An Unforgettable Ten Weeks in Germany

Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig
Speaking at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig
Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology
Semester Opening lecture at University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology

Vickie and I with Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah that she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening built for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg
Vickie and I with Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah that she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening built for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Vickie and I are still processing the ten amazing and productive weeks we spent in Germany. There were so many highlights.

We owe the trip to the ingenuity and hard work of Pastorin Ursula Sieg of Bad Segeberg. Somehow, after a few meetings with us, Ursula got the idea that we could be useful in a number of different ways in northern Germany this fall. She put together an amazing program and connected all the many dots to make it a reality. In addition, she and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home and saw to all the logistics of the trip with warmth and love.

In her role as Director of School Church interaction in her region, Ursula put together a wonderful exhibit for public school children in Neumünster. Its title is, “Coming Home,” and it details the life and journey of Vickie’s 93-year-old still active artist mother, Stefanie Steinberg. She was born in Breslau, had to flee with her family to Spain from the Nazis when still a child. From there her journey took her to Switzerland, New York, Los Angeles and eventually to San Francisco. Ursula’s creativity and passion for interfaith understanding helped hundreds of students learn about Judaism (for some we were the first live Jews they had ever seen) and the Holocaust in an original and interesting way. We made about ten visits to the school and really felt close to the students and teachers who were involved.

An unexpected surprise came when the Probst of the Lutheran Church of the Bad Segeberg region, Dr. Daniel Havemann, with whom I developed a meaningful friendship, invited me (in his words) to become “the first rabbi to deliver the sermon at the worship service of their annual Synod.” It was an honor to do so. In all I spoke at ten different Lutheran Churches, sometimes on very problematic (for Jews) NT texts.

In one of the churches, the one time pastor was an ardent Nazi who was convicted of atrocities and sentenced to death (later commuted) at Nuremberg. My visit was part of the church’s ongoing atonement for Ernst Biberstein’s crimes. In the reception room of the church, where there were questions and answers following the service, there hangs a painting of an uprooted cross to symbolize a church gone astray. On my web site blog, you might be interested to read more about it in, “The Church of the Broken Cross.” It was a very special day.

On Kristallnacht, I was privileged to give three speeches (two in German thanks to Ursula’s translation and pronunciation drilling) in Leipzig, the city where my late father was born, grew up, and was arrested on that horrible night, November 9, 1938. My three Kristallnacht addresses in English are also on my web page blog.

We also visited Breslau, and there is interest in bringing the exhibit about Vickie’s mother there as well. It was a thrill for me to watch Vickie’s eye’s as she took in and processed the many sights form her mother’s home city. In Breslau we also received an offer from Jewish community leaders Jan Kirschenbaum and Aleksandra Wilczura to translate and publish What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives in Polish.

Speaking of the book, it was wonderful to visit the huge international book fair in Frankfurt. I was thrilled to see What’s in It for Me? among the thousands and thousands of volumes on display. It was also a unique opportunity to learn a bit from the inside about the publishing industry.

Another honor that I treasure is delivering the semester opening lecture based on the book at the University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology outside of Berlin. The reception my presentation received makes me confident that a similar talk would form the basis of a very meaningful evening or extended program for seminaries, synagogues, churches, mosques or other type of meeting or convention. I would also be excited to offer a mini-mester or similar course course on ”Genesis-Exodus Stories for Practical Preaching” to seminarians or clergy of all non-fundamentalist denominations.

Of course all of these activities were based around my role as visiting rabbi during the ten weeks, including the High Holy Day season, at the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel. There I preached, helped lead services, and led adult study sessions. Thanks to the kindness and flexibility of the community’s spiritual leader, Walter Joshua Pannebacker and the wonderful people who comprise the congregation, we felt so very comfortable and at home there.

All in all it was an amazing time. But now we are home, and I look forward to sharing the experiences I have had and the approach to Torah reflected in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives with many different groups.

The official launch for the book will be at Charter Oak Cultural Center) this coming Thursday, December 4, at 7:00 PM.

In the weeks that follow I will be speaking in several other places (listed on the calendar on my page, I hope those who attend these and future programs will gain meaningful perspectives for their lives from the presentations and discussions.

To Seek the Blessing — Thanksgiving 5775 – 2014

Life can often be very difficult. In 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Governor Wilbur Cross of Connecticut appealed to the indomitable spirit of the people of our state when he proclaimed on Thanksgiving, “It has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator… for the blessing that have been our common lot … for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long search after truth; for liberty and for justice… that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our harvest Home.”

With these mighty words Governor Cross looked beyond the ravages of the Great Depression that affected every citizen and inspired the people of our state to seek and find the blessings in their lives.

It was the same quality exhibited by our patriarch Jacob who also overcame trial and tribulation to seek and find a blessing from God.

But, you might ask, “a blessing! What right and what hope should Jacob have had to seek a blessing from God?” Had he not taken advantage of his older brother Esau to extort the lion’s share of the family inheritance from him? Had he not stood before his blind father swearing he was Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing?
Yes, people often ask: “Why does an unsavory character like Jacob become Israel, the namesake of the Jewish people? Why do you take your name from a trickster and a thief?”

It is a good question, and it has good answers. First of all, Jacob paid and paid for his evil deeds. We would not be wrong if we counted the years after he left home as twenty years of hard time in the Laban Penitentiary in Haran. Laban tricked him time and again, and “often,” Jacob exclaimed, “scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night. Sleep fled from my eyes.”
Second, he honestly and eagerly sought Esau’s forgiveness, and he did not merely attempt to placate his brother with empty words. The size of the gift Jacob insisted Esau accept –and to his credit Esau was reluctant to do so– more than compensated his brother for the loss of the birthright inheritance.

And last and most important, Jacob is our role model and our namesake because despite every reason for doing so, he refused to give up hope. He stumbled and fell, as we all do. He paid for his misdeeds many times over. And when it seemed that all was lost, he wrestled with everything he had been and everything that he had done. He proclaimed to the Almighty in the midst of his struggle, “I will not let You go until You bless me.” (Genesis 32:27)

Though the encounter left him wounded, he wrenched genuine blessing from the depths of his anguish and found the ability to face the future with courage and hope. In that, I submit, he is a wonderful role model for all of us!

Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech — English Version

Thomaskirche photo

It is a great honor for me to speak in this historic church to commemorate this horrific night 76 years ago. I am so very grateful to Pastorin Brita Taddiken of the Thomaskirche and to Pastor Timotheus Arndt for the invitation. I also want to express my eternal gratitude to Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening for both welcoming Vickie and me into their home and for the endless hours each has put in to make our ten-week stay in Germany so productive and meaningful.

I first found out what happened on this night in 1938 when I began my graduate studies to become a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angels. At the opening convocation the then dean and later President of the College, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, of blessed memory, told of how as an eight-year old child in the town of Oberwesel, he watched his grandfather wade into the river Rhine to save charred scraps of Torah scrolls thrown by the Nazis from his burning synagogue.

As my train pulled into Leipzig’s huge station, I realized that my first glimpse of the city was probably my father’s last as he traveled on a different kind of train to Dachau after his arrest on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

I picked up a detailed city map at the information center to try to find the street and apartment where my father had grown up. I also sought the location of the city zoo.
Why the zoo? The eyewitness report on Kristallnacht by David H. Buffum, American consul in Leipzig, reveals: “Jewish dwellings were smashed into, and the contents looted… An eighteen year-old boy was hurled from a three-story window to land with both legs broken … three synagogues were fired simultaneously by incendiary bombs, and many Jews were rounded up and thrown into the stream that flows through the city zoo. SS men commanded horrified spectators to spit, jeer, and defile them with mud.”
When I arrived at the entrance to the zoo, it was 6:45 p.m. The gatekeeper said I was too late. “The zoo closes at seven.”
“It is all right,” I answered, as I handed over the entrance fee. “I only need to go in for a few minutes.” The gatekeeper protested, but I persisted until she finally let me pass.
In a few minutes I was standing before the stream. Tears came to my eyes as I heard myself asking out loud, “Is this where they took you, Papa? Did those bastards spit on you… Did they throw mud on you?” Then, as if in retaliation, I spit into the water from a bridge that straddles the stream.

The next morning I found the office of the Leipzig Jewish community. The elderly lady who answered the door explained that the head of the community was out but would be back later. I explained to her that my father grew up in Leipzig. She pulled down a dusty ledger and opened it to the F’s. I quickly found the family listing.
While we were talking, the leader of the community walked in. I explained who I was and why I was there. He was warm, friendly, and clearly pleased that I had come.

I asked him, “How many Jews live in Leipzig?”
“67”, he answered.
“And how many lived here,” I continued, “when the Jewish population was at its peak?”
“In 1935,” he responded, “18,000 Jews lived in Leipzig.”
“How many perished during the Holocaust?” I asked.
“14,000,” he replied.

The twelve-hour train ride to Amsterdam gave me plenty of time to digest my experiences in Leipzig. I thought, of course, of my father. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis took him to Dachau where they shaved his head, interrogated him, and abused him.
But Leo Fuchs was one of the lucky ones. Because he had relatives already in the United States, and because his visas were complete and in order, the American consulate secured his release after only a few days.

He never spoke of any of this to me, but I know the trauma’s effect never left him. In the spring of 1969 my father fell gravely ill. I flew home to New Jersey from my rabbinical studies in Los Angeles to be with him. I shall never forget my feelings of helplessness when I entered the hospital room, and my father in a semi-comatose state did not recognize me.
I stood there and shuddered as he began shouting in German –which he never spoke at home– that the guards should stop beating him! He had repressed those memories for more than 30 years.

And they were –by and large—good years! In this country my father found love and raised a family. But I –perhaps irrationally—blame the Nazis for shortening his life and depriving me of sharing my greatest joys with him: My ordination as a rabbi, my marriage to Vickie, and our children and our grandchildren.

Why do I say this? My father died at age 57. His older brothers who left Germany before Kristallnacht lived well into their 80’s.

Our children! They are our people’s answer to Hitler’s madness. For us Jews each new life represents a young sapling planted not only to bring joy to a family but also to revitalize a once verdant forest ravaged by fire, by smoke, and by gas.

