Prayer for the dead and the living


We didn’t know about Rosa Lewinsohn when we decided to have our sons’ double bar mitzvah in our once-bombed Berlin apartment. We didn’t know about any of the old ghosts, not by name.

I had often wondered who was living in our building when it was hit. Sometimes at night, when the place was quiet and everyone tucked in, I would stand in the living room, with its mismatched pine floors and missing stucco, and try to imagine what had happened.

My landlord blamed the British, though perhaps he was just being polite. In early 1945 the British and the Americans were taking turns pounding the German capital – 84 air raids in the first three months alone. When he renovated the place after buying it a few years ago, he found he couldn’t get rid of the small, dark stains in the wood, no matter how much he sanded them. Phosphorus, he said. Firebombs.

I liked to picture that Nazis were living there when retribution thundered through the roof of Droysenstrasse 5 and into our top-floor apartment. More likely, it was ordinary Berliners. There were lots of them. Maybe they were the sort who looked down on Hitler. Maybe they hid Jews.

Maybe they did nothing.

What we did know, after three years of living in Berlin, was that our apartment, with its high ceilings and soiled past, had come to feel like home. And so it felt right to cap our stay with a coming-of-age ceremony, a benediction in a haunted space.

Berlin was where we faced our own demons, where, for the first time, I became truly aware of myself as a Jew.

Our first Hanukkah, one of the boys had worried about lighting the candles in the kitchen because everyone would know. So, together, facing our neighbors across the courtyard, we placed the menorah on the windowsill, and talked about how it had been a couple of generations since the Holocaust, and how the Germans were condemned to live with their horrific past.

When, 20 years ago, my wife-to-be invited me to visit her sister in Kaiserslautern, in hilly southwestern Germany, she sweetened the offer by saying we could borrow her sister’s Mercedes.

I couldn’t imagine it.

Growing up, my family never owned German cars or appliances.

Germany was the last place I wanted to see.

But when the opportunity arose to move there in 2000 for a posting as a foreign correspondent, I leaped. As we readied to go, my wife, by now mother of two boys named Rubin, found herself in the travel section of a Borders bookstore, frozen before a photograph of a Berlin synagogue guarded by armed police. This, I tried to assure her, was a good thing. This was progress.

My first day, I met neo-Nazis. I was riding by train to Hellersdorf, a grim suburb in the east where hundreds of skinheads were rallying. My translator and assistant, Claudia Himmelreich, brought water and clean towels in case the police used tear gas. She brought her blond 5-year-old, Martin, for protection. No one, she reasoned, would pay much attention to a family.

Scores of antiriot officers piled into the train, riding with us until the next-to-last stop. Inexplicably, when they got off, equal numbers of skinheads got on.

As I patted Martin on the head, asking how his Easter had been, we faced a carful of pale, sullen teens in white-laced Doc Marten boots and LONSDALE T-shirts (worn under an oxford shirt, the letters NSD show – the only legal way in Germany to advertise the initials of the old Nazi party).

Scores of them packed the train – standing, sitting, steeling themselves for a confrontation with the waiting antifascist protesters.

It took a few minutes to realize I was as good as invisible. I wondered if they had ever seen a Jew before.

The neo-Nazis didn’t trouble me in Germany as much as the trees did. We’d be driving on the autobahn and pass dense, dark stands of pine and birch, and my imagination would supply the dogs, the long army coats, the machine guns. In 1941, when my Russian grandfather was raising a family in America, the Jews of his old shtetl town, Vilkomir, were taken into the woods and shot.

Gradually, these night fears of mine disappeared, their places taken by a grudging admiration for a difficult people who deal with reality. I had been told that the famous German smugness would melt away in the presence of a Jew. They’d become tongue-tied, tortured.

What I found, instead, were people who were relieved I was there, and not making much of it, as if they were being given another chance. I felt like an ambassador – not particularly religious, but sharply conscious of what I was and who I came from and how it was important to be Jewish in Germany because I could, and so I had to, and so did our boys, if they wanted.

