Home Perspectives Opinions A German-Jewish encounter 50 years ago

A German-Jewish encounter 50 years ago

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A concentration camp victim identifies an SS guard in June 1945 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
A concentration camp victim identifies an SS guard in June 1945 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

The Nazis didn’t quite manage to make even Germany Judenrein, “cleansed” of all Jews: some stayed until the end and survived in hiding or on false papers. After the war, a number of those who ended up in displaced persons’ camps decided to settle in
Germany and rebuild their lives there. They formed congregations and re-established Jewish communities.

But after what they’d been through, they found it impossible to have normal relations with their non-Jewish neighbours. And Jews who lived abroad often refused even to visit Germany or to buy German goods.

This was still the situation some two decades after the Holocaust when I met Dieter Schoeneich, a German Lutheran pastor from Berlin, at a conference in the Netherlands. He had tried very hard to expose the young members of his congregation to Jews, Judaism and Jewish life, but was constantly rebuffed by the local Jewish community. I invited him to bring a group of young Germans to the congregation I served at the time in England. We offered home hospitality.

The visit that took place a few months later was something of a sensation, not only in Anglo-Jewry, but in all of Britain. The BBC made a half-hour TV program about it, and daily papers followed us around. Some Jewish groups tried to protest, and one newspaper predicted my dismissal from the congregation.

But its members, including Holocaust survivors, found it liberating to meet the young Germans, whom they didn’t need to ask, “What did you do during the war?” Even many of their parents would have been too young to be part of the Nazi machine.

Because hatred almost invariably does more harm to those who hate than to those who are hated, many of the Jewish participants in the encounters expressed relief and gratitude for the opportunity to reconsider their anti-German stance.

From the start of the visit, we rarely engaged in small talk. For example, at our first dinner together, Pastor Schoeneich and his wife, who stayed in our home, complimented my wife on her German. “Where did you learn it?” they asked. “In the concentration camp” came the answer. After a few moments of awkward silence, the ice was broken. They wanted to know more. We told each other our stories.

Not long thereafter, members of our congregation paid a return visit to Berlin. The contacts continued for about a decade, even after both the pastor and I went on to serve different congregations. By then, encounters had become commonplace, and such visits were no longer necessary.

With time, postwar German Jewry grew both numerically and institutionally. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union and other countries, including Israel, came to live in Germany. One of the signs of normality is the establishment of the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, which trains rabbis and cantors both for the Reform and the Conservative (Masorti) movements. German universities re-established Jewish studies departments.

Before 1933, when Hitler came to power, Germany had been the centre of Jewish life in western Europe and, in the 19th century, also in America. Many of its earlier rabbis had been trained in Germany. We felt good about making a modest contribution to the revival.

Postscript: as a result of the German media also reporting on the pastor’s visit to suburban London, a stranger called to congratulate him on having returned to his roots. That’s when he first found out that his father was one of those who had survived as an “Aryan” in Germany by hiding his Jewish identity. The pastor’s interest in teaching himself and his flock about Judaism seems to have had deeper roots than he could have imagined.

Judaism has always known Jews by birth and Jews by choice. The Holocaust has given us a third category: Jews by surprise.  Pastor Schoeneich, who remained my friend until his untimely death, turned out to be one of them.