USA und das
Gesher - Brücken bauen
Von Ruth Hanna
Die Autorin schreibt für das
It was an October much
like this one. Sun-drenched leaves floated lazily to the ground, caught up now
and again in autumn squalls, swirling apple red round happy feet. The blueness
of the sky saturated history rich soil, amber waves of grain beckoned me to walk
paths not taken. When annoyances bubbled into toil, and trouble crept in, I took
myself to places blazing red and gold, where rivers ran between the trees and
sunlight dappled stones became a sanctuary.
It was that October when the searching of the months just past found resolution,
when I knew that above all else, I would be Jewish. All the reading, all the
wondering aloud, all the years of picking it up only to put it down again,
turned into an instant of certainty. That Sunday in October, I did not know the
mechanics. Only that it must be so.
Then like the first blast of winter, when blizzard's white obscures exhilaration
and foliage turns to mulch under sodden feet, I encountered a storm that
threatened to undo all that October sunshine had secured. I hibernated that
winter, buried in texts that provided cold comfort, wanting to call a Rabbi, not
able to find the courage. The elation of October died. I faced a dilemma that I
could not see past.
Like most people who convert to Judaism, I had to sort out how I would handle my
family's reaction, how I would tell my friends. It would not make a difference
to those who were truly friends, of that I had no doubt. But there were those I
liked, cared for, who would not take it well. Losing them was a risk I had to
take. There were theological things to work through, and acceptance by the
As significant as these issues were, I could at least talk about them out loud.
All the Ruths (and Sarahs and Abrahams) who had gone before me had struggled
with them too. Nothing is easy, and the more valuable something is, the harder
it is to attain.
I found one particular area more disconcerting than the rest. More than a year
passed after that October before I could speak of it, and even then only to
those in the Jewish community I trusted.
You see, I have loved Germany so very much.
That sentence is not original to me. It was uttered by Mildred Harnack, an
American woman executed in Berlin in February 1943 for her resistance to Adolf
Hitler. They were among her last words, spoken after she had been condemned and
reviled. When I first read her story, I strongly identified with that sentiment.
I have loved Germany since I saw the country with the wide eyes of an
18-year-old. Nearly 30 years later, I still get a lump in my throat when I pass
the Starnberg exit headed south on the Garmisch Autobahn. Not just because I
know that in ten minutes or so, the Alps will rise up from the plain and
overwhelm me with a grandeur words could never paint. But because in less than
half an hour, I will be sitting in a warm room with friends who have given me
shelter and kindness since I was that naïve teenager all those years ago.
I love the Germany where hard exteriors mask insides soft as goose down. Where
if you get a flat tire, someone will stop to help you. Where "drop by any time"
means just that. Where you never sit alone in a restaurant; you find an empty
seat and join a conversation in progress. Where you can walk the wall beside the
Danube in Ulm after midnight, in total darkness, and not fear the person
approaching you. Where friendship ferments slow as Rhine wine, and like the
wine, appreciates in value over time.
Few in the Jewish community here know this Germany, the one I love so much. For
good reason, Germany is remembered as the place where six million of us were
brutally and heartlessly murdered. We free associate Germany with Nazis and
goose stepping and glass shattering on Kristallnacht. Many among us will not buy
a Volkswagen, and Daniel Barenboim could expound on what happens when you
re-introduce Israeli audiences to Wagnerian music. Our American Jewish
newspapers spill much ink over any anti-Semitic actions on German soil, never
reporting how the town banded together to repair the synagogue, straighten the
headstones, or march in solidarity with German Jews.
I wondered whether this internal paradox would destroy my Jewish journey, or me.
