Over the years I’ve written many of these “letters home,” generally at the end of a group or personal visit to Israel, but occasionally I’ve pushed the send button from other locales, like Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro and even, once, Indianapolis.
This time’s a little different. It’s very early morning in Berlin. We have to be ready for a 7:00 AM departure to the airport to catch a plane to Frankfurt from where it’s on to Newark. I’m up before Robin – a rarity – to gather my thoughts and put a few words on paper. It’s usually easy…but not this time.
It’s hard to digest the last ten days. The brochure for this trip bore the title “In the Shadow of the Holocaust.” My idea was to visit three centers of Nazi terror – Krakow, Prague and Berlin – and learn in each what happened before, during and after.
I’d never been to Poland, but Germany and the Czech Republic were familiar territory. In my pre-Temple B’nai Abraham days work frequently took me to both. However, it was not until I’d been here for a few days that something sunk in. Virtually all my time in Central Europe had been spent working with the communities of today. While the present is surely a function of the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself had never really been my focus. That was to change.
At home we had two big Seders, about 25 each night, and on Sunday left for Europe. (Friends said we were nuts. They may have had a point.) We flew to Munich and transferred to Krakow. Our guide met us and off we went. We visited the famous salt mines – sounds mundane but definitely not – outside of Krakow and headed into the city for our first dinner together, in a Jewish restaurant.
At least I thought it was a Jewish restaurant. And maybe it is. Depends upon your definition.
The décor was Jewish, the musicians played klezmer, and the menu clearly had an eastern European feel. But I began to have doubts when I asked if they had matza. No one at the restaurant knew what matza was. No one at the restaurant understood “kosher for Passover” or even “kosher.” Nobody who worked in the restaurant was Jewish.
Fortunately, I had brought ten pounds of matza with me – matza made in Israel, bought in America, and eaten in central Europe – so we were well provisioned the whole holiday. But it was clear something was going on. This theme continued. There is a lovely Jewish quarter filled with such restaurants and a small museum and a couple of old synagogues are nearby. There’s a ton of Jewish stuff there…just no Jews. Krakow is home to what I am told is an enormous Jewish culture festival each year…but again, hardly anyone there is Jewish.
The next day…Auschwitz. My first visit and I was prepared for an emotional siege. It was slow in coming. Auschwitz itself was, well, kind of pretty. It was a sunny spring day, the grass was green, and the buildings, originally built as army barracks, were an attractive red brick. Even the famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign – of galactic proportions in my imagination but pretty small in reality – failed to run a shiver up my spine.
A few of us talked about Hannah Arendt’s famous (and infamous) explanation of the banality of evil; that is so often arises in unexceptional, ordinary circumstances.
We entered one of the gas chambers and, for reasons I can’t explain, something happened to me inside when the guide pointed out the hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was dropped in. That was a moment. But a stronger reaction came a bit later when we visited the much larger Birkenau area, where the selections were made and where the enormous numbers of slave laborers lived.
We entered a long wooden building which looked like all the other long wooden buildings. (We learned they were actually prefab stables.) Inside was a long cement bench (the only word I can think of) with pairs of holes, perhaps 20 or 30 such pairs in hall. It took a minute to sink in what we were seeing.
Every morning the prisoners were brought into this room, in formation, and when ordered to, sat down on this toilet. They each had just a brief few moments to do what they had to, and then they had to leave so the next rotation could relieve itself. The prisoners had to defecate on demand, each next to the other, precisely when they were told to. I sat on that bench; I realized this was something not merely beyond my own experience, but beyond my capacity to imagine.
I cannot simply walk through our itinerary because it would be far too many words, but I do want to convey at least a sense of some of what we learned. And a big part of that was the understanding of how critical it is not just to know what happened, but to feel it.
Sunday we went to the new Jewish museum in Berlin, a place for which “extraordinary” is too small a world. In one exhibit, Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet (Fallen Leaves), over 10,000 open mouthed faces – a few inches across – cut into metal or some kind of hard glass are strewn across a narrow space. Kadishman wants you to walk across the faces. Some could. I couldn’t bring myself to. And it was not only the image. The faces are loose and they grind against one another as people walk above. The noise is awful.
All of us found the work gripping, which led to a fascinating discussion about the capacity of art to make us feel in a way that mere information cannot. Shalechet did not teach me anything new; but it gave me the chance to feel what I knew in a horribly (and importantly) meaningful new way.
In Prague, we visited Terezin, the “model” community the Nazis created to show the world how well they were treating the Jews. (The Red Cross apparently bought it hook, line and sinker.) Then, as now, it looked pleasant. But the closer you look, the creepier it gets. Perhaps the strongest example of that was watching the Nazi propaganda films at which we saw hundreds of smiling Jews at concerts, engaging in athletics, using the library, in short, and taking advantage of all the wonderful opportunities the Nazis were kind enough to give them. I noticed my breath getting quicker.
In Berlin, we were all especially moved by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which, interestingly, was not a Jewish memorial but one initiated by the city of Berlin. Minimalist in style, it nevertheless evoked strong responses from all of us.
