Seeing Germany Close Up With AJU Students - For the Record Winter 11

It has been more than 65 years since the end of World War II, and I often wonder what will become of our collective memory when the generation of survivors are no longer with us. Who will keep their stories alive? How will we continue to relate to the Shoah? These are some of the questions that originally motivated students in AJU's Ziegler School and MBA program and the Jewish Theological Seminary's Rabbinic, Cantorial and undergraduate programs, and myself, to recently take advantage of the new program, Germany Close Up: American Jews Meet Modern Germany.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students

Created by German-born Protestant Theologian and Hebrew University trained Biblical scholar, Dr. Dagmar Pruin, this program is an initiative designed to enrich transatlantic dialogue and provide Jewish American students with an opportunity to experience modern Germany for themselves. As we traveled throughout the ten days, we toured modern and historical sites, met young Germans and members of the Jewish community, heard from politicians, and grappled with a complex set of emotions, questions and experiences.

Seeing the Sites

On our first day, we toured Berlin. It was amazing to think that this city was, not so many years ago, divided and separated, making it impossible for families to see each other and for people to get to work or pass through. Blocks from our hotel, we visited Museum Island, an amazing area which houses a few of the many public museums including the National Gallery and Royal Palace. Nearby was the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Berlin - the gate that at one time welcomed kings and emperors, armies and conquerors, and in more modern days also marked the border where the Berlin Wall divided East from West until the crumbling of the wall in 1989. Seeing the original dividing wall, set up in 1961, was an especially poignant moment for me because I have early teen memories of the television images from that day in November when the wall fell. The wall was positioned along the roadway, uprooting people from their homes and moving directly through a cemetery, from which the bodies of those buried were displaced. The other side of the wall housed a section that at one time blocked people from crossing borders over the Spree River - where more recently, artists were invited to create masterful works celebrating freedom and liberation through color, imagery and expression.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students
Brandenburg Gate

As we toured the sites, we quickly got a sense of the intensity with which modern Germany has committed to memorializing the Shoah. Not far from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide in 1945 stands the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Made up of more than 2,700 concrete blocks ranging in height from inches to 15 feet, the memorial has a dizzying affect in which visitors are lost in the metaphoric symbols of enormity, instability and confusion. The building that houses the Jewish museum is shaped like a warped Star of David and has exhibits tracing the two millennia history of Jews in Germany. Since, as Jews, we are used to Jewish sites being directed at interpreting our experiences for our community, it was amazing and shocking to see that these and other of Germany's monuments of Jewish experience are directed not to the Jewish community, but toward Germans. Some say this is Germany's way of accepting responsibility for its actions in the Shoah, while others say these are but grand gestures to alleviate guilt. What is undeniable is that in Germany today, there is a growing attitude of Philo-Semitism, an extraordinary interest and curiosity about all things Jewish. Some say that Philo-Semitism is the opposite of anti-Semitism, the anti- anti-Semitism, if you will. But in reality, I suspect it is better explained as a social aesthetic in which the Jew becomes an icon for sympathy, curiosity and fascination. As one person I read described: 'Philo Semitism exists when Jewish religion, history, culture and character come to the center of the gentile consciousness and social discourse.' But I suspect this does not necessarily mean that non-Jews come to love Jews as individuals or as a community just for being Jewish, and more important, and perhaps more scary, this doesn't necessarily eliminate anti-Semitism.

The effects of this interest are not only visible in big structures, but also in the subtle reminders of Jews and Judaism and in the attitudes of the German people. Throughout the streets of Berlin and other cities in Germany, there are plaques that line sidewalks and buildings with the names of Jews and information about the people who used to live there and were killed or deported. Next to Berlin's Jewish High School is the spot which used to be Berlin's Jewish Home for the Aged, once used by Nazis as a holding place for Jews before being transported to labor camps. It is now marked by a monument just next to the Jewish cemetery in which most of its tombstones were destroyed. Until recent years the cemetery was ignored, and the green grassy area was used as a park for children and families. One of the restored headstones was that of Moses Mendelsohn, an important German philosopher whose contributions to Jewish thought after the Enlightenment is well known throughout the Jewish and non-Jewish world.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students
Sascha and Simon - Our Guides

Traveling to Worms, known for being one of the first Jewish communities in Europe, was by far one of the great highlights of our trip. We visited Rashi's house, the place where the famous commentator spent some of his time learning and praying. No student of Torah can learn without having Rashi holding his or her hand, helping to explain, question and integrate the words into meaningful expression. Standing in the place where he learned was, for me, and for many in this group of mostly rabbis- and cantors-to-be, an extraordinary experience of meeting a personal teacher for the first time.

In the synagogue, we joined together in a stirring and melodic mincha service. Coupled with the acoustics, which helped create a sense of kavannah (intentionality) which truly had our prayers reaching the Heavens, the personal meaning of this moment was not lost on our group. Following our prayer, we joined together in the Beit Midrash (House of Study), sat around the table where our teacher, Rashi, sat almost 1,000 years ago, reflected on his words and their meaning which brings light and life to our Torah.

