(JTA) — Looking over an old family scrapbook, Laura Chanin saw a puzzling photograph of her paternal great-grandfather, Max Solomon, wearing women’s clothes. She had questions.
“What is this? Why is he in drag?” Chanin, a 53-year-old mother of one from California, asked about the experience of several years ago.
The discovery led Chanin, who works at a logo printing business, to discover that Solomon was among the founders of the first Jewish group to officially participate in the Carnival of his native Cologne.
Carnival, a weeklong event to celebrate Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter, is one of the German city’s most cherished traditions. Hundreds of thousands of revelers wear colorful clothes and consume massive amounts of alcohol on the street.
The culmination is a parade in which registered groups compete and show off the creations they had toiled on throughout the year — floats, often with paper mache caricatures satirizing politicians or phenomenons. The makers ride or march alongside wearing their costumes and displaying their dance routines.
A reincarnation of Solomon’s group was poised to join the festivities this year with a float for the first time in decades — since the Nazis banned the club from Carnival in 1933. But the COVID crisis intervened and the event has been canceled.
In 1923, Solomon became the first president of the Kleinen Kolner Klub, or Little Cologne Club, which was the event’s first registered Jewish group. It remained active until the Nazis rose to power. The photo of Solomon in drag was part of the group’s acts, Chanin discovered. Solomon immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust.
Chanin and other descendants of the early Jewish group — ironically it was known by the same three initials as the Ku Klux Klan — have also learned that local Cologne Jews for the first time in decades recently reconstituted an official Jewish group in Carnival: the Kolsche Kippa Kopp.
The group, whose name means “Cologne kippah heads” and is a tribute to Solomon’s original outfit, was created in 2017. The plan was to have the new club, which has about 20 members, participate with its own float for the first time at the parade, which usually takes place in mid-February.
That’s been spoiled by the pandemic.
“It’s disappointing, especially since this year is the year that the Jewish community and the government are celebrating 1,700 years of Jewish presence in Germany,” said Aaron Knappstein, who co-founded the new Jewish club. “But it’s the way it is. Next year we’ll celebrate the 1,701st year of Jewish presence, I guess.”
The proximity of Carnival to the Jewish holiday of Purim, when it’s also customary to dress in costume, gives members of the Jewish club extra reason to party.
“You have to dress up, and free your mind, and show that it is OK to be different,” Robert Katona, a 49-year-old Cologne native, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2019. “That’s also what Purim is about: We survived and we show that we’re happy.”
But in a country where the rise in anti-Semitic incidents is making some Jews question their futures, even the planning of a Jewish float has brought some uncomfortable issues to the fore.
“When we have the float, there will have to be security around it. That’s just the way things are right now,” Knappstein said.
Security was on hand, too, at the Cologne synagogue where the Kolsche Kippa Kopp had its launch event in 2019. Many journalists and non-Jewish Carnival enthusiasts attended, and Knappstein drew the guests’ attention to the guards.
Knappstein restarted the Jewish Carnival club out of a deep sense of belonging to Cologne, a city in Western Germany with a tradition of tolerance and a laid-back atmosphere. But due to anti-Semitism, even he has contemplated leaving for good for the first time in his life.
It happened in 2019 after a neo-Nazi attempted to carry out a massacre at the synagogue in Halle, near Berlin, on Yom Kippur. The extremist, who has since been tried and sentenced to life in prison, filmed himself while unsuccessfully attempting to break into the building when it was full of congregants, then killed two people nearby.
Knappstein cried in front of the television when it was reported and began wondering whether Germany is “my place, where I would like to stay, is this my home,” he told JTA. “After Halle, I can’t say I’m 100% sure. And I’m very happy I have at least one place to go,” he said, referencing Israel.
The Kolsche Kippa Kopp’s costumes reflect the dilemma described by Knappstein.
Members wear a pointed hat, which is checkered in blue and white, the colors of Israel’s flag. The middle part has a fold that is normally closed when the hat is worn but can be opened to reveal a Star of David and the Traveler’s Prayer printed against a background of red – the dominant color in Cologne’s banner.
The choice followed some debate, Knappstein said.
“We wanted to have the Star of David, but not to wear it on the outside,” he explained. “Not because we’re scared but … my grandparents had to wear the Star of David on the outside of the cloth. I don’t want that. It didn’t feel right.”
Knappstein, a human resources professional who is gay, has been living in the city with his husband for the past 13 years. He declined to elaborate on his own family’s survival of the Holocaust.
“I don’t do that. I don’t talk about that. I promised my mother before she died,” he said.
Back in California, Chanin hopes to visit the Cologne Carnival in the coming years to see the revival of the tradition that her great-grandfather helped start.
“I think it’s just great that they’re bringing it back, it has so much meaning,” she said.
Despite some research into her family history, Max Solomon’s role as the first president of the original Jewish group of the Cologne Carnival is one of just a handful of facts she knows about him.
“I had no idea about any of this before just a few years ago,” she said of his Carnival role. “But now it makes us feel very proud of him.”