We had one slight problem in our quest to have them bar mitzvahed: The boys weren’t Jewish – at least not in the eyes of the German Jewish community.

While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United States see the boys as Jews, German Jewry does not. The central organization believes a mother’s religion determines a child’s. My wife, who was raised Presbyterian, had observed Jewish traditions but hadn’t converted.

So in Berlin we were twice-a-year Jews, marking the major holidays with friends at home. The neighborhood synagogue required men and women to sit separately, which my wife found unacceptable. The one temple that permitted men and women to sit together conducted its services in German and Hebrew, which was good for the mystery but not for the meaning.

We found our solution in Walter Rothschild, a round, bearded, British-born Reform rabbi with a quick mind and a weakness for bad puns. He liked the challenge of preparing two boys who hadn’t studied Hebrew in three years, and who had only 10 weeks to prepare.

Before the service, my wife made a choice: We would stand together as a family, as Jews. We traveled to Wuppertal, a western German city, where she and our sons sat in a synagogue with bulletproof windows and talked with a panel of rabbis about being Jewish. The day ended with Mimi and the twins plunging naked, one at a time, into ritual baths. “Jesus!” my son Gordon cried as he hit the frigid water. “Hmm. Can’t help you,” replied Rabbi Rothschild, our sponsor.

Germany was officially three Jews the richer.

On a bright Monday morning in June, our scarred living room was transformed into a family synagogue, folding chairs facing a table on which the rabbi unfurled an ancient scroll. Our dog sat at our feet and barked at the doorbell. Only as the ceremony began did I realize that behind the Torah, instead of the traditional ark, was a large poster of the sleeping Groucho Marx, cigar in hand – our guardian angel.

From the Book of Numbers, the boys read their portions in Hebrew, then in English. Nicholas described how the Jews, fleeing enslavement in Egypt, bathed themselves in the ashes of a red heifer, hoping to purify themselves. Gordon told how the Jews found their faith tested when Moses’ sister, Miriam, died and their water, coincidentally, disappeared.

The rabbi, addressing an audience of Germans and Palestinians, Australians and Dutch, explained everything, and paraphrased Woody Allen: “Being Jewish is a wonderful experience that everyone should have, once. ”

We finished with the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer for the dead, the several-thousand-year-old words drifting into the courtyard for all to hear.

It was a few weeks after we arrived back in America that we learned whom we had been praying for. Claudia had tracked down the paperwork about our building during the war years.

There may have been Nazis in Droysenstrasse 5 the day it was bombed. We don’t know. But the building held other horrors.

Rosa Lewinsohn had lived there. So had Alfred Gruen and Emmerich Friedmann. They were members of more than a half-dozen Jewish families who had called our building home before the war.

By 1943 there were none.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I never considered there would be Jews in that space. I never sensed them in my apartment. It just felt, surprisingly, comfortable.

In 1941, as the Nazis were making good on their plans to cleanse the Reich of Jews, a farmer named Arnold Kunheim bought the building under a law passed to remove property from Jewish hands.

The records suggest that many who lived in our building were able to flee in time.

By Aug. 25, 1942, it was too late for Ludwig Leo Jacobson, 75. He was deported from our building to Theresienstadt, the Czech ghetto for the elderly and the prominent, where he died three months later.

A half-year later, Elsa Kahn, 62, followed her neighbor there. She lasted two months.

And Rosa Lewinsohn ? She was 57 on Jan. 29, 1943, when she was herded onto a 1,000-person transport headed east. They killed her at Auschwitz.

I wish we had known about her and the others. All we have today are their names and a few facts, dutifully recorded by the Nazis. We would have said a prayer for them, stood as their names sounded once again in that sunny apartment with the mismatched wood and stucco, the indelible stains now accompanied by the memories of a family’s new start.

By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer, POSTED Dec 07, 2003


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