The word, “genocide,” which we throw around so loosely today, came into our vocabulary so that we could attempt to define what Hitler tried to do: to extirpate the gene pool of our people.
And so we command ourselves: זכור Remember! But if we only remember to wallow in our sorrow, then we waste our time and our tears. We must remember what was so that we can make what will be better.

People ask me all the time. “How could God allow the Holocaust?” I answer that God gave human beings free will and placed us in charge of and responsible for this world. Without free will life would have no meaning. We human beings would be mere puppets on a string or actors following a script from which we could not deviate.

God yearns for us to create a world of justice and compassion, but God does not do it for us. When we fail, it is our failure, not God’s. When we fail, I believe God weeps with us and for us.

As I walked away from the stream that flows through the Leipzig zoo, I wandered past a den of timber wolves in a natural enclosure and beheld a truly wondrous site. A mother wolf stood stark still, while two suckling cubs nursed blissfully at her breasts.

At first, I thought it so incongruous to see such an exquisite glimpse of nature’s harmony in a place that represented to me only discord and destruction. Yet, that is the image that lingered in my mind during the long train ride back to Amsterdam. My mind’s eye kept returning from the vision of violence, hatred, and pain to the peaceful, pastoral scene of wolf cubs drawing sustenance and strength from their mother.

I know that the Nazis’ and neo-Nazi’s use the wolf as a symbol. That is a perversion! Wolves don’t kill because of ideology or cruelty—only to survive.

The Leipzig zoo will always represent for me the horrible evil of which humanity is capable. The wolves, though, will always represent harmony God wants us to create in this world.

On Yom Kippur we read in our synagogues one of the Torah’s most important texts: “See I have set before you life and goodness, death and evil.” (Dt. 30:15). The choice is ours, but God exhorts us: “Choose life that you and your offspring may live (Dt. 30:19).

No, the question is not where was God during the Holocaust. The question is where was humanity?
We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. We know too well that we can choose death, but God hopes our past will strengthen us as we face the future.

Yes, we can choose death, but God hopes
That the pain we relive this night will give us the courage
To clothe the naked,
Feed the hungry,
Teach the unlettered,
Foster understanding among all people,
And use the vast talents—with which God has blessed us—
To choose life, and
To forge a world of justice, caring, compassion and peace!

And then, at last, we will have the world of which the prophets dreamed when they said (Isaiah 11:9 and Micah 4:4)
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Eternal One as the sea bed is covered by water … and all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid!

Warum ich nach Leipzig gekommen bin, 9 November 2014


Dies ist meine dritte Reise in die Geburtsstadt meines Vaters. Hier wuchs er auf und – drei Silberteller, die mir sehr wertvoll sind, belegen das – gewann das Tischtennis-Doppel Championat der Stadt Leipzig in den Jahren 1929 (neunzehnhundertneunundzwanzig), 1930 (neunzehnhundertdreißig) und 1933 (neunzehnhundertdreiundreißig), in dem Jahr als Hitler an die Macht kam.

1982 (neunzehnhundertzweiundachtzig), bei meinem ersten Besuch, wurde ich am ostdeutschen Grenzübergang Ölbesfelde abgewiesen, als ich so naiv war, dem Grenzbeamten zu erzählten, dass ich ein Rabbiner bin auf dem Weg nach Leipzig, wo mein Vater seine Jugend verbracht hat. Erst nach einem eintägigen Umweg über Berlin, wo ich mich als Kunstlehrer vorstellte begierig die berühmten Museen Leipzigs zu besuchen, bekam ich ein Visum.

Während der ganzen Reise betete ich, dass niemand mir Fragen über Kunst stellt.
Zu der Zeit war die örtliche jüdische Gemeindezentrale eine kleine, staubige, schwer zu findende Ansammlung von Büros, die ich über eine enge, knirschende Treppe erreichte.

Von dem Vorsitenden der Gemeinde erfuhr ich damals, dass 67 (siebenundsechzig) Juden in Leipzig lebten. Diese Zahl ließ mir das Herz erstarren. 1935 (neunzehnhundertfünfunddreißig) gab es 18.000 (achtzehntausend) Juden in Leipzig. 14.000 (vierzehntausend) starben in der Shoa.

Im Gegensatz dazu fand ich im Jahre 2011 (zweitausendelf) eine liebevoll renovierte Synagoge und geräumige Büros vor. Die Leipziger jüdischen Gemeinde war durch hunderte russische Immigranten neu belebt worden. Ihr Rabbiner Zsolt Balla persönlich zeigte mir die Orte, wo meine Vorfahren gelebt hatten.

Im letzten Winter, als Pastorin Ursula Sieg zum ersten Mal vorschlug nach Deutschland zu kommen, um in Synagogen, Schulen, Kirchen und an der Universität Potsdam und dem Abraham Geiger Kolleg zu sprechen, schien es ein folgerichtiger nächster Schritt auf dem bemerkenswerten Weg, den Deutschland gegangen ist, um die Schrecken des Hitler-Regime wieder gut zu machen.

