An Extraordinary Bar Mitzvah in Germany
I am in the midst of a brief but deeply moving and fascinating trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, and I want to share some of my experiences and observations with you all. This post is fairly long, so please take your time, and I hope you find it worthwhile.
The purpose of this 5-day jaunt to Europe was to officiate as Solomon Bloch, son of Gale Wolfe and Dr. Dean Bloch, became a Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat. Solomon chanted from the Torah in the restored synagogue in the picturesque village of Floss, Germany. Floss was the hometown of Solomon’s Opa (grandfather) David Bloch, of blessed memory. David became a Bar Mitzvah in that same synagogue in 1923. The last Bar Mitzvah to take place in that sanctuary was that of a Bloch cousin, Willy Ansbacher, in 1933. The synagogue, built in 1815 after the previous synagogue burned down, was ransacked and scorched on the night of November 9, 1938, when across Germany thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and schools were destroyed in a government-sponsored pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The Floss synagogue remained desolate until the official Jewish community of the wider region took on its restoration in the 1970’s and again just a few years ago. The synagogue is beautiful, with a high vaulted ceiling painted blue and covered with stars. The original, large granite stones that make up the floor guarantee cool temperatures. A museum display in the women’s balcony remembers the Jewish girls’ school that thrived nearby until the Holocaust. But the synagogue is mute – there are no longer any Jews to fill it. This past Shabbat Solomon became the first Bar Mitzvah in Floss in 78 years. There is much to tell, and with Solomon’s and his parents Dean and Gale’s permission, I will share some of this many-layered story with you now.
David Bloch was born in 1910 in Floss. His family had lived, worked and prayed in Floss for several generations. The Jews were restricted to the Jewish part of town up the hill from the river, while the Christian residents lived down by the river. By David’s time there were about 400 Jews in a town of perhaps a couple of thousand.
David Bloch’s life has an epic quality to it, both as a personal story and as a story emblematic of European Jewry’s desperate and chance–driven scramble to survive the Nazi era. Even after all the history and personal accounts that I have read and heard about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, it remains difficult for me to grasp the insane terror of that regime. David was a man of great resilience, physical strength, and love of life, qualities that would serve him well on his journeys. I am fortunate to have gotten to know him a bit during his last years, and I can attest that he always had a twinkle in his eye, even in very old age.
David lost his hearing in infancy, and his parents died shortly thereafter. His maternal grandparents raised David, but he spent much of his youth away at boarding schools for the deaf, where he learned to sign and to read lips. David was a gifted artist, and art was his calling. In 1938 David was rounded up and sent to Dachau. One night he had a dream that he was being released, and the next day he indeed was freed from the camp, thanks to the efforts of an older half-brother. But David was now one of the hunted, and just before the jaws of the Nazi machine closed the gates of Europe, David bundled up his canvases and paints and brushes and he ran. He didn’t have the money or the papers that could get him to the States, so he traveled overland down to Venice and grabbed the last boat to…China. Through the Suez Canal (during Passover, as he would later recall), around the horn of Africa, and finally to Shanghai, David escaped with his life.
Shanghai was (as it still is) a freewheeling, business oriented port city, and a Jewish community was well established there. As Jewish refugees from Europe began arriving in Shanghai, the Shanghai Jews assisted as many of them as possible. David settled in Shanghai, painting and etching, managing fairly well on $10 a month from his American cousin. At the deaf club in Shanghai David met Lily (of blessed memory), a stunning girl from a property-owning Chinese family. They married. But as the Communist revolution in China gained strength, David once again had to run. After a long, long wait for a visa, David sailed in 1949 for San Francisco, and six months later Lily managed to follow. They continued east and settled in Mount Vernon, New York, where Lily converted to Judaism. Dean and his brother Daniel (of blessed memory) were born and raised there.
