A packed house of rabbis, diplomats, government officials and Jewish community members presided over the historic dedication of the first synagogue to open in Basel, Switzerland, since 1929.
But for all the pageantry surrounding the opening of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center, Monday’s ceremony struck a more personal chord for philanthropist and international businessman Sami Rohr. By backing the project, he was able to honor the memory of Shlomo Zalman and Recha Feldinger, who at the height of World War II provided a loving home to the young refugee.
“This was a very exciting day for us as a community,” acknowledged Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, the center’s director. “But of course, this was a deeply emotional occasion for Mr. Rohr.”
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Rohr and his parents fled their home in Berlin after Kristallnacht in 1939. They made their way first to Antwerp and then to Lyon, France, from where they were smuggled into Switzerland in 1943. When his parents were sent to a refugee camp in the town of Morgin on the French-Swiss border, the 16-year-old Rohr took up residence at an orphanage near Basel. The local Jewish community took in refugee children; among them, the Feldingers took in Rohr.
The Feldingers welcomed Rohr into their home with open arms, treating him as an equal among their own children.
“To our parents he was like a child,” said their son, Gavriel Feldinger, who was seven years old when Rohr came to live with his family.
“When he came to Basel as a refugee, my father asked, ‘How old are you?’ He responded, ‘16 years old,’ ” related Feldinger. “My father said, ‘My oldest is 14 so now you are my oldest child,’ and sat him at the table right next to him.”
Even though the Feldinger children live all over the world, they have stayed in touch with Rohr, who now lives in Florida. With the encouragement of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, Rohr saw a way to give back to the family that protected him.
“G-d placed Mr. Rohr by us during the war,” said Feldinger. “We always keep in touch; we are like brothers.”
Sami Rohr enters the new facility with its director, Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski. (Photo: Meir Dahan)
Monday was Rohr’s first visit back to Basel in 67 years. According to Wishedski, when Rohr walked into the old synagogue of his youth, he went straight to the seat where he used to sit as a child.
After morning services at the synagogue, Rohr met with local legislative leader Daniel Goepfert and spoke with a local television news crew.
Visibly overwhelmed with emotion, he told the reporter that times had changed in the many years since he left Base.
“You have to understand, I was here as a refugee boy,” he exclaimed. “Now, I’m here in the city hall with a grand reception.”
The delegation then moved to the Chabad House, which was used as a non-kosher butcher shop until its purchase a few years ago. Wishedski housed many programs there before embarking on the recently completed series of renovations.
At the new center, Rohr was joined by his son, philanthropist George Rohr; daughter and son-in-law Moris and Lilian Tabacinic; Kotlarsky, Goepfert, interim Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen, Wishedski and Feldinger in cutting the ceremonial red ribbon draped across the entrange. Inside, the crowd gathered to watch a video that featured nonagenarian Moshe Price of Brussels, who shared the story of Rohr’s childhood with the Feldingers from his memory as a German refugee in Basel in the 1940s. Price also spoke about the Rohr family’s close connection to and support of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and their projects around the world.
After the video, Price himself walked into the room carrying a Torah scroll that survived 60 years under an Eastern European man’s bed before it was found and restored to its former glory. Restored with the help of the Basel Jewish community in honor of Rohr, it will be used in the new Chabad center.
After an emotional reunion – Rohr and Price had not seen each other since 1945 – Moris Tabicinic placed the holy scroll in the synagogue’s ark.
Goepfert then took the podium and addressed Switzerland’s checkered past.
“As a third generation politician and government official, I am ashamed by our history, ashamed by the fact that we did not accept the Jews that asked to come through our gates,” he said. “But I am also proud that those that did succeed to enter Switzerland survived and they numbered about 20,000 people.”
Goepfert showed the crowd legal documents signed by Rohr that forbade him from traversing certain sections of Basel as a refugee. He then gave the documents along with others bearing his name to Rohr.
Seen by locals as the result of an increase in Jewish pride, the new center was described by Jewish community president Guy Rueff as an “asset” during conversations with reporters. While acknowledging that sometimes, different groups can see some issues differently, he noted that the Chabad center and his organization maintain a “good working relationship.”
Rabbi Mendel Rosenfeld, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Switzerland, spoke about the need to relate and connect to each and every Jew, something that Rohr learned firsthand from the Feldingers’ generous spirit.
“My parents understood that when there is a Jew in despair, we need to help him,” echoed Feldinger. “My mother prepared food for many guests, and we always had place for more people that we met in the synagogue who did not have a place to eat. Our home was always open to others.”
Dovid Zaklikowski contributed to this report.