When I accepted the invitation to spend 10 weeks in Germany this fall, it was with a sense of joyful anticipation. As the summer of Gaza unfolded, the resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe tempered my joy but never weakened my resolve.
Yes, there are concerns. Pastor Ursula Sieg, regional pastor for Church-School relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, who organized the visit, surprised my wife Vickie and me shortly before we left the States by saying she didn’t want our pictures to appear in German newspapers until we had left the country.
“Why?” I asked
“A prominent American rabbi is a great target for terrorists, and there are some crazy ones,” she answered.
With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. “Why are you going there?” people have asked. “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly don’t believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government — beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel — and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.
Midway through our trip, I am pleased to report, we have only encountered warmth and sincere interest in understanding Jewish thought and practice from the many church groups I have addressed.
But the emotional highlight of our trip lies just ahead. On Nov. 9 I am to speak at the annual Kristallnacht — known in Germany as Pogromnacht — commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig. That is the magnificent cathedral where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.
My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs — a school principal named for my father — heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.
This will be my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up, and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, ’30 and ’33, the year Hitler came to power.
My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny, dusty, hard-to-find suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time that 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.
In 2011, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community — revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants — personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.
On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo, because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream, weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.
But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.
I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend 10 weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny has called me to do my best. And, if enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of “What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narrative” (Ecko), former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel, in West Hartford, Conn.