Temple Shir Tikva Europe Tour – Rabbi Danny’s reflections

Posted on March 26, 2024

April 3rd

I am handing over the blog today, to share my wife Micol’s reflections on our visit to Thereisenstadt. She says it beautifully:

“My eyes and my heart are heavy. Yesterday we traveled to Terezin, known as its German name Teresienstadt by many. Terezin, a fortress city built in 1780 about 30 miles north of Prague, was turned into a ghetto and concentration camp by the Nazis. The civilian population was kicked out and it was operational as a camp between October 1941 and May 1945. Terezin was not an extermination camp, but more of a way station en route to the labor and death camps. Despite it not being a “death camp,” 35,440 Jews died there from malnutrition and disease. Danny’s great great grandmother was among them.

Altogether, 155,000 men, women and children passed through the camp, of whom 83,000 died after deportation to extermination camps in the East, in labor camps and on death marches at the end of the war. 15,000 children were among the 155,000 and only 132 children were known to have survived.

Terezin, unlike other camps, was an existing town. The Nazis didn’t build anything other than the crematorium that became a necessity due to the sheer numbers who died there. They had to find a way to dispose of the bodies without arousing suspicion. Terezin was sold as a “model camp.” They sold it almost as a resort, convincing the Jews that they would be safe there, and would get to return to their homes once it was safe again. They created propaganda film. They even hosted a delegation from the Red Cross (demanded by the Danish King after Danish Jews were imprisoned there) – to prepare for the visit they built fake cafes, bakeries, and candy stores, freshly painted the town, gave out new clothes, created fake dormitories, and deported over 7,000 Jews to Auschwitz to avoid the look of overcrowding. The Red Cross, and much of the world, bought the lie without hesitation. Most of the prisoners that were forced to be part of this farce were quickly deported to their deaths at Auschwitz.

And after the war and the horrible atrocities committed here? People moved back into the town. They live here. In this haunted place. It felt like walking through a ghost town. It was cold, empty, and soulless. Our guide used the word “cursed.” And that’s what it felt like.

I saw flowers growing in the grass in one of the courtyards, and I thought about Gabby and Benny, and how they would never pass a field of flowers without bending over to pick them. To create a bouquet for me, or to place them in their hair. And I thought of all of those children. Who would never pick flowers or place them in their hair. And I thought of all of those parents. Who would never get bouquets of wild flowers from their children. And I thought of all of the hopes and dreams they had for them. Hopes and dreams that would never be realized. Hopes, and dreams, and flowers that died in that camp. My tears started and they haven’t stopped. My heart is heavy. My eyes are heavy. My soul is heavy.

May their memories forever be a blessing. And may we remember them always. May we remember them. May we remember. Remember.”


March 31st

I am writing this as we drive out of Germany on our way to Prague and the Czech Republic. It is hard to sum up the experience of our time in Berlin, we filled our time with so many sites and experiences.

Shabbat services at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue were truly wonderful. So many elements of the service felt familiar, and yet there were pieces that were “foreign” in terms of what we are used at Temple Shir Tikva. It was wonderful to see Judaism alive and well in Germany. Three different people supported the rabbi in leading services, there were lots of young people present, and of course we played Jewish geography making connections with a young woman from Newton and a family whose brother lives in Wayland. Rabbi Gesa Ederberg very graciously delivered her sermon in English, and the challenges she spoke about in the aftermath of October 7th resonated for the Germans and Americans present.

The next day we had a chance to walk around what was, before the Holocaust, the major Jewish suburb of Berlin. There is not a single memorial in that area, instead there are a series of memorials around the area with artwork and descriptions that recall the anti-Jewish laws introduced by the Nazis. One can’t help but wonder how the locals relate to these signs, they are an ever present part of their neighborhood, a reminder of who used to live in their homes. Once again there is a shadow hanging over the city.

To reflect on two other sites; we visited Bebelplatz, where in 1933 a mass book burning took place and then the villa of Wannsee where the Final Solution was planned. At Bebelplatz as we talked about burning books we couldn’t help but think of people who are today banning books. The main protagonists were students from the Humboldt University, and we thought about how today many seats of higher education are no longer safe or welcoming for Jews. And at Wannsee, the juxtaposition of the beautiful lakeside setting and the evil that was being planned inside the villa, was a cautionary tale for today of how society can become corrupted.

Leaving Germany there is a lot to process, and I can’t help but think about how different this trip was today in contrast to when I was last here 18 years ago. In a world that is increasingly fractious and divided, against the backdrop of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine (and despots elsewhere), and in the aftermath of October 7th this felt different. The stories and warnings rang that much louder and truer. It definitely serves as a cautionary tale in a world that is increasingly scary.

