For much of my life, the notion that I, an American Jewish rabbi, would address a primarily German Christian audience in a Berlin church on Kristallnacht was inconceivable. Most American Jews of my generation were raised with antipathy toward all things German. After all, Germany and Germans perpetrated the destruction of much of European Jewish civilization and the extermination of six million Jews, one-third of world Jewry.
We were conditioned to avoid visiting Germany or buying German products. One of the most lasting images of my childhood was how my father demonstrated antagonism towards Germany. A photography buff, he stored hundreds of film negatives in storage files produced by Agfa. My father could not find a non-German company that made this unique product. So he took a black marker and blotted out “Made in Germany” on all 100-plus storage files.
As young people, we heard stories about relatives we would never meet. I learned about my great-aunt and my father’s first cousins in Bialystok, who were shot and killed in cold blood by the Nazis. We were taught that Jewish identity was inseparable from Holocaust education and an eternal commitment to “never again.”
Only when I became a rabbi did I understand that it was not enough for the Jewish people alone to speak about “never again.” The lessons of the Holocaust needed to be discussed with the rest of the world, particularly with Christians who carried a special burden. It was Christianity’s historic antagonism towards Judaism that created an environment in which Hitler could perpetrate his crimes against humanity. And though a significant number of Christians risked their lives to save Jews, far more were partners in the crime and even more stood by silently.
Our commitment as Jews is not only to remember and prevent, but also to remember and celebrate the righteous of the nations, thousands of whom have been honored by Yad Vashem for their heroism in protecting or saving Jews. Also, in recent years I and many others have come to understand that we need to acknowledge and participate in the historic self-reflection that German society undergoes as it confronts the horrific legacy of the Third Reich, even though nearly all Germans today are too young to have been perpetrators and did not live through the silence of complicity.
I came to Berlin this week with a group of American Jews in their 20s and 30s, who are part of a Germany Close-Up trip co-sponsored by my organization, American Jewish Committee (AJC), and supported by the German government. Despite turbulent emotions regarding the German past, young American Jews can benefit in their own Jewish evolution by visiting the sites of the great German-Jewish community of yesteryear and the horrifying places where Jews and others went to their deaths, including nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which we visited this week.
We must understand and support those Germans today who reflect seriously about Germany’s horrific history. Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP), the sponsoring organization for this particular Kristallnacht service in Berlin, at which I will speak, has been instrumental in helping young Germans come to terms with the past. Near my office in New York sits an ARSP volunteer who is spending a year at AJC dedicated to reconciliation in the post-Holocaust world. For this young woman volunteer, memory and service are complementary values.
Two years ago, I was with another group of young American Jews who attended a moving memorial and educational service at a local Berlin church. The congregation included Germans of all ages and, notably, young people. We cried together as Jewish visitors and the churchgoers proceeded with lit candles to one of the sites of Berlin Jewry’s deportation. This dramatic annual commemoration takes place in many churches across Germany, a palpable, localized expression of regret and reflection.
For the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, I was invited to address the commemorative service at the Friedrichstadtkirche church on Saturday evening. Despite the historical baggage, I accepted, and our group of young U.S. Jews will be there, too, because we believe that religion, in this case Christianity, is not a source for evil, but a potential power for good. Just as we recall that the world failed to see that the Nuremberg Laws would lead to Kristallnacht and ultimately the Holocaust, we are also mindful of what could happen if the world fails to react to the racially, religiously and ethnically motivated hatred and violence of the 21st century, including the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.
Yes, we are honored to participate in a Berlin church’s unique commemoration of this devastating moment in Jewish history, in German history. But we do so with immeasurable ambivalence and complex feelings.
Rabbi Noam Marans is the American Jewish Committee’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations.