Born right after the Holocaust, a 'baby-boomer,' going to Germany was not just another place to visit. For as long as I can remember I always wondered, how would I have reacted if I had been there during the war? Would I have been able to pick up, leave everything and everyone to escape to a place unknown?
I arrived at the Chabad House in Munich and its co-director Chanie Diskin's apartment on Thursday morning to the distinctive smell of gefilte fish simmering on the stove. One thing I can tell you – that unique smell, which you either love or cannot run far enough from – is the same in Canada, Idaho or Germany. A Jewish home, it seems, has no geographical boundaries; it is one of the physical things that unites us, that defines us as Jews. If the home happens to be in Munich, with a sign on the street proudly reading "Chabad Lubawitsch," how much sweeter and more beautiful is that smell.
I had met Chanie briefly at the annual convention of Shluchos (emissaries of the Rebbe) in New York a few years earlier and had the unmitigated chutzpah to call her up and ask her if she minded me spending a few days in Munich—in her home, no less. She readily accepted my offer. In the first few minutes of my visit, Chanie answered the phone and had a conversation in no less than four languages—English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. As I am uni-lingual (still struggling with Hebrew, only a smattering of Yiddish I remember from my grandparents, and having learned French the old way in high school), I was beyond impressed.
In The Beginning…
In 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down, before communism fell, Chanie and Rabbi Yisroel Diskin arrived in Munich. Today they are the head shluchim (Chabad emissaries) in Germany, in charge of all Chabad institutions. Mrs. Charlotte Knobloch, the current president of the Jewish Community, the Gemeinde, was president as well in 1988. Over the years she has become a close, dear friend of Chanie and her husband.
Prior to their official arrival, Yisroel flew to Munich himself on a reconnaissance mission—to find a place for his family to live. But he simply could not rent a European-style apartment (read: very, very small kitchen, the size of a pantry), without his wife's direct involvement. So two days before Chanukah, Chanie, Yisroel and one-year-old Levy, their eldest child, arrived in Munich – sans apartment – and were duly put up by the Gemeinde in the local nursing home. They lived there for three long months until they finally found an apartment. They used their time wisely, seizing the opportunity to learn the city. They would ride the Ubahn (the u is pronounced ooh) underground, getting off at a different stop every day to learn the city.
Language was a whole other issue. Most people think that Yiddish (which Chanie and Yisroel speak to each other) and German are very similar. In fact they sound the same, but there are slight nuances that render certain words almost opposite. For example, the word darf in Yiddish means "must" and in German it means "may." In the early months, just after they had arrived, Chanie was teaching a Bat Mitzvah girl in her home and had placed a plate of cookies on the table. The young girl sat at the table and kept asking Chanie, "Darf ich nem a cookie?" ("May I take a cookie?") and Chanie kept saying no, as she thought she was saying, "must I take a cookie?" This is representative of what they encountered in those first few, intense and often humorous months.
In 1993, after much haggling, they rented their second, and much more spacious apartment, on Prinzregenten Strasse—having no idea what had preceded them on that street. But more about this later…
Going to School
Mandatory for every child in the German public school system is two hours per week of religious study. Children must learn about their respective religion and if they do not pass the course they do not pass the year, making religion a serious subject.
One of Chanie's many jobs is teaching Judaism in the public system. (She also runs Bat Mitzvah classes, teen classes, a summer camp, winter camp and gives weekly classes to women in her home.) I accompanied her to school on Thursday afternoon to see one of these classes. It seems that school goes on till at least seven in the evening, as things were buzzing when we arrived at five.
The children are very respectful of Chanie, the boys donning their kippahs as soon as they entered the room. My own recollection of afternoon Hebrew school did not bring back fond memories, nor did it illicit any real education. You can imagine how shocked and surprised I was when these fifteen students (boys and girls) took out their prayerbooks and began to pray, out loud, in unison and in Hebrew, with Chanie leading them. What never ceases to amaze me is that Jewish children – no matter where they are in the world, no matter what language, food or cultural barriers – act and look like Jewish children. It is a powerful bond that defies words.
Friday morning, my second day in Germany, dawned dreary and rainy, a perfect backdrop for my tour of the third reich, as it is called in Munich. Chaim Eytan, my Italian/Israeli/German tour guide picked me up exactly at ten in the morning, his efficiency befitting his current place of residence.
As I entered the immaculately clean Mercedes Benz I expected Chaim to put the car in drive and begin our tour. Instead, the car sat idle. He turned around explaining that we were beginning our tour right here. He pointed to the building directly across the street from the Chabad House. Not only did Hitler, may his name be obliterated, stand on the second floor balcony giving speeches, he lived there permanently until he moved to Berlin. Even then, he kept this apartment for his visits to Munich. When Chaim gave me this information, I told him that it reminded me of Russia, as the new Jewish Community Center is built directly across the street from the old KGB Headquarters.
Much of Bogenhausen, the suburb in Munich where the Chabad house is located, was destroyed during the war. Chaim, who is the only Jewish officially recognized tour guide in Munich, knew what was what before the war, as the Germans kept very, very efficient records of everything and somehow he got hold of much of that information. He told me that until the mid thirties the Nazis preferred to live in Boganhausen as it was the newest and cleanest area of the city. He spoke quietly as we drove around the block from the Chabad house, pointing out home after home, once owned by Jews before the war, taken forcefully by the Nazis and now in Jewish possession again.
We finally left this area and drove about five blocks, pulling into a small parking lot across the street from a block-long, six-story building. Chaim turned off the motor and turned around to face me. This, he said, used to be the Ministry of Defense. At the end of the war, when the Allied forces were carpet-bombing Munich, many, many buildings remained untouched as the Germans had been able to camouflage not only buildings, but also entire streets. This building stood as it was before the war. Chaim became pensive and then told me to look carefully to the top of the building. I gasped as I saw SS helmets carved into and ringing the building. "Very few people know about this," said Chaim. "The Germans would rather keep it a secret. But I know… and now so do you."
Chaim then took me to a large open area near the center of the city; barren, save for a monument. On this land, which is a square block, stood Munich's grandest synagogue. Hitler decided, nine months before Kristalnacht, that the synagogue must be destroyed. He demolished it within three weeks and then sent the bill for the demolition to the Jewish community. For the past six years, Chabad of Munich has been lighting their Chanukah Menorah on this very spot. This year they are moving the lighting to the location where the new, multi-million dollar Jewish community center is about to be built. The construction is being held up, since directly underneath the land is a huge bunker where the Germans hid during the bombing. It must be demolished before construction begins.
My tour lasted three hours but spanned a lifetime. Chaim knows the history of every nook and cranny of Munich and has pictures to document everything he says. He is a fascinating man and I was lucky to make his acquaintance. I was looking for the significance of taking the tour on the day before Shabbat and decided that it was because I would need at least twenty-four hours to absorb the information and get my emotions back on track till the next adventure of my trip.
Friday night in the Chabad house there was a Teen Shabbaton.
We brought in Shabbat with energetic singing and prayer. After the fish course, Yisroel spoke on the Torah portion of the week and then the teens took over the Shabbaton, singing one song after the other for at least half an hour. The evening was exhilarating and inspiring. As I listened to the sweet voices of these children I kept glancing out the window at Hitler's apartment trying to absorb the enormity of the contrasts.
Shabbat day we went to the local synagogue which was bereft of any outside markings that would deem it anything other than a large home in the neighborhood. The only giveaway was the police car parked outside. There, Yisroel is the Torah reader and gives the sermon.
Wizo Basar - Marienplatz
What do you do on a Saturday night after Shabbat in Munich? Well, if it is the third weekend in November, then the who's who of Munich's Jewish community comes out, elegantly dressed, to support an evening sponsored by Wizo. If you are thinking bazaar you are in the right ballpark.
What makes the event truly one-of-a-kind, is that it is held in the old city hall of Munich, in Marienplatz – the exact place where the Germans planned Kristalnacht. As many things that occur here, history is always lurking beneath the surface. I am sure that most of the people who attended this gala evening were not as acutely aware as I of the significance of the place, as they live with this history all of their lives. But as an outsider I could not help but be in awe as to how life goes on and how resilient we are as a people.
Almost everyone present came over and warmly greeted Yisroel and Chanie. They politely nodded at me. When they found out I came from Canada, specifically Montreal, they invariably asked if I knew so and so who lives in Montreal. Jewish geography has no boundaries.
Present in great numbers were teens that came out to help for this event. Yisroel was like a human magnet to these children who were greatly impressed by his state-of-the-art palm pilot and the fact that the only visible Jew in the room was so technically avant-garde. In fact, Yisroel was looking for boys to read from the Torah for the youth minyan they were having the next Shabbat and was entering their names in his palm pilot.
All during my trip I knew I would be going to Dachau. I just did not focus on it until I had to. Truthfully, one does not even have to go to Dachau to see it—you can do your own virtual tour on-line. But I felt that once I was only twenty minutes away – that's how far Munich is from Dachau – I should go. And…it was something that I felt, as a Jew, I had to do.
We chose Sunday, my last day in Munich, as there was really no other time to go. Yisroel drove Chanie and me, as opposed to our going by train. When we left I was still relatively calm, but as we got closer to our destination my mouth became dry and I started to get queasy. Our route followed the train tracks and, as I looked out the window, I imagined the trains filled with terror-stricken people going to a place of hell. It did not help that suddenly the weather turned dark and damp and fog began to roll in.
Dachau itself is a small town just outside Munich. Recently, the people of the town wanted to close down the camp, not wanting to be associated with the infamous legacy that is Dachau. The Jewish world stepped in and said that no one must ever forget what happened, and all the camps that are still open must remain that way.
