I’d like to share my impressions of Germany, to complement Warren Hecht’s article from September 5. Please be forewarned: This essay is part travelogue, part history lesson, and part my personal impressions of Germany. For all those not interested in any of those topics, you can stop reading now.
This past August, I traveled to Germany with my wife and my son. We arrived the day after Tish’ah B’Av. We made a conscious decision to visit Germany, unlike Mr. Hecht, who traveled standby to Germany. My wife was somewhat reluctant to go, as most Jews would be, since historically Germany (and by that I mean the lands comprising what is now Germany, which didn’t come into existence as a country until the middle of the 19th century) has not been a great place for Jews. She came with me for my sake. I had always wanted to see the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where my parents ended up during and after World War II. We came there after spending the previous two weeks in Israel. We had a choice of flying from Tel Aviv to either Berlin or Frankfurt, which are both about 400 kilometers from Bergen-Belsen, and we chose Frankfurt. I spoke to someone subsequently, who has spent a lot of time in Germany, and told him the purpose of my trip, and he mentioned that the roads to Celle, which is the town nearest to Bergen-Belsen, are better coming from Frankfurt.
We spent a total of three days in Germany. The first day was spent exploring Frankfurt. We used a tour guide, a local Orthodox Jew, who was recommended to us by friends in Israel. We saw sites of interest to us as Jews, including the first two cemeteries used by the Jewish community. The first one contains matzeivos dating back to the end of the 13th century, and includes the matzeivos of the mother of the Chasam Sofer (who was born in Frankfurt), the P’nei Yehoshua, Rav Nosson Adler, and Mayer Amshel Rothschild, the founder of the famous banking dynasty, among others. As an aside, if anyone remembers their early American history, he’ll recall that George Washington defeated the Hessian mercenaries on Christmas day in 1776 after being defeated by the British and being forced to flee New York City. Unlike today, where countries have standing armies, until relatively recently, most armies were comprised of mercenaries, who are paid soldiers, and will work for whoever pays them the most. In fact, the origin of the word soldier is soldi, which means money in Italian. In any case, the British were paying the Landgrave of Hesse (hence Hessians) for the use of those mercenaries. The Landgrave’s banker at the time happened to be Mayer Amshel Rothschild.
The outer walls of that cemetery have five rows of small plaques, about 1 x 2” each, surrounding all four sides, with the names of local Jews who were murdered or deported by the Nazis, ym”sh, and their places of death. There is a newer cemetery, which contains the graves of subsequent Rothschilds and Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. There are also graves in that cemetery that contain the remains of Jews who either committed suicide during the Nazi reign, or were murdered by the Nazis. There is a third, more recent, cemetery in Frankfurt that is still in use and used by the community to bury their dead. Also, like other cities in Germany, most notably Berlin, an artist named Guenther Demnig has created “mini” memorials to Jewish victims of the Nazis who were deported, by installing dozens of small, square brass bricks, each one inscribed with the name – and details about the death – of those victims near where they died or were deported from. If you look down to the sidewalk you’re walking on, you can see them periodically, and randomly.
The following day, we drove to Bergen-Belsen from Frankfurt. The trip is about 400 kilometers and takes about four hours on the Autobahn from Frankfurt. The German countryside is pretty (Why shouldn’t it be? It’s been irrigated with generations of Jewish blood). First, a word about the history of the camp. Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially, this was an “exchange camp,” where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The (in)famous Kastner train from Hungary, among whose 1,800 passengers was the Satmar Rav, was in Bergen-Belsen during the summer of 1944, on its way to Switzerland. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.
After 1945, the name Bergen-Belsen was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Overcrowding, lack of food, and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation. Probably the most famous victim who died in Bergen-Belsen was Anne Frank, who died in March 1945, just weeks before the camp’s liberation.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armored Division The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lying around the camp, unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name “Belsen” emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.
We arrived in the early afternoon, and the first place we went to was the office of the memorial. We had been in touch via email with the office of the memorial, so as soon as we arrived we were told to go to the office. Records are kept there about all the internees in Bergen-Belsen. We spoke to one of the historians who work in the office, and she tried to be helpful, but we couldn’t find certain information that we were seeking, specifically about my mother who came to the camp in late 1944. Her journey to Bergen-Belsen was similar to that of Zuzana Ruzickova’s, a Czech musician who died recently, in that my mother was transported from Auschwitz, where she had been, to Bergen-Belsen. According to the musician, Bergen-Belsen was a place “where we were meant to die.”