But there was also so much hope. Hope in a city reunited, in a place that is trying desperately hard to learn the lessons of history, and in a Jewish community reborn. It is a heavy city, but there is light in the progress that has been made since the fall of the wall in 1989 and the end of the Holocaust in 1945. As we leave, unsurprisingly, I choose to focus on tikva – hope, and to carry these lessons and stories forward as our journey continues.


March 29th

A combination of packed days and jet lag have meant that I have been unable to sit down to write about how our trip around Berlin is going. As we now prepare for Shabbat, with a moment to sit and reflect, it feels like a good time to share a word or two about what we’ve been up to.

While we have only been here for just over 48 hours in that time we have filled our time with a variety of sites and sounds around this wonderful city. It feels like we are experiencing four stories, each of which intersect and interact at the various points and sites that we visit. There is of course the story of Germany and how the country emerged from the State of Prussia. We talk about Germany as though she has always been a country at the center of Europe, but the reality is that the country really began in 1871 with the unification of the various German states into Germany. And while Berlin was the capital of Prussia, it was not a European capital in the model of London or Paris, because it was not, until relatively recently, the center of an established country in the same way. Some of the buildings and architecture celebrate the military victories of Prussia and the establishment of Germany as a unified country.

And then there is the Jewish story, the story of what was once a flourishing Jewish community, a place where Jews attained various rights relatively early on and prospered as part of the society. This is the country of Moses Mendelssohn who emerged as the founder of the Jewish Enlightenment and encouraged Jews not to focus solely on their Jewish learning, but to engage with scholarly society around them. He took one of the most significant steps away from the ghetto, and the Jewish community followed. The Jewish community of Berlin flourished and had about sixty years of what could be considered a golden age. Later this evening we will be going to the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue for services, we already toured around this magnificent building, and I am excited to pray underneath that spectacular domed roof.

But at the same time that visit to the synagogue intersected with the other story, perhaps the primary story for our group. For the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue was built to accommodate 3,000 people for services, but today most of the space is a museum to be visited by guests rather than used as a prayer space for the community. It is a remnant of what was once a flourishing Jewish community, one which was destroyed in the Holocaust. The shadow of the Holocaust is everywhere. There are various memorials throughout the city, just around the corner from the Brandbenburg Gate, in the center of the city, is their extensive Holocaust memorial, and on numerous street corners there are Stolpersteine – stumbling stones memorials to the Jews who lived in those places and were murdered by the Nazis. The shadow of the Holocaust and of Nazi Germany hangs heavy over this city, in part because they do not shy away from their awful history, but seek to learn from it to ensure a brighter future.

Finally, there is the story of a city divided in the aftermath of World War Two, the scars of East and West Berlin are everywhere. In 1945 it was divided into four, in 1948 the three parts of the west were consolidated into one, and then in 1961 a wall was built between the East and the West. Berliners lived in a city that was not just divided, but cut apart by a wall until 1989 – parts of the wall are still there and it is marked on the streets as a reminder of the division from a quarter of a century ago. At various sites there is not just the story of Berlin, but there is also the story of what life was like under communist rule and the reunification of the city.

These four stories dance with each other throughout the city, in some places we zoom in on one of the narratives, but at many sites it is the interplay of various stories that is so powerful. As an example, at The Brandenburg Gate was built by King Frederick William II of Prussia, and is a part of the Prussian story, alongside the gate various prominent Jews lived during the “golden age” of Berlin Jewry and we learned a bit about the artist Max Liebermann, who witnessed the Nazis marching through the Gate after they seized power ((he commented “I can’t eat as much as I would like to vomit” in response to that awful time). And then the Gate was stuck in the East, just beyond the wall and modified by the communists to fit into their narrative. And of course it was a site of celebration at the reunification of the city. All of the stories colliding in one site.

Now it’s time to prepare for Shabbat, but I just want to mention an amazing restaurant where we had lunch today – Kanaan. This restaurant is a partnership between an Israeli and a Palestinian and it’s not just that the food was amazing, but the vision they shared of how they could come together was truly inspiring. And it is this vision of hope for the future, in Berlin of all places, that I am taking with me as we prepare to celebrate Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom from Berlin.


March 26th

I am sitting here at Logan airport about to board a plane to travel first to Amsterdam and then on to Berlin. This will be the 3rd time that I have traveled to Germany and every time I have reflected on how strange it is to be returning to this country as a Jew.

My grandmother and great grandmother fled from this city, lucky to escape with their lives, but carrying the scars of having lived through over 5 years of Nazi rule and having been there for Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). And now I am returning.

Returning to a city which has made remembering the Holocaust a priority.

Returning to a country that has offered Israel steadfast support.

Returning to a place that has a rich Jewish history, but also a growing Jewish population suggesting a bright future.

The Jewish story in Germany is more than just the Holocaust, although that shadow looms over everything. It is a story that is still being written and one I am excited for our group to experience.

I hope that I will be able to update this page on a regular basis throughout our journey. But for now I am reflecting on what it mean to be a Jew returning to Germany in 2024.