OPINION: Reluctant reflection: My journey into Germany’s Jewish future

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OPINION: Reluctant reflection: My journey into Germany’s Jewish future

Anxiously travelling to Germany for the first time, Michelle Rosenberg found a city still haunted by its past despite efforts to move into the future.

Memorial wall to Munich's 4,000 Jewish Holocaust victims, Ohel Jakob synagogue. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023
Memorial wall to Munich's 4,000 Jewish Holocaust victims, Ohel Jakob synagogue. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023

I’m not sure what my late grandmother would have thought.

Around the table on Friday nights when she was alive, and conversation turned as it always did, to the Jewish people, we all were adamant that we would never travel to Germany. We didn’t even use the word ‘visit’ because that seemed too flippant, too touristy.

Yet here I was, despite a panic attack the day prior and serious thoughts of cancelling, on a Lufthansa flight to Munich for the celebratory launch of the new headquarters of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER).

In an historic move, the organisation had decided, (courtesy of Brexit) to move their base of operations from London to Germany. It was being hailed as a positive and welcome step for German and Munich Jewry.

President Charlotte Knobloch at the launch of the new CER HQ, Munich, Germany. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023

From the instant I touched down in Munich, everything I saw proved a trigger point. It was impossible not to view everything through an historic prism. My glasses could have been a black and white filter to the past.

Airport arrivals were extremely efficient in moving swathes of people in different directions. Triggered. On the drive from the airport, we passed through thick woodland.

Instead of trees, I saw the last living moments of Jews murdered in forests across Europe.

From the instant I touched down in Munich, everything I saw proved a trigger point. It was impossible not to view everything through an historic prism. My glasses could have been a black and white filter to the past.

Tall manufacturing towers looked horrifically ominous. The driver must have been in his 60s and I wanted to ask what his father had done in the war.

I felt sick when we passed signposts for Nuremberg.

The Bavarian pretzel wall, Westin Hotel, Munich. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023.

As a teetotal Londoner (the irony), I was one of the few visitors not in Munich for the Oktoberfest beer festival. (Held in September this year to avoid the more chilly October weather, apparently).

The lobby of the Westin Grand hotel was full of men in full-on lederhosen, felt hats with feathers and women in traditional dirndl dresses – a tight fitting bodice worn over a white shirt.

There was also a random man wandering around in a dressing gown heading for a ‘help yourself’ Bavarian pretzel wall.

Curiouser and curiouser.

En route to Oktoberfest. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023.

Walking to the Arabellapark metro station, a man beside me asked if I was here for the beer festival. “No,” I said. “I’m going to a Jewish history event.”

A slight pause before a response of “Well, that’s a bit different then.”

Trains and trams – quick, methodical, well-organised. The buildings en route to the CER Jewish centre were clean, grandiose and very new (not surprising considering an estimated 50% of the city was bombed to oblivion during World War Two).

Inside the Ohel Jakob synagogue, Munich, Germany. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023.

At the official opening of the building, a petite 91-year old woman held centre stage. Described by one guest as the ‘Iron Lady’ of the Jewish community in Munich, she was the indomitable Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community of Munich and Bavaria, who survived the Holocaust in hiding with a Christian family.

She is widely credited with the revival of the Jewish community here, thought to number around 9,000.

Presiding over a table of male officials and dignitaries including CER President Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, she addressed the audience in German, saying: “I’m still overwhelmed. This is a dream. To have a centre of Jewish life in Europe. Together we can withstand the challenges of our time. Bavaria is where the heart of European Jewish life beats. My home city is now again an important centre of Judaism.”

Original stonework from Munich’s main synagogue, destroyed in June 1938

Rabbi Goldschmidt said he linked the historic event to the new year, adding: “We thank God that we have come to see this day. It is a blessing of God. It is our duty to come back to Germany. We are here to contribute to rebuilding Jewish life in Germany.”

Dr Florian Herrmann, MP, head of the Bavarian State Chancellery and Bavarian state minister for federal affairs and media called the opening of the building and an international Jewish organisation choosing to move to Germany “a genuine milestone for Jewish life in Bavaria.”

Marienplatz, Munich. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg, September 2023

While the move is certainly historic, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Jewish Museum, owned not by the Jewish community but by the state authorities, was eerily quiet.

Accompanied by a French Jewish journalist, I ventured around the exhibits, the cartoons of Jordan B. Gorfinkel, “Everything’s Relative” perfectly encapsulating the fears of German Jewry.

The Jewish cultural centre opposite, guarded by security guards (just some of the young Israelis who have chosen to move to Germany), has the city’s only kosher restaurant, where you can get a challah.

There is no kosher butcher. No traditional Jewish bakery.

Cartoon by Jordan B. Gorfinkel. Pic: Jewish Museum, Munich.

It seems bizarre to me that life here goes on as normal. It feels surreal that it can do so after the horrors of the past. New buildings constructed over old, but for me shadows in every corner.

But antisemitism never disappears. It is ever-present and has re-emerged in Germany in the form of the ever-rising far right, namely the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD.

The Jewish Telegraph Agency reports that since its creation in 2013, it has doubled its membership to 32,000. It garnered 10% of the vote in the 2021 federal elections and polls for the forthcoming 2023 state elections in Bavaria place it with 13.9%.

That’s a nearly four percent increase in two years. One of the reasons President Knobloch has a retinue of security officers at all times is because of threats made to her life by neo-Nazis.

And yet. My choosing not to go to Germany would have been an opt-out. The CER’s decision to transfer its HQ to Munich may have strong roots in the financial implications of the fallout of Brexit, but it’s a brave and bold move.

In order for Jews to survive, we must look to the future and determinedly, defiantly and courageously rebuild our once thriving communities while remembering and never forgetting nor forgiving the past.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Ohel Jakob synagogue opposite the Jewish community centre. Built in 2003, it sits in St. Jakobs Square, a short distance from where the city’s original main synagogue stood before its violent destruction in June 1938, five months before Kristallnacht.

Michelle Rosenberg, aboard a metro train, wearing a silver ‘chai’ bought from the Jewish Museum, Munich, September 2023.

Guided through the underground tunnel that links the community centre to the shul, (a practicality created for security reasons and to protect the memorial wall in commemoration of the 4,000 Jews from Munich murdered in the Holocaust), visitors come face to face with history.

For, outside of the main prayer hall is a thick slab of stone; it is a centre stone remnant from that original synagogue destroyed in 1938. The new alongside the old. An opportunity to contemplate the sacred preservation and conservation of Jewish history before walking into a pray hall with room for 550, defiantly inaugurated on November 9th 2006, the night of the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

“Perhaps,” I had ventured to President Knobloch in the press conference, mentioning my family’s vow of never coming to Germany, my not having come “would be doing a disservice to the efforts of those looking to rebuild the future of the Jewish community in Germany, whilst never forgetting about its past.”

That night, 78 years after the end of the war and the murder of six million Jews, I ate by myself. A Jewish woman alone at a cafe in Munich. Who would have thought? Certainly not my grandmother.

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