While this trip provided many spiritual highs, the group also experienced the very emotional lows that can only be expected when traveling to the site that served as the place where so many of our Jewish ancestors were taken away from us too soon.

Walk Through Death

Some members of our group had previously visited Concentration Camps in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and other parts of Germany. Together, we visited the labor camp of Sachsenhausen, located about an hour from Berlin. The camp was originally built by prisoners in 1936, beginning with the SS quarters which included facilities for Nazi selection, social life (including a casino and other luxuries), followed by 64 blocks for prisoners arranged around a large common area where they were forced to stand in straight lines twice daily to be counted (irrespective of how cold or hot it became). The camp was designed to hold 10,000 people who were forced into slave labor for the Nazis and German companies who benefited from slave labor rates. Though this camp was not specifically outfitted with a structure to kill people, many died from illness, malnutrition, and at the hands of zealous Nazis who would trick them into the neutral zones, making it free game to open fire. The life expectancy of those who ended up in these crowded facilities was 6-8 weeks, as they were forced into heavy labor with little food and were provided only basic shelter. Prisoners were forced to wear thin clothing, wooden shoes, and given little respite from the cold. Heat was limited, basic human functions were governed by SS officers, and the sleeping quarters were cramped and germ infested.

Most of our four-hour tour took place outdoors, and as we stood on the icy remnants of the previous week's snow, very aware of the discomfort of the bitter cold, the heart wrenching reminder of what it must have been like for those who were forced into this camp. Approximately 200,000 people were brought to Sachsenhausen and it is not known how many were killed. In the end, only about 3,000 were liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945.

Thankfully, mine was not a family that suffered loss in the Shoah. For that reason, I have always thought I was immune from any elements of Jewish identity based on the Holocaust. Standing in the middle of Sachsenhausen, a camp which was not inhabited by many Jews, I realized that as a member of the collective Jewish community, it is impossible to say there is no part of our identity that is influenced by the Holocaust. And the longer I stood there, the angrier I became. Nothing, however, sparked that outrage more than witnessing the close proximity of the camp to the homes in the neighboring town, which began only steps outside the gates of the camp. As prisoners walked from the train station into the camp, and as they were marched into town to do forced labor, certainly people saw what was happening. How could they have stood by and done nothing?

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that each person represents a whole world. I couldn't help but wonder about the many worlds that were destroyed in those years under the Nazi regime. If allowed to flourish, what might those worlds have looked like today?

There are some Germans with another point of view - they live with the pain, questions and suffering, wondering how their ancestors and countrymen could be the aggressors of such horrors, and they are as lost to answer as we are. Sascha and Simon, our new German friends, helped us to see that our respective experiences have similarities. Just as we try to reconcile, so do they. And so, at the end of our tour, we gathered for a brief memorial service during which, if only for just a moment, we were of one mind and experience - Jews who included future rabbis and cantors and also lay people, a participant from AJU's MBA program, originally from the Philippines and not Jewish, our German guides (Sascha, who will one day be a Protestant Minister, and Simon, who is Catholic), and Toby, the German who guided us through the camp. Together, we prayed words of psalms, invited personal prayers from participants, and recited the traditional El Maleh prayer and the kaddish, remembering the victims who died here and in other places, standing together in tears, pain, memory, confusion and ultimately, hope.

Encountering the Jewish Community

By and large, Germany today is much less religiously connected than it once was. Less than 20% of Germans identify with their religion and when they do, it is usually in covert and private ways. At the same time, there is a socialist element to the way in which religious communities are set up in Germany - one identifies within a religion, is taxed, and those taxes are then distributed to the religious community. For the Jewish community, this translates into a 21-person board, elected by the members of the community, who help establish and govern the workings of the community. Most people number the total Jewish population of Germany at somewhere around 200,000. However, it is difficult to know for sure since some do not identify within the community and, as is the case in so many places, there are debates over the question of who actually qualifies as a Jew. Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union were labeled Jewish by their home country, but Germany has not yet determined how to classify this group who consider themselves Jewish, but whose patrilineal Jewish descent raises questions. As these immigrants encounter challenges to their identity and remember their experience of persecution based on someone else's label of them, they see any attempts to ask for conversion as a personal and religious violation.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students
Murals on Berlin Wall

We were fortunate to spend a spirited and beautiful Shabbat with the Masorti (Conservative) Oranienburger St. community led by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg. A congregation of about 300, this community is comprised of a combination of immigrants from elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, converts, some German-born Jews, and a large number of intermarried families. Housed in the historic Moorish style “Neue Synagogue,” it was originally built in the mid-1800s, had a capacity of over 3,200 people and was known for its prayer innovations, which included a choir and the original cantorial music of people like Lewis Lewandowski. Though the synagogue was not destroyed on Kristallnacht, as were so many German synagogues, it was eventually bombed and destroyed. (We also learned that Germans do not use the title of Kristallnacht when referencing the November 10, 1938 destruction of synagogues and other Jewish centers because of its Nazi reference. Instead, they will refer to it as the night of government pogroms). Today, the building has been restored as a historical monument, museum, synagogue, and home to many Jewish organizations.

