The Teacher (Lehrer) —Wolfgang Henke

Wolfgang Henke who adds lister to an already honored profession in Germany: Teacher
Wolfgang Henke who adds luster to an already honored profession in Germany: Teacher

In Germany “teacher” (Lehrer) is an honored profession. How refreshing it is to see that!

My wife Vickie taught school for over thirty years. Like too many American educators she was overworked and underpaid. As the years went by the imperative to “teach to the standardized test” robbed her teaching of much of its creativity and joy.

Here in Germany because of the exhibit about Vickie’s mother we have made more than a dozen visits to schools and spoken with more than twenty teachers. Without exception they felt their work was respected, important and appropriately compensated.

The USA could definitely take a lesson from Germany in this regard.

Last year the exhibit stayed in one school, the Holstenschule in Neumünster. For weeks we worked hand in glove with the teacher in charge of the project, Wolfgang Henke. For us Mr. Henke is the epitome of the German teacher. He is modest, soft-spoken, extremely well schooled and supremely competent. He treats the students with respect and caring, and they treat him the same way.

It is easy to see why. 

He spent months preparing for the exhibit with Pastorin Ursula Sieg. Together they set us a Jewish Wohnzimmer (Living Room) in a classroom set aside for that purpose in the Holstenschule last year. Students could come there and chat informally with Vickie and me during certain times when we visited.

This year he spent an additional untold number of hours as a volunteer helping coordinate the visits of the exhibit to several other schools in the area. His dedication is inspiring.

Wolfgang Henke presenting me with an official
Wolfgang Henke presenting me with an official “Tennis Halle Neumünster Tee shirt after we hit a few weeks ago.

Mr. Henke is also an excellent tennis player, and he graciously invited me to hit with him on an off day at the Tennis Halle in Neumünster.

After five summers as a tennis instructor in a private club in New Jersey and at the famous Concord Hotel in the Catskill mountains, I believe I can tell more about a person’s personality by watching him or her for fifteen minutes on the tennis court than I can if I were to interview the individual for half an hour. My observations have nothing to do with how well a person plays but everything to do with his or her demeanor on the court.

In the case of Mr. Henke, all of the qualities I had already observed (and noted above) while working with him were evident when we played. It was a most enjoyable hour that confirmed for me that Wolfgang Henke certainly deserves one of Germany’s most honorable titles: Teacher!


Steffie's 94th birthday celebration
Steffi’s 94th birthday celebration
Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.
Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

A Surprising Request

Vickie and I were thrilled to learn that Pastor Ursula Sieg and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening were coming to visit us in America. When we asked if there was anything special they wanted to do during their visit, they said, “If it is at all possible we would like to travel with you to San Francisco to meet Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg.” Although the request surprised us, it was an opportunity we eagerly embraced.

For our visit to Germany last fall, Ursula created and curated a remarkable exhibit about Stefanie’s life and travels. As a young child, Steffi had to leave her native Breslau and flee to Spain with her parents when the Nazis took over Germany.  Not long thereafter, they had to flee again—this time to Switzerland—during the Spanish Civil War.

Eventually Steffi made her way to New York, then across the country to Los Angeles and ultimately to San Francisco. At 94, she is still active as an artist, who is well-known for her paintings, photography and collages. For several years now, she has done much of her work on her computer. She lives independently and keeps alert and in great shape by attending lots of lectures and classes, and working in her garden. She gave her most recent presentation to the San Francisco Women Artists, of which she is a past president, earlier this year.

“Why do you want to go to Germany?”

When we told her that we planned to spend ten weeks in Germany last fall, Steffi did not like the idea. Given all she had endured at German hands, her reaction did not surprise us.

As the weeks unfolded, it pleased her that her life had become the vehicle for German students to learn about the Holocaust and the basics of Jewish living in a more effective way than books alone could ever teach. Many of these students had never met a living Jew before Vickie and I came to their school.

Never Again!

By the time Vickie and I left Germany, several of the students had sent Steffi very touching emails and voice messages. They wrote that they would do all in their power to insure such horrors never happened again to anyone. The bond the students forged with her has been a healing balm for Steffi.

In addition, Vickie and I had the joy last January of presenting Stefanie Steinberg with an honorary diploma from the Holstenschule in Neumünster accompanied by a beautiful letter of gratitude from the Headmaster. The gesture touched Steffi deeply especially since the Nazi take over in Germany forced this erudite and accomplished woman to suspend her formal education years before she could graduate from high school.

For all of these reasons Steffi was thrilled when Vickie told her that Ursula and Martin were coming to visit her. When the big day came, they embraced like long-time friends. Steffi found more photos to give to her visitors because the exhibit will travel to other schools when Vickie and I return to Germany in September. Then the five of us enjoyed a sumptuous dinner overlooking the Pacific to celebrate Steffi’s 94th birthday.

A Fitting Celebration

It was a wonderful way to honor a remarkable woman whose life and work will always stand to testify against the horror that the Nazis reigned upon Europe. And it was a wonderful way as well to honor two visionary Lutheran pastors who are making heroic efforts to help Germans confront the horror of their past and replant Jewish life in the land where it once bloomed so beautifully.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.
Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

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.