According to the historian, the SS burned all the camp records, although I wonder why, since the Germans were doing the world a huge favor by ridding it of its Jews, and I presume that the Germans would be proud of their accomplishments in that area and would want the world to know what a great job they did of it. Here I must interject a brief word about the SS. Most people are probably familiar with the military role the SS played in the war, along with their murder of Jews and other “undesirables.” The concentration camps in Europe, however, were controlled by the economic office of the SS, which, as some historians have pointed out, indicated that in addition to wanting to murder all of Europe’s (and ultimately the world’s) Jews, the war served as a massive transfer of wealth from Europe’s Jews to the Nazi criminals and their enablers, who benefited greatly from this transfer. Some of today’s most well-known companies benefited. Included among these are IBM, Volkswagen, BMW, and Bayer, among others.
Nothing of the original camp is left. The British burned it down after the war, because the barracks were so infected with disease. However, one can still walk the grounds of the camp. The day we were there, there were a number of visitors, young and old, local and foreign, visiting. None were obviously Jewish, as we were. We met a group of English youngsters who said they were there on a school trip. I found that somewhat heartening. One doesn’t just come across Bergen-Belsen by accident. It is in a forest far enough from civilization (both literally and metaphorically) that one has to want to get there consciously. If that’s the case, at least some people are still remembering what occurred during World War II. The perimeter of the camp is about a mile and a half or so, perhaps more, around. We walked it and found memorials to various groups that perished there. The individual sections of the camp are marked by eight relief models located along the edges of the swath of lawn, which runs parallel to the former main “street” of the camp. Seventeen panels placed throughout the grounds feature short texts and photographs with information about the camp’s history. I found the most striking feature of the camp to be the mass graves situated all around. About 29,000 people died immediately before the liberation and right afterwards. Mass graves were dug. Some of the victims were placed in the graves by former SS men and women, who were forced by the disgusted British to help bury the bodies, and the rest were bulldozed into the graves. There are well over a dozen of these mass graves. Some contain 800 victims, some contain 1,000, some contain 2,500, some 5,000, and some contain an unknown number of victims. There are also individual matzeivos place around the grounds of the camp by individuals commemorating family or relatives. They are there for memorial purposes only, as no one knows where any particular individual is buried. We ended our visit by davening Minchah before we left.
Our third day was spent visiting Michelstadt and Worms, two cities that, with Frankfurt, form a geographical triangle of sorts. On various trips to Europe, I’ve found that Europeans love their dead Jews, but are somewhat ambivalent, at best, about live Jews. In Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, although they treated their Jews well between the world wars, there are three statues, two of which are of Jews – the Maharal MiPrague and Franz Kafka. What about the 80,000 Jews who were deported and murdered? Their names are listed on the walls of the Pinkas shul in Prague. In Amsterdam, a must-see is the Anne Frank house. What about the 115,000 Dutch Jews deported and murdered by the Nazis? In Krakow, there’s a “Festival of Jewish Culture” every year. What about the three million murdered Jews of Poland?
Michelstadt is about 45 minutes from Frankfurt by car. There are very few Jews in Michelstadt today, but there are signs at various intersections in the town pointing to the Baal Shem of Michelstadt. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery there. As we arrived, a family of Swiss Jews arrived from Basel, which is about 300 kilometers away (about a three-hour ride). They said they come to daven at the Baal Shem’s grave regularly. We then drove to Worms. It’s about an hour or so from Michelstadt. The city, known in medieval Hebrew by the name Varmayza or Vermaysa, was a center of medieval Ashkenazic Judaism. The Jewish community was established there in the late 10th century, and Worms’ first synagogue was erected in 1034. In 1096, eight hundred Jews were murdered by crusaders and the local mob. The Jewish Cemetery in Worms, dating from the 11th century, is believed to be the oldest surviving in situ cemetery in Europe. The Rashi Synagogue, which dates from 1175 and was carefully reconstructed after its desecration on Kristallnacht, is the oldest in Germany. Prominent students, rabbis, and scholars of Worms include Rashi who studied there with Rav Yitzchak HaLevi, Rav Elazar Rokeach, the Maharil, and Rav Yair Bacharach. At the rabbinical synod held at Worms at the turn of the 11th century, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (Rabbeinu Gershom) explicitly prohibited polygamy for the first time. For hundreds of years, until Kristallnacht in 1938, the Jewish Quarter of Worms was a center of Jewish life.
