Keep Dreaming: Notes from Berlin

Primo Levi’s words take on new meaning, and I shudder with the recognition of their significance. Remember. “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”

311_ German Jews (photo credit: Associated Press)
311_ German Jews
(photo credit: Associated Press)
‘It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Germany’s Holocaust memorial. My first stop in Berlin, where visitors are greeted with this sober warning by Primo Levi, commentator on the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and himself a survivor. Of sorts. He took his own life in 1987. Elie Wiesel reflected at the time that he had died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz. Despite more than four decades of trying to come to terms with humanity’s unfathomable proclivity for evil, he was ultimately unable to deny Hitler one more victim.
Across town, Gan Masorti is busy denying him any more. This Jewish preschool is instilling a love for Judaism and a zest for life within the hearts of its tender charges. This fall it will open its doors to 75 children. Another 25 are on its waiting list. Here the visitor is greeted by squeals of laughter and Hebrew song. In the buoyant faces of these innocents, oblivious to the onerous expectations of a people nearly exterminated, I search for the 1.5 million children murdered by the great grandparents of their non-Jewish playmates.
The Jewish Museum. A masterpiece of architecture with an exhibition organized along an “Axis of Continuity” intersected by the “Axis of Holocaust” and the “Axis of Exile.” I am startled to find Jerusalem and Tel Aviv included among the cities of dispersion. I am also startled to find a Christmas tree on display in the reconstructed living room of a typical fin-de-siècle Jewish family in a section of the museum entitled “German and Jewish at the Same Time – 1800-1914.”
I shouldn’t be, I tell myself, remembering that even Theodor Herzl had a Christmas tree in his home until after the Dreyfus Affair. To hammer the point home, a nearby placard states that prior to World War I there were some 500,000 Jews in Germany, of whom only 9,000 identified as Zionists.And their Zionism, it is explained, was expressed largely through philanthropy that would enable their less fortunate brethren to the east to find their way to the Land of Israel.
Sweltering heat. Highly unusual for Berlin, I am told, but that offers little consolation as I board an overcrowded train during rush hour. Bodies press against one another and I can’t help but feel a little nauseous as the doors close. I’m dying of thirst.Actually, I’m not. But others did, of course, and I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt for even thinking such a thought. In less than seven minutes the train will come to a halt, the doors will open and the only selection I will be faced with is choosing been a diet Coke or a diet Sprite.
“Death, dying and mourning” is the title of the workshop I choose to attend Friday morning at the annual Conference of Liberal Judaism I am speaking at on the outskirts of the city. As we introduce ourselves, it becomes apparent that only one of the participants is here for personal reasons. Everyone else is motivated by a sense of communal responsibility.
They hail from relatively small Jewish communities, which for the most part would not exist were it not for the influx of more than 100,000 Russian Jews over the past 20 years. Now, among the institutions they have to build for themselves is the Jewish Burial Society. They are determined that once again there will be Jewish graves on German soil.
IF GERMANY’S new Jews have it their way, Jewish life will also blossom once again on this scorched and desolate landscape. It is Shabbat morning. I am praying in the Oranienberger Strasse synagogue, in the remains of what was inaugurated as the New Synagogue in 1866. At the time, it housed a splendid sanctuary with room for 3,200 worshipers. Today, services are taking place in a chapel with room for 100.
Only the ornate façade and scanty shell of this imposing building remain intact, now renovated to house the offices of Berlin’s Jewish community and this egalitarian minyan presided over by Germanborn, Masorti/Conservative woman Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who – after a hiatus of 60 years – proudly continues the tradition of Regina Jones, the first woman rabbi ordained in Germany in 1935. In 1942, she was deported to Theresienstadt where for two years she continued to provide pastoral care. In 1944 she was murdered at Auschwitz.
The congregation is young and vibrant. Most are in their 30s, and little children are scurrying all about. I have been asked to offer a commentary on the week’s Torah portion, in which Moses is busy readying the Children of Israel to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land. I focus on the verses in which the tribes of Gad and Reuben approach him and announce that they are quite happy right where they are, and ask for permission to build sheepfolds for their flocks and homes for their wives and children on the eastern bank of the river. Moses admonishes them: “Shall your brethren go to war while you sit here?” I ask the assembled what thoughts this triggers in them. I am pleasantly surprised when the first young woman to respond says, “Israel is our responsibility too, no matter how comfortable we are here.”
It is the answer I am looking for, but still, it makes me feel uneasy. Jews comfortable in Germany? More than that, it turns out many of them feel terribly uncomfortable in Israel. Back to the conference I am attending. One of the participants tells me she has just returned from a visit to Jerusalem. “How can you live there?” she asks. “All the tension, it’s just impossible for me to accept.”
With headlines of Palestinian rioting in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan still current, I start explaining how I manage my life despite...“No,” she interjects, “not that tension. The tension between the Jews.”
It is the three-week period leading up to Tisha Be’av, and I don’t have a good answer for her. Most of those I am conversing with have come from the former Soviet Union. They all have friends and relatives whom the Jewish state will neither recognize as Jews, nor convert into the Jewish fold. Yet every last one of them would have been gassed by the Nazis. It is more than just ironic that Germany is more welcoming of them today than is the state that arose in part to protect them.
ROSH HODESH Av. I arrive back in Jerusalem just as a Woman of the Wall is once again about to be arrested for contravening the codes of behavior in force at the Kotel plaza. Fresh from my visit to the land of the Holocaust, witnessing policemen forcefully wresting a Torah scroll from the arms of a devout Jewish woman is a terribly wrenching experience.
Later that morning, the Knesset Law Committee will approve MK David Rotem’s conversion bill that would essentially disenfranchise the vast majority of Diaspora Jews from the Jewish state.
Suddenly Primo Levi’s words take on new meaning, and I shudder with the recognition of their significance. The Jewish commonwealth has been destroyed before because of baseless hatred. Countless times our people has been marked for annihilation. Collective memory demands collective responsibility. Remember. “It happened, therefore it can happen again.”
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive.