Yom Hashoah 5770/2010: German Scholar Thorsten Wagner Visits the Woodstock Jewish Congregation

In April 2009 I traveled to Germany for the first time. I was privileged to lead a group of 30 travelers from the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and the wider community on an intensive – and intensely emotional – tour of Berlin and of the historical site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Here is what I wrote from our hotel near Ravensbruck last year:

Dear Friends,

I am writing from the picturesque little German village of Furstenburg, which sits across a beautiful lake from the site of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Our group just returned to our hotel from Ravensbruck, which is now a memorial site and education center. We were given a tour of the site by Laura Radosh. Laura is the daughter of WJC member Alice Radosh, who organized this extraordinary trip. Laura and her partner Zilke live in Berlin and one of their professional activities is working and teaching at the Ravensbruck site. I have never visited a concentration camp before, and the debasement and horror of the camp’s history take my breath away and leave me at a loss for words. In the center of anything I might write tonight there is a void, a place of numb silence.

Our trip has traced the Nazi machinery from its bureaucratic office buildings in Berlin to the tidy suburban train station where 50,000 Jews were transported to their deaths and now to one of the concentration camps where the SS calculated how little food an average slave laborer could subsist on in order to work for approximately three months before dying of starvation.

It appears that human beings are capable of convincing themselves that any behavior is acceptable if their ideology supports it and their leaders enforce it. This of course is not news, but tracking the footprints of evil demands that I bear anew some sort of witness.

Since the fall of the Third Reich Germany has built the first stable democracy in its long history, and clearly strives to remember its horrific past and to build social institutions that will withstand the resurgence of intolerance. But for me as a Jew, and I know I can speak for the rest of our group, even as we enjoy modern, exciting Berlin we sense the dread of the recent past barely concealed under our footsteps.

Here in Furstenburg during the war one could see the smoke from the crematorium chimney rising clearly across the lake. The ashes of the victims were sold to the local farmers as fertilizer. Siemens Electronics built a factory next to the camp to take advantage of the free labor. Nearly everyone in Germany was complicit, whether enthusiastically, passively, or under duress.

From our extraordinary guides we have received an intensive course in the causes and progression of Nazi rule and terror. But despite my deepened understanding of the history, and I have learned a great deal, my mind still rebels against the outcome, still demands that it can not be. Yet here in Germany, it was.

This evening we ate dinner in the youth hostel just outside the memorial. Ravensbruck was a women’s concentration camp, and the youth hostel occupies the houses where the female guards once lived. We are here to take part in the annual Liberation Day ceremonies. Joining us at dinner were elderly survivors of the camp and their families, from Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere. Following dinner we walked across the huge site of the former camp to one of the few remaining buildings. It is the former textile factory in which the prisoners worked. There we joined several hundred people for a concert by Ars Choralis, the Ulster County Chorus who provided the incentive for our trip. Perhaps some beautiful music could cleanse some of the dreadful energy from this place. Perhaps profound good intention and skilled musicianship could offer some small redemption to this hell on earth. The Mendelssohn Concerto in A Minor uplifted the room. An excerpt from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass moved me deeply. The Choir’s prayerful and heartfelt songs paid homage to the survivors and to the victims of this camp.

Until tonight I had felt too overwhelmed to write to you about my experiences thus far during this trip. But as the chorus and orchestra played the last notes of a Chopin Etude tonight, I felt my own words returning in this small way that I share with you now. Ars Choralis’ music somehow strengthened me or cleansed me or harmonized within me. I am very grateful.

This has been a painful but invaluable pilgrimage. I left for Europe during Passover, and my mind has been filled with analogies between Pharaoh’s dehumanizing, murderous treatment of the Hebrew slaves and the Nazis’ systematic dehumanization, enslavement and extermination of Jews and millions of others in our own time. The story of Passover has much to teach us about the dynamics of human oppression and repression.I will return to Woodstock on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this tour has certainly been the most visceral and intensive remembrance of the Holocaust that I have ever experienced. If all goes well, I will be at the WJC this Tuesday evening for the Ulster County Yom Hashoah commemoration. I have much more to share and look forward to offering a fuller report in the weeks to come.

