning seminar at Geiger.

There I had the privilege of interacting with future rabbis and Cantors from five different countries who are there not to lament the fate of Europe’s Jews but to build the future of European Jewry.

At Geiger College last Friday, I also had the privilege of conducting the daily worship service. In it I asked the students and faculty present not just to recite the prayers but to look at just a few and ponder their meaning.

In particular I lingered over the Mah Tovu prayer at the beginning of the service (See blog post, “Before You Sing Mah Tovu Again, Please Read This.)

That prayer sits at the beginning of our service to remind us that try as they have over the centuries, no outside force can destroy us. Only we —through apathy and ignorance of our Jewish heritage – can destroy ourselves.

For me teaching at Geiger College and speaking as a rabbi in the city where the Nazis arrested my father is my pledge that I shall do what little I can to keep the flame of Jewish learning and practice aglow wherever and whenever I can.

**May 17, 2019

In Leipzig Once Again — 2019

 

AndOften

https://tinyurl.com/y6kl8ury

This Friday, my emotions will be high, as I climb the steep stairs of the preacher’s pulpit to speak once again in the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig. To come as a welcome guest to speak in the city where the Nazis arrested my father on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938 is a great privilege. But being there evokes many mixed feelings.  Here is what I shall say:

Standing before you in this magnificent cathedral, I recall the Psalmists words, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:6)

I recall with sadness the weeping of Reichspogromnacht when my father Leo Fuchs was one of 500 Jewish men arrested in this city. But I savor the joy of the morning as Pfararin Taddiken welcomes me once again to this place as a gesture of friendship and hope for the future.

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

As I listen to the holy sounds of the beautiful Motets this afternoon, my heart turns to magnificent words on the Liberty Bell, the national symbol of American freedom, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

In July 1974 the late Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin addressed a joint session of the American Congress and eloquently described learning the words on the Liberty Bell in their original Hebrew as a small child: U’kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha– Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25:10).”

Rabin pointed out that this cardinal foundation of democracy comes form the portion of the Torah Jews around the world will read this Shabbat.

דרור (Dror) Freedom, Freiheit (?) is a very special word in Hebrew, English or German. Freedom is what God wants for everyone:

  • Freedom from poverty
  • Freedom from War
  • Freedom from violence
  • Freedom from hunger
  • Freedom from homelessness
  • Freedom from excessive cold or heat
  • Freedom from sexual abuse
  • Freedom from forced labor and exploitation
  • And the freedom to choose how we use the abilities with which God has blessed us to make a better world.

It is not God’s job to create that world of freedom. It is ours.

One of the most famous stories in the Christian Bible is how Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish.

The pastor of the Church, which houses our Jewish congregation in Sanibel, Dr. John Danner, suggests a different reading of the story. Perhaps, says Dr. Danner, Jesus encouraged everyone in the crowd to share just a little of what he or she had with others around them, and in that way there was enough food for all.

Each person could give only a little, but their collective contributions accomplished much.

Today, no country, not the United States not Israel and not Germany has yet achieved the freedom God wants all of us to enjoy. But we must never cease to try. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in the second century CE: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:21)

From the time of creation, God has wished for us to create a just, caring and compassionate society on earth. It is easy to state that goal but difficult to achieve it.

It is easy to give in to despair and anguish when we look at the world around us. Many do.

But isn’t it a better choice for each of us to do something—however small–to move the world closer to the day of which Isaiah dreamed when, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 11:9).”

Can we not all make some effort to bring closer the time of which the Prophet Micah dreamed when:

“Each person will sit under his or her vine and fig tree with no one to make them afraid?” (Micah 4:4)

We cannot do everything, but we each can do something.

We might not cure cancer but we can give food or serve a meal to the hungry. We might not make peace in the world, but we can make peace in our homes.

We might not transform the quality of education around the world, but we can help a child learn to read. Possibilities abound.

Not being able to do everything is no excuse for doing nothing.

