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Rabbinic Mission to Poland and Germany: Part III

01/06/2016 10:21:52 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Like many Jews, for me, the word “Germany” provokes a visceral response, as if it were synonymous with “murderers”. Just hearing the word could turn my stomach like a bad smell. But that was before I went to Berlin.

No wonder, then, that I was anxious when we got off the plane from Cracow to Berlin, but the tension in my gut quickly dissipated when our young German host greeted us. I’m not sure what I was expecting – blond haired, blue eyed Aryans ready to say, “Heil Hitler!”? But whatever my imagination had conjured, the three guides who met us at the airport did not fit the fearful images many of us grew up with, nor could I in any rational way blame them for what happened to our people; they were all under thirty, and not native to Germany! As I write this I feel almost silly or ashamed. The war was almost 80 years ago, Germany is not the same country it was, yet the trauma of the war still informs the way I/we see the world. The German Consul General, Stephan Schlueter, joined us for the trip. He is as genuine and thoughtful as anyone I know. Over a beer the first night, he said something to me that, sadly but accurately, frames the Jewish community’s relationships to Germany post World War II: “German-Jewish relations will never be normal.” How could they be?

Our time in Berlin was spent moving between the general tourist sites of Berlin, Jewish war memorials, museums, etc., and meetings with the Jewish German community. As a tourist, I felt completely safe and at home. In fact, I can’t wait to return with my family to further explore the astounding array of cultural activities Berlin offers.

GERMANY, Berlin. Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust.

As a Jew and a rabbi, Berlin was mostly sad. For example, one evening we met with the local Reform rabbi and visited the “New Synagogue,” originally built in 1866 to seat 3,200 people. It was the largest Jewish place of worship in Germany and the symbol of Jewish integration into German society as well as the center of Liberal Judaism. Reminiscent of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, which was built at the same time by German Jews who had immigrated to America and made their fortune in the Gold Rush, it has a large Moorish dome and a vast main sanctuary.

The building was mostly destroyed during the war and it has only been partially rebuilt with enough of the structure present to imagine its past glory, yet not enough to forget how much was lost. Today, a small liberal congregation occasionally uses the outdoor space for weddings, and it houses a Judaica museum, as well.

Meetings with the German Jewish community was no less uplifting. A colleague and fellow traveler put it well when he said there are two groups of Jews in Germany today: Caretakers; and those here to take advantage of German guilt and the robust German economy. The caretakers are the survivors of the war and their families; they are few compared to the Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union as well as a growing group of Israelis in Berlin. We met with various Jewish groups and what we experienced was dysfunction, to say the least! The old joke “two Jews, three opinions” doesn’t begin to describe the discord between the various elements of the organized Jewish community. Oy!

While I was less than inspired by the organized Jewish community, I was encouraged by our German hosts and other German officials we met. Germany is far from perfect, yet over and over again we encountered the various ways that Germany continues to confront its past. For example, we visited a museum in the heart of Berlin called “The Topographie of Terror” which documents how Germany went from a thriving democracy to Fascist death machine. You read through the exhibit. Often these kinds of displays can be boring but I found myself captivated by the narrative, especially the repeating refrain that read something like, “This could not have happened if ordinary Germans did not either actively support it or passively accept it.”
Is there a Jewish future in Germany? Perhaps that is not the question. Perhaps the question is what our relationship should be to Germany and the Jewish community that is there. I agree with the Consul General that relations between the Jewish community and Germany will never be normal. What also seems true is that our shared history, as tortured as it is, binds us to each other and herein lies an opportunity for healing and who knows what else.

Thu, July 16 2020 24 Tammuz 5780