NEW YORK, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Albert Mozell and his wife, Bina, recently visited the Jewish Museum here to see an exhibition of paintings by Marc Chagall — but they got a lot more than just an organized tour.
When Germany’s consul general in New York, Bernhard von der Planitz, rose to speak, the Mozells — and approximately 40 other New York seniors — realized that their visit was part of an attempt to improve German- Jewish relations.
“I’ve been to other things like this,” Raye Walker said. “When you pay only $5 for something that’s supposed to cost $20, you get these types of things.”
The seniors’ trip was one of six coordinated recently for Jews — ranging from Holocaust survivors, to Russian immigrants to teen-agers — by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and Germany’s Dresdner Bank, which is one of the participants in a multibillion-dollar German restitution fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.
Dresdner Bank is the primary sponsor of the exhibit, “Marc Chagall: Early Works From the Russian Collections,” which features many paintings being shown for the first time in the West.
A U.S. veteran of World War II, Mozell has conflicting feelings regarding Germany. He has no desire to return there himself, but does not discourage Jews from visiting the country.
“It’s not for me because the memories are still there, but the world can’t go on feeling the way I do about Germany,” he said.
It’s precisely this sentiment that motivates Harriet Mandel, director of the JCRC’s commission on Israel and international concerns, whose relatives survived the Holocaust.
“We have been grappling with the consequences of the relationship between the Jewish community and Germany for over six decades,” Mandel said. Despite reservations earlier in her life, she now realizes that “it is in the best interests of the Jewish community to engage” in order to move beyond the Holocaust.
Von der Planitz agreed.
The consul general said he is “filled with pride that Jews are coming back to live in Germany” — and that its special relationship with Israel “forms a cornerstone” in Germany’s foreign policy.
During a question-and-answer session after von der Planitz’s speech, one senior, Charlotte Rick, asked him what his government is doing to combat anti-Semitism in Germany today.
Von der Planitz responded that Germany is doing all it can, including prosecuting Holocaust deniers.
Rick shrugged and nodded, seeming partially satisfied with his answer.
“There is something very empowering about Jews sitting and having a dialogue over coffee with the German consul general and asking questions like, ‘What are you doing about anti-Semitism, about nay-sayers?’ ” said Wendy Levinson, director of Jewish programs for the Education Alliance at the 14th St. Y, where some of the seniors are members.
Susan Stern, professor at the University of Frankfurt and an expert on modern Germany, also addressed the crowd.
Though Dresdner Bank’s Nazi-era record is far from clean, she remarked, “at least they are up front in saying, Yes, we have an awful history, but we are doing something about it. “
But Karen Laureano-Rikardsen, a spokeswoman for Dresdner Bank, downplayed the Jewish nature of the event, as well as the bank’s sponsorship of an exhibit on display at the Yeshiva University Museum, emphasizing that Dresdner sponsors efforts for several communities in the New York area.
Despite her statement, however, the seniors had their own opinions on the bank’s objectives.
“It’s P.R., no question,” Edith Ring said. “However, if it’s to our benefit, who cares?”
After the refreshments and speeches, the seniors eventually got to tour the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 14.
By the end of the day, many in the group said their personal views about Germany’s past and present hadn’t changed.
“I thank the bank, but I still am dead-set against Germany, and I don’t think they have changed their ways,” Belle Lewitz said.
But many felt more positive about the future of German Jewish relations.
“I’m glad I came today,” Rick said. “It’s what we do with the young people now — you have to be hopeful sometimes. Besides, you can’t have hate in your heart all the time. It makes you ugly.”