October 19, 2018

Berlin Diary

In Berlin, one learns to mark the approach of the Jewish New Year by the annual reception given by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. This year, President Ignatz Bubis recounted blessings and disappointments of the outgoing year, 5758, while surrounded by journalists, invited guests and representatives of German Jewish communities. The successful integration of so many Jews from the former Soviet Union is cause for hope; the success of extremist right-wing parties in the Saxony-Anhalt state election in April signaled a call for heightened awareness….

After three years in Berlin, I am not accustomed to a predominantly “conservadox” Jewish community with only a handful of synagogues to choose from, paying synagogue tax to the state, preventative police protection for Jewish institutions, and the weight of history as a constant companion I never knew, growing up in Los Angeles.

Walking back to the AJC Berlin office after the reception, I reflect on what being Jewish in Germany means to me. Michael Blumenthal, head of Berlin’s planned Jewish museum, recently said that he arrives in Germany as an American but inevitably leaves as a Jew….

A stone’s throw away from the Brandenburg Gate and my office, I cast a casual glance over at the empty, fenced-in site of the future Holocaust monument. The graffiti on the wall catches me off guard: “No monument of revenge here. Guilt is personal and not collective, can’t be inherited. Shame cannot be forced upon us.”

It feels odd to be here.

Friday, Sept. 18

The U.S. Embassy just called to ask if I could suggest an appropriate synagogue for a visiting American diplomat from Washington. I offered to have him join my husband and me at our shul of choice: Berlin’s only — and brand-new –egalitarian minyan, which began meeting in the small sanctuary of what is called the “New Synagogue” (it was new upon completion in the 1860s) on Oranienburger Strasse. Although Germany was the birthplace of Reform Judaism, liberal synagogues are still few and far between. Gesa Ederberg, 30, who is studying to become Germany’s second female rabbi, leads services, following a Conservative liturgy in which women can participate equally. There is nowhere else in Berlin where men and women can worship together. The congregation — 30 to 50 of us on an average Friday evening — chants most of the service in Hebrew together, and I am learning so much….

It feels good to be here.

Sunday, Sept. 20

Erev Rosh Hashanah services begin at Oranienburger Strasse. We’ve moved from the small sanctuary to a lecture hall that holds up to 250 people. I like the soft purple chairs, the hardwood floors and the high ceilings. The entire far side of the room is a huge glass window with a view out in to the courtyard, a reminder of Germany’s past.

Before World War II, the New Synagogue, with its three gold domes, was one of Europe’s largest, seating more than 3,000 people. A brave policeman kept the building from being burnt down on Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938, but the sanctuary was destroyed when hit by a bomb in 1943. The restored part of the building now houses a museum exhibit of what once was — a center for adult Jewish education, an archive and library, a small sanctuary, classrooms, and this multipurpose hall. This is the first time that High Holiday services have been held in the building since before the war….

Outside in the otherwise naked courtyard, large marble shards from the synagogue’s bimah have been strung up to show where the ark once stood, far away. I try to imagine what it must have been like….

Rabbi Levinson has flown in from England to lead part of the evening service. He tells us that he was born in Berlin in 1921, and about how his knees shook on his bar mtizvah day, long ago, down at that very bimah. A hush falls over the room….

It is oddly good to be here.

Wednesday, Sept. 23

First day back at the office this new year. Looking out the window that faces the planned Holocaust monument, I see about 50 demonstrators carrying German flags and banners that read “Monument? NO!!!!” First the graffiti on the fence, now a public demonstration…. I dash outside to find out what is going on.

I don’t know what to expect, but I am nonetheless surprised to see that the demonstrators range from well-dressed college-age students to senior citizens. Another group that has come to protest against the demonstration consists mainly of teen-agers who can’t think of anything to scream except “Nazis raus!” Where is everyone else?

A bent-over woman of about 70 hobbles away from the demonstrators. I follow her to the bus station. I ask her what bothers her most about the monument. She asks me if I am German. I ask her if that is going to change her answer. She says everyone knows that the Germans did not kill any Jews and that this whole business of Auschwitz is a big lie and so much taxpayers’ money…. I ask her to stop for a moment and to look me in the eye. Face to face, I tell her that it is no lie: My relatives were murdered there. Her jaw drops as I turn to walk away…. I feel sick.

It is odd to be here.

When I get home, my husband is waiting with apples and honey for a sweet new year….

Sunday, Sept. 27

The phone has been ringing off the hook all morning. With Yom Kippur coming on Tuesday evening, I’ve been receiving call after call from various American Jews in Berlin wanting to go to Kol Nidre services. The news of the AJC Berlin office has spread, and we have become a rallying point of sorts. I like being in a position to help people feel welcome here.

In the late afternoon of Election Day, AJC is invited along with other foreign representatives and journalists to follow the election results in Berlin. For the first time in their entire history, the people of Germany have voted the reigning government out of office (after an unheard of 16 years) in favor of a Social Democratic and Green coalition. And good news: None of the right-wing extremist parties has made it into parliament.

I’m asked to make a short statement of behalf of AJC for local television. Eighty percent of all Germans voted in this election, a sure sign of a stable democracy, right? Both my husband and I feel elated, relieved and even optimistic….

It is oddly good to be here.

Wendy Kloke, a native of the San Fernando Valley and a UCLA graduate, is currently the assistant managing director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office