January 19, 2019

Reflections on the Charleston murders from Berlin: A conscience

I was sitting at the lunch tables yesterday here at the language school in Berlin, checking the news, when I read of the massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston. My heart stopped in grief, thinking of the horror in that church. A very deep sadness came over me, for the victims and their families, for Emanuel AME, for Americans and especially for African Americans. And a wider sadness that I have felt since I arrived here two weeks ago rose again. Evil people abound.

The school organized a field trip to the rather impressive Natural History Museum. The route from our school (we walked), took us along Bernauer Street, where a long stretch of the Berlin Wall stood. When I chose this school, I unwittingly chose a neighborhood, in a corner of Prenzlauer Berg, which was one of the sites where the first breaches in the Wall were made. Memorials to the Wall shape the landscape along Bernauer Strasse. The place where I jog in the morning is the Mauer (Wall) Park, the site where a piece of the Wall was dismantled on November 9, 1989, allowing a flow of East Berliners to flow into the West. The Iron Curtain was crumbling.

That Wall, and now its remains, stands as a memory to the carnage of the 20th century.  It is there because of the evil that Hitler unleashed on the world, especially against the Jews, and especially against Eastern Europeans and other “undesirables”.  Germany was only subdued because of the military might of the Allies. The brunt of the fighting was carried by the Soviet Union – a nation that far exceeded the Nazis in the murder of innocents. The Wall stands for defeat of Germany, and then the imprisonment of millions of people in Communist tyranny.

The Holocaust, the Second World War, the depredations of Communism, haunt the city.

The horror in Charleston is being followed by the voice of grief, outrage and condolences from every level of American government and in every corner of American society, except the most evil, hiding under the rocks. A voice of hatred that wanted to kill because some group is “trying to take over the world” (this is what I read) has been furiously shouted down by a roaring wave of human decency.

I could not stop myself from making the comparison. We Jews were accused of wanting to “take over the world.” Very little human decency stood in the way of the path from that accusation to government led genocide. The outpouring of support for Emanuel AME is a light in the midst of this tragedy. Our nation stands as one in grief and resolve. That racial hatred has no place among decent people. No place. The conscience of the American people has made itself known.

I feel that conscience in Berlin, as well, on big and small levels. Nearly every day here at the school, as new students flow in, I am asked my name. “Ich heisse Mordecai”, I say. Inevitable befuddlement occurs. I clarify, “It is a Hebrew name.”  Still quizzical.  “From the Bible”, I say. “Ich bin Jude” I finally clarify. I watch carefully. No negative reaction. In fact, usually great interest, and often sympathy for the victimization of the Jews.

I truly cannot shake the eeriness of saying, “Ich bin Jude” in Berlin. The memorials for Jews in Berlin are profoundly present in the city. The city refuses to forget, to ignore. We visited a deeply disturbing museum today called “The Topography of Terror”, a history of the SS and the Gestapo, focusing on the war against the Jews. The word “Jude” was in most of the displays. It was gut wrenching.

Earlier today my class took a walk to the Prenzlauer Berg (where I am staying) museum. That museum was filled with memories of Jewish life here, up until the Jews were deported. A short walk from the school is Rykestrasse Synagogue, one of the largest and most beautiful in the world, restored to its former glory but alas – stands mostly empty.

Today, in reading the news of the outpouring of grief, support and resolve in America in response to the shootings in Charleston, I saw profound evidence of American decency and conscience. I see similar evidence here in Berlin, in the dedication to remember the Jews as well as the resolve never to forget the history of the German terror state and the atrocities committed.  I said to myself today: So some big swathes of the world, too small, but big, have developed a conscience. I am very moved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley