From Darkness to Light

There are unwelcome reminders that xenophobia is alive and well in Germany.

Last month we traveled to Berlin on a mission sponsored by the North American Boards of Rabbis. Rabbis from 32 North American communities spent four days in Germany’s capital. We witnessed firsthand the theme of the Passover saga — the remarkable ability of the Jewish people to transcend evil by transforming darkness into light.

One of the political officials who addressed our group was Dr. Christoph Stolzl, a state senator from Berlin. He told us: “Memory sits as a silent ghost at every German table.” Indeed, everywhere we went, we saw evidence of the ghosts of Germany’s Nazi past.

We spent an afternoon at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, whose stark architecture was designed to highlight the raw, absolute power of the SS. Though not a death camp per se, Sachsenhausen was a model for other Nazi camps. Through the gates of Sachsenhausen marched more than 200,000 prisoners — political dissidents, Jews, and others defined as inferior by the Nazis. Within the walls of Sachsenhausen tens of thousands of people died of starvation, disease, forced labor and brutal mistreatment.

Our visit concluded with a memorial service at the crematorium/extermination site. We drove away from the camp as we had entered it, with a heavy security escort. It was a stark reminder that a visiting delegation of rabbis is a tempting target for anti-Semites and other hate groups.

There were other unwelcome reminders. Forty-eight hours after touring Sachsenhausen, our group held a service at one of Berlin’s Holocaust memorials. This was our response to unknown vandals who had thrown excrement onto the memorial. As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer explained the day before, “Germany needs Holocaust memorials for Germans, not for Jews.”

We arrived at the Holocaust memorial amidst a downpour and huddled under umbrellas to escape the driving rain. Halfway through the service, the rain ended abruptly, and the sun emerged shortly thereafter. It was an incredible backdrop to the words we prayed and sang together, the themes of the Passover holiday.

Our people journey from darkness to light, from despair to hope. Our response to desecration is consecration. Our answer to defamation is sanctification. Our response to denial is affirmation. For we are and always will be a people of hope.

Hope was another powerful theme of our visit to Berlin, where 12,000 Jews live (among 100,000 Jews throughout Germany). Thanks to a steady influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Germany now has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Europe. Berlin counts among its Jewish institutions seven synagogues, two Jewish elementary day schools, a Jewish high school, two Jewish homes for the aged, and a beautiful, modern Jewish community center with a first-class kosher restaurant.

Everywhere we went, we saw signs of a thriving Jewish life. Morning prayers found us at the Joachimstaler Strasse Synagogue, a congregation that has a healthy daily minyan of several dozen regulars. Berlin’s 12,000 Jews are a far cry from the 170,000 who lived there in 1933 and who constituted 10 percent of the city’s population. But their presence gives the answer to Hitler’s hope of making Germany and Europe Judenrein (Jewless).

We visited the Neue/Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, saved from the fires of Kristallnacht and destroyed by Allied bombers during the war, its stunning gold-ribbed dome lovingly restored. The building now serves as another focal point of Jewish communal life.

We visited the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, a new school affiliated with the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Geiger College will soon admit its first class of rabbinical students. Within a few years, rabbis will once again be receiving ordination on German soil.

Taken together, all these signs point to one answer to Hitler’s planned Final Solution. For even as we remember and honor the past, we must plan for the future. Germany’s Jews have yet to feel German in the sense that their predecessors felt German in pre-Hitler Germany. They have yet to develop a uniquely German Jewish culture. But they are very much there and are a growing part of the New Germany, as they should be.

As sad and depressing as was the visit to the concentration camp, the minyan the next morning was an occasion for pride. There, in the center of Berlin, we joined German Jews wrapped in tallit and tefillin and chanted the ancient prayers that unite us in whatever land we gather for prayer. In that sense, we are one, whether in Los Angeles, Berlin or Jerusalem. The good news is that the Holocaust — bitter and painful as it was — failed, even in Germany itself.

We embarked upon our trip with the feeling that Germany is a strange place for a Jew to visit, and certainly no place for a Jew to live. We left the country convinced that we must help the Jews of Germany build the strongest, most vibrant Jewish community possible. And we left Germany with the strong sense that most Germans are genuinely struggling to confront the ghosts of the past.

While Germany, like the rest of Europe, has seen a rise in incidents against those perceived as foreigners, and an unholy alliance of anti-Semites among the ranks of Arab guest workers and resident xenophobes, German officials remain aggressive in their response to anti-Semitic acts.

Germany maintains and carefully guards its museum-camps and many Holocaust memorials. The history of the Holocaust is taught in all German schools. Germans today are almost overwhelmingly embarrassed by Hitler and accept the fact that they were thoroughly and justifiably beaten down by a world alliance that had been created by Germany’s own arrogant and brutal actions.

Throughout our visit, we had meetings with a host of political, educational, religious and business leaders. They warmly welcomed us at every opportunity. All of them sounded a common theme: What we have lost — the terrible loss of life, culture and learning — we will never be able to bring back. Now, more than ever, we need you. Come to visit; come help us build a new, democratic, tolerant society.

Germany’s awesome challenge is to transform the evils of the past into a present of harmony and good will and a future of ultimate redemption. The task is overwhelming; the path is tortuous; but the dream is not an impossible one.