In 1977, after 40 years away, David decided to journey back to Floss. In Floss an old Christian acquaintance recognized David, astonished to see him alive. That acquaintance was the uncle of the daughter that David did not know he had. It turns out that when David was forced to begin his life on the run, he left behind in Floss a Christian girlfriend who was carrying his child. This woman gave birth in 1938 to Lydia, David’s daughter. According to the notorious Nuremberg Laws passed in 1935, Lydia had Jewish blood and was therefore Jewish. Desperate to conceal Lydia’s Jewish heritage, her mother hastily married a German Christian, and gave Lydia his last name. But Lydia had always wondered about her actual father. By 1977 Lydia’s parents were both gone, and when her uncle told her that David Bloch was alive, Lydia knew that she must meet him. And so it was in 1985 that Dean found himself sitting at the kitchen table in Mount Vernon across from Lydia Abel, who explained to him that she was the sister he never knew he had. Lydia met her father David when she was 50 and he was 75, and David welcomed her, as was his nature. David and Dean and Dean’s family subsequently made many trips to Germany to visit their new found family, Lydia, her husband Willy, their son Rainer and his four children. These trips included a number of visits to Floss, where David would show his childhood haunts. When David passed away in 2002, Lydia, a committed Christian, moved bureaucratic mountains so that a stone could be placed for him next to his parents and grandparents in the old and jumbled Jewish cemetery in Floss.
A couple of years ago, Dean suggested to Solomon that perhaps Solomon could have his Bar Mitzvah in Floss. Solomon was game. Thanks to Dean and Gale and especially cousin Rainer’s persistence in making arrangements all of our paths converged in Germany this past week.
I landed in Nuremberg on Friday, where Lydia lives. My overwhelming associations with Nuremberg are related to the Third Reich. Nuremberg was the city selected by Hitler for enormous annual nationwide rallies of the Nazi Party; Der Sturmer, the most hateful and damaging anti-Semitic newspaper, was published in Nuremberg as the organ of the Nazi party beginning in 1923; The infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws that I mentioned above made into law the pseudo-scientific concept of German “blood”, and thereby stripped Jews (and other groups) of their German citizenship and all legal rights; and of course the Nuremberg Trials, at which the Allies tried many of the Nazi leaders after the war. The Americans insisted on Nuremberg as the site for the trials because of Nuremberg’s notorious importance in Nazi party history. (And those trials set the precedent for the expectation that any national leader can be tried for crimes against humanity.)
So, I landed in Nuremberg filled with these gruesome thoughts, and forced myself back into the present, to see what I might see. I have found in my recent trips to Germany and Austria that this internal wrestle between the past and the present is both unavoidable and necessary for me, and I am learning a great deal as I travel. Dean met me at the airport and we took a quick metro ride to meet Lydia and Willy at their simple home, along with Rainer and his twins Jan and Tim. Jan and Tim were immersed in iPads and ice cream cones with their Bloch cousins Simon, Sid, Solomon and Sadie. We piled into vans and cars and drove to Weiden, a town near Floss, which had the nearest hotel. Weiden is in the heart of Bavaria and has a well-preserved, lively and incredibly picturesque medieval city center. Beer, bread and meat appear to be the staple of the Bavarian diet. We enjoyed our evening there, and in the morning we made the short drive to Floss.
The Burgermeister (mayor) of Floss met us in front of the synagogue. A burly, friendly man, born and raised in Floss, he was tremendously proud of his village. As the keeper of the synagogue key, he let us in, and we quietly took in the beautiful sanctuary. Everything in this 200 year old building is intact and in excellent repair, but there is of course no Torah scroll in the ark. I had brought a miniature Torah with me in my suitcase, which, though not “kosher”, would have to suffice. I had prepared a short service on photocopies which I distributed to the assembled: the Blochs, their cousins the Abels, Steve Bock and his daughter Isabel, who had taken this journey with the Bloch family, the Burgermeister and his wife, and several other townspeople in attendance. Rainer translated my explanations of the service into German so that everyone could participate. We were short of a minyan, but I decided to bend the rules, given that we had made it this far. And then I sang. The acoustics of the room were magnificent. I had no idea how long it had been since Hebrew chant and davenning had filled that space, so I lifted my voice to the heavens and made certain to let the sounds ring and linger. Solomon chanted the beginning of Devarim, Deuteronomy, from the little scroll: “When you sit in judgment, hear out every person fairly, whether they be rich or poor, Israelite or stranger…” These were good words from Moses to fill the void that the Nazis created when they murdered and expelled the Jews from Floss and the rest of Europe. We recited kaddish in memory of all the Jews of Floss who were murdered during the Shoah (Holocaust), and then I concluded the service with two songs: “Gesher Tzar Meod” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and it is essential not to be stopped by fear” – and “Ani Maamin” – “I believe with all my heart that an era of peace and justice will come, and even if that time is delayed, I still believe”. As you may know, many Jews sang that declaration of faith even as they walked to the gas chambers. One might say that to be a Jew is to still believe, despite everything, that humanity can rise up to its highest potential.
The Burgermeister and his wife seemed deeply and genuinely moved by the ceremony, and I embraced them both. The Burgermeister then led us to the Rathaus, the Town Hall, where he spoke with pride about his town, about Floss’ huge investment in photovoltaic solar panels and wind generators. He presented a specially minted silver coin to Solomon, along with a brief testimonial. And then he showed us a very large, gorgeous, panoramic painting of Floss hanging on the wall, and directed us to the signature: David Ludwig Bloch, 1976. Dean and Gale had never seen this painting, did not even know of its existence, even though it had been hanging in the Floss city hall for more than 30 years. Lydia excitedly explained: her father David had begun this canvas while still living in Floss in the 1930’s. He had rolled it up and carried it with him to Venice, to Shanghai, to San Francisco and to New York. Somehow David Bloch hung on to that canvas. He only completed it in 1976, and when he first returned to Floss, he presented it to the town. It has hung in the Town Hall ever since. That canvas of David Bloch’s hometown had literally traveled around the world with him, as he sought a home. Now his children and grandchildren, all standing together, had seen it, and another journey was complete.
For our final stop, the Burgermeister led us to the unused Jewish cemetery, more than 400 old gravestones climbing a steep slope. We scrambled up to the very top row, where we found David Bloch’s small marker. Near it stood the grave of Simon Bloch, David Bloch’s father, for whom Gale and Dean’s first-born Simon is named. I honor Dean and Gale for their huge commitment and effort to connect their children with their Jewish past. I don’t know who the next person will be to visit that cemetery, or when, but we left stones on the graves to say, “we were here”. And that means the world to me: even though a huge swath of our people and our culture was obliterated, we Jews are still here to remember our dead and honor their lives. We are still here, filling that old synagogue with life. We Jews are still here.
Impressions of Prague
Prague is just a 2-hour drive from Floss, which lies near the Czech border, and I accompanied the Blochs and the Bocks for a couple of days of exploring this vibrant city. Prague is a wonder. As I begin this piece, it is early evening and I am sitting on an island in the middle of the Vltava River, looking out at the splendid, bustling city of Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. I have spent the day wandering through the city, taking in as many sights as I was able: the Prague Castle with its colossal St. Vitus cathedral, the Strahus Monastery with its 800 year old library; Petrin Park, a hilltop park created for the 1891 world exposition, replete with an Eiffel-esque tower, a house of mirrors, families strolling the paths and young lovers embracing on the lawns; the enormous medieval “astronomical clock” in the old main square, with its mechanical whirring figures and bells and crowing rooster all announcing the hour. Just now a rain shower has sent me under a café umbrella, where I seek refuge with other strollers. The sounds of a band playing Beatles’ covers on the far riverbank float past my ears. Around me spreads a cityscape covering the past millennium: castles and cathedrals, footbridges lined with baroque statues, spires and impossibly steep towers topped with flags, cobblestoned squares, and the “New Town”: grand 19th century Parisian streets and buildings punctuated by the curving façade of a Frank Gehry creation, all mingling in a glorious architectural cacophony.