Whether I would have to give up Germany to be Jewish, or Judaism to keep my
Perhaps then one of the greatest surprises of this journey has been how the
German side of things has made me a better Jew. My first trip back to Munich
after mikveh, I found I had lost none of my German friends and gained new ones
in that old, familiar place. The Jewish community in Munich is alive, well,
kicking, vibrant. I went to shul in the Orthodox synagogue, and learned
thereafter that there is a Reform shul in Munich now. Lubavitchers make their
presence felt in that capital of Bavaria. Jewish tourists and residents in
Munich have a menu of kosher restaurants, delis, and bakeries to choose from,
and a kosher grocer provides online ordering and free delivery.
I have also gained a deeper understanding of what we lost 60 years ago. Yad
Vashem and the US Holocaust Museum try to put faces to the names we memorialize.
Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation works hard to preserve the life stories of
some who survived. But there is nothing that can compare to reading documents
written before the fact, when innocence was still intact, and diaries and
letters held no fear for the days to come. These who were murdered come to life
when you see photographs and read accounts of family celebrations, synagogue
youth groups, Jewish scouting organizations.
Our heroes like Theodor Herzl fly off the page when you study the works in the
original language. The translations I have seen of his essays on Zionism do not
do justice to the beauty of his prose. Lion Feuchtwanger, Hans Jonas, Gustav
Mahler, Walter Rathenau, Leo Baeck, Franz Rosenzweig, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund
Freud: these are but a few of the artists, thinkers, poets, philosophers, and
theologians who dreamed at night in German. (You sports enthusiasts may be
interested to know that in the first 20 years of the revived Olympics, German
Jews won 13 gold medals and three silver in foil and sabre.)
Connecting with them in their mother tongue, knowing the places they haunted,
the foods they ate, the traditions of their peculiar society, this has given me
a profound sense of the part of us that is missing. Connecting with them bonds
me to a Jewish community of communities, building a bridge to a society that
once upon a time included us. And still does.
In 1994, friends I had known for more than twenty years were subjected to
contemptible acts of anti-Semitism. For six months, neo-Nazis spray-painted
swastikas on their house. They would scrub the symbol of hatred away, only to
see it replaced overnight.
They received death threats. Which forced them to seek police protection when
they went grocery shopping. And made them change a telephone number they had
held for forty years. I knew their old number in my sleep. I cannot remember the
By December 1994, their handwriting betrayed the effects of this terror. Their
safe, comfortable world had been shattered. Not in Greifswald, Germany, where we
often read of skinhead activities. Not in Berlin, nor in Munich. This terror
took place in a large city in Texas. In the United States of America.
Ironically, the neo-Nazis targeted folks who were not even Jewish. They happened
to have had a last name deemed "Jewish", a name that actually served German
families both Jewish and not for centuries. As so often happens when blind
hatred is involved, facts made no difference. The haters cared not one whit that
the people had Christian origins as far back as anyone knew. If the haters
believed them Jewish, then Jewish they must be.
Yet we continue to act as if Germans are worse anti-Semites than we could ever
be. When our President speaks of "evil-doers," we instinctively know he is
speaking of right-wing fringe Muslims, not domestic terrorists. Our stereotypes
are comfortable. The people who would fly planes into a building pray to Allah,
and the nation that would kill Jews is Germany. We think we do not need bridges
because a bridge would bring evil within our borders. We consciously refuse to
believe that it is already here.
When I write of seeking a bridge between our American Jewish community and
Germans, in no way do I intend to minimize the awful brutality of the Shoah. The
murders were, and are, inexcusable.
My own White Rose kids screamed in one of their leaflets that anyone who did
nothing to stop the massacre was guilty, guilty, guilty. By their lives and by
their deaths, they condemned their own society with words stronger than anyone
in the Jewish community would ever dare utter. You could not tell them that
those who cowered before moles and denouncers were "good people" who merely
wanted to survive the war. Integrity demanded action, action required
resistance. Any less was not acceptable.
