Entering New Territory

DVAR TORAH -- Parshat Lech Lecha -- November 12, 2005
Susie Tanenbaum
West Side Minyan, Ansche Chesed, NYC

Shabbat Shalom.

It seems to me that Parshat Lech Lecha is all about entering new territory. It begins with G-d commanding Abraham to leave his country, to separate himself from everything he knows, and to journey to a land that he has never seen. Abraham, Sarah, and Lot move to Canaan, then to Egypt, then out of Egypt, then in different directions. Meanwhile, there are also some profound inner transformations going on. In particular, we see Abraham emerge as the ancestor of the Jewish people.

This theme of entering new territory — whether it's geographical, emotional or spiritual, political or personal — has special meaning for me right now, for several reasons. For one thing, I recently celebrated my 40th birthday. At first, I was very nervous about making this transition. But I chose to dance my way into 40, and now I am excited about the decade that lies ahead!

To mark this milestone, I decided to do what I saw another 40-year-old woman do: Learn how to read from the Torah. So, with Mosh's guidance and moral support, I leyned for the first time this morning. Let's hope this is a sign that my participation in the minyan will continue to grow.

Above all, the theme of entering new territory makes me think of the trip that I took this summer with my mother, Dr. Helga Weiss, who is here in the minyan today. We traveled to Cologne, Germany, where Mom was born and where she lived as a child before the war. I would like to share some of my reflections on this journey with you.

When I was in high school, I interviewed my grandmother about the Weiss family's escape from Nazi Germany. I learned that after Kristallnacht, my grandfather, a physician, checked into a hospital for one night, hid in a relative's home, then ran for his life; that an uncle arranged for my mother, her brother, a cousin, and three of their peers to be driven to Holland, where each child was sent to live with a different relative; that my grandmother, who was only 36 years old at the time, remained in Cologne until her own mother died a natural death; that the family re united in Holland and was lucky enough to secure passage to the United States in late 1939. Ironically, the relatives that had settled early in Holland found themselves trapped there, and several of them ended up being deported to concentration camps.

After that interview, I started asking my mother if I could go back to Germany with her. Understandably, Mom was ambivalent. She had passed through Cologne not long after the war, and the experience had been very upsetting. In general, as Mom can explain, she has a push-pull relationship with things related to Germany. So, I simply asked the question, and Mom herself raised the issue, from time to time. But we made no decision about what to do for 25 years. I thank two wonderful Austrian friends for having encouraged us to make the decision. Neither one is Jewish, but I met them both while they were studying Jewish history in New York. This past spring, I emailed my friends in Austria about the possibility of visiting them, and they responded with enthusiasm. Then I went to Mom and suggested that this might also be the year for us to go to Germany. I don't remember Mom saying: "Okay, yes, let's go." Instead, when she updated me on the contacts that she was making with Cologne, I knew that the trip was actually going to happen.

Mom has given me so much in life, and this trip was among the most extraordinary gifts of all. She arranged everything, from the plane ride between Vienna and Cologne, to our hotel stay, to our daily itinerary. We were already good travel partners, but this time, I was also her witness.

Initially, we worried that the sequence of our trip three days in Vienna, four days in Prague, and a week in Cologne would leave the most depressing part for last. But after some bumps in the road in the first two cities, Mom predicted with a laugh that Cologne would prove to be the most relaxing and positive experience of all. In many ways, she was right.

On our first day in Cologne, we walked by the huge cathedral where Pope Benedict had recently presided over World Youth Week. Mom recalled that, when she was a child, there had been many signs that said: "No dogs or Jews allowed." I knew that Mom had encountered racist signs like that. But I didn't know that Jews had been barred from entering the cathedral, and now we were standing across the street from it. Mom always thought that if she returned to Cologne, she would have no interest in entering that place. But someone recommended that we attend a free organ recital in the cathedral, and we did. A young French musician performed, and he was incredible. Afterwards, Mom said she was very glad we went.

We met with the director of an archive that documents the pre-war Jewish community of Cologne. This archive is located in a former Nazi building, and in the basement you can still see the cells where prisoners were held until they were sent to labor camps or executed in the back yard. There is now an exhibit in the building, which makes that history known.

I was excited when the director found information about my grandfather on her database. Mom and I were fascinated by several old telephone directories, which listed my grandfather's medical practice and his brothers' business. We didn't know whether, in the end, the medical practice and the business had been sold or stolen. The director interviewed Mom and made copies of our family mementos for her archive. It is part of this director's job to speak to survivors and refugees who come back to visit. But I wonder whether she and her colleagues find these meetings personally meaningful, just as perhaps it was personally meaningful for us to meet them.

There were so many significant moments for us that week. In the 1930s my uncle had attended the Jawne [pronounced "Yavneh"] school, and we visited a memorial to the principal and his classmates who had perished. Then we visited the Jewish division of the Cologne library -- the largest Jewish collection in all of Germany -- and when Mom asked to see a book about the Jawne school, the library director gave her a copy as a gift. One night that week, we were even invited by the Jewish Affairs liaison in the office of the mayor of Cologne to a reception for the mayor of Tel Aviv!

Not long ago, my mother's cousin wrote a book about the Weiss family, which includes translations of almost 70 wartime letters between the relatives. (One of the people we met was a contact that Mom's cousin had made during his research.) I took this book with me, and I read it as we traveled. One of the most powerful lessons I learned from it was how close our family had been. I had taken it for granted that, because of the Holocaust, we had relatives in America, Israel, England, and France. It had never occurred to me that, in addition to being dislocated from their country, the relatives had been dislocated from each other. That fact became terribly clear when we went to look at Mom's childhood home, and I saw that the cousins had literally lived around the corner from each other.

One of the absolute highlights of the trip was when Mom spoke to a group of high school students. We were very impressed by the energetic principal, the serious young teachers, and the thoughtful students who dressed just like their New York counterparts. Two boys stood up and formally welcomed Mom. They explained that their class was about to spend a year studying Nazism, so they were very interested to hear her story. Mom made her presentation in German. When she finished, she found out that the students also understood English! Mom seemed to regret that she hadn't expressed herself in English, but I thought speaking in German was an important choice. It reinforced for the students that she, too, was from Cologne. And if she didn't know a word here or there, it was because she had been forced to give up German as her first language. Besides, the students clearly enjoyed helping her a couple of times with vocabulary.

These students asked excellent questions. Interestingly, several of them wanted to know what Americans think of Germans. A girl asked Mom if she regretted leaving Germany. Of course, Mom said no -- she'd had to leave in order to survive. I poked my head out from behind my video camera, and suggested that the girl wanted to know whether Mom missed anything about Germany. Shortly after that, Mom asked me to say a few words to the students. I mainly told them that Mom's experiences as a German Jewish refugee had become a part of my identity, and that Mom had taught her children the importance of defending the human rights of all people. In retrospect, Mom and I wondered if our messages had been too universal; perhaps the students needed to hear more particulars about what our family had gone through. But I'm sure that they will be learning many particulars in class, and I'm hopeful that they will make the connections for themselves.

Our last major experience there was going to shul on Shabbat. That's when it suddenly hit me that we were meeting Jews for the first time all week.

Cologne's Jewish community dates back to Roman times. By the 1930s, there were at least half a dozen grand synagogues in the city. During the Nazi era, all but one was completely destroyed. The synagogue that was rebuilt is where Pope Benedict had spoken the week before we arrived. It also happens to be the shul that Mom had attended as a child with her family.

The synagogue building is magnificent, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. There are memorials to the six million on each floor. And the security is exceedingly tight. The shul is now Orthodox. Mom and I sat way up in the women's section. The small congregation seemed almost lost in that huge space. At one point, Mom said to me: "Somehow, I had thought I would hear the German melodies that I knew. But I hear more of them at my brother's shul in Washington Heights." Indeed, most of the current members of the Cologne synagogue are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. The rabbi, who has a connection with Chabad, is from Israel. A handful of the members had returned after the war, even directly from the concentration camps.

At shul we met an artist who, like Mom, left as a child, but her family had gone to Chile. When, in the 1970s, she found herself under another dictatorship, she ended up back in Cologne, and now lives in a lovely apartment overlooking the Rhine.

Mom and I spent our last full day in Cologne in the artist's home, enjoying lively conversation in Spanish, German, and English. When the three of us walked in the park along the river, I asked our host how she feels when she encounters older Germans. Her initial response was: "I don't get too close to many people." Of course, she wonders what their families did in the Holocaust. She also has the impression that, to this day, the older generation there looks down upon anyone who might be a foreigner.

Our new friend walked us back to the train station. It was a perfect summer evening, but later Mom and I agreed that we would not choose to live there. The past is present everywhere — in memorials and markers, in the consciousness of many Germans, and also in our minds. For these and other reasons, we were relieved to board the plane back home.

I search in my mind to try and recall why, as a teenager, I asked Mom to take me to Germany. I'm sure that I wanted to be her witness. But did I also imagine that we would discover some essential truth about the family's past?

If I discovered any truth on this trip, it's that the life our family knew in Cologne is no longer there, and that makes me very sad. But I also gained smaller, interesting insights into how our relatives lived, and I found out details about their escape. And I learned about reclaiming history -- acknowledging that while you can't change the past, you can return to a place and develop a new relationship with it. Perhaps because we waited 25 years and met younger people who, as Mom says, feel awful about what happened, we were able to have this complex but ultimately positive experience. All of this has prompted me to consider a little more what it means to be a part of the second generation. Maybe there is an even more basic truth. Mom and I faced an important part of our family's past, and now at some level, I'm feeling more at ease. While preparing these reflections, it occurred to me that taking the journey was itself a life-affirming act. Then I realized: That's exactly the lesson that "Lech Lecha" teaches me.