I was moved by so many of the people I met and how they described their own experience of Judaism and I was amazed at their level of participation and knowledge. I spent a significant amount of time with Andrea, a Jewish-born young Romanian woman whose family emigrated to Germany when she was a child, and remained secular. Curious and trying to figure out her own Jewish identity in the complex make-up of German society, Andrea started looking at the different communities in Berlin and became connected to the Masorti synagogue. Five years later, she is a regular attendee at Shabbat services, has learned to read Hebrew, and has even read Torah, and continues to do so.

Two young teenagers shared with me their experience of having spent the past summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and their subsequent plans to participate in USY's Nativ program in Israel or another gap-year Israel program following their High School graduation. And, in a moment of true pride at the reach and worldwide impact of AJU, I met a man who had attended Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) in 2002 and was happy to reflect on his own connection to what he knew was now American Jewish University.


To understand modern Germany, the group met with several high-level politicians in open dialogue. As each spoke, they stressed the importance of Germany's outspoken support for Israel, and their commitment to maintaining that relationship. We were given an opportunity to ask questions, which ranged from German policy on Iran, how the Holocaust has motivated Germany to react to worldwide genocides, and my own question about what motivates Germany to be so invested in Jews and the Jewish community outside of World War II guilt, which I believe is on the decline.

The Former Coordinator of Transatlantic Relations, Karsten Voigt, (one step below the Minister of Foreign affairs) focused his remarks on Israel and the ways in which American Jews represent a unique opportunity for partnership. He believes that American Jews are more interested in Germany than are average Americans. Although it appears to be a unifying element and comes from seeing Germany as evil, he sees this conflict as an opportunity to create constructive dialogue. In discussing the ways in which the Holocaust could impact Germany's involvement in preventing worldwide genocides, Voigt said that until recently, the Holocaust has only meant that Germans would not be aggressors of genocide, and with few exceptions has not translated into involvement in other actions against genocide.

We also met with the current Coordinator for Transatlantic Relations, Hans Ulrich Klose, at the Federal Foreign Office, which was a matter of high security, with metal detectors and passport inspection. The former mayor of Hamburg, Klose was clearly a man of intelligence and honesty who focuses on Germany's relationship with Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific and North America. He reflected on my question about German interest in Jews with serious thought, explaining that German society had suffered a great loss in losing the Jewish community (which represented 25% of the German population before the war). In his mind, Germany has endless reasons to mourn that loss and yearn for those missing contributions of education, innovation and success. For that reason, he remains a strong advocate for other Eastern Europeans coming to Germany.

Encounters with Young Germans and University Students

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz (second from the left) in Germany with AJU students
The Hochschule für Jüdische Studien

Throughout the trip, we talked to many young Germans and our group engaged in lively dialogue to learn about the experiences of their German counterparts. For this group, the most meaningful interactions were those with German university students.

In Berlin, we visited Holmboldt University to share a class with theology students in which we discussed a chapter of Martin Buber's book A Prophetic Faith, discussing the impact of Buber's writing on how we read the Prophets. In all, there are about 1,000 students in the university theology department working on different degrees, of which Judaism and comparative religion is one component. Though the discussion was challenging without proper context, the conversation quickly turned to the nature of the Messiah and the role of a human in salvation of the world. Following the dialogue, students from Holmboldt joined us for dinner and everyone had a real opportunity to discover all of our similarities and differences. As the evening drew to a close, one of our students spoke of a German student who, in broken English, told her that this was his first time meeting a Jew and he was trying to reconcile this experience with his grandfather's role as an SS officer.

In Heidelberg, the fifth largest city in Germany, we visited Hochschule für Jüdische Studien (University of Jewish Studies), which was founded in 1979. It is aimed at researching and studying Jewish culture, history and religion in Germany. Today they have about 150 students, two-thirds of whom are not Jewish. Currently, they only grant academic degrees, while understanding that they train people who will return to be leaders in some of the 200 Jewish communities that exist in Germany today. They hope to begin a rabbinical school at some point, partnering with other religious institutions to provide the specifically religious training. Although our trip came to a close, we agreed to stay in touch with our newfound German counterparts, to explore common interests and to learn from one another about the separation and integration of academic training and religious guidance in the training of rabbis.

While I had hoped to come back from this trip completely enlightened and full of wise answers, I still cannot answer the questions of what will become of our collective experience or how we will continue to memorialize the Holocaust. Raising more questions than answers, however, this experience calls attention to a reality that is both painful and comforting. Just as the Shoah has impacted our identity as Jews, it also impacts the identity of the German people. And ignoring one another could prove to be as costly as ignoring the atrocities of the Holocaust. So a new set of questions is added to my original motivators: Can there be a place for this shared experience without minimizing the pain and anger? Can we write new history in which hate and indifference have no place? Only time will tell.