All she had was a street address, Mohrenstrasse 37, and sketchy fragments of family recollections three generations old. It turned out to be enough to get us there. And made coming back home all the more meaningful. All in all, an experience to be shared on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A few weeks ago my wife and I found ourselves in Berlin. She, a child of Holocaust survivors had accompanied me to a conference I was attending in the city. Her grandfather had lived there and established a legendary clothing factory that had made him a very wealthy man. Ultimately, sometime in the 1930’s, all he was able to buy with this self-made fortune was a ticket to Bolivia. There was nothing more valuable at the time.
Gaby had grown up hearing stories of her family’s life in pre-Nazi Germany, but she had never had anything real to connect it to. Over Shabbat that began to change. We attended services in the Orianienburger Strasse synagogue, a fabulously grand building several stories high adorned with impressive turrets and golden domes consecrated in 1866 with a sanctuary large enough for 3200 worshippers. Having been severely damaged in World War II, today it is one-third museum, one-third home to a vibrant Masorti/Conservative congregation and one-third… well, one-third emptiness filled with our collective memory.
Gazing out the back windows of the building the casual visitor sees only an enormous, vacant plot where row after row of pews had once been positioned. My wife saw her grandfather. There he sat, elegantly dressed as befitting his station in life, attending services with the dozens of her ancestral family members who didn’t make it out in time. Tears clouded her eyes, blurring the vision of all the cousins, aunts and uncles she never had. In deference to them all, the community made a decision not to rebuild in the courtyard, instead simply marking the spot where the Holy Ark had once stood, a minimalist memorial to the majesty and vivacity of what once was.
Monday we set out to reconstruct more of the past. Our destination: Mohrenstrasse 37, the address of the family business, the foundation of the fortune that had been cashed in for a one-way passage to South America. We didn’t know what we would find. Berlin had been largely demolished during the war and even if the street hadn’t been renamed and some of the old buildings had survived, there could be no knowing if they had been renumbered or not. Still, a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage and my wife was determined not to return home without having made an effort to pay homage to her forebears.
We headed out from ground zero, the epicenter of Potsdamer Platz with its remnants of the infamous wall that once divided the city into East and West, a stark reminder of why we were there in the first place. A few hundred meters away we found it. Another grand structure with colonnades clearly marked with the number 37. Doubts, however, grew that this was the building we were looking for as we were amused to discover that it now housed the German Ministry of Justice. Not deterred by the improbability, my wife ventured inside as I waited sheepishly on the sidewalk, bracing for her to return disappointed and emptyhanded. But sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. It turns out that Gaby’s grandfather was not the only one who had his business here, and the current government tenants, converting irony into honor, had produced a booklet documenting the history of this once thriving garment district with its more than 2400 Jewish shops and factories – and the Nazi terror that destroyed it. The discovery, the acknowledgment, the graphic documentation… Mohrenstrasse 37 was no longer the address only of Gaby’s grandfather, but of mine as well, of all of ours. After several poignant minutes of taking all this in, we were hit with another emotional jolt. Walking on, at the very next corner, we came to Jerusalemer Strasse. My wife’s very own intersection of the Holocaust and Israel’s rebirth.
Fast forward. Back home in Jerusalem, it is my birthday weekend and our five children, their spouses and significant others and our nine grandchildren have gathered together to celebrate with me. The recent experience in Berlin fresh in my mind, I consciously acknowledge these nineteen gifts sittings around the Shabbat table, 20 including my wife. One was born in Russia, one in the Ukraine. Others are just a generation once removed from Romania, Chile, Argentina, Germany, Poland and the United States. My very own “ingathering of the exiles” right here in my dining room.
In this topsy-turvy season of rejoicing in our freedom, commemorating the slaughter of our people, acknowledging the sacrifice of our heroes, paying our respect to the fallen, crying over the loss of loved ones wrested from us in battle and by terror, and celebrating the wonder of our return onto our homeland and the reunification of our eternal capital Jerusalem, I choose to take nothing for granted. With all that yet remains to repair and perfect in this Jewish state of ours, with all that the Zionist ideal yet beckons us to realize and fulfill, I pause to count my blessings. I invite you to do so as well. They belong to us all.