Much of our time was spent in learning, the apotheosis of which was unquestionably the two hours spent at the villa in the posh Berlin suburb of Wannsee where, at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, fifteen Nazi bureaucrats sat to work out the details of the Final Solution.
Our Wannsee guide, a historian of the era, explained the two schools of thought on Hitler’s war against the Jews. The intentionalists believe eradication of the Jews had been the aim from the beginning, and the careful step-by-stop process of defaming the Jews, then limiting their rights, then limiting their ability to work and study, and so on, cleverly desensitizing the public over time…and desensitizing the Jew for that matter, who found, say, something in 1938 acceptable what would have been outrageous in 1933.
The situationalists, on the other hand, believe that until 1942 Jewish matters more or less unfolded, without such a high degree of planning
The historian, an intentionalist, took us through the increasingly severe hostilities visited upon Jews, until we arrived at one final question: was the Final Solution truly part of Nazi ideology? Or was it simply the most horrific example the world has ever seen of exploiting a scapegoat for one’s own nefarious purposes? He had a clear answer. At the end of the war, when the cause was lost, when tanks stopped in the field for lack of fuel, when young boys and old men were forced into uniform, the Nazis went out of their way to annihilate a final 400,000 Hungarian Jews. This was not sweeping evidence under the rug, he made clear. This was fulfilling their God and Fuhrer given mandate as long as they possibly could.
It was sunny when we left Wannsee but the air had gotten pretty cold.
We learned and saw a good deal related to Jewish history in this part of the world, with visits to the Old/New Synagogue in Prague and the Jewish museum in Warsaw a highlight. But we all especially enjoyed, and yet again, were moved by, an experience related to my predecessor Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who served Temple B’nai Abraham from 1939 until the late 1970s.
Prinz, as many know, was a leading rabbi in Berlin, and a very outspoken one, until his 1937 departure just hours, it is said, before he would have been arrested for the last time.
Saturday morning, Shabbat and the last day of Pesach, when Yizkor is said, we attended the service at the restored Pestilozzistrasse Synagogue. The synagogue is one where Prinz would have led services on occasion, but more important, the service was the German Liberal style service that would have been what Prinz led no matter where he was. Traditional liturgy, decorum an emphasis, and especially, the soaring beautiful music of Louis Lewandowski, one of the greatest liturgical composers of all time and, coincidentally, whose grave we visited the next day at the mind-bogglingly large “new” Jewish cemetery of Berlin.
The combination of the beautiful setting, the music and the personal connection was powerful; but after all we had seen in recent days, hearing, during the Yizkor service, the recitation of the names of the concentration camps had special power.
Finally, a special treat was to catch a glimpse of the future of European Jewry.
No one yet knows exactly what it will look like. In Poland we encountered the phenomenon of a Jewish presence that is short on Jews, but Jews are surely there and they matter. In Warsaw we met a Jewish philanthropist who was a major contributor to the Jewish museum, and whose children studied and study in the Lauder school. (The school’s current headmaster was once their teacher…and she was someone I grew up with in Champaign, Illinois!)
In Prague, an old friend Tomas Kraus joined us for dinner. I knew Tomas over 20 years ago when he was president of the federation of Czech Jewish communities, a job he still has. He talked to us about the challenges he faces, and it is clear they are not about anti-Semitism but about Semitism: creating educational opportunities for Czech children, ensuring that the community is served by qualified, Czech speaking rabbis and teachers, seeing to the needs of the elderly and the infirm.
And in Berlin, it was moving – that word, again! – to hear from a professor and a student at the Geiger College, the recently opened liberal seminary that is training students to be rabbis in 21st century Germany. The student, Yasmin, was born in Israel but grew up in Germany. She was mindful of the Holocaust, of course, but her words made it clear that her focus was the development of healthy, positive Jewish identities for today’s German Jewish community. Yes, the concept of Jews in Germany is complex, but if there are Jews here – and the population is well over 100,000 – then we went them to be contributing, active members of world Jewry. And that’s the job Yasmin wants to undertake.
We talked at dinner last night about what we had seen and learned and thought. My favorite comment was made by the person who said how glad she was to have made this trip, and to have made it with people with whom she felt a strong bond. We talked often and openly about the feelings that were evoked; it was good to be able to share them candidly and without restraint.
And now…breakfast! And then the bus to the plane. And then home. I am ready. It has been an intense several days, with much to process, mull over, and dwell upon.
I hope you will join me at our Yom HaShoah service Wednesday at 6:30 PM. I look forward to hearing the words of Irving Horowitz, a member of the Temple B’nai Abraham extended family. Irving’s parents are Morris Horowitz, who passed away just a few weeks ago, and our member Rita Horowitz, a survivor like her husband. Irving, who was born in a displaced persons camp, will talk about the impact on his own life of the Holocaust, in whose shadow he really did grow up.
I look forward to this because, if there is one thing I have learned in the last ten days, it is that while comprehension of the Holocaust is an impossible task, the more we learn, the more we can at least grasp at it, the better we can be at ensuring that it never happens again, to anyone. And that is knowledge the world desperately needs.
I hope the plane is on time, the flight is smooth, and I see you soon.