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Returning to Germany . . . and to Judaism

Returning to Germany . . . and to Judaism

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It was chilly and drizzling when we arrived at the site of the installation. There were about 50 people crowded together, along with a local news crew and the town's mayor.

She spoke at length about what we were doing in Bruchsal, Germany. You could tell from her intonation—not to mention her time and sizable effort—that she cared deeply about what we were there to do.

Me with Mathilde's siddur, at her stone.
Me with Mathilde's siddur, at her stone.

On that one early morning in April, my family and I stood at the foot of my great-great-grandmother Mathilde Weil's former home, installing a Stolperstein (“stumbling stone”) in her memory. There were two large, rounded, wooden doors leading into the old building in front of which her simple brass stone now lay. I gripped her royal-blue velvet siddur in my hands, holding the prayerbook against my chest like I could feel her heartbeat.

Carved in brass, the stone states that Mathilde was born in 1878 and deported to Gurs internment camp in 1940.

These Holocaust-commemoration stones are the brainchild of non-Jewish German artist Gunter Demnig, who started the project in 1985. In all, our family participated in the installation of five Stolpersteine that day, commemorating both Holocaust victims and survivors (thank G‑d, the survivors include both of my mother’s parents, some of the only surviving members from either of their families). That said, we only placed stones for my Oma’s (grandmother’s) side; several more could be placed for my Opa’s (grandfather’s) side in Austria.

We were fortunate to be joined by four other families—three Jewish, one not—who flew in for their own ancestors’ memorials. These were some of the most lovely people I have met, and sharing the experience of “returning” to my grandmother’s hometown alongside several people with a shared past was a special kind of magic. Simultaneously, this experience signified and cemented my choice to return to traditional Judaism, to live an observant life. What I was leaning towards little by little since I entered college is now a top priority. Maybe it is my innately deep love of family, or an affinity for consistent and open dialogue with G‑d; regardless, I am coming full-circle and returning to observant Judaism at age 24.

My hand on my great-great-grandfather Moshe's tombstone.
My hand on my great-great-grandfather Moshe's tombstone.

Among our five Stolpersteine is the one to which I feel most connected. My Oma’s little brother, Heinz, my great-uncle, was 7 years old when he was taken away by the Nazis. Heinz is the person for whom I am named: “Eve” (“Chava” in Hebrew). I use my (our) Hebrew name as often as I can; the root, of course, coming from Hebrew’s chaim, the word for “life.” During our trip, we spoke often of Heinz, and will always give his name the life that it deserves. Our family recited Kaddish for him while the artist installed his stone.

Everywhere we walked in Bruchsal, I felt that I was Divinely guided.

How could I not? We have done what I assume was unfathomable to our ancestors during the Holocaust. Do you think that my great-uncle imagined this when he was in the depths of hell under Nazi rule? Do you think he could have believed that not only would his sister (my Oma) survive, but that she would live a full life and have children who had their own children, and that we would all return to the very place where he was taken away and killed? I like to think about how proud Heinz would be if he knew that it did not all end there on the railroad tracks of Auschwitz. It never ends there.

One evening of the trip, my cousin Nathan and I (the two of us are very close in both age and heart) sat out on the sidewalk of a little university town. We talked for hours. I explained to him that he should expect to see some changes in me in the future—that I had my sights set on becoming increasingly observant (I already became shomer Shabbat this year).

The most important response he gave me were the words that left his mouth as the sun set and we took our last sip of beer: “Well, I guess I’ll be bringing my kids over to Aunt Amanda’s house for High Holidays.”

Done.

My opa speaking with artist/creator of Stolpersteine, Gunter Demnig, the night before the ceremonies.
My opa speaking with artist/creator of Stolpersteine, Gunter Demnig, the night before the ceremonies.

To return to Germany was to return to roots. Since coming home, I have heard many Jews refer to this as a “roots trip.” Really, though, it was to revisit, literally and figuratively, ancestral trauma and to continue the process of remembering. To return is to remember. It did not all end there; it continues, right here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until the day I die: Everything I do is for the family I never knew.

At the end of our trip, after all the ceremonies were done and it was nearing time to head home, my parents, cousin and I went to Cologne for the day. We put our rental car in a parking garage and walked out into the sunshine. As we turned the corner onto a main street, I heard a song being sung and a guitar being strung.

We turned to look, stopping and staring, and listening as a young man belted:

Hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

I have returned.

Amanda Eve Thum was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, but now lives on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. She is closely connected with Chabad of Hawaii (Honolulu) and is passionate about meeting and connecting with Jews from around the world. Amanda is a proud alumna of Barnard College and is on a mission to teach practices in self-awareness and confidence to women everywhere, particularly in the Jewish world. She is the founder of OManda Yoga and The Confidence Class.
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bracha Los Angeles September 11, 2017

Thank you,

That was a beautiful story! Studied in Vienna, Austria (myself) for ten years during the 80's and had some experiences with neo-Nazis when the Pope met Waldheim (then running for vice president of Austria) in '88. I was the translator for the ORF and Rabbi Weiss, who was protesting against the Pope receiving Waldheim. The experience w/Neonazi's and violence propelled me to become Torah observant a few years later.
Had been a singer at the Vienna State Opera studio (long story). Would love to meet this young lady from Germany and trade stories. Enjoy your writing- keep up the good work! Reply

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