Jurgen Steinholz was born in 1922 in the small Black Forest village of Rexingen, Germany. His father, Heinz Friedrich Steinholz was the pastor of the local Lutheran church. The family was well known and well respected. At that time there were about three hundred Jewish families who lived in Rexingen, most of them dealers in cattle, grain and agricultural products. The small synagogue had no permanent rabbi but a visiting rabbi came from Stuttgart once every two weeks and many of the more religious families went to Stuttgart to celebrate major Jewish holidays.
The Jews and Christians of Rexingen lived side by side in tolerance. Young Jurgen knew only a few Jewish pupils from the local school but never established a close friendship with them. In his early teen years he played soccer with a few Jewish boys from the village. One of them, Helmut Friedhof, invited Jurgen to be a guest at his Bar Mitzvah which would be held in December of 1935. Jurgen told his father and asked permission to attend the synagogue service. Pastor Steinholz was pleased and reminded his son that the Jews were chosen by God and that the Jesus whom he and his family worshipped was a Jew.
On a gray December 14th morning in 1935, Jurgen entered the small synagogue, removing his cap as he entered. An elderly Jewish man handed him a piece of black cloth called a yarmulke and instructed the boy to keep his head covered during the service.
It was a strange thing for Jurgen…. Jews cover their heads in synagogue, but the Christians uncover their heads in church. He was unable to read the Hebrew prayers in a worn siddur, many of whose pages were torn or stained, but he could follow the German translation on the facing page.
The visiting rabbi gave his sermon in German and spoke of the festival of Chanukah, which would begin the following week on the 21st of December. Jurgen listened with great interest to the story of the Jewish victory over the Syrian Hellenists so many thousands of years before, how the few overcame the many and the weak overcame the strong.
Jurgen was deeply touched by the rabbi’s remarks. Quoting from the priest of Modiin, Matityahu the Hasmonean, the rabbi read the words “whoever is for God, let him follow me”, and he concluded his sermon by mentioning that if the Jews had lost the battle, Judaism would have perished and Christianity could never have been born.
Jurgen remembered those words for a very long time.
On his way home from the synagogue, a classmate spotted him and approached him. “You are not a Jew, Jurgen. Why did you go to their synagogue? You know that the Jews are the enemies of our German Fatherland. Soon we will be called up to join the Hitler Jugend. You must join also. It is the duty of every German youth to serve. And you must keep away from the Jews”.
At his home, Jurgen told his father of the morning’s events, of his impression of the synagogue service (“quite different from our church, father. In the synagogue everyone was talking during the service”) and of his meeting with a classmate. Jurgen’s father shook his head sadly and said, :”Our country is changing, my son. Let us pray that God will deliver us from evil”.
In 1938, at the age of sixteen, Jurgen Steinholz became a member of the local branch of the Hitler Jugend and attended rallies and meetings regularly as required by the regional Nazi party. Some few years later, in 1943, he was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to serve as a barracks guard where he remained until British troops liberated the camp in 1945.
In 1919, Laszlo Kovac was born in Budapest, Hungary. His family prayed on sabbaths and holidays in the Dohany Street Synagogue in the very center of Budapest. It was the same synagogue in which Theodor Herzl had prayed with his father. The Dohany Street Synagogue, built between 1854 and 1859, is the largest synagogue in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. It accommodates 3,100 worshipers. The building is in a Moorish Revival style, similar to the Alhambra in medieval Spain and follows the Neolog ritual (Liberal Orthodox/ Conservative). Prayers are recited in Hebrew, with some congregational readings in Hungarian. There is a mixed choir, and separate seating.
Laszlo’s father owned a dry goods shop and the family lived comfortably.
After World War I, Hungary ceased to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was now a separate and sovereign nation.
Anti-Semitic movements began to grow openly and there were frequent street skirmishes in which many non-Jewish Hungarians would attack those whom they thought to be Jews. Unlike observant Jews in Eastern Europe and the Slavic countries, native Hungarian Jews, including rabbis, did not sport beards or payot, did not wear tzitziot, nor wear any garment or head covering indicating that they were Jews.
The Hassidic Jews among them followed the tradition dress and customs of Hassidism.
In 1939, as war was breaking out, Laszlo Kovac enrolled as a student at the University of Budapest. He was twenty years old. At the end of the first semester, Jewish students were expelled from the university and Laszlo went to work in his father’s dry goods shop. Conditions for Jews in Hungary began to grow worse, although at this time there were no deportations. That changed for Laszlo and his family in 1944 when they were rounded up and packed in a freight car. Destination: Bergen-Belsen.
Laszlo worked as a tailor sewing uniforms for Nazi guards. His parents perished in the camp before its liberation in 1945. Laszlo worked well and one young German guard took a liking to him.
He brought him pieces of bread from time to time, sometimes a few peeled potatoes, and always spoke to him gently.
While other camp guards frequently found reasons to beat prisoners, the barracks guard, Jurgen Steinholz, did not beat his prisoners. He spoke kindly to them and tried to be helpful, keeping far from the eyes of his Nazi comrades and officers.
The liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops was a day of great celebration for the survivors.
It was then that Laszlo learned of the deaths of his parents. He was repatriated to Hungary, but knew no one now in Budapest. In 1950, his application to go to America was approved and with a Hungarian passport and an American visa, Laszlo Kovac sailed to the United States, arriving in Philadelphia. He married a fellow survivor and together they raised three children.
In 1992, Laszlo retired from work and he and his wife moved into a community village in Boca Raton, Florida. Three years later, in 1995, they were invited to the Bar Mitzvah of their first grandson, Jeffrey, in East Brunswick, New Jersey. The Temple was Reform. Men and women sat together, some men did not wear a yarmulke or a tallit, an organ introduced Hebrew hymns, and the prayers were mainly in English.
During the service, Laszlo thought he detected a slight accent in Rabbi Judah Abrahamson’s speech.
It was November 30th and the rabbi’s sermon was dedicated to the festival of Chanukah, which would begin the following week. In his remarks, the rabbi quoted from Matityahu’s battle cry, “whoever is for God, let him follow me”. He continued to explain the immense significance of Chanukah, not only as a feast of lights and latkes, but of man’s struggle against evil and of the need to defy those who would attempt to destroy human dignity. He quoted from the Pirke Avot, the talmudic tractate of the Ethics of the Fathers:
“Bamakom she ain anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish” — In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
He spoke of the heroism of Judah and his brothers and of the battles they fought against great odds in an effort to destroy the enemy of their people. He reminded his congregants to treasure their Jewish pride and heritage and to never allow any man or nation to deprive them of it.
Laszlo was deeply moved. He stared at the tall and dignified figure of Rabbi Judah Abrahamson and thought that he had seen the man someplace before. But he could not remember where or when.
A festive kiddush was served following the Bar Mitzvah service and Laszlo found himself standing next to the rabbi. As Laszlo reached for a slice of cake, the rabbi noticed the tatooed numbers on his arm and recognized them as being from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’ (Do you speak German) he asked Laszlo. “No”, Laszlo replied. “I speak Hungarian and Yiddish. Why do you ask me?”
“Is your name Kovac?” asked the rabbi. Astounded and taken by surprise, Laszlo replied, “Yes, but how could you know that?” Rabbi Abrahamson put his arm around Laszlo’s shoulders and walked with him to a smaller room. Both men sat down. “Don’t you recognize me? Don’t you remember me from the camp, Mr. Kovac? I was Jurgen, your barracks guard. I used to bring you extra food in the camp. Don’t you remember?”
Laszlo almost fell from his chair. He was pale and trembling. “How is it possible that you, a German and a Nazi guard, became a rabbi and changed your name”, he asked in a haltering voice.
“Let me tell you, Laszlo. May I call you Laszlo? My father was a Lutheran pastor in Rexingen, Germany. I was educated in the Bible. Although I was forced to join the Hitler Jugend as were all boys of my age, I never became a member of the Nazi party. I hated what I had to do at Bergen-Belsen with all my heart. But I had no real choice. If I had refused to serve there, I would have been sent to the eastern front where I would probably have been killed or I could have been shot by a superior officer for refusing an order. So I tried to be as much of a human being as I could possibly be.
When Bergen-Belsen was liberated in 1945, I was cleared by the British as a non-Nazi and a non-war criminal. In 1949, I began my studies in theology at the Freie Universitat in Berlin. The more I studied about Jewish history, the more fascinated it became for me.
And one day, I suddenly decided to become a Jew. I studied with a local rabbi in Berlin for two years, was circumcised, went to mikvah, and took the Hebrew name Yehuda ben Avraham (Judah Abrahamson).
Why those names?
Because as a child I once heard a rabbi preaching about the heroism of Judah the Maccabee. And Abrahamson because now I too was a son of Abraham. After my conversion to Judaism, I enrolled in the Rabbiner Seminar in Frankfurt, a Reform seminary, and became an ordained rabbi. This is what I had to do. I had to repent for my own sins and for the sins of the nation of my birth. I had to become a part of the people whom I persecuted”.
Laszlo could not absorb what he now heard. “Can you forgive me?” the rabbi asked. Laszlo did not reply. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Laszlo embraced his former barracks guard, now the rabbi who was sharing his life story with his former prisoner.
The two men hugged each other and remained silent. Only the tears of one cheek wet the tears of the other’s cheek.
“Rabbi”, Laszlo replied. “I had forgiven you many years ago when I was still a camp prisoner. The scraps of food you would bring me saved me from starvation. There is no need for me to forgive you again. God has already forgiven you. And as Chanukah approaches, let us rejoice together with our families, lighting the candles in the menorah and reciting the ancient story of deliverance from tyranny”.
The two men walked back to the kiddush reception room holding hands. Wine was poured into two glasses. Laszlo raised his cup in a toast to the rabbi. “Prost, Rabbi”, he said.
“No, Laszlo” replied Rabbi Abrahamson. Not “prost”. Only l’chayim.