Facing shadows of the past: Germans mark Jewish persecution
Frankfurt, West Germany — When workmen punched through a wall in the main synagogue here earlier this year, they made a stirring discovery. Masked under the plaster were remnants of marble pillars and elaborate trim damaged beyond repair when the building was torched by Nazis on the night of Nov. 9, 1938. It was an emotional reminder of events that Germans only now are starting to put in perspective.
On that night - known as Kristallnacht, or the night of the broken glass - thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned shops and homes across Germany were destroyed. After that night and for the rest of World War II, the battered hulk of Frankfurt's West End Synagogue was turned into a warehouse.
Today, both German states mark the 50th anniversary of this date with an unprecedented wave of commemorative events.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will address a group of diplomats, politicians, and Jewish community leaders in the Frankfurt synagogue. Towns and churches across West Germany are organizing religious services, concerts, and panel discussions keyed to the event.
Even East Germany, which until recently denied responsibility for the actions of Hitler's Third Reich, held a special session of parliament yesterday, and the cornerstone for a new synagogue will be laid tomorrow in East Berlin.
The events emphasize efforts by Germans to grapple with the shadows of the past.
``Something like this wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago,'' says Josef Foschepoth, spokesman for the West German Council of Christians and Jews in Frankfurt. To underscore his point, he snaps up a thick notebook filled with printed programs - each representing a different community event linked to this year's anniversary.
``Enough time has passed for us to look back and see more clearly what happened - and to evaluate the meaning of it for our society today,'' Dr. Foschepoth says. Some communities have organized discussions between teen-agers and Germans who witnessed the 1938 events.
Kristallnacht, literally ``crystal night,'' symbolizes much more than a spasm of violence in a country that was sliding toward a human and moral disaster. It's widely considered a turning point - when Hitler's intentions toward the Jews became clear. Persecution of Jews had been carried on before, but never on such a large scale.
Commemorating this event stirs emotions that are as explosive as they are difficult to explain.
Some members of Frankfurt's small but active Jewish community argue that Mr. Kohl should not have been invited to speak at the Frankfurt ceremony organized by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The West German leader is still criticized for accompanying President Reagan to a military cemetery at Bitburg, where some German SS soldiers are buried.
The invitation to Kohl was made by the former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Werner Nachmann.
Mr. Nachmann, who died in January, is the focus of a financial scandal that one Jewish leader has described as the most serious setback for German Jews since 1945. It was revealed in May that Nachmann embezzled hefty sums from a West German government fund for victims of Nazi persecution.
The news sent shock waves through Bonn's political community. But press commentary focused less on the actions of Nachmann than on how the West Germans should react to the revelation. The episode highlighted the awkward relationship today between the Germans and the Jews.
Some Jews question whether the Kristallnacht anniversary should even be treated as a national event. According to this view, it should be a day of remembrance within the Jewish community, rather than embracing the Germans as a whole.
Mr. Friedman says this would be a mistake. ``The ninth of November is a German problem,'' he says, and should involve the entire country.
Indeed, the West Germans have gone much further than either East Germany or Austria in attempting to atone for the past, including paying restitution to the victims of Kristallnacht. Bonn has also taken the lead in accepting the heavy moral burden created by the war. West German President Richard von Weizs"acker said in October that ``Auschwitz remains unique. It was perpetrated by Germans in the name of Germany. This truth is immutable and will not be forgotten.''
But a half century later, many question whether the Germans and the Jews will ever find a way to live comfortably side by side.
Indeed, it may not even be the most relevant question. There are fewer than 30,000 religiously active Jews in West Germany today, and the number is falling. East Germany has 3,000 Jews, most of them unorganized. There were more than half a million Jews in Germany in 1933 - one-fifth of them in Berlin.
``Being German and Jewish doesn't really exist anymore,'' says Alfred Jacoby, a Jewish architect who lives in Frankfurt.
Mr. Jacoby, the son of Polish Jews who survived a Nazi labor camp, shares an ambivalence toward German identity common to many Jews who live here. Most are the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe who were displaced by the war.
After 1945, Jewish communities sprang up in many West German cities - but often with the express purpose of aiding members in emigrating to other countries. In some cases, there was a decision not to rebuild synagogues and other trappings of Jewish community life.
But this is gradually changing.
``There's a certain mellowing going on - a recognition that we're here to stay,'' says Jacoby, who designed a new synagogue for the West German city of Darmstadt. The synagogue will open in conjunction with this week's anniversary.
The $6 million complex - which includes a large community center and museum - was funded entirely by public money, except for the stained-glass windows, which were paid for by local donations. Critics complain that such projects could create a ``museum mentality'' within the Jewish community, with beautiful buildings and small congregations. Jewish leaders defend the activities.
``As long as I can see a [Jewish] community here,'' says Friedman, ``I have to give them the maximum opportunity to live a Jewish life.''
Such projects are also highly symbolic.
The work on the Frankfurt synagogue, for instance, was supposed to be a touch-up. The building had been hastily renovated as a synagogue in the early 1950s. Covering over of the damaged interior details was part of the style of the era, but also a reflection of the desire by the Jewish community to mark a new beginning.
But when the designer found remnants of the original details - hidden behind the walls - he convinced Jewish community leaders that two small entrance rooms should be restored to their original condition in time for this week's ceremony.
``I took one look at this, and knew we'd discovered a key to the past,'' says architect Henryk Isenberg, pointing to a row of columns in the central foyer which now look much as they did when the building first opened in 1911.
Using old documents and photos, Mr. Isenberg painstakingly reconstructed the original plan for the synagogue - including peeling multiple layers of paint to determine the original colors.
The next step, he says, will be to restore the main assembly hall. Even though records show how it looked, Isenberg doesn't want to restore it to its original condition. Instead, he plans to restore the lower half of the room, while leaving the domed ceiling in the style of the 1950s postwar renovation. The upper walls, meanwhile, will be a mix of the two styles - signifying the break in Jewish history which the building represents.
``We don't want to wipe away all evidence of the destruction. That would be wrong,'' says the architect. ``But we want to show that we've found our roots.''