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Reflections on a Trip to Berlin 1-Aug-12

Reflections on a Trip to Berlin

Last month I spent a week in Berlin. On Shabbat Pinchas (July 14th) I spoke about this experience, and now I want to share these thoughts with a larger circle of the congregation, including a few pictures.

There are written texts and there are life texts. Today I want to share a few impressions from my most recent life text: the week I just spent in Berlin. I had visited there briefly a few years ago and felt that there was more I needed to see. Berlin is a thriving, energetic city. It is also a place saturated with the past—all of the forces of 20th century and modern Jewish history converge there. So in addition to the typical places one visits in a large European city: museums, parks, etc., I made a pilgrimage to Jewish Berlin, past and present. This is not a comprehensive account, but rather a few highlights.

The first is that Germany has faced its history honestly and thoroughly. You definitely sense this in Berlin, which is covered with testimonies about that dark past. You see this when you stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s iconic landmark. The rebuilt Reichstag is two blocks north; two blocks south is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which covers 4.7 acres. It takes the form of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. Beneath it is an exhibit center that tells the story of the Nazi persecution of the Jews with unflinching honesty.

There are many other many other memorials and historical sites, including the remarkable Jewish museum designed by Daniel Liebeskind [established and funded by the German government]. But the central placement of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in the heart of Berlin speaks volumes about Germany today. Yes, there is still anti-Semitism, but it is marginal and despised.

Second, as you walk around Berlin, you encounter the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones.” Created by the artist Gunter Demnig, these are small brass plaques set into the sidewalk. They mark a place where a victim of the Nazis lived, or sometimes, where they worked. They give the person’s name and year of birth, their fate, and the dates of deportation and death, if known. There are over 20,000 Stolpersteine in several countries in Europe.

Cambridge historian Joseph Pearson wrote that “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” This is one aspect of what the guide on my walking tour of Jewish Berlin called monuments of the void.

Another example is the Bebelplatz, site of the infamous book burning by the Nazis on May 10, 1933. You gaze through a glass skylight set into the ground into a room with empty bookcases. Nearby is a plaque engraved with the prophetic words of Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people”. Humboldt University students hold a book sale in the square every year to mark the anniversary.”

A third monument of the void that I saw was a sculpture called The Abandoned Room, by the artist Karl Biederman. It consists of a table with two chairs, one of which is overturned, as if the occupant had to leave in a hurry. It is a memorial to those Jews who were taken on Kristallnacht.

Around the borders of the base is Nelly Sach’s famous poem: O the chimneys On the ingeniously devised habitations of death When Israel’s body drifted as smoke Through the air— Was welcomed by a star, a chimney sweep, A star that turned black Or was it a ray of sun? O the chimneys! Freedomway for Jeremiah and Job’s dust—Who devised you and laid stone upon stone The road for refugees of smoke? O the habitations of death, Invitingly appointed/ For the host who used to be a guest— O you fingers/Laying the threshold Like a knife between life and death— O you chimneys,/ O you fingers And Israel’s body as smoke through the air!

Inevitably, then, a Jewish tour of Berlin is filled with the presence of absence. But that is not the full story, because, remarkably, there has been a renewal of Jewish life in Germany. There are over 12,000 Jews in Berlin today, including many former Soviet Jews and Israelis. There are Jewish schools, synagogues, and other community institutions.

One symbol of this renewal is the Neue Synagogue. This being Europe, the Neue Synagogue was built in 1866. It is a magnificent structure that seated 3,000, with a blue and gold Moorish style dome visible all over central Berlin. One interesting side note: It served the liberal Jewish community, so it had an organ and a choir. This meant that they needed choral music, but virtually none existed, so Jewish composers created it. One of them, Louis Lewandowski, was choirmaster of the Neue Synagogue, and he created a whole service, including the Tzaddik katomar that we sing at Beth David!

The building survived Kristallnacht because of Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt, the police officer of the local police precinct on duty that night, arrived on the scene. He said the building was a protected historical landmark and drew his pistol, declaring that he would uphold the law requiring its protection.

This allowed the fire brigade access to extinguish the fire before it could spread to the actual building, and the synagogue was saved from destruction. Unfortunately, subsequently, Allied bombing during the Battle of Berlin destroyed the building.

After the Berlin Wall came down, the parts of the building close to the street, including the façade, the dome, and some rooms behind (but not the main sanctuary) were restored as the “Centrum Judaicum” (“Jewish Center”). In May 1995, a small Masorti synagogue congregation began to meet in an upstairs chapel. I worshipped on Shabbat with that congregation, and was fortunate to be in Berlin on the first Shabbat of the month, when there is a Shabbat dinner organized by a lovely young Israeli woman named Karen. I got to talk with some of that very diverse group of Jews, many of them converts to Judaism.

The Rabbi of the congregation is Gesa Ederberg, herself a convert. She was ordained at Machon Schechter, the Conservative Rabbinical School in Jerusalem. The services, led by their cantor, Avitall Gerstetter, followed the German nusach (mode of chanting), and, of course, had many Lewandowski melodies. I felt very much at home.

So these are some of the life texts I encountered: Germany’s historical memory and its facing up to its murderous past; the void memorials, reminders of Jewish loss; and Jewish renewal, including hundreds of German converts to Judaism

My final thought on these life texts relates to today’s Torah portion. We read about the holidays, including Rosh Hodesh, the new moon, especially appropriate to read on a Shabbat when we bless the coming month.

There is a tradition that links the Jewish people to the moon. We find it in the rabbinic literature, and in the Zohar:

The Jewish nation is compared to the moon. Just as the moon wanes and seems to disappear into darkness only to be reborn, so too the Jewish people often appear to be overwhelmed by the forces of darkness only to reemerge as a nation reborn.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the decidedly non-mystical founder of modern Orthodoxy in Germany, wrote similarly, but with a more imperative tone.

In the land of Egypt, the land of the most stubborn paganism,…in that land did God call forth the future leaders of God’s people, show them the sickle of the moon struggling to emerge from darkness into renewed light, and say to them: “This is to be the model for your own conduct! Even as the moon renews itself by the law of nature, so you, too, should renew yourselves, but of your own free will. Each time the new moon appears, it shall remind you to effect your own free-willed renewal.”

Who could have imagined, standing in the judenrein rubble of post-war Berlin, that someday there would be a flourishing Jewish community with Jewish schools, and synagogues from every movement? I certainly felt the terrible weight of 20th century Jewish history in Berlin. The monuments of void, the footprints of that history are everywhere. But I also felt the great power of Jews and Judaism to renew themselves. We should not take that for granted. Rather, we should take it to heart.


The Jewish Museum web site:

A web site devoted to the stolpersteine:

This link shows you the memorial to the book burning (my picture didn’t come out well):

Information about the activities of Masorti Judaism in Berlin:

The picture below shows the Jewish High School in an historic school building that was returned to the Jewish community. For more information [and a portal into the web site of the Berlin Jewish community], see: