In the tiny German village where she grew up, Rivka Weinstein was known as Cathrin. She played in the meadows and prayed in a church.
She knew next to nothing of the rhythms and rituals of the Jewish calendar, “the thread of Judaism that [now] weaves through her entire life.” A calendar that includes Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked earlier this week.
Rivka, as you might guess, has a complex relationship with the Holocaust.
A 43-year-old physician who lives in New Jersey, Rivka converted to Judaism six years ago under the guidance of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald. As a Jewish woman, she has adopted the custom of participating in Yizkor services to mourn those who perished in the Holocaust. But, she says, because she’s also German, she believes she should bear the burden of the Nazis’ legacy. “A lot of people in Germany are tired of being heirs to the monsters who committed the crimes. This bothers me a great deal,” says Rivka.
“I feel kind of schizophrenic at times,” she says.
Jews-from-birth like myself can learn a lot not just about identity, but also about history, from speaking with Jews-by-choice such as Rivka, as well as women like her, such as Tzofiak Gabay, a Philadelphia lawyer who grew up in Munich, and Rabbi Heidi Hoover, an American of German descent, who is also the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek in Brooklyn. All mothers in their early 40s, all deeply committed to Judaism, all descend from families that in one way or another included members who served as silent witnesses to the agony of the Jewish community in their midst.
And yet, speaking with these women, who are perhaps best suited to view history through the lens of both Jews and Germans, one can’t help but feel some empathy with the plight of ordinary Germans living in the 1930s and ‘40s. One can’t help but consider the deaths of young men drafted into the army against their desire; of twin babies lost to dysentery; and of a single mother raising three young children on fried potatoes and bowls of thistles.
That mother, Rabbi Heidi’s grandmother, told Heidi of the occasion when an SS member knocked on her door, searching for a certain Dr. Myer. Heidi’s grandmother knew a Jewish family in town by the name of Myer, but they ran a textile factory, not a doctor’s office. She told the soldier, “I don’t know where Dr. Myer is.”
“It would have been nice to have something better,” says Rabbi Heidi, “but if I’d had something better I might not be here.”
The older I get, the closer the events of the Shoah seem. In middle-age, I can easily wrap my mind around the passage of a decade, more clearly imagine the period when my grandparents were young adults, a time that is past but not distant. This year, researchers documented a more elaborate network of camps and ghettos than had been known to exist, so vast it shocked even Holocaust scholars. The ubiquity of the horrors would seem to further implicate ordinary Germans.
But speaking with Rivka and Tzofiak — who say that unlike a younger generation of Germans born in the 1980s and later, they were raised to bear guilt and assume responsibility — I’m not so sure I could do better.
In her teens and 20s, Tzofiak, who is now 43, identified herself with the German pacifist resistance. She went to a school called Sophie Scholl, named after a young woman who distributed leaflets that defamed Hitler. As a young adult, Tzofiak was certain she would have stood by Sophie’s side.
Protest could work under the Nazi regime, Tzofiak says. She noted, for example, that for at least a week in February 1943, hundreds of gentile women stood vigil on Rosenstrasse, a Berlin thoroughfare, demanding the return of their Jewish husbands. Though the SS fired, the women stayed put. The group grew larger, louder. The women “got their husbands back,” says Tsofiak. “In this case, it worked. It raised a lot of bad publicity.”
Scholl was less lucky. In the same month as the Rosenstrasse demonstration, Scholl, then 21, calmly walked to her execution.
Now that Tsofiak is a mother, she’s less certain of herself. She wonders: “Would I risk my children’s lives? Would I hide someone? I hope I would do that. I hope I would be able to overcome my fear.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.