German city honors Jews who fled

David Meyerhof makes his living as a teacher, but when he travels to Heidelberg in mid-May, it will be as a student. Meyerhof, grandson of Nobel laureate Otto Meyerhof, is eager to learn all he can about his family’s history in the German university town.

“It’s a trip to honor my family,” he said.

Meyerhof, 60, will be there as a guest of Heidelberg, along with dozens of former Jewish residents who fled during the Holocaust.

Since 1996, the town has extended invitations to its former Jewish residents for a weeklong reunion. Held every five years, the reunions draw people from the United States, Israel, Brazil, France and Switzerland; the event often marks the first time survivors have returned to Heidelberg since World War II.

Heidelberg will host its fourth Jewish reunion May 17-23, and David Meyerhof will be there representing his grandfather and his father, Stanford physicist Walter Meyerhof.

Today, the town is home to a fledging Jewish community of more than 800 people, a synagogue, a community center and the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg — an important institution in German Jewish life that opened its doors in 1979 and moved to a new campus in 2009. Activities during the weeklong community reunion include a reception at Heidelberg’s city hall, tours of the community and a Shabbat celebration at the College of Jewish Studies.

In addition to the reunions, Heidelberg dedicated the Synagogenplatz in 2001, a memorial marking a synagogue destroyed during Kristallnacht, and helps maintain a memorial at the Gurs concentration camp in France, where nearly 300 of the town’s Jews were deported during the war.

University of Heidelberg, one of the first universities in Germany to accept Jews as students in the 18th century, became a center of anti-Semitic agitation in the early 20th century. In 1933, The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was put into effect to remove Jewish civil servants, including academics. Among them was Otto Meyerhof, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Medical Research at Heidelberg, who won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the relationship between the consumption of oxygen and the metabolism of lactic acid in the muscle.

Meyerhof and his family fled the Nazi regime for Paris in 1938. Two years later, when the Nazis invaded France, Varian Fry helped the Meyerhofs reach Spain and then the United States, where Otto Meyerhof joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Walter Meyerhof, Otto’s son, helped establish nuclear physics research at Stanford University and became a vocal critic of scientists who claimed to have achieved cold fusion in the late 1980s. After his retirement, Walter Meyerhof directed the Varian Fry Foundation and produced the 1997 Fry documentary “Assignment: Rescue.”

In April 2001, David Meyerhof accompanied his father, Walter, and other family members to the opening ceremony of the Otto Meyerhof Centre for Outpatient Care and Clinical Research in Heidelberg.

Otto Meyerhof was among the first scientists to re-establish contact with the University of Heidelberg after the Nazi era, and in 1949, two years before he died, the university reappointed him an honorary professor as a token of restitution.

During the 2001 center opening, university vice rector Jochen Tröger said that Otto Meyerhof’s outreach “was an important factor in putting Heidelberg University’s reputation back on a firm footing.”

David Meyerhof is still in awe that a German university would dedicate a medical center to a Jewish scientist.

“It’s profound that this university [made] amends for the hatred that was so prevalent in Germany,” said David, who teaches math and science to sixth-grade honor students at Florence Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles.

Eager to add new stories and learn insights about his family, David Meyerhof says he is looking forward to the upcoming Jewish reunion.

“The last trip I didn’t have time to really see the personal sites,” he said.

In addition to the reunion itinerary, Meyerhof says his schedule is filling up with plans to visit his father’s childhood home, tour the university and labs where his grandfather worked and meet with scientists, including a chemistry professor who penned a biography about his grandfather.

And if time allows, David hopes to squeeze in a visit to another part of town named after his grandfather — a brief stroll along Meyerhof Street.

Teens Build a Bridge Beyond the Past

“I was afraid there could be aggression toward us, because we are German. I’m really surprised about how friendly and open all the people are.” — Hannah Ketterer, teenage exchange student from Germany

“We didn’t see each other as the grandchildren of Nazis or as grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. We saw each other as regular kids who wanted to learn more about each other’s religious lifestyles and cultures.” — Lindsey Michel, Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills

On April 19, 12 German teenagers left Heidelberg, flew west for about 6,000 miles, disembarked at LAX, and entered the lives and homes of 12 Jewish American teenagers. None of the 24 teens knew quite what to expect.

During their two-week stay in homes of Kol Tikvah congregants, the German students visited local high schools, attended Shabbat services, took part in a Yom HaShoah program, tried a range of new foods and looked everywhere for Tom Cruise.

The German-Jewish exchange program at the Reform congregation is apparently the first of its kind on the West Coast. Originally created by Stefan Schluter, Germany’s deputy consul general in New York City, the idea for the exchange was born after 45 members of the American Board of Rabbis visited Berlin in 2001.