Ja wirklich, denn in den Jahren 2011 (zweitausendelf) und 2012 (zweitausendzwölf) hatte ich in meiner Funktion als Präsident der Weltunion für Progressives Judentum die Ehre, die Verträge zur Errichtung einer Jüdischen Fakultāt in der Universität von Potsdam zu unterzeichnen. Das bereitete den Weg zu einem Staatsvertrag, der auch beinhaltet, deutschen Studenten das Studium des Judentums und die Rabbinerausbildung zu finanzieren.

In den letzten Monaten allerdings, hat sich der Antisemitismus an vielen Orten Europas wieder kraftvoll erhoben. Sogar hier in Deutschland, wo Gesetze antisemitische Äußerungen in der Öffentlichkeit verbieten, konnten wir erneut die Glut unverhohlenen Hasses gegen Juden auflodern sehen.

Mit diesen Entwicklungen veränderte sich der gesamte Charakter des Besuches.
Als Israel die Angriffe der Hamas auf Israels Zivilbevölkerung kraftvoll beantwortete, hat ein Großteil der Welt Israel verdammt. Dies war eine völlig unangemessene Reaktion auf Israels glücklicherweise erfolgreiche Anstrengung seine Bürger vor dem Terror derer zu schützen, die sich seiner Vernichtung verschrieben haben.

Sie bewahrheitet einmal mehr die uralte Aussage des moabitischen Propheten Bileam: Israel ist ein Volk, das abgesondert wohnt. (Numeri 23, 9)
Praktisch über Nacht wurde uns klar, dass unsere Generation der Juden nicht von der Prophezeiung des Bileam ausgenommen ist.
Als der Tag unserer Abreise aus den USA näher kam, äußerten einige Freunde und Familienmitglieder berechtigte Bedenken gegenüber unserem Deutschlandbesuch.

Aber meine Familie ist hier: meine Frau Victoria, meine Cousine Irene, deren Eltern beide in Leipzig geboren und aufgewachsen sind, ihr Partner Joe Azizallahoff und unser Sohn Leo Fuchs, der nach meinem Vaters genannt ist. Mein Vater Leo Fuchs wurde genau heute vor 76 Jahren hier in Leipzig verhaftet und in das Konzentrationslager Dachau gebracht.

Und dennoch freuen wir uns hier sein zu können und sind sehr dankbar für die Einladung. Nach fast zwei Monaten in Deutschland, weiß ich, dass viele Deutsche sehr interessiert sind unseren Glauben, unsere Geschichte und unseren Lebensstil kennen zu lernen. Ich bin hier, weil ich wie Anne Frank glaube, dass die Menschen in ihrem Wesen gut sind.
Ich bin hier, weil wir zwar die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen machen können, aber wir können die Zukunft gestalten.

Ich habe einmal die Geschichte gehört, dass während ein Offizier die Juden einer kleine Ortschaft auf dem Dorfplatz zusammentrieb. Er befahl dem Rabbiner vorzutreten. Er hielt seine Hände hinter den Rücken und sagte grinsend: Da du ja so klug bist, kannst du dein Dorf retten, wenn du mir eine Frage richtig beantwortest. In meinen Händen hinter meinem Rücken habe ich einen Vogel. Sag mir, Rabbi, ob er tot oder lebendig ist.

Dem Rabbiner war klar: Wenn ich sage: “Er ist tot”, zeigt der Offizier den Vogel lebend vor. Sage ich aber: “Er lebt”, dann drückt er ihn mit den Händen tot.
Der Rabbi blickte dem Offizier direkt in die Augen und sagte: “Die Antwort ist in deiner Hand”.

Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen machen. Aber die Zukunft zu gestalten, das ist unsere Aufgabe.
Werden wir unseren Kindern eine Welt voller Hass, Terror, Gewalt und Krieg hinterlassen? Oder werden wir eine Welt der Gerechtigkeit, der Fürsorge, der Freundlichkeit und des Mitgefühls schaffen? Werden wir eine Welt des Friedens schaffen? Ich danke Gott dass die Antwort auf diese Fragen in unseren Händen liegt.

Synagogue Site Speech: Why I Have Come to Leipzig, November 9, 2014 (English Translation)

img_4013 November 9, 2014

This is where my my father became Bar Mitzvah in February 1926.

This is my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 1930 and 1933, the very year Hitler came to power.

On the occasion of my first visit in 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebesvelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day-long detour to Berlin–where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums–did I receive a visa. All during my visit I prayed that no one would ask me anything about art!

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters was a tiny, dusty, hard to find and cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time that 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. Learning that number chilled me to my very core. In 1935 there were 18,000 Jews in Leipzig. 14,000 of them perished in the Shoah.

By contrast, my visit in 20ll introduced me to a lovely refurbished synagogue, spacious offices and a guided tour of the places where my relatives had lived. I was accompanied by the young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community, which had been revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants.