As we listen with awe and delight to the sounds of holiness and peace in this famed Cathedral, and as Jews prepare to welcome a Shabbat of peace and joy into our lives, let us all – each in our own way — think of how we might bring peace and joy into the lives of others.

 

EWR

EWR — Newark Airport. It is a beautiful modern place, and I marvel at its opulence. It is also a place with vivid memories for me.

Newark Was the first airport to which I ever flew. As an eighteen-year-old freshman at Hamilton College, my first flight was home for Thanksgiving break, Utica NY to Newark, a one hour flight. It was such a special moment for me that I put on a suit for the occasion. Dad and Mom picked me up.

Newark Airport is also the last place I saw my father alive. I was a 24-year-old Rabbinical student off to spend my third year of graduate studies in Israel. Mom and Dad drove me to the airport.

These memories coursed through my mind as I landed at EWR from Miami en route to Tel Aviv. Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC and I are leading a joint Ten-day trip to Israel of Christians and Jews from our two congregations.

After the tour Vickie and I will stay on a few extra days to spend time with our son Leo, named after my father. On May 13 we shall fly to Hamburg to spend five weeks in Germany teaching about the Holocaust in schools. I will also teach in synagogues in Kiel and Friedrichstadt and at the Abraham Geiger Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. I shall also speak and teach in several German churches.

An emotional highlight will occur when I preach at the famous Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Thomaskirche is the Church where Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor for the last 20 years of his life until 1750. The church will be packed, not to hear me, but for the Motets, the famed choir-sung musical selections that are a major European tourist attraction. It will be the third time I have preached in the famous Cathedral, but my emotions will be like the first.

You see, Leipzig is the city where my father was born and grew up. He was a happy, popular youth, I was told, enjoying tennis and really excelling at ping pong. He won the city-wide men’s doubles championship at age fifteen.

But he stayed too long, and I’ll never know why.

He was one of 500 Jewish men in Leipzig arrested on the infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” November 9, 1938. But Dad was so fortunate to have an uncle and older brother in the United States who somehow got him out of Dachau and safely to New York. I never knew the details.

And so, when I climb the many stairs to the lofty pulpit in the Thomaskirche for the third time, the questions I would love to ask my father will swirl in my mind. Among them:

Why didn’t you leave earlier?

Did you ever have your heart broken?

What exactly happened to you on November 9, 1938 and the days following?

Are you pleased that Vickie and I do what we do in Germany?

Like the Thomaskirche in Leipzig Newark Airport brings memories and these questions to mind.

I yearn to hear my father’s voice answering my questions. But I. Do not.

Nevertheless, Vickie and I go forward. We urge Germans today to learn from the past in order to make the future better for our children, grandchildren and all those who will follow.

Cover of my new book reflecting on our work over the past four years and n Germany

Was It a Miracle?

thomaskirche-photoSpeaking 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.

Sincerely,

Stephen Lewis

 

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.

I continued:

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.

Happy Ending or Just Another Peaceful Interlude

Parashat Va-yehi: Reversing History’s Pattern
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will take revenge on them for selling him away as a slave (Genesis 50:15).

When his brother’s throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, he speaks tenderly to them saying, “Though you intended to do me evil, God has turned it to good to bring about the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). He then continues to protect and support them during the ensuing years of famine.

The brothers prosper in Egypt, and Pharaoh himself affirms the children of Israel’s covenantal connection to the Promised Land by responding to Joseph’s request to bury his father there with the words: “עלה, Go up,” up to the Land of Canaan. (Genesis 50:5,6). Indeed, Genesis ends, as it were, with “ … and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course they did not all live happily ever after. It was only a peaceful interlude until, as we read next week, “a new king arose who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1:8),” and enslaved us and threw our babies into the Nile.

Vickie and I have recently returned home from a ten-week stay in Germany. As I ponder our experiences, I wonder: was our journey part of a happy ending after perhaps the most horrific period in Jewish history? Or is it, like the ending of Genesis, an interlude of calm before the next storm arises?