Worms today has only a very small Jewish population, and a recognizable Jewish community as such no longer exists. However, after renovations in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the buildings of the Quarter can be seen in a close-to-original state, preserved as an outdoor museum. There are many legends associated with Rashi, including one where the town’s walls suddenly formed an indentation to shield Rashi’s mother so she wouldn’t be harmed or killed by a passing horseman. Worms has “adopted” Rashi as its native son (Jewish, of course) although he only learned and studied in Worms, but lived in Troyes, Provence, France. About a 15-minute walk from Rashi’s shul is the old Jewish cemetery, where the oldest tombstone is dated 1076. Almost immediately upon entering the cemetery, you come across the Maharam MiRottenburg’s grave, alongside that of Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen. In 1286, King Rudolf I instituted a new persecution of the Jews (so what else is new?), declaring them servi camerae (“serfs of the treasury”), which had the effect of negating their political freedoms (Hitler, ym”sm, was just one of the more recent in a long line of Germanic anti-Semites). Along with many others, the Maharam left Germany with family and followers, but was captured in the mountains of Lombardy, having been recognized by a baptized Jew named Kneppe, and imprisoned in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace. Tradition has it that a large ransom of 23,000 marks silver was raised for him (by the Rosh), but Rabbi Meir refused it, for fear of encouraging the imprisonment of other rabbis. He died in prison after seven years. Fourteen years after his death, a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, who was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam in the Jewish cemetery of Worms. About 100 meters or so walk towards the far end of the cemetery, you come across the Rabbinerthal (Valley of the Rabbis), which is a dip in the ground, and home to the graves of many rabbis.
I must say that evidence of German efficiency was scant. When we landed at the Frankfurt Airport (not a terribly large or a particularly busy one), we waited on the immigration line for about 45 minutes. Not a big deal, you say. But we were at the beginning of the line, having sat in the front of the airplane and deplaned quickly. There were five policemen at Passport Control, four of whom were dealing with arriving EU citizens, of which there were only a few, and only one dealing with the rest of us. When the four policemen decided that all the EU citizens who were coming had already come, they decided to start processing the rest of the incoming passengers. I remarked somewhat cynically to my wife, that if we had been in Auschwitz in 1943 or 1944, we would already have been incinerated, our ashes on their way to the Vistula River. And the wait for our luggage after that was another 45 minutes. Again, no big deal, but when only one plane lands, it seems that it should take less time to get the luggage to the travelers. When we left, three days later, after returning our car, we were waiting, along with what seemed like the population of a small Israeli town (there were Israelis who had visited and were returning to Tel Aviv for Shabbos) for one of two elevators to take us to the main terminal. Wouldn’t you know it? One elevator was out of service, and the other one held only about seven or eight people with their luggage. Those two elevators looked like they could hold 30 or so people. And there were no indications that one elevator was out of service. Of course, no one was fixing the elevators, or even working on them. Seems somewhat inefficient to me.
On a more positive note, I davened in the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt. That is a synagogue in the West End of Frankfurt (basically downtown Frankfurt), that was built at the beginning of the 20th Century as a Reform synagogue. It was not entirely destroyed during Kristallnacht, for fear of neighboring “Aryan” buildings being destroyed along with it. It was repaired at various points after World War II, and now houses mainly the Orthodox congregation of Frankfurt (there are other Orthodox shuls, most notably Chabad, which is a few streets away). We were told that there are 200-300 mispal’lim on a regular Shabbos. There were about 15-20 mispal’lim for Shacharis and Minchah/Maariv. There is a break of a few minutes between Minchah and Maariv, and either the rav of the shul (who currently is an Israeli rabbi) or a learned member of the congregation speaks about halachah, or about inyana d’yoma. This is done in German. It is somewhat jarring to see and hear Orthodox men, who speak fluent Hebrew and Yiddish, and even English, speaking in German. If you happen to speak Yiddish, it’s not too difficult to follow what they are talking about. We also spoke to an American expat, from Baltimore, who is the chazan of the shul, and who has lived in Germany for about 4½ years, speak about German efficiency, of which he rarely sees evidence.
If you’ve gotten this far in my “rant,” you can see that I am not particularly in love with Germany or German non-Jews. However, the purpose of our trip was to see Bergen-Belsen, not to tour Germany. If you find yourself in Germany for any reason, you can make your own judgments. In any case, have a nesiah tovah wherever you might find yourself traveling.
By Solomon Miodownik