Left to right, Rabbis Abner Weiss, Lawrence Goldmark and Aaron Kriegel. Below, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin located on Witten berg Platz, outside the entrance to a subway, across the street from Berlin’s largest department store. Photos by Toby Axelrod

Confronting History

With many questions, Los Angeles rabbis visit Germany in order to bring answers home

By Toby Axelrod

“Where was God during the Holocaust?” For a moment, there was silence. Three Los Angeles rabbis sat before a group of German theology students in the Berliner Dom church, waiting for their answer. “It is a question many Jews have asked,” said Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, 55, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, during a recent German-government-sponsored visit. “Have you confronted this question yourselves?”

“But it is the wrong question,” answered Professor Peter von der Osten-Sacken, head of the Institute for Church and Judaism at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “You have to ask, ‘Where was man?'”

Osten-Sacken had brought some 15 students to meet Rabbis Goldmark, Abner Weiss and Aaron Kriegel. The American rabbis were nearing the end of 10 days in Germany, none having been here before. Foremost on their minds was how Germans today deal with the Holocaust. That question was behind every other query, be it about current issues of immigration, right-wing extremism, church-state relationships or renewal of Jewish life in Germany. Once here, the rabbis started asking questions — and didn’t stop.

“It’s the ever-present past,” said Kriegel, 53. “Every German child for generations to come has to bear the burden of the Holocaust, just as every Jew has to bear it forever.”

The rabbis’ odyssey began last fall, when Hans Alard von Rohr, then-German consul to Southern California and Arizona, asked Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada to invite two other rabbis to visit Germany. He invited Kriegel of the Conservative Temple Ner Maarav and Weiss of the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

“There are still a lot of misunderstandings and clichés about Germany, particularly among the Jewish community,” von Rohr said. “As always, the best way to correct a wrong impression is to have a personal impression.”

Government spokesman Rainer Schlageter said Germany invites several rabbis to visit each year in the hope that “they spread what they learn here…among the people they know in the States.”

But why does Germany care what Jews think? “American Jews are very well organized and influential, far beyond their own community,” von Rohr said. “These three rabbis are leaders in their respective communities.”

The three Southland rabbis designed their own itineraries and managed to cover broad ground. Ultimately, they came away moved, disturbed and inspired. They lost some of their old baggage and gained both positive and negative impressions.

The rabbis agreed that it was both important and difficult to visit Germany.

“I questioned how I could survive 10 days in Germany,” Kriegel said over coffee at Berlin’s Palace Hotel. “I related to Germans the same way my father of blessed memory saw them — even in the present generation, as a group of people who destroyed Jews and still want to destroy Jews.”

“I don’t even own a German pencil,” said Weiss, 60, who at first was reluctant to go.

However, former consul von Rohr told Weiss that “‘huge efforts have been made to teach the new generation [in Germany] about the Holocaust, and at least we should find out what is going on, so we could make up our own minds,'” Weiss said.

The program included visits to Frankfurt, Koln and Berlin, as well as the former East Germany. The rabbis met with Jewish community leaders, government representatives, Catholic and Protestant clergy, and attended Sabbath services. One of their last stops was the Wannsee Villa memorial, where the infamous “final solution” conference took place on Jan. 20, 1940.

During a meeting with Avi Primor, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, the rabbis learned that Israelis interface much more often with Germans than do American Jews, according to Goldmark.

“The average American Jew would not mouth the words that Primor did, that Israel’s closest friend in Europe is Germany,” Goldmark said.

“My hero has always been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Kriegel said. “He met with the white man. And I met with Germans. I found I could meet them as human beings, and I believe that I can work with them…. That doesn’t mean I can forgive the people who were involved in the Holocaust, who killed, or who are involved in neo-Nazi activities now.”

“I did not find the same kind of openness that Aaron [Kriegel] sees,” Weiss said, gently critical. “He sees openness everywhere.”

Weiss said that when German schools mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht in November or the liberation of Auschwitz in January, “usually, it is a field trip to something Jewish — which, in our experience, means something that is dead, that is past. Like a mikva in a community that doesn’t have Jews in it.”

He said that German Jewish history came to an end with the Holocaust, but noted that “something new was beginning.” Weiss was moved to learn that Berlin’s Jewish school has 600 Jewish students.

“My judgment is [Germany] deserves an A for effort,” he said. “But the implementation of a Holocaust curriculum [in German schools]…leaves much to be desired.”

Toward the end of the visit, the rabbis found themselves with the future clergy at the Berliner Dom, grappling with the intangible stuff of theology — faith, doubt, the nature of God and humanity.

“The question, ‘Where was God?’ I can’t answer,” said theology student Andreas Risse, 28, in response to the original question posed by the rabbis. “I feel ashamed inside somewhere. I try to understand the pain and feel for others…but I can’t succeed. I can’t cross that limit…although I am young and not involved in the history, we should never stop talking about it to our children and then to the children of our children.”

Kriegel summed up the question-and-answer period with this thought: “I think you and I are tied together by history. And I believe that all of us here are brothers and sisters.”

The rabbis said they would speak with their congregations about their experiences.

“For me, there is no doubt…the blood of the Nazi victims is ever-present,” Goldmark said. “Nonetheless, so much progress has been made… to build bridges with Jews both locally and everywhere.”

Toby Axelrod is a Berlin-based writer.