Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Birthright Germany, Part 2: Last Bar Mitzvah in Dresden

The trip shifted gears in Dresden. We spent most of the time with the other invitees, primarily the children of former Dresden residents; in the 20 years since the program started, the survivors have steadily died off or become less able to travel. Still, one man, about Eric’s age, returned. He had left Dresden in a children’s transport for England, then returned to Germany 20 years later.

I knew little about Dresden except that it had been destroyed by British and American bombing in February 1945. Naomi and I have an annual “movie date night” to watch a German miniseries called Dresden, combining the bombing with a romance between a downed British flier and a German nurse. I knew about the diaries of composer Victor Klemperer, a Jew who survived the bombing, which saved Jews who were marked for deportation in the following days. Other than these touchpoints, Dresden was a blank spot on my mental map of Europe.

We arrived at night from Prague, unsure of what to expect. Anya, a representative of the Mayor’s Office, met us and steered us to a minivan that took us to the hotel. Anya became a constant, informed companion in the days to come, shepherding our group from the hotel to historical and social events, such as a meeting with Mayor Helma Orosz. Through it all, Dresden appeared unreal to me. The plaza outside the hotel looked perfectly tidy with a statue of Martin Luther and stately buildings ringing the square. Some buildings obviously were new construction in a classical style, but others looked original and ancient with soot-streaked facades.

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I knew the Allied bombing obliterated the city center; how could Dresden recover so well? The question arose repeatedly as I grappled with what I saw as the three layers of German reality: the current and united Germany, the Third Reich of Eric and Valeska, and the more distant and unknown Germany of my family. The images of centuries jostled in my mind, making me dizzy.

I admired the rebuilding and told Naomi, “If a U.S. city suffered this kind of destruction, it wouldn’t be rebuilt for a hundred years because of all the litigation.”

The first full day in Dresden smashed the reality and remembrance of the Holocaust directly on us. The group traveled to a commercial street to see the laying of several “stumbling stones,” or Stolpersteine, created by artist Gunter Demnig. The size of cobblestones, the squarish memorials have a metallic plate bearing the name of an individual, date of birth and last date living at a particular address before the person was sent to a transit or extermination camp. Demnig, with sturdy kneepads and a focused approach, installs the stones personally throughout Europe, with over 27,000 now laid in 600 locations. They honor Jews and other victims of the Nazis.

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We gathered around the methodical Demnig, who rarely looked up at the growing audience. Two musicians provided background music. As the memorial took shape with the stones cemented into place, I watched the crowd around us. Young people, elderly, anybody passing by could see the ceremony. They were quiet, they watched, perhaps curious or baffled. The stones cannot be read unless you stand very close to them, kneel and view them with care and respect. As the Jewish American playwright Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman, “Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”

The first stop had four stones, members of the Schneck family—three killed at Auschwitz in 1943, another deported and killed in Poland, date unknown. Members of our group laid flowers around the stones, and the group member related to the Schnecks spoke.

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Some of the deportees must have worshiped at the Dresden synagogue, a landmark building destroyed during Kristallnacht. The old synagogue had great personal significance, as Eric had the last bar mitzvah there before it burned in November 1938. Gabi, the volunteer researcher with the Dresden Jewish community, had unearthed a 1938 notice in the Jewish community newspaper that congratulated Erich on his passage, the onrushing destruction so close yet so unknown. We visited the airy Jewish Community Center (JCC) and then the new synagogue, a stark, fortress-like building deliberately designed with off-kilter angles. A white line on the ground showed the extent of the old synagogue. A high wall separated the buildings from a train line. Every few minutes a tram swept by, obscured by the wall so we could only see its pantographs connecting it to power lines. The image of anonymous trains moving past the Jewish complex stayed with me.

In contrast to the synagogue, the JCC had a glass front that enables visitors to see almost everything going on inside. It’s an open, friendly three-story building. Inside, we looked through the immense volumes of biographical details of Dresden-area Jews and their fate. Naomi found entries about family members.

A single architectural detail connected the old and new synagogues. A JCC administrator pointed to a gold-colored Magen David attached above the doors to the new one. She said a Dresden fireman rescued it from the fire and hid it until the new community arose after the war. She held up a photo of the old synagogue to show what it looked like.

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We later attended a Friday evening service at the synagogue and the following Kiddush at the JCC, where we mingled with the new Dresden Jews, primarily from the former USSR. The conviviality, the mood and the food reminded me of kiddushes I have attended in the U.S. and Latin America, and I relished that sense of Jewish connectivity and the transgressive act of Jewish observance.

To say the Shabbat prayers, to join fellow Jews at worship and friendship, to wear a kippah, to learn Torah or a single letter of Hebrew—these are all revolutionary acts of defiance and Kiddush HaShem (Sanctification of the Name) in the sinking edifice of Europe.

I always remember that day when I read a passage in the weekday Amidah prayer: “And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are you, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.”

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.