Our visit gave us many encouraging and uplifting opportunities. We taught hundreds of high school students about the Holocaust and basic Jewish values in an exhibit about the life of Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Stefanie, who was born in Breslau, is still an active artist at 93. Her idyllic childhood came to an early end when her family had to flee the Nazis. Although Stefanie never could complete her high school education in the 1930’s, grateful German students now preparing for their graduation send her affectionate emails and voice messages. They thank her and us for the chance to learn about her struggle and vow that their generation will not allow such things to happen again.

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa

Stefanie Steinberg and her great granddaughter, Noa


At the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel, it was my joyful experience to speak at High Holy Day, Festival and Shabbat services and lead adult study sessions. But each time we walked to the modest synagogue, we passed the monument on the site of the magnificent synagogue that once was a landmark in Kiel before the Nazis destroyed it.

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

Standing next to the monument on the site where the Great Synagogue in Kiel once stood

While we were in Germany, I delivered ten different addresses in Lutheran churches, including one where a Nazi found guilty at Nuremberg of horrible war crimes once served as pastor. The current pastor, Martina Dittkrist, invited me to speak as part of the church’s ongoing atonement for that pastor’s crimes. I saw tears in many eyes as I spoke of reconciliation and building a better future.

(L to R) Pastorin Martina Dittkrist, artist Hannlore Golberg, me, and Vickie standing in front of Ms Golberg's painting of "The Broken Cross" symbolizing the ongoing atonement of the community of the Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirchen for the crimes of their one time Pastor Ernst Biberstein who was tried and convicted at Nuremberg of mass murder.

In Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the city where my father was arrested on that fateful night in 1938, it was my privilege to speak at three separate commemorations. Certainly it was a happy ending for Vickie and me to be welcomed as honored guests to the city my father left as a prisoner bound for Dachau 76 years ago.

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Kristallnacht

In Berlin it was also my privilege to conduct a seminar for rabbinical students and to deliver the semester opening lecture at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. How thrilling to see serious Jewish study once again encouraged in Germany and supported by the German government.

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

There is so much to be grateful for in our experience that we cannot help but revel in the joyful reality of Germany’s present. And yet we can never and should never forget the past. I keep wondering, “Are all of the wonderful experiences we enjoyed in Germany evidence of a true happy ending? Or is it just another interlude of calm?”

The evidence of Jewish history cries, “Interlude.” Time and again we have been welcomed and lived peaceably in places. But then the economy changed, our people were blamed, and we suffered persecution, forced conversions, murderous pogroms and exile.

There is reason for concern. We hear and see the evidence of resurgent anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Recent incidents in Belgium, Hungary, France and other places are frightening. The future of Jewish life in Europe is far from certain, but there is much we must continue to do.

We must do what is necessary so that Israel will always be strong. Had there been an Israel in 1935, there would have been no Holocaust. Therefore we must continue to defend Israel against those who question her right to live as a Jewish state in the sea of hostile Arab/Islamic states in the Middle East.

At the same time we must continue the fight for Progressive Jewish legitimacy in Israel. Our growing movement there provides an uplifting alternative to Haredi fanaticism on the one hand and secular skepticism on the other.

We must also continue to press for the equality of Progressive Judaism with Orthodox Judaism in every country in the world. Although it is an uphill struggle, we must spare no effort to strengthen our Progressive communities worldwide.

The values of Progressive Judaism demand—not just allow—that we think critically and independently. They demand that we study Torah with rigor to find in it the lessons that inform our lives and make us more worthy partners with the Almighty in forging a better world.

The pattern of Jewish history represented by the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus is a somber warning, but its repetition is not inevitable.

If we keep Israel strong—
If we do what we can to strengthen Progressive Jewish life and legitimacy around the world—
If we avidly pursue our destiny as a people called by the Almighty to help create a more just, caring compassionate society on earth—
Then I believe with all my heart, we shall reverse the pattern of history, and we shall endure and thrive. Moreover, we shall be able to say to those who wish us ill, as Joseph said to his brothers in the week’s parasha, “Although you intended to do me harm, God has turned it to good.”

