A Return to The Leipzig Zoo

The wolf figurine I purchased at the Leipzig Zoo as a symbol of hope for the future
The wolf figurine I purchased at the Leipzig Zoo as a symbol of hope for the future

The other day, I went back to the Leipzig zoo.

The Zoo was only a fraction of its present size when I last visited it in 1982. Then I had to lie to enter East Germany.

When the train I was on back then came to the tiny border crossing at Oebisfelde, the guard asked me why I wanted to go to Leipzig.

Naively I answered, “My father was born and grew up in Leipzig. He lived here until he was arrested on Kristallnacht. I am a rabbi, and I want to see where he lived.”

As I spoke I could see the guard’s face harden. “You cannot enter the country. You must take a train (five hours in the complete opposite direction) to Berlin and ask for a visa. “They will decide there, if you can enter or not.”

In Berlin I told the border official that I was an art teacher (praying all the while he would not ask me anything about art) who wanted to see Leipzig’s famous museums. I received a thirty-six-hour visa.

When I finally got to Leipzig, I went straight to the zoo just to stand at the stream where Nazis forced Jews to wade on Kristallnacht.

I envisioned my father standing in that stream while citizens obeyed the Nazi soldiers’ commands to spit, jeer, and throw mud at them.

In 1982 I poured out my anger and my bittiness, and I spit into the stream in retaliation.

But as I walked toward the zoo’s exit, a remarkable sight transfixed me. A mother wolf stood stark still while her baby nursed.

How, I wondered, could a scene of such peace and tranquility exist in a place that represented such horror to me?

On that day I decided to embrace the message of those wolves. Although the wolf once symbolized Nazi ferocity, these wolves represented peace and harmony to me. They assuaged my anger with hope that the future could be better than the past.

And things are better.

This year I came to Leipzig to speak at Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening in the synagogue, on Sunday in a Lutheran church, on Monday afternoon to a group of Protestant youth, and later that evening at a Catholic center about the German, edition of my book: What’s In it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I cherish the warm reception I received in each of these places.

During some down time, I went back to the zoo.

I stopped and prayed at the monument to those arrested on Kristallnacht that stands by the stream. Then I hoped to find some wolves. After searching in vain for over an hour, I did the next best thing. I bought a small hand-painted Schleich wolf figurine in the gift shop.

It will remind me how much better things are for Jews in Leipzig today than in 1938 and 1982.

My Leipzig wolf will also remind me—as I hope one day it will remind my children and my grandchildren—that it is our job to make the future better still.


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