Less than joyful in Germany

A short visit to see a friend held more than I had bargained for.

However you look at it, a Jew going to Germany isn't a simple thing. If he shrugs it off, that, too, is not a simple matter. There was no way I could make light of my recent visit, and I wouldn't have contemplated it at all but for Angela. We met in 1972, at the Hebrew University, and developed a friendship which has only strengthened over the decades. If Angela, who isn't Jewish, is not an ohevet Yisrael, she will do until one comes along. She has stayed with me in Israel several times and counts Jerusalem among the very few places where she feels at home. After each visit her family spends days discussing her time here. She wears a watch with Hebrew letters on the dial, hardly usual for Europe. Her brother ordered it for himself from an "Israel catalogue," but then felt it "belonged more naturally" to her. We had talked about a reciprocal visit but, deep down, I didn't believe in it; didn't, perhaps, really want it. Then, planning a trip to England, somehow the idea was already there: Why not hop over and spend a few days with my old friend? That was how I found myself in M nchengladbach, a town of some 260,000 near the Dutch border. I was received by Angela and her son Philipp, 14, with great warmth, and in their cheerful apartment felt at home. Being in Germany seemed an external detail. PREPARING for bed the first night, I suddenly noted the date: November 7. Two days later was the anniversary of Kristallnacht - and I would still be in Germany. And, I realized, if there was anywhere I didn't want to be on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, it was in Germany. My father had been in Munich on that date in 1938 and he described the destruction, fear and horror in In and Out of Harmony: Tales of a Cantor in the Hitler Era. He recalled how, as hazan of the Reichenbach Synagogue, "On the morning of November 10, I got up as usual to go to the synagogue. On reaching the street I saw the warden of the congregation rushing toward me with tears in his eyes. 'Don't go the the synagogue,' he wept. 'We don't have a synagogue any more. The SA have desecrated the interior....'" How could I be in Germany on the anniversary of this massive, countrywide devastation of Jewry and treat it as just another day? Next morning I learned that M nchengladbach had had three synagogues, all burned, and the town's 5,000 Jews mostly deported to their deaths. Each year, Angela told me, a memorial ceremony is held on the site of one of the synagogues; she would find out where this year's was to be. Yes, I answered; that was how I would mark the day. "Kristallnacht" isn't used very much in Germany now, Angela, a teacher, explained. "We call it Pogromnacht in case 'Crystal Night' might suggest something positive to those who don't know." Teaching the Shoah, she says the children find it "very hard to believe." ON THE evening of November 9 we stood quietly with some 150 people, Jews and non-Jews, in Wilhelm-Strater-Str., site of one of the town's destroyed synagogues. Amplifiers and a podium had been erected and at 6:30 the mayor, Norbert Bude, went up and spoke about the need to remember the past for the sake of the future, stressing that today anyone can live in Germany without fear. (My German is less than rudimentary, but aided by whispers from Angela I got the gist.) He was followed by the head of the local Protestant youth organization, who described a visit by young Germans to the Stutthof concentration camp, near Danzig. Apparently, their reaction had been fitting. Then Leah Floh, an impressive woman who heads today's 750-strong Jewish community in M nchengladbach, detailed the rich Jewish contribution to German life from the 15th century on. The loss in the Shoah, she stressed, must be actively mourned and not just remembered on one day a year. Finally, the Orthodox rabbi of M nchengladbach's one synagogue, Rabbi Kalev Krelin, chanted the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer, translating it afterwards into German. The same was done by another Jew who recited Kaddish. Then it was over. The ceremony had lasted a little over an hour. Next day I flew to London, and from there to Israel. TODAY, IN a Europe where anti-Semitism has undergone rehabilitation, often posing as anti-Zionism, Germany is one of Israel's best friends. It is also one of just a handful of countries where Holocaust denial is a crime. Nevertheless, I don't think I will ever feel joyful about the idea of visiting. I say this realizing that during my trip I didn't interact with a single person who was active in the Nazi period. Like the survivors, the perpetrators are dying out, and the Germans who today serve you in the stores and sell you a museum ticket are of the postwar generation, or the one after. Shoah-innocent as they are, a Jewish visitor feels the clench of the past in an ever-so-slight tensing of the shoulders, a merest holding of the breath. I left Europe with ambivalent feelings, but with this unshakable certainty: Israel is the one place on earth where I can stand up easily and with dignity, proclaiming: "I am a Jew, and this is my country." The writer is Letters Editor of The Jerusalem Post.