Last winter when Pastorin Ursula Sieg first proposed that Vickie and I come to Germany to speak in synagogues, School, the University of Potsdam and here today, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. Indeed, in 20ll and 2012, in my capacity as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I was honored to sign papers that led to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. These agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the German students studying Judaic subject including those studying to be rabbis.
In the last months, though, anti-Semitism has arisen forcefully in many places in Europe. Even here in Germany, where law bars public expressions of anti-Semitism, we have seen the simmering of overt hatred of Jews once again. With these developments, the entire timbre of my visit has changed.
When Israel responded forcefully to Hamas’ attacks on its civilians, much of the world blamed Israel. This totally inappropriate reaction to Israel’s thankfully successful efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of those who dedicate themselves to her destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

Practically overnight, we learned that our generation of Jews is not exempt from Balaam’s prophecy. As the day of our departure from the United States drew near, some friends and family members voiced reasonable concern about our coming to Germany. But my family and I are here: my wife, Victoria, my cousin Irene, whose parents both were born and raised in Leipzig, her partner Joe Azizazoff, and our son, Leo Fuchs, named for my father who was arrested here and sent to Dachau 76 years ago today!

We have come with joy and gratitude for your invitation. After nearly two months in this country, I know that so many Germans are eager to learn about our faith, our history and our way of life. I am here because I believe, as did Anne Frank, in the essential goodness of humankind. I am here because, though we cannot undo the past, the future is ours to shape!
Once, the story is told, an officer gathered the Jews of a small village to the town square. He called the rabbi to step forward. He held his hands behind his back, and sneered. “Since you are so smart, Rabbi, You can save your village if you answer my next question correctly. I am holding a bird in my hands behind my back. Tell me, Rabbi, is it dead or alive?”
The rabbi knew that if he said the bird is dead, the officer would produce it alive. If he said the bird was alive, he would crush it to death in his hands.
And so the rabbi looked the officer straight in the eye and replied: “The answer is in your hands.”
No, We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape!
Will we leave our children a world filled with more hatred, terror, violence, and war? Or will we create a world of justice, caring, kindness, compassion and peace?
I thank Almighty God that the answer to these questions is in our hands!

A Letter to the Memory of My Father as I Stand in the Leipzig Zoo on Kristallnacht 2014

Leipzig zoo

Is this the place?
Is this where they took you, my precious father, on that horrible night?
Is this the place where they spit on you, cursed you, threw mud on you and reviled you for the crime of being a Jew?
I am so thankful, my father, that you made it out alive.

I am thankful that you met my mother and that my sister and I could be born.
I am thankful that you raised us as proud Jews, and I hope you are proud that I am standing here today!
But I cannot be sure!
I cannot be sure because you never, ever spoke to me of the night I have come to this place to commemorate.
You spared me the trauma that—as I now know—scarred you.

But I thank you!
For though you were scarred, you persevered.
You and Mother created a warm, loving Jewish home for Rochelle and me.
You taught me of our ancestor, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer,
The first Orthodox rabbi to encourage Jews to settle in the Land of Israel in fulfillment of their sacred Covenant with God.

You taught me of your father Hirsch Wolf Fuchs, who was murdered
At the beginning of World War I leaving you as a baby to grow up without a father to teach you the things only a father can teach.
But I was blessed to have you!
We stand in this place, and in truth, I fight back tears.

But I did not come here only to weep!
I am here with my wife, Victoria, whom you would have adored! I am here with your niece, Irene, who you did indeed adore.
Dad, our son carries your name
With great pride!

You did tell me one story that I share now:
When you were born
Your parents named you
Leo Eliezer Fuchs!
Eliezer means “God is my help.”
But the German government—even in 1913—informed your parents that Eliezer was not an acceptable name for a German boy. And so you became
Leo Elias Fuchs.
Your silent protest was to never—ever —
Use your middle name!
It was a subtle protest, but it was not lost on me!
And so when your grandson, who stands here with us today
Came into the world,
Vickie and I proudly named him
Leo Eliezer Fuchs
In your memory!

Today, my precious father,
We have come to a different Germany than the one you left
(In the words of the Prophet Zechariah)
Like, “a brand plucked from the fire!” (Zechariah 3:2)

Because Uncle Allie and Uncle Morris, who spent the best years of their lives in this city
Could get you out and bring you to New York.

Yes, Daddy, Vickie and I have come to a Germany that is very different!
We have come to Germany as welcome guests in the home of German Pastors who have planned for months to make our visit comfortable and productive!

We have come to a Germany where anti-Semitic speech and actions are forbidden!
We have come to a Germany where rabbis, Cantors and Jewish professionals from all Europe learn and train at government expense.
We have come to a Germany that has paid billions in reparations to Israel
And to families like ours whose members suffered the ravages of the Shoah.

To this land of that perpetrated the greatest horror that I can imagine.
I come to say:
Remember! And indeed I shall remember!
I shall remember the horror as long as there is breath in my body!
And my children and, I pray that my grandchildren and those who come after will remember as well!

But I also forgive!
I forgive because Germany has asked for forgiveness so many times and so many ways
Because of all that Germany has done
To repent the horror of the Nazi Era
I forgive!
Speaking for myself and my family alone, for that is as far as my influence extends,
I feel called to say as God said
to the children of Israel long ago:
“I forgive as you have asked!” (Numbers 14:20)

I accept your Teshuvah, your repentance, and–
I forgive.
And I join hands with all who stand with us here and with all of those around the world
Who commemorate this day seared into memory,
And I pledge, and I ask all of you to pledge with me
To use whatever talents God has given us
To bring nearer the time
When the world will become
The just, caring and compassionate society that You have desired we create since the time of Creation!

German of Thomaskirche Kristallnacht Speech: A Trip I had to Make

Eine unumgängliche Reise
Rabbiner Stephen Fuchs

Ich wusste nicht, was in dieser Nacht 1938 passiert war, bis ich im Alter von 22 Jahren mein Graduiertenstudium am Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles begann, um Rabbiner zu werden. Bei der Semestereröffnung berichtete der Dekan und spätere Präsident des Kollegs, Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, wie er als achtjähriges Kind in der kleinen Stadt Oberwesel seinen Großvater in den Rhein waten sah, um verkohlte Fetzen der Tora-Rolle zu retten, die Nazis aus der brennenden Synagoge geworfen hatte.

Als ich Rabbiner Gottschalks Kindheitsbericht von der Kristallnacht hörte, wusste ich noch nicht, dass mein eigener Vater hier in Leipzig genau in der Nacht verhaftet wurde. Als ich das erfuhr, beschloss ich, diesen Ort eines Tages aufzusuchen. Die Möglichkeit eröffnete sich im Sommer 1982.

Als mein Zug in Leipzig’s riesigen Bahnhof einrollte, wurde mir bewusst, dass mein erster Blick auf die Stadt der letzte meines Vaters gewesen sein könnte, als er in einem ganz anderen Zug als Häftling nach Dachau fuhr.

Mit einem genauen Stadtplan von der Tourist Information versuchte ich Straße und Wohnung zu finden, wo mein Vater aufwuchs. Auch den Zoo suchte ich. Warum den Zoo? Der Augenzeuge der Kristallnacht David H. Buffum, damals amerikanischer Konsul in Leipzig, berichtet: ” Jüdische Wohnungen wurden gestürmt und geplündert… Ein achtzehnjähriger Junge wurde vom dritten Stock aus dem Fenster geschmissen. Er brach sich beide Beine… Drei Synagogen gleichzeitig wurden mit Brandbomben beworfen und viele Juden wurden im Zoo zusammengetrieben und dort in den Bach gestoßen. SS-Männer befahlen den schockierten Zuschauern sie zu bespucken, zu verspotten und mit Schlamm zu bewerfen.“

Als ich am Eingang zum Zoo ankam, war es viertel vor sieben. Die Ticketverkäuferin sagte, ich wäre zu spät: „Der Zoo schließt um sieben.“ „Das ist in Ordnung“, antwortete ich und reichte das Eintrittsgeld hinüber, „ich brauche nur ein paar Minuten.“
Sie protestierte, doch ich blieb hartnäckig, bis sie mich schließlich passieren ließ. Nach wenigen Minuten stand ich an dem Bach. Tränen stiegen mir in die Augen und ich hörte mich selbst laut sagen: „Ist dies der Ort? Haben sie dich hier hergebracht haben, Papa? Haben diese Bastarde dich bespuckt… haben sie dich mit Dreck beworfen?“ Dann, wie als Vergeltung, spuckte ich von einer Brücke aus in den Bach.
Am nächsten Morgen fand ich das Büro der Jüdischen Gemeinde Leipzig. Eine ältere Dame öffnete die Tür und erklärte mir, dass der Gemeindeleiter nicht da sei, aber bald wiederkommen würde. Ich erzählte ihr, dass mein Vater in Leipzig aufgewachsen sei. Sie zog ein staubiges Familienregister aus dem Regal und öffnete es bei „f“. Sehr schnell fand ich die Eintragungen über meine Familie. Währenddessen kam der Gemeindeleiter herein. Ich sagte ihm wer ich sei und was ich wollte. Er war herzlich, freundlich und offensichtlich erfreut, dass ich da war.
Ich fragte ihn: „Wie viele Juden gibt es in Leipzig?“ „67“, antwortete er. „Und wann gab es hier die größte Zahl jüdischer Einwohner?“ „1935“ , antwortete er, „18000 Juden lebten damals in Leipzig.“ „Und wie viele sind im Holocaust umgekommen?“ fragte ich. „14000“, antwortete er.

