Devar Torah in Observance of Kristallnacht by Rabbi Ute Steyer

In observance of Kristallnacht, The Jewish Theological Seminary is pleased to present this remarkable account by Rabbi Ute Steyer, ordained by The Rabbinical School in 2009 and presently Research and Program Manager of the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS.

Lekh Lekha: A European Journey Through Space and Time

 

In 1844, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who lived in exile in Paris, wrote a brilliant political satire, "Germany: A Winter's Tale" ("Deutschland: Ein Wintermarchen"):

Im traurigen Monat November war's, die Tage wurden trueber.
Der Wind riss von den Baeumen das Laub, da reist ich nach Deutschland hinueber.

I crossed the border to Germany,
t'was in the month of November, mournful and dreary,
when winds stripped the leaves of trees worn and weary.

For as long as I remember, November 9th for me has meant battling a vivid image in my head of my grandfathers being chased by a horde of men with sticks and clubs. They didn't know each other then, nor would they ever know each other, but they might have been running away from the same horde of thugs in the cobblestone streets of a small town in Germany.

Like clockwork, each year on or around November 9th, my Dad would tell me how his father was brought home that day by former comrades who had not yet been arrested by the Nazis; they had found him in the gutter, beaten up. My Dad was five then. My grandfather, a Social Democrat and union organizer, was not very popular with certain people and had been arrested for the first time in 1933, following Hitler's election victory, when the Nazi storm troopers swept the country arresting communists, Social Democrats, and union workers, killing many of them on the spot. He was involved in underground work against the Nazis, which meant having a bull's-eye painted on him. On the other hand, his physical resemblance to Goebbels and his ability to imitate Geobbels' speeches before the audience of SS guards many times saved his life or got him an extra ration of bread—yet it might have been his death sentence.

November 9th also meant the beginning of a journey that would transform both sides of my family forever and change the way we would engage with the world. I realize that much of this also affects me and who I am, though born almost 40 years after that November 9th. It is the beginning of an uneasy and delicate relationship with Germans and Germany—and with Europe in general—that I share with European Jews. We never had the luxury of sitting in a far-away country vowing "never to set foot" in Germany or "never to buy" German goods. Everywhere you turn, the history is there and the people are there. We had to find a way to live with it, to engage with it, to make peace with it. Yet I can never cross the border into Germany without thinking of Heine's poem.

One could consider it an irony of history that the 9th of November is of recurring historical significance to Germans, the way the 9th of Av is to Jews. But the 9th of November is more complicated—it is like a journey through life with many unexpected turns.

November 9th, 1918, saw my great-grandfather Pinhas and his 17-year-old son, Reuven, my grandfather—both carpenters and shoemakers from the Jewish quarter of Vienna—on the barricades in Berlin during the days of the November revolution. That same day, Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated, finally ending the brutal "Great War" which later would be known as World War I and lead to the proclamation of a republic, the Weimar Republic. It was proclaimed twice on that day: once by the left-wing socialists under Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and once by the mainstream Social Democrats under Philipp Scheidemann, who would become the first chancellor of the Weimar Republic. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were among those standing in front of a balcony of the Reichstag listening to Scheidemann's speech: "The old and morose has collapsed; the monarchy has ended! Long live the New, long live the German Republic!"

Reuven would settle later in a small southern town near Leipzig, would marry, have children, and be one of the leaders of the workers union, the Social Democratic Party, and the Workers' Gymnastic Society.

Exciting years followed, a time of intense social conflict, strikes, small victories for workers' rights, and fights with the local supporters of the emerging NSDAP (Nazi party) which took place each Sunday after a morning pint in the local pub.

In 1930, three strangers from an exotic location who had been on a special Lekh Lekha of their own arrived in this small town: my grandfather Baruch Rahmani, with his young wife, Rosa, and her sister Eleni, from Saloniki. Eleni would soon move on—small-town Germany wasn't after her taste—and eventually settle in London, which was more to her liking and where she still lives at age 99.

Rosa and Baruch must have been quite a sight in that small town, Rosa with raven-black hair and eyes, my grandfather with an impressive handlebar moustache, a red Turkish fez, and an overall Ottoman look, speaking French and Greek and three other languages, none of which was German.

What followed three years later, leading up to the 9th of November, 1938, and culminating for us in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Ravensbruck, was nothing anyone would have imagined nor believed that life after it would be possible. This is what has dominated my family memory for all the years after the war. As for so many others, there was no escape for my family. Countries around them closed their borders or would soon be attacked and overrun by German troops. In the midst of imminent disaster, what some politicians found most important was to score political points by playing to the fears that large segments of the population felt about immigration. When open borders were needed the most, many were effectively shut.

Closed Borders

It was the 9th of November again, the year was 1989, and I was standing at the border crossing, Heinrich Heine Street in East Berlin, and with me thousands of others. I cannot describe what went through my head standing there, the anxiety of not knowing what would happen in the next minutes: Would the East German border guards start shooting? Would tanks show up? One has to remember the uncertainty and precarious political situation in East Germany since July of that year, with protests in churches and battles in the streets between police and protesters. It was found out later that plans existed to set up detention camps but Gorbachov's refusal to get involved had prevented the plans from being realized.

And now I was standing at this border crossing. I saw the gates open, the border police patiently answering questions—Would it be okay to come back after a short stroll on the other side? Would the border be open tomorrow as well?—and stamping national ID cards.

I still have mine with the stamp from November 9th, 1989.

I went later that night to wake up my parents, who lived nearby. I told them what had happened, and we sat together for a long time in silence, trying to make sense of history. Germany would change again. We would change.

A few months later, my mother would decide to inquire with Yad Vashem for information about her father, Baruch, who had been deported in 1938 shortly after her birth and was later sent to Auschwitz, not to be seen again. Some time after her inquiry, she received a reply from Yad Vashem, with a phone number in Alsace. My mother rang, the phone was picked up, and she spoke for the first time in her life to her father. They did not meet in person until the following year.

For the remaining years of his life, Grandfather Baruch became the most important person in my life. He became my teacher and mentor, and was the ultimate reason I decided to become a rabbi and a teacher. In a way, he was the beginning for my Lekh Lekha. The way he had started on his journey when he left his old life in Saloniki—not knowing that coming to Germany in 1930 might have saved his life because, if they had stayed, he might have been among the 96 percent of the Jews of Saloniki who were killed by the Nazis.

The 9th of November is still a complicated date for me. I share this ambiguity with many. It is no longer just the day of destruction; it is also a day of new beginnings. There is no simple designation for it as a "day of mourning" or a "day of joy." When the new, reunited Germany had to pick a national holiday marking the reunification, the obvious choice would have seemed November 9th, yet they settled on October 3rd in order not to overshadow the old with the new. A wise decision, I think.

November 9th, 1918, 1938, and 1989 stand in a historical context. The dates are linked and yet distinct. And whether I like it or not, I am linked with Germany. It is as if history has formed a brit between us, a covenant, reaching back through space and time.