Teen Travel Partnership Strengthens Jewish German Relations
Last February, 150 people—Jews and Gentiles, Americans and Germans—stood side-by-side in a restored synagogue in rural Oberdorf Germany to celebrate Shabbat for the first time in 75 years. Years ago, my German-born father returned his family’s Torah, the very scroll rescued from the synagogue on Kristallnacht, to this place. On this visit, my American son presented the scroll to the mixed congregation for reading that evening. Standing with him were six American high school students who chose to join us for what the local population proclaimed a “joyous” experience.
This trip—and the Tikun Olam Project—was inspired by the lives of my parents, Susanna Wolffs and Karl Heiman, refugees of the Shoah. My mother fled her town, along with her parents and brother, under the cover of night in a hay cart. My father’s father was interned for months in Dachau Concentration Camp before being released and granted a visa so he and his family could escape to the United States. Both made Holocaust and Jewish education an important part of their lives. My mother, Susanna, devoted her life to religious education in the school at Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY, that now bears her name. For years, my father was a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, and lectured in schools, museums, and institutions in the United States and Germany about the global impact of the Shoah, and how it affected him and his family. Both my parents envisioned a future in which genocide would no longer exist, and the broken pieces of past harmony could be restored.
To carry on the work they began, I brought six students from TBT’s Susanna E. Heiman Religious School to the villages in Germany where my parents were born and where, beginning in the 1980s, residents had reached out to them in reconciliation. Through the personal relationships established and nurtured through the years, I connected with the high school in Bopfingen, and students’ families from the Ostalb-Gymnasium volunteered to host our students. None of the German students ever had met a Jew before. And none of the American students had ever had the opportunity to delve into this part of their own history.
Together, the German and American students explored Jewish life and history in the towns we visited, reciting kaddish in ancient Jewish cemeteries. We traveled together to Dachau, where we experienced firsthand the systematic dehumanization of life. When we came upon the crematoria, many of the students wept, incredulous that humans could inflict such horror on others, let alone on friends and neighbors.
On the return from Dachau, one of the German students asked, “What did our community lose when we lost our Jews?” To fully answer the question, it was decided right then and there that the Germans would visit New York to learn what happened to those who survived and emigrated to the United States. Planning began immediately for a visit in early July.
And so it was that last month the American students and their families hosted the German students from Bopfingen. During their visit, we explored the Jewish American immigrant experience at the Tenement Museum and the Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan. Our students took their German friends to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Coney Island and to a minor league baseball game. Together we celebrated Shabbat, both in New York Harbor on July 4th and at Jones Beach the following week, just as we had done in the Oberdorf synagogue in February. I was inspired to watch as the German students, participating in the services, realized that what binds us together as human beings is far greater than what separates us.
By the end of their time together, the students agreed that their shared experiences had forever changed their lives. “I felt empowered by the spirits of the Jewish people all around me who had once been sent [to Dachau],” said one American student. Another wrote, “I have learned so much about my heritage and culture, as well as Jewish history in general.” One of the Germans is planning to apply for an internship at the Leo Baeck Institute, a research library dedicated to German Jewish history that is housed in the Center for Jewish History. Others are working to become docents at the restored synagogue in Oberdorf. During their last bit of time together, the students held each other close, shared tearful goodbyes, and promised to visit each other again.
I am proud of these students—and know that my parents would be proud of them as well—for the ways they are bringing some of the world’s broken pieces together to promote healing, and with their newfound peers, moving forward in friendship and in peace.
Elisabeth Prial, founder of the Tikun Olam Project, is a retired publishing professional and a member of Israel Congregation of Manchester, in Manchester, Vermont, where she serves on the synagogue board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.