It was unexpected. Not the trip, but what I saw. Carol and I took a cruise at the end of May with ports of call in the North and Baltic Seas. Two of the ports were Amsterdam and Warnemunde (Rostock) in Germany.
I always had emotional reservations about Germany. As a teenager, I could not understand how members of my congregation could drive Volkswagen and Mercedes cars. I still cannot get used to the European police sirens.
Friends who recently visited Berlin raved about their tour of Jewish Berlin. Berlin was a day trip from Rostock. We booked tours of Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House, and Jewish Berlin.
Like most Americans, I was familiar with Anne Frank’s story through various documentaries, although, I will admit, I never read her diary.
About midway through our tour of Amsterdam, we arrived at the House. There is a small statue of Anne Frank on the side of the House. People were posing to have their picture taken with the statue. Although I took a picture of the statue, I thought posing with the statue to be in poor taste because I considered the site to be a form of cemetery. Accordingly, I left a stone on the statue’s pedestal. It was the only one.
The tour of the House is self-guided with artifacts and videos along the way. The rooms were larger than I expected. I was impressed with the foresight of Otto Frank who got his family out of Germany and established a thriving business in Amsterdam. This same foresight allowed him to build the secret annex and recruit loyal employees to whom to transfer the business. They ran it after the transfer and concealed the Franks and von Pels in the secret annex after they went into hiding. However, the question remains, who gave up the families to the Nazis?
The ruthless efficiency of the Nazis was evidenced in a room of the museum featuring records telling the history of each person. There was also a map of the outward migration of Jews from Nazi Germany. This is also a theme of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
A few days later, we found ourselves in Berlin. Our tour group was only six people. We saw the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot), and the Berlin Wall. We also visited the incredibly beautiful Rykestrasse Synagogue, the Jewish Museum, the New Synagogue, the old Jewish Community Center, the remnants of a Jewish cemetery, and the Holocaust Memorial.
The Rykestrasse Synagogue was guarded by three burly German policemen. It was the last day of Shavuot and there were services in progress. There was also a private guard — an Israeli from Yavne — at the gate. One of our number persuaded the shomer to allow us into the sanctuary.
The beautiful sanctuary reminded me of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York. Ronald Lauder contributed to the restoration of both synagogues. Although we were told the congregation was German Conservative, men and women sat separately on the main floor, although there was a gallery.
We came before Yizkor and heard the rabbi deliver his sermon in German at the end of the Torah service. It was both a proud and strange moment as the Torahs were paraded around the sanctuary and placed in the Ark, and we exchanged the hag sameah greeting with those in the procession.
Eerier still was, during Yizkor, listening to the chant of El Maleh Rahamim to an unfamiliar nigun in German-inflected Hebrew in the heart of Berlin.
These mixed feelings were heightened by our visit to the Jewish Museum. This was easily the most frustrating part of the tour because of the time constraints. You need days, if not weeks, to do the museum properly.
Our guide at the museum, Shmuel, was an Israeli from Haifa. A Syrian-born Jew, he was a former tank corpsman who served in Lebanon. He had his doctorate and was teaching Jewish studies at the University of Berlin. I learned a lot from Shmuel in a short time.
Shmuel did not like the word “Holocaust,” Greek for “sacrifice,” preferring Shoa, Hebrew for “catastrophe.”
The museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, is full of symbolism with its seemingly erratic construction, voids, natural light, and tilted floors. Its one entrance leads to a hall inscribed with the names of cities to which German Jews sought to flee the Nazis, only to be refused entry.
Of the exhibits I saw, the most moving was the Memory Void which contains Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman’s Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves). An arrangement of 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates covers the floor. These plates represent victims of the Nazis, and you are invited to walk on the plates. When I did, I felt that I was desecrating a grave. The plates made a clanging noise as you walked, demonstrating, as Shmuel put it, that death is not silent.
I still am not comfortable with Germany but this is a trip I am glad I made.