Die zwölfstündige Bahnfahrt nach Amsterdam gab mir reichliche Zeit, meine Erfahrungen in Leipzig zu verdauen. Natürlich dachte ich an meinen Vater. Nach der Verhaftung in der Kristallnacht brachten die Nazis ihn nach Dachau, wo sie ihm den Kopf schoren, ihn verhörten und misshandelten.
Aber Leo Fuchs gehörte zu den glücklichen. Da er Verwandte in den USA hatte und sein Visum bereits genehmigt war, erwirkte das US-Konsulat nach wenigen Tagen seine Freilassung.
Er hat mit mir nie darüber gesprochen. Aber ich weiß, dass das Trauma ihn immer gequält hat. Im Frühjahr 1969 wurde mein Vater schwer krank. Ich flog von Los Angeles, aus meinem Rabbinatsstudium, nach Hause in New Jersey, um bei ihm zu sein. Ich werde nie das Gefühl der Hilflosigkeit vergessen, als ich das Krankenhauszimmer betrat und mein Vater mich im nur halb bewussten Zustand nicht erkannte.
Ich stand da und es schüttelte mich, als er anfing auf Deutsch – was er Zuhause nie gesprochen hatte – zu schreien. Ich fragte meinen Onkel: Was hat er gesagt? Mein Onkel antwortete: Er durchlebt die Erinnerungen an die Kristallnacht. Er schreit, die Wärter sollten aufhören ihn zu schlagen. Mein Vater hatte diese Erinnerung über dreißig Jahre unterdrückt.
Im Großen und Ganzen waren das gute Jahre gewesen. In den USA hatte er seine große Liebe gefunden und eine Familie gegründet. Ich aber – und das mag irrational sein – beschuldige die Nazis sein Leben verkürzt und mir geraubt zu haben, meine größten Freuden mit ihm zu teilen: meine Ordination zum Rabbiner, meine Heirat mit Vickie, unsere Kinder und Enkel.
Mein Vater wurde 57 Jahre alt. Seine älteren Brüder, die Deutschland vor der Kristallnacht verlassen hatten, aber lebten gesund bis in ihre achtziger Jahre hinein.
Unsere Kinder! Sie sind die Antwort unseres Volkes auf Hitlers Wahnsinn. Für uns Juden ist jedes neue Leben wie ein junger Baum – gepflanzt nicht nur zur Freude seiner Familie, sondern auch um einen einst üppigen Wald neu zu beleben, der von Feuer, Rauch und Gas verwüstet wurde.

In Europa sind von drei Juden zwei umgekommen.. In Leipzig von neun Juden, sieben.
Wir lernten den Begriff “Genozid”, mit dem wir zu definieren versuchen, was Hitlers Absicht war: Den Genpool unseres Volkes ausrotten.
Deshalb befehlen wir uns selbst: Zachor! Erinnere! Aber wenn wir uns nur erinnern, um im eigenen Leid zu baden. verschwenden wir unsere Zeit und unsere Tränen. Wir müssen uns daran erinnern, was war, damit wir schaffen können, was besser ist.

Die Leute fragen mich beständig: “Wie konnte Gott den Holocaust zulassen?” Ich antworte, dass Gott den Menschen einen freien Willen gab und uns Auftrag und Verantwortung für die Welt übertrug. Ohne freien Willen hätte das Leben keinen Sinn. Wir Menschen wären nichts als Marionetten oder Schauspieler, die nicht vom Drehbuch abweichen könnten.
Gott sehnt sich danach, dass wir eine Welt der Gerechtigkeit und des Mitgefühls schaffen. Aber Gott tut es nicht für uns. Wenn wir versagen ist es unser Versagen, nicht Gottes. Ich glaube, Gott weint mit uns und um uns, wenn wir versagen.

Ich wandte mich von dem Bach, der durch den Leipziger Zoo fließt, ab und kam an einem Bau mit Timberwölfen vorbei. Es war ein natürliches Gehege und wirklich ein schöner Anblick. Eine Wolfsmutter stand ganz still, während zwei Welpen glücklich an ihrer Brust nuckelten.
Zuerst fühlte es sich sehr unpassend an, solch einen wunderbaren Moment natürlicher Harmonie and einem Ort zu sehen, der für mich Unfrieden und Zerstörung repräsentiert. Doch auf der langen Bahnfahrt nach Amsterdam blieben meine Gedanken an diesem Bild hängen. Meine inneren Augen wanderten immer wieder vom Bild der Gewalt, des Hasses und des Leides zu der friedlichen, idyllischen Szene wie die Wolfswelpen aus ihrer Mutter Nahrung und Kraft saugten.
Welche Ironie! Ich weiß, dass Nazis und Neo Nazis den Wolf als Symbol verwenden. Das ist ein Missbrauch. Wölfe töten nicht aufgrund von Vorurteilen, Hass oder Ideologie. Sie töten um sich zu ernähren und sind damit Teil der natürlichen Balance. Wie bewegend, dass an dem Ort, wo ich meines Vaters schreckliche Erfahrung durchlebte, Wölfe mich getröstet haben als Zeichen, dass die Liebe und das Gute stärker sind als der Hass und das Böse.

Der Leipziger Zoo wird für mich für immer das schreckliche Böse repräsentieren, das Menschen zu tun im Stande sind. Die Wölfe aber werden immer Harmonie symbolisieren, die wir nach Gottes willen in dieser Welt schaffen sollen.

Am Morgen des Jom Kippur lesen wir Reform Juden einen der wichtigsten Texte der Tora (Dt.: 30,15): „Siehe, ich habe dir heute vorgelegt das Leben und das Gute, den Tod und das Böse.“ Wir haben die Wahl, aber Gott ermahnt uns: Wähle das Leben, damit du am Leben bleibst, du und deine Nachkommen (Dt 30.19)
Nein, die Frage ist nicht: Wo war Gott während des Holocaust? Die Frage ist: wo war die Menschlichkeit?
Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ändern, aber wir können davon lernen. Wir wissen all zu gut, dass wir den Tod wählen können. Doch Gott hofft, dass unsere Vergangenheit uns für die Zukunft stärkt, dass wir durch den Schmerz, den wir heute erneut durchleben mutig werden:
Die Nackten zu kleiden,
Hungernden Essen zu geben,
Ungebildete zu lehren,
gegenseitiges Verständnis unter den Menschen zu fördern.
Und die großartigen Begabungen, mit denen Gott uns gesegnet hat, zu nutzen, um das Leben zu wählen, und eine Welt der Gerechtigkeit, der Fürsorge, des Mitgefühls und des Friedens zu schaffen. Dann verwirklichen wir die Welt, von der die Propheten träumten, indem sie sagten:
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all of My holy mountain for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the sea bed is covered by water
And all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid! (Isaiah 11:9, and Micah 4:4)”
Man wird nirgends Sünde tun noch freveln auf meinem ganzen heiligen Berge; denn das Land wird voll Erkenntnis des Herrn sein, wie Wasser das Meer bedeckt (Isaiah 11:9)
Ein jeder wird unter seinem Weinstock und Feigenbaum wohnen und niemand wird sie schrecken. (Micah 4:4)


