Only the guilty are guilty.
I am not one who accepts the Biblical transference of guilt from one generation to the next (i.e. “…punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Exodus 20:5, 34:7, and Numbers 14:18).
Innocent children should not have to suffer punishment for the evil deeds of their parents.
My predecessor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Max Nussbaum (z’l), who served the liberal Jewish community of Berlin from 1936-40, would often travel the Jewish world and report back to our community about what he learned.
Max had become an international Zionist leader, and one year the West German government invited him to visit Germany. He returned and told our community, “It is not yet time for us to buy Volkswagens.”
My trip two weeks ago with 30 congregants to Budapest, Prague, Terrezin, and Bratislava was deeply moving and disturbing, yet in some respects also hopeful. (In future blogs I will offer more reflections).
I had visited Germany for the first time in 1969. As a college student, I crossed by train from Austria through East Germany into West Berlin, and then I walked through Check-Point Charlie into East Berlin and back. Thirty years later, in 1999, I visited yet again.
In each of the first two trips, I suspected any German over the age of 40 in 1969 and 70 in 1999 of being implicit in the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others (e.g. Romas, homosexuals, Catholics, communists, the elderly, children, disabled, and infirm). I felt exceptionally uncomfortable spending any money in Germany at that time.
This time, I saw few people walking the streets over the age of 85 who might have been suspect, though the elderly I did see may have been Russian Jews who settled in Berlin in the last 25 years since the FSU’s dissolution.
This time as well, I was struck by how deeply Germany has taken responsibility for the crimes against Jews and humanity perpetrated by the Nazi generation. Memorials to the victims and museums commemorating those events are everywhere. The large Holocaust Memorial and museum, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, and located walking distance from the Brandenburg Gate, is a powerful statement of memory in the very heart of Berlin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_to_the_Murdered_Jews_of_Europe).
The Berlin Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind (http://www.jmberlin.de/main/EN/04-About-The-Museum/00-about-the-museum.php) is also a moving record of past and present Jewish life in Germany.
And there are other museums that highlight Nazi terror and former Jewish life. We visited the Wannsee Conference Center (now a memorial) where Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich and the top leadership of the SS formalized plans to murder all Jews in German-occupied territory and beyond (the total was 11 million).
We visited the Berlin-Gruenwald Train Station (“Track 17 Memorial”) which between 1941 and 1945 was one of the major sites of deportation of the Berlin Jews to the ghettos of Lizmannstadt and Warsaw, and the camps at Terrezin and Auschwitz.
Of all the memorials in Berlin, however, the most powerful to me are the more than 40,000 brass-topped cobblestones (stolperstein – from the German “stumbling blocks”) created by German artist Gunter Demnig, who has installed these small memorials at the front entrance of the residence where a Holocaust victim last lived or worked before being deported. On each cobblestone Demnig stamps the details of the individual – the name, year of birth, the fate, the dates of deportation and death, if known. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein).
German school children visit all these sites as part of their curriculum and learn of Nazi crimes. Indeed, today Germany is the hope of Europe. Jews are more welcome there than in most other European countries.
US Ambassador to Germany John Emerson (friends to a number of us from his years living in Los Angeles) met with us at the American Embassy just meters from the Brandenburg Gate for more than 80 minutes. He described candidly a Germany that is not only a very close ally to the United States despite NSA eaves-dropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but of Israel as well. He affirmed that there is little if any significant anti-Semitism in Germany, but cautioned against becoming complacent.
Despite this, I felt everywhere the ghosts of murdered Jews. On this anniversary of Kristallnacht 76 years ago today, I am grateful to the people and government of Germany for the t’shuvah they have sought to make.
I am grateful, as well, to the state of Israel for being our people’s refuge and strongest defense.
And I am grateful to the United States for being a nation where Jews and every other minority and religious community can live and thrive unfettered.
I came across a moving poem by Kenn Allan remembering Kristallnacht (a term, by the way, that was coined by the Nazis – lit. “Night of Broken Glass” – and not by Jews. Jews call November 9, 1938 “The Day of the Pogrom”). See – http://kennallan.com/poems/time/kristallnacht.html
Zichronam livracha. May the memory of the righteous be remembered for a blessing.