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Behind the Headlines: First UJA Mission to Germany Breaks Downs Emotional Walls

Fifty-five years after Kristallnacht prompted the formation of the United Jewish Appeal, the organization made its first major journey to the cradle of the Holocaust.

In a visit challenging long-standing taboos, a 320-person UJA mission traveled here last month to see modern Germany and its Jewish community, and to lodge a protest against the xenophobic violence that has sprung up in the wake of Germany’s reunification.

For many of the mission’s participants, the 36 hours in Berlin forced a re-examination of their prejudices toward the German people and toward a Jewish community here that has no intentions of withering away.

“I came away with a lot of questions, a lot of things I need to sort through,” said Roberta Holland, chair of the 17th annual President’s Mission. “I’m not sure I’ll ever arrive at the answers.”

Small groups from UJA have come here before. But efforts to arrange a full-blown trip always fell flat.

Even this time, many in the UJA leadership feared that an itinerary that included Berlin would scare people away.

In fact, the President’s Mission was a success. At its conclusion in Israel, the group — which, including those who did not go to Berlin, totaled nearly 700 — pledged more than $15 million to the UJA.

But in advance, many people were hesitant to go at all, reflecting an almost instinctual communal revulsion of and anger at Germany, which is commonly reflected in many Jews’ refusal to buy German products.

Lewis Norry, chair of an expanded four-day mission of the UJA Young Leadership, was one of those who “had mixed feelings about dropping a lot of hard-earned American dollars here and tacitly giving support to German society.”

TO ‘MAKE A STATEMENT AGAINST RACISM’

But nonetheless, he and the others went.

In part, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of the city gave a cachet of history — both exciting and worrisome — to the city.

And, in part, it was the resurgence of anti-foreigner violence, with all the horrible memories that invokes for Jews, that overcame the initial reluctance of many on the mission.

“The role of the mission was not to visit Germany. It was to come and make a statement against racism. Nobody did that 50 years ago,” said Nechemia Dagan, director of overseas programs at UJA, who was a strong proponent of the German visit.

At a news conference well-attended by the local media, UJA National Chairman Joel Tauber said, “We want the German people to know (the racist violence) is of great concern. We want to make sure the continuing Jewish community is treated with respect.

“We want the German people to understand we consider ourselves one people,” he said.

During their 36-hour stay in Berlin, mission participants visited the Jewish cemetery; the 1866 New Synagogue, which had its sanctuary desecrated by the Nazis and torn down by the Communists and is now being refurbished as a museum and a community center; and a Jewish day school with 145 students, many recently arrived from the former Soviet Union.

They visited the Wannsee Conference Center, site of the famous meeting in 1942 at which the full force of the Nazi bureaucratic apparatus was brought on board the plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews. Today the center is a museum and Holocaust study center.

The UJA leadership met with German President Richard von Weizsacker. Using a phrase heard often throughout the visit, he told the group that the problem with Germany in the 1930s was not that it had too many Nazis, but that it had too few democrats.

Today’s Germany, he insisted, was different.

Indeed, many members of the mission were impressed with the devotion to democracy and abhorrence of xenophobia, and with the Germans they met, ranging from journalists to Holocaust researchers to the driver of one tour bus, who had affixed to his bus a ragged sticker with the logo “Smash racism! Smash Nazism!”

‘I DON’T FEEL A WHITEWASH IN GERMANY’

“He didn’t put it up for us,” said Norry of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet.

“There’s a whitewash going on in Austria. I don’t feel a whitewash in Germany,” he said.

And there was another factor that forced many on the mission to re-evaluate their view of Germans: the realization that most of the Germans they met, and passed on the streets, weren’t alive in 1933.

“I came here expecting to hate Nazis, and instead I found Germans,” one member of the mission said, expressing a common sentiment.

Norry, like his mission-mates, was also impressed by a Berlin Jewish community that had dropped all pretense of sitting with its suitcases packed to leave, and which was eager to receive recognition from Americans.

“We’ve almost treated them like our slightly crazy cousins,” said Norry. “Why would they want to be in Germany?”

After the visit, Norry felt convinced by their argument that there was nothing wrong about rebuilding a Jewish community in Berlin.

“Why should there be no Jews in Germany?” Norry asked. “Why should the Nazis be winners?”

“We need to create a bridge with the community, create ties,” said Max “Skip” Schrayer II, co-chair of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet.

But despite the vibrancy he saw in the Jewish community, and his sense that there was indeed a “new Germany,” Schrayer still worried about whether it could happen again.

“Was the Holocaust an aberration in history? I don’t think so,” he said. “The question is, are we going to be vigilant or not?”

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