November 9 in Heidelberg, 75 years after Kristallnacht. The old synagogue square is crammed with people. The majority of them are strangers to me. Barely visible in the darkness, a church choir starts singing. After a while I notice that they are singing in Yiddish but struggling with the pronunciation. The next song, “Dos Kelbl”, is a favorite with German non-Jews.
Then it is time for the mayor’s speech. He talks about the suffering of the Jewish “fellow citizens” during the Nazi years. He emphasizes the need to remember and describes how the city of Heidelberg has supported this effort over the last years. After he has ended his speech with a sincere “Shalom”, the choir sings another Jewish tune. Hearing the word “Adonai”, I assume it must be a liturgical hymn. At last the names of the transported Jews are read out, and one of the organizers invites all participants to a Christian-Jewish friendship event in the synagogue.
The ceremony is over, and everyone leaves the scene uplifted. Now that they have commemorated the victims of the Shoa, the Germans can concentrate on what lies ahead of them. New friends will be made this evening. They are going to visit the new synagogue, many of them for the first time. Everything has changed. They are a different people. They are able to face the past side by side with the Jews.
But is it true? This is the question bothering me all night. Where were the Jews during the ceremony? Of course there were a lot of them in the audience. But the only Jew on the stage was the rabbi who gave the first speech and later sang “El Male Rachamim”. Apart from that the ceremony was a fine example of Christian Germans eagerly demonstrating their good will. Look at us: We are confronting the crimes of our ancestors, we have placed all those plaques and stumbling blocks in our city, and we compose speeches to show you and the world how responsible and conscientious we are. In fact we care so much about you Jews that we’ve even learned some songs and words in your languages, Yiddish and Hebrew. We are your partners and friends.
What a lovely plea. And yet, it hides so much those “good Germans” are not aware of. Does partnership not mean that two people cooperate? Well, this is not how it works in Germany. Whenever Germans feel the need to commemorate Holocaust victims, they generally do not involve Jews in the event planning. Instead they simply call up a rabbi or some Jewish official and ask him to say a few words. We have that ceremony coming up in November. We need to get a Jew for it. Can someone call the Jewish community, please? If those ceremonies were based on real partnerships, should the Germans not encourage the Jews to read out texts? Should they not ask a synagogue choir to perform Jewish hymns? Many church choirs these days have a repertoire of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino songs, and they proudly display it. They regard themselves as open-minded and tolerant. But to a Jew who is commemorating the killing of other Jews, this may seem like an act of appropriation. We are being deprived of our voice in public because the “good Germans” think they can represent us better than we could represent ourselves.
But does friendship mean that you impose yourself on someone? Does it not rather imply trying to understand the other person within his specific background? What assumption lies behind those Yiddish songs? Does the church choir really think Jews in Heidelberg in the early 20th century spoke Yiddish? Or do they possibly believe that Jews in present-day Heidelberg chat in Yiddish? Nothing of this is true. The word “shalom”, on the other hand, is far more common in German churches than in synagogues. Those good German Christians may know a lot about Abraham, Jacob, and Moses; but it is devastating how little they actually know about the Jews who lived and live among them.
Where does this excessive need to commemorate originate from if it is not actually concerned with the Jews? In the first place those “good Germans” need those rituals for their own sake. The most challenging question for each individual in this country is how he would have reacted if he had been there. There is no satisfying answer to this question, and this uncertainty is truly terrifying. It confronts people with the dark side of human nature. When they experience a sense of shame or guilt today, it is not because of their ancestors’ deeds but because of their own souls. Only the act of commemorating can restore their peace of mind.
While the German public may profit from this trip of self-exploration, it does not necessarily help the Jews. As the mayor unintentionally revealed, Jews are still something exotic and strange to most Gentiles. His speechwriter probably employed the term “fellow citizens” (“Mitbürger”) with the best of intentions. But to Jews it signifies that their existence is still not taken for granted in Germany. Only G.d knows if they will ever be promoted to normal “citizens”.