Sources of Joy: Ceremony of Life at the Old Synagogue in Essen

Everything came together today at the old Synagogue.

The high-domed building with a purple cupola and orange walls is no longer a functioning religious site, but rather a cultural and educational institution.

It’s headed by Dr. Uri Kaufmann, who showed us the cemetery. He smiled appreciatively as we arrived at 10:30 “Punctlich,” he said.  “Very good.”

Dr. Kaufmann gave us a tour of the building, which had windows and mosaics destroyed in Kristllanachnt and sustained further damage in the 1960s, when the torah ark was removed by people wanting to make a museum of industrial design.   The ark was repaired in the mid-80s, but the torah was never replaced as  a reminder of that displacement.

Hundred of students, a dozen of whom had prepared for months for this day, were waiting there.

So were the rest of the people we had met during the week.

We sat in the seats assigned to us in the front row, donned the red headsets and prepared to listen to the translation.

Dr. Kaufmann and the town’s Deputy Mayor made introductory comments stressing the importance of the day.

The Ceremony of Life that Gabriel Thimm designed began with a family picture from the 1920s.

Papa Joseph was there with his four boys – Max, Rudi, Albert and Ernie. So, too, were my great-grandmother Clara and Rudi’s wife, Margarete.  The men all wore suits.

They were a typical looking German family.

A young woman named Stephanie read first.

“For months we have been looking forward to say hello to you here today,” she said in a firm tone.  “Thank you for coming and welcome to Essen.”

The program also put the picture in the context of the family’s history, talking about our ancestors Abraham and Moses Lowenstein and showing their arrival in Steele through documents and pictures.

The text went back into the past of the Jewish people up to the destruction of the Jewish temple, moved to the Jews in Germany and Essen, and then back again to our family.

A student named Melina explained why she and other students had participated in the ceremony.

“This is neither because we feel like offenders nor because we feel like victims, but because it is our concern to remember those people who lived in Essen as respected citizens, as friends, as acquaintances, as sport comrades, as parents, as employers and employees, in fact as citizens of the city of Essen,” she read.

The program took us through the rise of the Nazi Party, the Kristallnacht pogrom, the creation of the Kindertransport program on which Dad and Uncle Ralph escaped, and Dad’s depature from the country.

A pair of girls sang songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Elton John’s, “I Hope You Don’t Mind” at intervals throughout the ceremony.

At the end, the floor was opened opened to questions.  The students took a while to gather their nerve, but then they started coming.

What was it like in England?

What was the role of the women?

What do you think about Germany now?

Why are you here and why did you take this trip?

Dad stood up and began to speak.

He spoke in slow, clear tones about how Grandpa Max refused to get off the train with Uncle Ralph until he was thrown off it.

He told about Ruth Stern’s firm kindness and about how well he was treated in England.

He said some of the worst things that people have ever done to each other had happened in Germany.

But he also said the country has done more to reckon with its past than any country of which he was aware in history.

Dad also read a statement that announced the creation of a Lowenstein Award to honor young people who, through their writing or actions, are embodying values of tolerance and acceptance of people from all backgrounds.

He looked a little tight at first, but eventually started relaxing and even told a couple of jokes through a story about mistaking the word “kitchen” for “prison” – the words are very similar in German – that elicited a chuckle from the crowd.

Standing in the same area where our forebears had been before the laws and the exile and the murders, I felt linked as never before to history and the future and confrontation and reconciliation.

I spoke in German about how being there was a dream coming true for us as a family.  I talked about the gifts they gave us through their presence and complimented the young people who had done so well during the ceremony.

I also said that we understood that it is not easy to be a young person, but we are here for them, we believe in them and we know that they can learn from history, not just the bad parts, but from people like the gentleman who had helped our family.

Together we can build a better world, I said.

We were brought us forward to the podium, where Gabriele read the following:

Dear Dr. Löwenstein, may I ask you to join me once more. I want to reveal to everybody here that Dr. Löwenstein celebrated his birthday yesterday, on 29th May. He was 5 years old when he had to leave Essen to survive, and now, after 73 years, he is back for the first time. Almost everything has changed – and fortunately, many things have improved.

But even today, we don´t live in a land of milk and honey.

We still have to create our own paradise.

Knowing history and remembering is the only way to make sure people can work on future freedom, security and peace. While antisemitism increases and there are frequent menaces to extinguish Israel, we still won´t give up hope that young people will learn to think on their own and withstand indoctrination and manipulation to live a life in freedom.

We would like to give you a symbol for paradise – honey. It´s honey from the hills alongside the river Ruhr. The beekeeper is a former colleague who has retired – Norbert Merring.

Gabriele gave Dad a big bottle of honey from Norbert for his birthday and all the rest of us smaller containers of the sweet nectar.

We all sang Happy Birthday to Dad and saw pictures of Mike and Annie’s wedding.

Then it was over.

We ate the food that had been prepared for us, shook hands and talked with the dozens of students and adults who had attended and wanted to connect.

At moments I felt mobbed, but mostly I felt grateful for what we had been privileged to experience.

It was a knowledge and public honoring of our family beyond anything we had ever known before, the beginning of what I’m confident will be an ongoing relationship, and an example of the possibility of reconciliation and healing that will lead who knows where.

For the moment, though, the fact of the ceremony was more than beautiful enough, even as I look forward to continuing the conversation.

We all walked back to the hotel to collapse and then face the rest of the day.


2 responses to “Sources of Joy: Ceremony of Life at the Old Synagogue in Essen

  1. Jeff- I was very moved by what you wrote especially what the student Melissa said: “This is neither because we feel like offenders nor because we feel like victims, but because it is our concern to remember those
    people who lived in Essen as respected citizens, as friends, as acquaintances, as sport comrades, as parents, as employers and employees, in fact as citizens of the city of Essen,”

    All people in the world are citizens of the world first and citizens of their country second. A great deal of harm has been done because of us thinking country first and world second. The more we become citizens of smaller groups, the more see others as different – not like we are. As soon as we see others as different, we start protecting ourselves from them. Since they are different, we do not know or cannot predict what they will do. Therefore, we cannot trust them.

    The more young people see others in some way as like them, the more respect they may give them. Of course, if a young person does not respect him or herself, then that person cannot give respect to anyone else. We begin, first of all, as children of a mother and a father. When we are born, none of us can live without enormous care. All of us cry. It is the only way we can tell our parents that we are in need. We have no language.

    All of us learn slowly how to take care of ourselves. Slowly, we learn to speak and then to write. Some of us learn how others speak in other words. Less of us work to know both what others value, and all the ways others are like us.

    When I was 12, in gym we marched together. I loved marching in lines, turning around together, and making sure that the line was kept straight. That pleasure is the same when I relish how much like someone or some group I am. Those who marched were Christian and Jews, white and black. All of us were 12 or 13. All of us were in the same grade.

    We can define ourselves as children or citizens or any other way that is universal. Or we can choose to define ourselves as select and separate. The world learned what horrors humans can do to each other when they choose to define themselves as select.

    I am so happy to be related to those young citizens and students. They are part of my extended family.

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