“They asked me to organize their annual meeting,” Schluter said, “which I did. One thing they were interested in was the growth and experiences of the Jewish community in Germany.”

While the rabbis were in Berlin, Schluter divided them into 10 groups of four to five rabbis each and they went to local schools to talk to German students.

“When we had their final meeting before flying back to the States,” Schluter recalled, “nearly all said that meeting the German students was the most impressive part of the program.”

Schluter then asked the rabbis if they would like to have such students visit their congregations, as part of a student exchange. The rabbis immediately agreed.

The exchange program was tried successfully in New York City in 2002 and 2003, and then Schluter asked Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs if he would like to have the exchange program at Kol Tikvah this year. Jacobs was thrilled.

Kol Tikvah’s religious school director, Karen Waldman, had the task of coordinating the program, which included selecting students and families and inviting them to host a German student. Waldman was shocked and saddened when one parent refused, saying she didn’t “want a Nazi in our home.”

The rest of the families accepted with great enthusiasm.

When Schluter came to Kol Tikvah in April to meet with Waldman and the 12 families, he offered insights into German life.

“Germany today has 80 million people,” Schluter said. “Of those, approximately 130,000 are Jewish, mostly Russian Jews who have come to Germany for a better life.”

According to Schluter, most of these Jews don’t speak German, and they lead a rather isolated existence.

In other words, most German children have never met a Jew.

Many young Germans, Schluter said, are troubled by their history, and how others in the world view them.

“Our history is so burdened, that the impressions they gain from the exchange program are life changing,” he said. “These kids know their history and they think other people think they are guilty. They need to experience that they aren’t being held responsible. We are responsible that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.”

On one of their first days in Los Angeles, Waldman took the students to a Yom HaShoah program. She was extremely uncomfortable.

“When the first rabbi spoke and was saying very negative things about the Germans and the Nazis, it was like a knife twisting in my heart,” she said. “I was feeling protective of the kids. I kept asking if they wanted to leave and they said no. They were engrossed in the whole thing and they wanted to hear it all.”

On April 23, the 24 students attended Shabbat dinner and services at Kol Tikvah. There was an excitement in the air, and much teenage gabbing. It was clear that they had formed strong bonds with each other in the four days they’d been together.

“The minute we met, we felt like friends!” said Katharina Pogoda, one of the German teens. “The Jewish people we’ve met are all so warm and friendly, like a big family. And I was surprised that they have school in their temple where the children are taught so nice.”

I asked the German students what they had learned at home about the Holocaust. “When we learned in school about the Holocaust, it was just facts,” said Hannah Ketterer. “We did not have discussions about what would have been on the Jews’ minds. We’re learning that here, and we’re learning about Judaism and getting to know Jewish people.”

Ludgera Graw, the German students’ chaperone, got to attend a gathering at Kol Tikvah one evening where Jacobs and the Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, talked together about the movie, “The Passion of The Christ.” Graw said she found it very interesting and was impressed at the interfaith efforts being made.

Rabbi Jacobs said there was one rather tense moment.

“There were older survivors here that evening,” he said. “And one person was very bitter about the Germans. He talked about anti-Semitism in Germany and how he grew up there with people beating him up and he said he has no hope for the world. I then introduced Ludgera to the audience, and I said, ‘The hope is right here with these young German people who are visiting our Jewish families.”

Graw said she felt very sad hearing the survivor’s anger and pain.

“I wondered if I should go to him and speak to him,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure how he would react, since he wasn’t prepared to meet Germans.”

At the Shabbat dinner, Jacobs spoke to the exchange students.

“You have touched us in many, many ways by your humanity and by your openness,” he said. “This is a world that is often cruel. But you are the answer, in terms of the possibilities of what we can do in this world by knowing each other. This is more important than any headline in any newspaper or CNN. What will happen in these weeks and in Germany when our kids visit you will affect your whole lives. We are so, so honored that you are here. You make our lives more complete.”

On May 3, the 24 German and Jewish high school students struggled to say their goodbyes to each other.

“I am a changed person,” said Kol Tikvah’s Bradley Lennox. “I never imagined in a million years that two completely different cultures could come together and become family in a matter of two weeks.”

The Calabasas High senior looks forward to the Jewish students’ two-week visit with their new friends this summer in Heidelberg.

After the German teens went home, several of them e-mailed me.

“This exchange definitely changed my way of thinking,” Johannes Ziegelmuller wrote. “I am now confirmed in my point of view that young people are able to communicate and to be friends, although there have been terrible things in the past. Although there are borders, although there are different cultures and countries, there can be a borderless communication and dialogue. I think this exchange is a great and valuable project that helps to open peoples’ eyes, to create a world without hate, prejudices, discrimination and persecution.”


Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian in Van
Nuys. She can be reached at