Übersetzung Ursula Sieg, Oktober 2014

Learning from the Past and Facing the Future

Months ago, when I was invited to speak in Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the invitation filled me with joy. What could be more wonderful? The city where my father was arrested and sent to Dachau has invited me back as its guest to speak at the city’s three separate Kristallnacht commemorations. And yet the changes that have occurred since I accepted the invitation six months have tempered my joy with concern.

Anti-Semitism is rising sharply around the world. The aftermath of the Holocaust gave us a respite. Now, the world seems to be going back to business as usual. Questions about the legitimacy of the Jewish state—not this policy or that–-but her very right to exist as a Jewish nation don’t come just from radical Arab capitals. They come from England, France,Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and even here in Germany now and then.

Anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish institutions hardly make the general news any more, but they are becoming more common. In Europe anti-Semitic violence is such a pervasive threat that if you wish to visit a synagogue, you had best have a reservation in advance or the locked and guarded building is likely to be off limits.

How should we respond to such existential concerns?

One Yom Kippur a congregation responded to the plea of Rabbi Meir of Apt to repent by bursting into tears. After enduring the sobbing for two hours, the rabbi addressed his congregation saying: “Jews, I don’t want you to turn to God with tears and sadness. I want you to turn to God with joy and hope.” (S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, page 210)

Yes, we live in troubled times. Israel is besieged from every corner of the world, and Anti-Semitism is sprouting anew even at times here in Germany where it is forbidden by law.

Are we to succumb to despair? No, as the Rabbi of Apt advised, our task is to find joy, wherever we can and do our very best to live up to God’s hopes for us, and trust that if we do, God will see us through the perils in our path as God promised Abraham so long ago.

This summer, Israel’s long period of quiet exploded into a horrible war. Certainly it was neither a lasting military nor a moral victory for Israel.

In the grief and of disappointment, over the loss of life both of Israelis and of innocent Palestinians we need perspective. I find it here in Germany. Despite occasional Anti-Semitic expressions I see daily reminders of where we Jews were just decades ago, and how far we have come.

Currently the Holstenschule in Neumünster has a beautiful exhibit based on the life of my wife’s 93-year old artist mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Her maiden name is Apt, and maybe the hope and joy with which she lives, despite what she endured, was taught to her forbears by the famous Rabbi Meir of Apt, whom I quote above.

The Neumünster exhibit allows students a wonderful opportunity to learn of her remarkable life journey from Breslau to Spain, to Switzerland to New York to Los Angeles and eventually to San Francisco where she still lives independently and recently gave a marvelous talk  to the San Francisco Women’s Artists in which she has been active for over half a century. The ingenious exhibit in Neumünster, designed by Lutheran Pastor Ursula Sieg educates students and members of the public who visit not just about the horrors of the Holocaust but about Jewish thought, history and practice as well.

Just last week I spoke at the University of Potsdam to open the semester of the School of Jewish Theology and to rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin. Both of these institutions offer their tutelage to our future professionals in Europe at government expense.

Can this be Germany?

As Jews we have many roles to play in this world. We are not just a beleaguered country that became a State in 1948. We are not just congregations—in North America and around the world– concerned for our fiscal and programmatic futures. And we are certainly not just those whose past is tied to the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

No, we are a people with a 4000 year-old Covenant with God, a Covenant that calls on us to (as God called on Abraham and Sarah: Be a blessing in the lives that we lead (Genesis 12:2) and to follow as best we can God’s teachings and to be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1). Our Covenant with God also calls us to use every ounce of our talent to try to create in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our synagogue, in our nation, in Israel, and in our world a just, caring, compassionate society built on the biblical ideals–of Tzedakah and Mishpat–of righteousness and justice. (Genesis 18:19)

Although I have real concerns as I return to the city of my father’s birth and upbringing, I will certainly be aware that the Leipzig to which I return is very different than the Leipzig my father left. Buoyed by the reality of today, I will return to Leipzig to proclaim with the joy and hope Rabbi Meir of Apt recommends.

Although we can never undo the past, we can learn its lessons and build a better future—a future marked by righteousness and justice–for ourselves our children and the generations to come

Noa and Great grandmaThe irrepressible 93-year-old artist Stefanie Steinberg (Vickie’s mother) subject of the exhibition at the Holstenshcule in Neumünster, Germany, holding three-year-old great-grandaughter, Noa Lauren Moskowitz with whom she has a special bond.