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, D. Min., DD, is Past President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA. He is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.

http://www.rabbifuchs.com
Twitter: @Rabbifuchs6
FB: What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives

http://www.amazon.com/Whats-Finding-Ourselves-Biblical-Narratives/dp/1427655014/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

German of Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech: A Trip I had to Make

Eine unumgängliche Reise
Rabbiner Stephen Fuchs

Ich wusste nicht, was in dieser Nacht 1938 passiert war, bis ich im Alter von 22 Jahren mein Graduiertenstudium am Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles begann, um Rabbiner zu werden. Bei der Semestereröffnung berichtete der Dekan und spätere Präsident des Kollegs, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, wie er als achtjähriges Kind in der kleinen Stadt Oberwesel seinen Großvater in den Rhein waten sah, um verkohlte Fetzen der Tora-Rolle zu retten, die Nazis aus der brennenden Synagoge geworfen hatte.

Als ich Rabbiner Gottschalks Kindheitsbericht von der Kristallnacht hörte, wusste ich noch nicht, dass mein eigener Vater hier in Leipzig genau in der Nacht verhaftet wurde. Als ich das erfuhr, beschloss ich, diesen Ort eines Tages aufzusuchen. Die Möglichkeit eröffnete sich im Sommer 1982.

Als mein Zug in Leipzig’s riesigen Bahnhof einrollte, wurde mir bewusst, dass mein erster Blick auf die Stadt der letzte meines Vaters gewesen sein könnte, als er in einem ganz anderen Zug als Häftling nach Dachau fuhr.

Mit einem genauen Stadtplan von der Tourist Information versuchte ich Straße und Wohnung zu finden, wo mein Vater aufwuchs. Auch den Zoo suchte ich. Warum den Zoo? Der Augenzeuge der Kristallnacht David H. Buffum, damals amerikanischer Konsul in Leipzig, berichtet: ” Jüdische Wohnungen wurden gestürmt und geplündert… Ein achtzehnjähriger Junge wurde vom dritten Stock aus dem Fenster geschmissen. Er brach sich beide Beine… Drei Synagogen gleichzeitig wurden mit Brandbomben beworfen und viele Juden wurden im Zoo zusammengetrieben und dort in den Bach gestoßen. SS-Männer befahlen den schockierten Zuschauern sie zu bespucken, zu verspotten und mit Schlamm zu bewerfen.“

Als ich am Eingang zum Zoo ankam, war es viertel vor sieben. Die Ticketverkäuferin sagte, ich wäre zu spät: „Der Zoo schließt um sieben.“ „Das ist in Ordnung“, antwortete ich und reichte das Eintrittsgeld hinüber, „ich brauche nur ein paar Minuten.“
Sie protestierte, doch ich blieb hartnäckig, bis sie mich schließlich passieren ließ. Nach wenigen Minuten stand ich an dem Bach. Tränen stiegen mir in die Augen und ich hörte mich selbst laut sagen: „Ist dies der Ort? Haben sie dich hier hergebracht haben, Papa? Haben diese Bastarde dich bespuckt… haben sie dich mit Dreck beworfen?“ Dann, wie als Vergeltung, spuckte ich von einer Brücke aus in den Bach.
Am nächsten Morgen fand ich das Büro der Jüdischen Gemeinde Leipzig. Eine ältere Dame öffnete die Tür und erklärte mir, dass der Gemeindeleiter nicht da sei, aber bald wiederkommen würde. Ich erzählte ihr, dass mein Vater in Leipzig aufgewachsen sei. Sie zog ein staubiges Familienregister aus dem Regal und öffnete es bei „f“. Sehr schnell fand ich die Eintragungen über meine Familie. Währenddessen kam der Gemeindeleiter herein. Ich sagte ihm wer ich sei und was ich wollte. Er war herzlich, freundlich und offensichtlich erfreut, dass ich da war.
Ich fragte ihn: „Wie viele Juden gibt es in Leipzig?“ „67“, antwortete er. „Und wann gab es hier die größte Zahl jüdischer Einwohner?“ „1935“ , antwortete er, „18000 Juden lebten damals in Leipzig.“ „Und wie viele sind im Holocaust umgekommen?“ fragte ich. „14000“, antwortete er.

