By Evie Rotstein, Ed.D.
In response to the raging anti-Semitic demonstrations throughout Europe this past summer, a respectable crowd of 5,000 gathered in Berlin, on September 14th, to demonstrate their support to fight a resurgence of the hatred that had almost wiped out Jewish life in Germany during the Nazi era. Many applauded when Chancellor Merkel said: “Jewish life is our life. It is part of our identity.”
Earlier in the summer, two hundred and fifty kilometers west of Berlin, in the city of Hannover, my family, along with 17 other Holocaust survivors and their families, were guests of the city, for a week of dedication and remembrance. They came from the US, Israel, England and Argentina. Their story is very much a part of the German story that Merkel referenced.
Mr Hauke Jagau, the president of the region and a member of the Social Democratic party, along with the Major of Hannover, Stefan Schostok hosted these families with grace and kindness. During the last ten years the regional council appropriated over $8 million to create a memorial and a museum to honor the memory of those Jews who lived in the city of Hannover and in the suburb of Ahlem at the Israelitishche Gartenbauschule.
The gathering this July was filled with powerful emotions, as we witnessed the opening of a museum that tells the stories of the survivors and the many who did not survive. More than 500 dignitaries, both political and academic, participated in a ceremony to honor the memory of the lost Jewish community. They also made a commitment to provide educational programs to build acceptance and tolerance now and for the future.
Alexander Moritz Simon (1837-1905), a Jewish philanthropist, built the Ahlem horticulture school in 1893 and students from all over Germany came to study landscape design for the first 40 years of its existence. During the early 1930’s the school became a training site (Hachsharah) for young Jewish pioneers preparing to become farmers on kibbutzim in Israel. Then, in 1938, the site became a boarding school for Jewish children in the region. My father and his sister, along with 200 other Jewish children lived, studied and worked on the campus for 3 years. In 1941 at the age of 14, he was one of the lucky few who with his mother and sister, were able to secure a visa to the United States exactly three months before all the remaining children were sent to Auschwitz.
Some of the other survivors on this trip recounted their journey from the Riga concentration camp to the Ahlem satellite concentration camp. There were four men in their eighties who cried as they told their story of pain and suffering working in the camp. Our German Jewish translator corrected one of the dignitaries when he used the word “prisoner” and declared emphatically that these men were actually “slaves”.
As the summer fades into the fall season, the bleak prospect of a secure cease fire between Israel and Hamas and the rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, one must admit that this event was a ray of light in our very dark and complex world.
Dr. Evie Levy Rotstein is the director of the New York School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.