After a two-day too-short stay in Zagreb, I landed in Berlin for my final days before heading home. Everything seems so far away and so long ago after traveling so many miles and through so many layers of emotions, traditions and culture. While I’m looking forward to my own bed and a telephone, I know I’ll miss the frustrations of figuring out currency conversions, how to say please and thanks in one of the half-dozen languages I’ve pulled from, and how to maneuver tiny transit systems that seem much more complicated than my beloved NYC subway. Most of all I’ll miss the luxurious conversations I’ve had in synagogues, Jewish cultural centers, hostels, bus stations, coffee houses, restaurants, and, on street corners. Having had this time and opportunity to listen to stories, laugh, share thoughts and ideas with people from around the world in a ‘neutral’ space has been an amazing gift.
Berlin is the new ‘it’ city for musicians and artists. Hannah, a NY expat for the last year says Berlin has all the advantages of NY without the pressure and expense. She had met lots of traveling Berliners over the years and when she found herself without a job, made her way here working as an au pair with health insurance and the opportunity for free college. We met at Shabbat Services this morning at the New Synagogue, rebuilt in the 80’s after it was burned during Kristallnacht, 9 November, 1938 and later bombed . While she says there is something spiritual and special about attending services in Berlin, her parents would never come here – to Germany.
There is something spiritual, something special about attending services in this part of the world that worked so hard to ensure that Jews would not only not pray and live here, but ultimately no longer be part of the human race. There are over a half-dozen congregations in Berlin, and sitting in this sanctuary where I attended my first Sukkot services was the perfect place to finish. With a woman Rabbi and Cantor, this liberal congregation had all members participating with voice and emotion – including the children. While this service was familiar and comfortable and so like services I have attended over the years, it was so different from other services I’ve attended over the last month. Most of the congregants in Warsaw, Vilna, Krakow, Budapest, and Zagreb were just learning about prayers and how to participate in a service. Have congregants here learned to read Hebrew and sing over the last 20 years or have they been praying all along? This is a question that will stay unanswered at least for now since today was not the time to ask questions. Hannah explained it best when she introduced herself to someone who let her know that introductions only take place when people recognize and see you for a few years.
Inga, who I met last night at Chabad said it differently. She and her husband Eric have been back in Berlin for about 20 years after living in South Africa for 24 years. When they first moved to South Africa it was a huge culture shock since there people are very open in contrast to reserved and closed Germans. Unlike here, there they dress well and aren’t afraid to show their affluence and are equally showy in sharing thoughts and emotions. There is total acceptance of religions in South Africa, which Germany can’t claim since as Inga pointed out all synagogues have metal detectors and Israeli security guards. There are things South Africans couldn’t understand since they didn’t experience the Holocaust and Inga said she never told them where she was really from. Over dinner she shared her story.
She was born in a village just outside of Warsaw in the early days of the war. Her mother (along with her and her two brothers) was sent as a laborer to Germany to a town caller Leibershdat. I know I misspelled that, but Inga said the name of the town means life, and many Jews were lucky and found life there thanks to people like ‘Oppa’. One night her mother had a dream and was told which path to take to house number ten. Following the directions in her dream, she went there and her knock was answered by an old man ( ‘Oppa’). Her mother explained that she was ‘told’ to come here and the man answered that he was waiting for her. It was here that her mother worked during the war – and survived. Inga was born in November, a dark, somber time yet her mother would open her coat to look at her baby daughter, that baby would smile up at her giving her the strength and will to live.
Inga’s father had also been sent to a (different) work camp and one day while in town her mother recognized his eyes in a now unfamiliar gaunt, clean-shaven face. Oppa said he needed a man to work on the farm after her mother shared that she had seen her husband. This reunion led to her mother, in her early 40’s becoming pregnant. Thanks to the help of another angel, a woman at the local church who noticed she was pregnant and made sure she had enough food , another daughter was born. Their family survived while all the other relatives died in camps. How do you describe a woman who survives and makes sure her family does also? Inga’s brother said his mother ‘was kosher and lived kosher.’
There was one cousin her mother always wondered about . When the internet made information available, Inga found that he was murdered at Auschwitz. She and Eric went to Auschwitz for the first time last year and she said she could see, could feel where he died and that she had never cried as much as she did then. I’d say I can only imagine, but how could I possibly imagine? I hope that I never have to. No-one should ever have to. As Inga says yes, we survived. But it wasn’t easy.