Posted by: rlustig1952 | December 13, 2011

Die entscheidende Frage

It’s inevitable that any Jew of a certain age travelling to Germany for the first time will need to confront the question of their relationship to Germany and the Holocaust. For some, this is mostly an abstraction: their families emigrated from Europe generations ago, and this is a subject taught at religious school or observed on Yom HaShoah. For others, the impact is more visceral: their immediate families were affected, and the stories passed down from the generation who went through the horrors of that time to the next are very, very personal. I fall into the latter camp.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am of Austrian background. Both my parents grew up in Vienna. My father was part of a very assimilated family living a comfortable middle class existence. He was an accomplished pianist and had ambitions to become a professional jazz musician. My mother grew up in a poor Orthodox family. She rebelled at an early age and became a devotee of European intellectual thought (her idol was Goethe) and an habitue of the night club scene. That’s where they met. They were married on June 14, 1938 (3 months after the Anschluss) at a ceremony at the main synagogue in Vienna. Two months later they were able to leave the country and emigrate to England, eventually coming to the United States in 1940. Most of my father’s family got out; most of my mother’s (including her parents) did not.

I grew up being very aware of my parents’ experience (and the experience of other survivors who were scattered from New York to Melbourne, Australia, and of one of my father’s cousins who survived  Auschwitz), and the impact of the Holocaust on my family has colored my view of a lot of things. A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Vienna. I did the family thing (including saying Kaddish over the grave of my grandfather Adolf (!) who died in 1935, looking at my family records at the Israelische Kultusgemeinde, and visiting the last known address of my grandparents before they were deported) and the tourist thing (the musicians’ section at the ZentralFriedhof where Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and J. Strauss are buried within a few feet of each other, wonderful art museums, and the odd palace). I spent the last evening at a traditional Vienna cafe looked after by solicitous waiters in formal white with black aprons, and as I was sipping my coffee after a fine meal, it occurred to me that my parents may very well have done the same thing long ago. It also occurred to me that at some point there might have been a sign on the door that my kind was not welcome.

I don’t have any direct connection with Berlin, but I do have an indirect one. The Rabbi of the synagogue I attended when growing up (Temple Beth El in Poughkeepsie, NY), Rabbi Erwin Zimet, came from Berlin. I was friends with his son Jonathan (now also a Rabbi), and I got to know him as a “civilian”. When I learned of our trip to Berlin, I contacted Jonathan, and he and his mother (who led the Synagogue choir and brought Lewandowski to Poughkeepsie many years ago) provided me with some wonderful details about Rabbi Zimet’s time in Berlin, where among other things he was a student Rabbi at the Oranienburgstrasse Synagogue where Lewandowski practiced his craft. There is also a collection of items related to Rabbi Zimet at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and several are on exhibition, include a lute! One our concerts will be at the Jewish Museum, so I hope I’ll have a chance to find his artifacts. It’s funny how things come around full circle.

So where does all this leave me? I think I’ll be ok. Just about everyone who perpetrated the atrocities of the past is dead or almost dead, and it’s not right to visit the sins of the fathers on the next generation. I get the impression from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen that the German government and people have worked hard to pass along the lessons of the past to ensure the climate of hatred is not repeated in the future. And the festival itself, paying tribute to not just a noted German composer but a noted Jewish composer, is testimony that the Jewish community is reestablishing itself as a respected part of German society. I’m quite looking forward to seeing the new post-Cold War Berlin.

But maybe, just maybe, when I’m sitting in a bar or walking the streets, it just might occur to me…



  1. I think it’s so interesting how we all are grappling with this issue as we leave — we pack our luggage, and we pack our proverbial “baggage” perhaps… Yishar Koach, Rich!

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