My fundamental “American-ness” is showing: my only reference points for this sight are Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom and, more recently, Harry Potter movies. But Prague is not a theme park or a movie set; Prague is real. Somehow this great European city has survived fundamentally intact for 1,000 years, all the more remarkable after the massive destruction of two World Wars and then 40 years of Communist neglect. I understand that when Czech students toppled the Communist regime with their “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, Prague was in a state of terrible disrepair. But the coming of freedom unleashed a torrent of energy to repair and remake this amazing city, and today Prague stands clean and functioning and proud, catering to masses of tourists, young people and artists from all over the world who fill her streets and squares with energy day and night. How magnificent that Prague has survived.
Because Prague survived, its ancient Jewish Quarter survived as well, and this makes Prague a unique repository of European Jewish history. The survival of the Jewish Quarter is perverse: even though Hitler eliminated the Jews of Prague, whose history in this city also dates back 1,000 years, he apparently planned to preserve the Jewish Quarter as a museum, depicting the “History of The Extinct Jewish Race”. Jewish ceremonial objects that had been confiscated from all over Czechoslovakia were catalogued and stored in the now vacant synagogues, and thus survived the war. The Communist regime that followed certainly was not interested in highlighting the history of the Jews, but since 1989 the remaining Jews of the Czech Republic, with local and international help, have poured their resources into restoring the history and the architecture of the famed Jewish Quarter of Prague. The quarter is now a truly unique extended museum of Jewish history and life. Here one encounters the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Altneushul, in continual use since the 13th century. One walks through the Jewish cemetery, an impossible jumble of gravestones (it must be seen to be fully appreciated) where Jews were buried for centuries. Here one encounters the traces of the 16th century Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, leader of the Jewish community and reputed creator of the Golem, the clay creature brought to life by the Maharal’s esoteric wisdom, who is said to have protected the Jews of Prague. And here one walks in the footsteps of Franz Kafka, who spent most of his life in this Jewish Quarter, and is emblematic of the great intellectual and artistic impact the Czech Jews had during the late 19th and early 20th century heyday of Prague as the European center of the avant-garde. The Pinkas synagogue now stands as a memorial to the Czech Jewish victims of the Holocaust; the synagogue walls are everywhere covered with names, the names of every victim who has been identified. Upstairs in the Pinkas Synagogue is a heart-wrenching exhibit of the artwork of Jewish children made during their stay in Terezin. Terezin (also called Terezienstadt) was the “model” concentration camp near Prague that the Nazis created in order to show foreign visitors that the Jews were being treated well in captivity and were permitted to engage in educational and cultural pursuits. Most of the Jews of Czechoslovakia passed through Terezin on the way to their deaths. The Spanish synagogue and the Maisel synagogue are now museums of the history of the Jews of the region, from the 10th century to the present. The communal funeral building depicts in wonderful detail the work of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society that cared for the dead and maintained the cemetery through the centuries.
My visit was powerful, enlightening, and very moving – the Jewish Quarter is a treasure. Just as I felt in Floss, however, there is everywhere the deep sense of absence: the Jewish community being remembered is gone, destroyed. What can we say? Words simply cannot encompass the tragedy. But the act of remembering these Jewish communities is an act of survival and healing. As we Jews refuse to sacrifice our past to the monstrous forces of obliteration, we retain the threads of connection that keep our culture alive. I cherish the Jewish commitment to remembering and passing on our story. Ever since the Torah commanded us, “And when your child asks you, ‘what is the meaning of this Passover ritual’, you shall tell them how we were rescued from slavery in Egypt”, we Jews have been committed to transmitting our collective memory from generation to generation. This commitment can be obsessive at times, and a burden as well, but it is our affirmation of the life of our people, a life that is worth preserving and passing on.
Because of that stubborn commitment of ours, the Jewish Quarter of Prague that Hitler intended to be a museum of the “History of The Extinct Jewish Race” is instead our museum, a museum of the living memories of the Jewish People. I hope each of you has the opportunity to visit one day.
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler