Today, I followed my wife’s recommendation to attend a very special event: A guided tour through Munich’s still considerably young new main synagogue “Ohel Jakob”. The weather was miserable, the girls nevertheless out for an extended walk with a good friend’s dog (and the friend, of course) along the river Isar. So I took a trip down memory lane, the memory of uncountable and unaccounted for tragic stories of Munich victims of the ruthless Nazi Regime.
I’m very glad I went. Not only is everything that has to do with the past, present and future of our Jewish communities in Germany a must topic of interest for anyone only remotely interested in history and equipped with an ounce of collective conscience. The new main synagogue in Munich is also a miraculous site to see and explore. It’s a place of light, a place of hope, a place that literally and perceptibly seeks reconciliation and a bright future, in the middle of the city, in the midst of its people.
It’s a place where light and shade are one, where you can feel the true meaning of hiSTORY.
The first indication of which is high-tech: security detectors. You can’t enter into the fane without a security check, without prior registration with an official guided tour, and not through the actual, beautiful synagogue entrance. Deranged anti-Semitic ideology debris is still a threat; it never seems to be really over. In fact, even in 2003, the year of the laying of the synagogue’s cornerstone, German authorities uncovered a plot by a group of neo-Nazis who wanted to bomb the ceremony.
I am allowed to enter, fortunately, along with about 40 other interested people. We wait in the very modern entry hall of the Jewish community center for a good friend of mine, Maike Telkamp, who was about to take us on a vibrant, informative and emotional tour through past, present and future of Munich’s Jewish community.
Today’s stories are being written as we live, right here, right now. Tomorrow’s stories are yet to come. It’s yesterday’s (hi)stories that not only make the today we have possible, maybe the only today alternative there could be; they pave the way for the crossroads and stories of the future. Maike made this very obvious and tangible in her almost 90-minute tour. And the most impressive part of this experience was not her profound knowledge of the subject (that was probably to be expected, this being her job and all, nevertheless impressive and illustrative). It wasn’t the bullet points of her speech, the fact, the figures, the features of the buildings, the art within, the technical details.
At least to me, it all came to life and (even though you think you know it all, you’ve seen it all, you’ve read it all) hit me in the epigastrium like the punch of a heavy-weight boxer, bringing tears to my eyes, when she told this one man’s story: Alexander Liebmann. His name is one of the 4.500 names displayed by a very intelligently, very impressively, yet subtly constructed piece of art, the center of the so-called “Gang der Erinnerung” (The Path of Memory) that leads believers and visitors from the community center to the synagogue. A quiet, reflective room, it every meaning of the word. Over a length of 32 meters, 32 glass panels, illuminated indirectly from behind, show the names of every single man, woman or child accounted for as a victim of the Third Reich. In varying boldness and legibility, symbolizing the degree of oblivion that has laid its cloak onto these human’s destinies ever since.
The sheer mass of names alone renders you taciturn, only put into perspective by the figure “6.000.000” engraved into the opposite wall of this Memory Path, above a massive Star of David. As impressive and shattering as these 4.500 names are, they are abstract, just names. You might walk past, awe-struck, with a bad historical conscience, but you would not be emotionally taken aback. It’s Alexander Liebmann who does exactly that, or better his story that Maike tells while explaining make and meaning of the Memory Path. Like the zoom of a camera onto an individual in the middle of a large crowd:
Liebmann was born on October 31, 1871, in Berlin, where he studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, even travelling to Paris every now and then for research. After working as a teacher, he fought for Germany in the First World War, returning severely wounded and a war hero. His injury made it impossible for him to do most jobs that could have helped him make a living, but he and his wife were gladly employed by a friend as porcelain painters is his ceramic manufacture. When Alexander and Johanna Liebmann received a note on March 27, 1942, to be ready for deportation to a concentration camp on April 3 (simply for being Jews and after receiving the “Eiserne Kreuz 1. Klasse” and the “Hessische Tapferkeitsmedaille” for heroic services in the name of the same country that was now planning to kill them), the couple decided to leave together at least in the manner they decided themselves, if not the when: they committed suicide.
The rest of the tour was still interesting and informative, but it was always Alexander I saw.
As I was standing in front of the only remains of Munich’s former main synagogue which was burnt down by Hitler’s henchmen in June 1938: I saw Alexander there, praying, celebrating the Shabbat.
As I put on the Kippah to respect the house of prayer, I saw Alexander being harassed in his own city for wearing it, for believing.
As I was sitting in the synagogue’s front row, listening to details of the Jewish divine service rituals, looking up to see the last ray’s of today’s sunlight being refracted by the ingenious metal construction that embraces the massive roof windows and suggests the form of the Star of David over and over: I saw the hope that had left Alexander and Johanna back in Berlin of 1942 – the hope that this place now radiates, for today and tomorrow.
Not only for the Jewish community, but for all of us, especially for our children, who need to remember, always, never forget, understand – and live to see a day when religion is a reason for joy, love and life, not the cause of fear, hate, and death. When the first four words engraved into the wall of the synagogue’s Path of Memory (“remember – mourn – commemorate – admonish”) truly lead to their four counterparts at the end of the tunnel (“learn – reconcile – speak – live”). A day when one of the questions asked after the presentation part of the tour (ironically by a little boy of maybe ten or twelve years of age) whether “Jews and Germans both come here, or only Jews?”, will not need to be asked anymore.
Back home, over dinner with the family, we all reported from our day: Chasing our friend’s dog along the banks of the Isar, returning home happy, hungry and tired – on the one hand. Chasing ghosts of the past along the Path of Memory, returning home tired, hungry, and happy to be alive today, to enjoy the fragility of piece with the ones I love. And being willing and able to remember the stories of the past, helping them create a better narrative for our future.
Next time, I think I’ll take my kids along …