L’hitraot (see you soon) and Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan

Our guide last year in Berlin was Thorsten Wagner, a young scholar of German and Danish descent.Thorsten’s field of study is European Jewish history, and with Berlin as our classroom Thorsten gave our group an indelible history lesson in the genesis and the development of the Nazi death machine.Simultaneously, Thorsten gave us a brilliant seminar in the complexities of how German society remembers the Holocaust. (More on that subject in a future post.) As shaken as I was by my visit, I came away heartened; I had the clear impression that the mainstream of German society is genuinely grappling with its shameful past, and is remarkably mindful in its efforts to combat hate and intolerance. (For an interesting account that reflects my own experience, read Postcards From Berlin via Tablet Magazine by Marc Tracy on 4/27/10. Thanks to Ellen Triebwasser for sharing this link with me.)

Thorsten himself was probably the main reason for my optimism. His commitment as a German to an accurate historical rendering of German history and his clarity regarding why that is important were compelling and even transformative for me. In addition, Thorsten had lived in Israel for several years and is fluent in Hebrew, making his commitment to understanding Jews and Jewish history even clearer. My companions on the tour shared my enthusiasm, and since we could not bring the entire community to Berlin to learn with Thorsten, we decided to bring Thorsten to Woodstock.

The tour participants generously poured forth the funds needed to pay for Thorsten’s visit, and a fabulous organizing committee set up a two-week speaking tour at colleges and synagogues in the Hudson Valley and New York City. On April 9, 2010, exactly one year after our trip to Germany, Thorsten arrived in Woodstock to be our scholar-in-residence at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation for the weekend marking Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This was no small matter. A synagogue was bringing a German as our special guest to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some of our congregants had no interest in listening to a German on a day that is set aside to remember the victims of the Nazi atrocities. I completely understood this reaction. I myself had actively avoided a visit to Germany until just this past year – I would never judge another who did not wish to engage with the German narrative, especially on Yom Hashoah.

And yet, the fact that as a Jewish community we were willing to welcome Thorsten into our ranks marks a tectonic shift in our relationship to the Holocaust. 65 years have passed since the German death machine was finally defeated. Thorsten is the grandson of a German Wehrmacht soldier. Our willingness to open ourselves to Germans of good will, new generations of Germans who wish to support the Jewish people and to grapple with their own nation’s past, places us on a path toward potential healing and wholeness.

Thorsten did not disappoint. His topics ranged from the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 to contemporary Germany’s commemorations of the Holocaust. He presented his teachings with a scholar’s commitment to accuracy, and his teaching style was clear and accessible. Of equal importance, Thorsten was gracious, open and available for genuine dialogue. When asked more personal questions, he spoke from his heart. Participants poured into our sanctuary to hear him, motivated in my opinion by both curiosity and by a longing to make contact with this German scholar who clearly cared about our fate.

As Thorsten’s completed his final talk on Sunday afternoon, I came forward and said: “We invited you here because when you led our Berlin tour last year we received the impression, despite our skepticism, that many Germans and that German society as a whole has made sincere and ongoing efforts to acknowledge its past and to make begin the process of making amends. Do you think this is an accurate perception on our part?” Thorsten, in his direct and open manner, looked out on the group and said, simply, “Yes. I think you should give Germans a chance.”

A challenging statement, yet perfectly clear. Has the time come for us to give Germans a chance? At what point do I determine that it is no longer appropriate for me to simply write off the Germans, despite their unprecedented murder of my people? How and when do I deploy my capacity for discernment, to distinguish between present-day enemies and friends, rather than rely on the categories of the past? Thorsten has persuaded me that in the case of Germany, the time has come for me as a Jew to “give Germans a chance”. Of course, that does not mean forgetting history; it means finding the Germans who wish to remember that history and grapple with it together. And, I will repeat, I hold no one else in judgment if they disagree. But that moment, when our German guest looked out over our sanctuary at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and said “I think you should give Germans a chance”, marks a watershed for me, when a Jewish community was willing to invite a German to mark Yom Hashoah together, and give him a chance.

Some 30 singers of Ars Choralis then mounted our bimah (stage) and sang to us from their program commemorating the Women’s Orchestra of the Birkenau Death Camp, and many of us wept, releasing some of the deep emotion that had been stirring in us all weekend. One of their singers, Jim Ulrich, concluded their program with the blessing for peace: “Baruch Ata Adonai, oseh hashalom”. In our own small way the Woodstock Jewish Congregation had contributed to that dream of peace.