Die zwölfstündige Bahnfahrt nach Amsterdam gab mir reichliche Zeit, meine Erfahrungen in Leipzig zu verdauen. Natürlich dachte ich an meinen Vater. Nach der Verhaftung in der Kristallnacht brachten die Nazis ihn nach Dachau, wo sie ihm den Kopf schoren, ihn verhörten und misshandelten.
Aber Leo Fuchs gehörte zu den glücklichen. Da er Verwandte in den USA hatte und sein Visum bereits genehmigt war, erwirkte das US-Konsulat nach wenigen Tagen seine Freilassung.
Er hat mit mir nie darüber gesprochen. Aber ich weiß, dass das Trauma ihn immer gequält hat. Im Frühjahr 1969 wurde mein Vater schwer krank. Ich flog von Los Angeles, aus meinem Rabbinatsstudium, nach Hause in New Jersey, um bei ihm zu sein. Ich werde nie das Gefühl der Hilflosigkeit vergessen, als ich das Krankenhauszimmer betrat und mein Vater mich im nur halb bewussten Zustand nicht erkannte.
Ich stand da und es schüttelte mich, als er anfing auf Deutsch – was er Zuhause nie gesprochen hatte – zu schreien. Ich fragte meinen Onkel: Was hat er gesagt? Mein Onkel antwortete: Er durchlebt die Erinnerungen an die Kristallnacht. Er schreit, die Wärter sollten aufhören ihn zu schlagen. Mein Vater hatte diese Erinnerung über dreißig Jahre unterdrückt.
Im Großen und Ganzen waren das gute Jahre gewesen. In den USA hatte er seine große Liebe gefunden und eine Familie gegründet. Ich aber – und das mag irrational sein – beschuldige die Nazis sein Leben verkürzt und mir geraubt zu haben, meine größten Freuden mit ihm zu teilen: meine Ordination zum Rabbiner, meine Heirat mit Vickie, unsere Kinder und Enkel.
Mein Vater wurde 57 Jahre alt. Seine älteren Brüder, die Deutschland vor der Kristallnacht verlassen hatten, aber lebten gesund bis in ihre achtziger Jahre hinein.
Unsere Kinder! Sie sind die Antwort unseres Volkes auf Hitlers Wahnsinn. Für uns Juden ist jedes neue Leben wie ein junger Baum – gepflanzt nicht nur zur Freude seiner Familie, sondern auch um einen einst üppigen Wald neu zu beleben, der von Feuer, Rauch und Gas verwüstet wurde.

In Europa sind von drei Juden zwei umgekommen.. In Leipzig von neun Juden, sieben.
Wir lernten den Begriff “Genozid”, mit dem wir zu definieren versuchen, was Hitlers Absicht war: Den Genpool unseres Volkes ausrotten.
Deshalb befehlen wir uns selbst: Zachor! Erinnere! Aber wenn wir uns nur erinnern, um im eigenen Leid zu baden. verschwenden wir unsere Zeit und unsere Tränen. Wir müssen uns daran erinnern, was war, damit wir schaffen können, was besser ist.

Die Leute fragen mich beständig: “Wie konnte Gott den Holocaust zulassen?” Ich antworte, dass Gott den Menschen einen freien Willen gab und uns Auftrag und Verantwortung für die Welt übertrug. Ohne freien Willen hätte das Leben keinen Sinn. Wir Menschen wären nichts als Marionetten oder Schauspieler, die nicht vom Drehbuch abweichen könnten.
Gott sehnt sich danach, dass wir eine Welt der Gerechtigkeit und des Mitgefühls schaffen. Aber Gott tut es nicht für uns. Wenn wir versagen ist es unser Versagen, nicht Gottes. Ich glaube, Gott weint mit uns und um uns, wenn wir versagen.

