From the numerous stumbling stone memorials that I walk by every day to the synagogues I frequent that survived Kristallnacht and WWII, I encounter the past on a daily basis while living in Berlin.
Growing up in the United States, I mostly learned of the tragedies that afflicted the Jewish people in Germany. I learned of the Mainz pogrom in 1096, of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) on November 9, 1938, and of the rest of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their allies.
What I didn’t learn then was the great history of Jewish life in Germany. I didn’t learn that the great commentator Rashi attended yeshiva in Mainz and the neighboring city of Worms. And that, years later, Berlin became a home for the Haskalah, the “Jewish Enlightenment,” as well as a birthplace of progressive Judaism. I did not know about the rabbinic ordination of Regina Jonas, the first female rabbi, in Berlin in 1935. This trove of Jewish history was unimaginable in my American childhood.
I moved to Germany at the end of this past summer for multiple reasons. Though I grew up taking German and even studied abroad there in high school, my Jewish world and my German-speaking world remained separate. I wanted the chance to bring together my 21st Judaism with my family’s German-speaking Jewish history. Then I got an offer to work in Holocaust education in Berlin and took it. I wanted to live in the city so defined by what it lost so that I could understand what it is today. That, and I knew Berlin was where the Jewish community is largest in Germany, and I wanted to experience Jewish life here for myself.
The matter of memories — and my wish to make my own — is what brought me to Halle, a small town in former East Germany about an hour from Berlin by train, this past Yom Kippur. I grew up on stories of the generations of my family who lived in small-town central Europe, and I wanted to know what that might have been like. In short, I wanted to experience small-town Judaism in Germany. Although I had my pick of synagogues in Berlin, I was curious what being Jewish looked like outside of the city. Yom Kippur in Halle struck me as a great opportunity to not just visit, but pray in a small congregation. I hoped, above all, that the quieter surroundings would enrich my observance of the holy day.
What I got was an entirely different quiet than I hoped for — one not based in silent prayer, but in fear.
As you’ve most likely read about by now, during the Torah reading for Shacharit, it became clear that someone — who we now know was part of the far right — was trying to forcefully gain access to the synagogue. The Torah chanting stopped and the melodic Hebrew was replaced by brusk Russian, the native language of the Soviet-born congregants, as the community leaders discussed how to proceed. Decision made, I took shelter with others in the apartment above the synagogue. Some time later, it became clear that the immediate danger had passed, but that we would be stuck in the synagogue until further notice.
So the prayers resumed.
I drifted in and out of services as the afternoon progressed. The adrenaline transformed the liturgy in a way that the haze of the fast never had for me before. In the moments in which I could focus, I followed along with the Hebrew and asked for life, and for peace, with more kavanah (intention) than I had ever asked before. I wanted nothing more to be written into the Book of Life, if only for one more year. So that I could learn more, love more, be more. I wanted a future, and I wanted life.
Soon, my thoughts drifted from the holiday liturgy to the scholarly texts I spend much of my days reading about Nazi Germany as a Holocaust educator. Part of my job involves embodying the phrase “Never forget.” In fact, that phrase hangs on a sign in the common area of my office. The irony of being in a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur that had been the target of an anti-Semitic attack was not lost on me. I wondered how something like this could happen in a country that engages fairly critically with its past. How could a German citizen, in 2019, weaponize “never forget” against the Jewish people?
The rest of the day consists of moments. I remember us being evacuated from the synagogue around the time of Mincha. It was a blur of police questions and journalists attempting photos before being brought to a hospital. There, we continued with Neilah, even bringing a shofar (and our breakfast food) with us. It was the most natural thing to do, on a day that was everything but.
In the following weeks, I’ve begun to process the events that I know will remain with me the rest of my life. I’ve returned to my Berlin synagogues and reveled in the Jewish vibrancy of Berlin, tried my best to embody the ethos of joy during Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Yet there still remains a tension in my actions, as the fear of the past crept up on the joyful events of the present.
There’s a Talmudic story that I’ve taken much comfort in the weeks since Halle. The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai reached conflicting conclusions, and it was unclear whose teachings were true. So a divine voice cried out that both the strict teaching of Shammai and the leniency of Hillel are the words of the living God.
To be clear, the assailant is not part of this understanding. There is no grey when it comes to attacking a house of worship packed with congregants. There is only black and white. Shammai and Hillel enter the picture, rather, to show that we not only can, but must hold contradictions next to each other — the opposite of one event doesn’t erase the former. Applied to Germany, it captures the competing notions of Germany as a place of Jewish innovation and glory versus one of Jewish suffering and plight.
Too often, German-Jewish identity is reduced to victimhood and tragedy as the arc of Jewish history here is reduced to 1933 to 1945. Of course, to remember and honor the legacy of those Jews who perished in the Holocaust is immensely important. But I refuse to let that be the only narrative, even after the latest events in Halle. To remember German Jews as victims, and only victims, dishonors the legacy of tradition, innovation, and life that happened before the Holocaust and that has continued to happen since. Let’s also honor the Jews, like myself, who call Germany home and strive to build lives because of, and despite of, all that happened — and can still happen — here.
Image via Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images