I also do not pretend that the decades after the war yielded any change of heart
that would make a bridge to German society worthy of the least effort. Those who
cared to mourn the murder of six million Jews and millions of handicapped, Roma,
Sinti, gays, and Jehovah's Witnesses did so against the current of public
opinion. We should revere writers like Karl Jaspers and Gunter Grass who refused
to pen pap that would salve guilty consciences. Ernestine Schlant has expanded
on this topic most succinctly in her scholarly, yet powerful, treatise entitled
Language of Silence. Her dissection of the denial and refusal to accept
responsibility for twelve homicidal years spares no one.
But Schlant exemplifies contemporary German thought, where the skeletons in the
closet are being dragged into public view, and mourning the murder victims has
begun. If ever the term Ôgeneration gap' took on new meaning, it is now and it
is Germany. Young people ask grandparents, "What did you do during the war?"
Locked trunks holding black secrets are being thrown open to sunlight and
scrutiny. Where once a plaque sufficed, communities call town meetings to talk
about what they did sixty years ago, how their village acquiesced instead of
It is easier to explain what is going on if I speak in terms of specifics, not
Crailsheim is a small town in southern Germany. It once had a thriving Jewish
community, with a synagogue dating back to the 18th century. Like most of
Germany in the Third Reich, it voted for Hitler and drove its Jewish citizens
away. Most ended up in the concentration camp in Riga.
Over ten years ago, the town invited survivors and their families to return.
Some did go back. Not without a certain sense of trepidation, to be sure. At
least one of those who went reads this column. Typical Jewish geography, that
reader in Illinois was a long-time friend of one of my friends here in
Philadelphia. I therefore heard about it from several viewpoints, all with one
common theme: The trip had been worth the agony of the decision.
The German organizers did not let the "reunion" stop with that single event. One
man in particular, a teacher, has persisted in the bridge-building effort. The
town maintains the Jewish cemetery, and school children visit it for a memorial
service. Students correspond with survivors and their families, making the
terrible history something that happened to real people, not stick figures. They
are working on a suitable, living memorial on the site of the synagogue, not a
memorial that pigeons will roost on, but one that will provide a round-table for
active debate and fresh recollection.
This week, for the 63rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, Crailsheim remembers that
tragedy in an evocative manner. A Polish artist named Andrzej Wichert has
mounted an exhibition entitled "Fehlend" (Missing), 50 portraits of people
murdered by the Nazis. These likenesses are displayed in store windows, public
buildings, and homes, posted where they lived and worked. An additional 25
pictures hang in Crailsheim's Eugen Grimminger School, a public school named for
one of the adults of the White Rose resistance movement.
The leader of the Jewish community in Stuttgart, along with a Cantor, said
Kaddish and recited psalms at the Jewish cemetery when Wichert's exhibition
opened. At the ceremony following Kaddish, Christof Maihoefer (friend of the
artist) said, "When words fail us, we must find other means of communication.
Because silence can become a questionable form of speech." Local artists then
performed an anthology of texts written by those murdered in the Shoah set to
music. Crailsheim's memorial will finish up on November 28 with a public forum
about the deportation of its Jewish citizens to Riga.
Germany is hardly a perfect place to live. It is subject to the same fringe
elements that plague our own nation. They face the same dilemmas we do, of
allowing neo-Nazis freedom of speech without permitting them to destroy a nation
(only in Germany, the wearing of a swastika and similar overt acts are felony
offenses), of balancing the need to combat terrorism with the protection of
Yet it is not possible to define contemporary Germany in terms of Hitler and
National Socialism. The generation that wished to feign ignorance of
extermination camps and mass graves has nearly died out, and is being replaced
with young people who want to work on kibbutzim in Israel. Judaism is alive and
well, with synagogues and kosher restaurants supporting a vibrant community.
When I asked a Lubavitcher friend in Munich why she chose to live there and not
the US where she was born, she replied, "Because I like it better here. It is
the most beautiful country I know. Besides, if Germany were to be Judenrein,
those bastards would have won. And they didn't."
The bridge is being built, with or without us.
(c) 2001 Ruth Hanna
hagalil.com / 21-11-2001