Ich wandte mich von dem Bach, der durch den Leipziger Zoo fließt, ab und kam an einem Bau mit Timberwölfen vorbei. Es war ein natürliches Gehege und wirklich ein schöner Anblick. Eine Wolfsmutter stand ganz still, während zwei Welpen glücklich an ihrer Brust nuckelten.
Zuerst fühlte es sich sehr unpassend an, solch einen wunderbaren Moment natürlicher Harmonie and einem Ort zu sehen, der für mich Unfrieden und Zerstörung repräsentiert. Doch auf der langen Bahnfahrt nach Amsterdam blieben meine Gedanken an diesem Bild hängen. Meine inneren Augen wanderten immer wieder vom Bild der Gewalt, des Hasses und des Leides zu der friedlichen, idyllischen Szene wie die Wolfswelpen aus ihrer Mutter Nahrung und Kraft saugten.
Welche Ironie! Ich weiß, dass Nazis und Neo Nazis den Wolf als Symbol verwenden. Das ist ein Missbrauch. Wölfe töten nicht aufgrund von Vorurteilen, Hass oder Ideologie. Sie töten um sich zu ernähren und sind damit Teil der natürlichen Balance. Wie bewegend, dass an dem Ort, wo ich meines Vaters schreckliche Erfahrung durchlebte, Wölfe mich getröstet haben als Zeichen, dass die Liebe und das Gute stärker sind als der Hass und das Böse.

Der Leipziger Zoo wird für mich für immer das schreckliche Böse repräsentieren, das Menschen zu tun im Stande sind. Die Wölfe aber werden immer Harmonie symbolisieren, die wir nach Gottes willen in dieser Welt schaffen sollen.

Am Morgen des Jom Kippur lesen wir Reform Juden einen der wichtigsten Texte der Tora (Dt.: 30,15): „Siehe, ich habe dir heute vorgelegt das Leben und das Gute, den Tod und das Böse.“ Wir haben die Wahl, aber Gott ermahnt uns: Wähle das Leben, damit du am Leben bleibst, du und deine Nachkommen (Dt 30.19)
Nein, die Frage ist nicht: Wo war Gott während des Holocaust? Die Frage ist: wo war die Menschlichkeit?
Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ändern, aber wir können davon lernen. Wir wissen all zu gut, dass wir den Tod wählen können. Doch Gott hofft, dass unsere Vergangenheit uns für die Zukunft stärkt, dass wir durch den Schmerz, den wir heute erneut durchleben mutig werden:
Die Nackten zu kleiden,
Hungernden Essen zu geben,
Ungebildete zu lehren,
gegenseitiges Verständnis unter den Menschen zu fördern.
Und die großartigen Begabungen, mit denen Gott uns gesegnet hat, zu nutzen, um das Leben zu wählen, und eine Welt der Gerechtigkeit, der Fürsorge, des Mitgefühls und des Friedens zu schaffen. Dann verwirklichen wir die Welt, von der die Propheten träumten, indem sie sagten:
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all of My holy mountain for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the sea bed is covered by water
And all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid! (Isaiah 11:9, and Micah 4:4)”
Man wird nirgends Sünde tun noch freveln auf meinem ganzen heiligen Berge; denn das Land wird voll Erkenntnis des Herrn sein, wie Wasser das Meer bedeckt (Isaiah 11:9)
Ein jeder wird unter seinem Weinstock und Feigenbaum wohnen und niemand wird sie schrecken. (Micah 4:4)

Amen

Übersetzung Ursula Sieg, Oktober 2014

Learning from the Past and Facing the Future

Months ago, when I was invited to speak in Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the invitation filled me with joy. What could be more wonderful? The city where my father was arrested and sent to Dachau has invited me back as its guest to speak at the city’s three separate Kristallnacht commemorations. And yet the changes that have occurred since I accepted the invitation six months have tempered my joy with concern.