What amazed me when I first entered was the sheer size; how much land there was. And it was cold, very very cold, as it is a wide-open area. Chanie pointed out, however, that at one time there could have been twenty thousand people interned there and it suddenly became much, much smaller.
We started with the museum that has a pictorial exhibition of the Third Reich and then the history of the camp. At one point I realized that the very building I was quietly walking through, looking at pictures, was the place where people were first taken when they arrived, brutally demoralized, stripped naked, hair shaven. It was at this point that I knew I would not be able to go through the whole camp.
It was an odd thing, but as we walked from place to place Chanie and I spoke to each other in a whisper. We shared the same common thought I had before coming to Germany—we both wondered how we would have survived, if we would have survived. She told me that she has not yet allowed her children to visit as she felt they were too young. But now that her eldest son, Levy, is fifteen, she feels that when he comes back to Munich for a short while, perhaps she will allow him to go.
I spent a total of one very long hour in Dachau. Perhaps others would have stayed and toured the barracks, the crematorium and other buildings. For me, just stepping onto the soil was enough. Chanie explained to me that the camp is important for Jews to see, but much more important for Germans to visit. I was shocked to learn that German children do not even hear of the Holocaust until they are in the eleventh grade.
We rode home, first on the bus, then the train, still speaking to each other in a whisper. For as long as I live, I will never understand not only how people survived, but how many came out still believing in G‑d.
Chanie and her husband enjoy a full life in Munich. They have close, good friends and share in each others' simchahs and, unfortunately, sometimes sadness. While sitting in Chanie's kitchen (it's easy to have an intimate conversation as the kitchen is still the size of a large pantry), she shared some beautiful stories about her community. In the numerous places that I accompanied Chanie and her husband, I watched how people spoke to them. It was with a sense of respect, friendship and gratitude all at the same time.
This past January, the Diskins celebrated their fifteenth anniversary since their arrival in Germany with a concert attended by over six hundred people, a true testament to their mutual loyalty.
One of the most difficult things about being in a place like Germany, or any place with no Jewish day school, is that children must be sent away to school at a very young age. Three of Diskin's five children are in New York, living with her parents. The eldest, Levy, is in Yeshiva in Brunoy, France. Chanie speaks to all of her children every single day. She and her husband face this challenge the same way they face other challenges in their lives—if this is what it takes to stay and live in Germany, to keep strengthening Judaism, then we will do it.
Germany is probably not on the top ten list of your places to visit. But if you do, go to some of the places where Chabad has a presence – Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, Offenbach or Pottsdam – and know that you have a home, a synagogue, a community and the warmth of Jewish families to welcome you with open arms.
Know also that you are going to a place where the ultimate evil is being vanquished by an ever-growing light; where the presence of a practicing, vibrant Jewish community is the eternal answer to the final solution. We have survived and we will continue, with G‑d's help, not only to endure, but to grow and flourish.
An After Thought…
In the end, my questions were almost answered. Would I have been able to survive? I guess that decision would have been up to G‑d. As Mrs. Zlate Benjaminson, a Holocaust survivor, once told me: "When I was a young girl in the camps, many of my friends committed suicide by throwing themselves at the electrified fence. I decided that G‑d put me there. If He wanted me to die, I would die, but if I was supposed to live, then how could I do such a thing?" I hope that I would have been as strong as this extraordinary woman—as all the extraordinary people who survived.
Nothing happens by accident. Whatever one sees, wherever one goes is meant to be.
Jews believe in reincarnation. Our souls come back here until our individual task of revealing the sparks of G‑dliness hidden in the world is complete. Furthermore, no one else in the world can do the job that G‑d entrusted me to do. And if I do not complete my task, for whatever reason, then my soul will return again and again, in other bodies, until the task is finished.
And so it was no accident that not until the age of forty did G‑d tap me on the shoulder and indicate, not so subtly, that now is the time to begin to delve into the beauty, the secrets, the joy of Judaism. Over the years I pondered—why did G‑d wait until I turned forty?
My fantasy is that my soul is the reincarnation of a woman who perished at the age of forty in the Holocaust, before being able to finish her soul's mission… And even if this is not the case, their lives were tragically cut short… Dare we ignore the responsibility to carry on where they had left?
It was no mere coincidence that G‑d waited until I turned forty to nudge me. And, I continued to reason, if all the above is true, and who can refute it, then how much more important is my personal mission here on earth? And so I must do the best job I can to reveal G‑dliness in this world, not only for me, not only for the present, but perhaps, more importantly, for the souls who came before me.
Going to Dachau made my soul shudder and at the same time gave me incredible strength; the mere fact that I was standing there as a Torah observant Jewish woman was nothing short of a miracle. I thought of our Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and finally a young Jewish mother who may have left me her legacy to finish. At that very moment I understood exactly what is meant by Divine Providence. I was on another path of my never-ending journey and I was allowing G‑d to lead me. A humbling experience.