Anti-Semitism is rising sharply around the world. The aftermath of the Holocaust gave us a respite. Now, the world seems to be going back to business as usual. Questions about the legitimacy of the Jewish state—not this policy or that–-but her very right to exist as a Jewish nation don’t come just from radical Arab capitals. They come from England, France,Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and even here in Germany now and then.

Anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish institutions hardly make the general news any more, but they are becoming more common. In Europe anti-Semitic violence is such a pervasive threat that if you wish to visit a synagogue, you had best have a reservation in advance or the locked and guarded building is likely to be off limits.

How should we respond to such existential concerns?

One Yom Kippur a congregation responded to the plea of Rabbi Meir of Apt to repent by bursting into tears. After enduring the sobbing for two hours, the rabbi addressed his congregation saying: “Jews, I don’t want you to turn to God with tears and sadness. I want you to turn to God with joy and hope.” (S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, page 210)

Yes, we live in troubled times. Israel is besieged from every corner of the world, and Anti-Semitism is sprouting anew even at times here in Germany where it is forbidden by law.

Are we to succumb to despair? No, as the Rabbi of Apt advised, our task is to find joy, wherever we can and do our very best to live up to God’s hopes for us, and trust that if we do, God will see us through the perils in our path as God promised Abraham so long ago.

This summer, Israel’s long period of quiet exploded into a horrible war. Certainly it was neither a lasting military nor a moral victory for Israel.

In the grief and of disappointment, over the loss of life both of Israelis and of innocent Palestinians we need perspective. I find it here in Germany. Despite occasional Anti-Semitic expressions I see daily reminders of where we Jews were just decades ago, and how far we have come.

Currently the Holstenschule in Neumünster has a beautiful exhibit based on the life of my wife’s 93-year old artist mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Her maiden name is Apt, and maybe the hope and joy with which she lives, despite what she endured, was taught to her forbears by the famous Rabbi Meir of Apt, whom I quote above.

The Neumünster exhibit allows students a wonderful opportunity to learn of her remarkable life journey from Breslau to Spain, to Switzerland to New York to Los Angeles and eventually to San Francisco where she still lives independently and recently gave a marvelous talk  to the San Francisco Women’s Artists in which she has been active for over half a century. The ingenious exhibit in Neumünster, designed by Lutheran Pastor Ursula Sieg educates students and members of the public who visit not just about the horrors of the Holocaust but about Jewish thought, history and practice as well.

Just last week I spoke at the University of Potsdam to open the semester of the School of Jewish Theology and to rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin. Both of these institutions offer their tutelage to our future professionals in Europe at government expense.

Can this be Germany?

As Jews we have many roles to play in this world. We are not just a beleaguered country that became a State in 1948. We are not just congregations—in North America and around the world– concerned for our fiscal and programmatic futures. And we are certainly not just those whose past is tied to the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

No, we are a people with a 4000 year-old Covenant with God, a Covenant that calls on us to (as God called on Abraham and Sarah: Be a blessing in the lives that we lead (Genesis 12:2) and to follow as best we can God’s teachings and to be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1). Our Covenant with God also calls us to use every ounce of our talent to try to create in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our synagogue, in our nation, in Israel, and in our world a just, caring, compassionate society built on the biblical ideals–of Tzedakah and Mishpat–of righteousness and justice. (Genesis 18:19)

Although I have real concerns as I return to the city of my father’s birth and upbringing, I will certainly be aware that the Leipzig to which I return is very different than the Leipzig my father left. Buoyed by the reality of today, I will return to Leipzig to proclaim with the joy and hope Rabbi Meir of Apt recommends.

Although we can never undo the past, we can learn its lessons and build a better future—a future marked by righteousness and justice–for ourselves our children and the generations to come

Noa and Great grandmaThe irrepressible 93-year-old artist Stefanie Steinberg (Vickie’s mother) subject of the exhibition at the Holstenshcule in Neumünster, Germany, holding three-year-old great-grandaughter, Noa Lauren Moskowitz with whom she has a special bond.