Leipzig was a flourishing German city before World War II. In 1964, as part of communist East Germany, it was a desolate place, bomb damage still not repaired, store shelves bare and streets dimly lit. It was not a tourist destination.
But in September of that year — exactly 50 years ago this Rosh HaShanah — I was eager to go there. I was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, based in the West German capital of Bonn. In those days, at the height of the Cold War, it was very difficult for a Western correspondent to get into East Germany, except for East Berlin (which was covered by a four-power agreement). I had made one weeklong trip around the country, but it had taken seven months to obtain permission and I had to stipulate where I wanted to go and what kinds of people I wanted to talk to. An American colleague traveling with me and I were accompanied everywhere by a tall, blonde rather-taciturn woman we presumed to be an agent of the Stasi, the East German secret service.
Twice a year, though, the East Germans conducted the Leipzig Fair, a mostly industrial exhibition of products made in that country and other Soviet satellites. Before the war, the fair had served as a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, and the communist government was trying to recapture that status and attract Western business. So it allowed Western journalists to visit there without too much difficulty. Many of us seized the opportunity, mostly for an opportunity to get a glimpse behind that part of the Iron Curtain rather than to report on the fair.
That September the fair fell over Rosh HaShanah. I flew to West Berlin the day before, attended services there early the next morning and then crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie to catch the end of a sparsely attended service held in an improvised synagogue in the basement of an apartment building. That afternoon I rented a car and drove two hours to Leipzig. With some difficulty, I located a synagogue on an out-of-the-way side street. It was a rather nondescript building, which, I learned, the Nazis had turned into a stable to desecrate it. The East Germans, in one of the few good things they ever did, had restored it, perhaps to impress Western visitors to the fair.
When I arrived the second day of Rosh HaShanah, the service was in progress — without a minyan. I was the ninth male (a handful of women sitting in the balcony weren’t counted), and I was greeted warmly and given an aliyah. By the time the service was over, there were three others who had also come for the fair, a Belgian and two West Germans.
As I leafed through the worn machzor I was handed, I came across the traditional prayer said for the welfare of the nation’s leaders. I was familiar with the one we said at home for the president and other American officials. This one was different. It named Emperor Franz Josef, Empress Eugenie and Crown Prince Rudolf (he of later Mayerling fame). I turned to the front of the book to see the publication date. It was 1858, in Vienna.
Wow, I thought. Here I am, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, sitting in a shul in communist East Germany reading from a machzor published more than a century before in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Following the service, I thanked the man acting as shammes for the aliyah he had given me. My German was limited, but I was amazed by the story he told me.
“I’m not German,” he said. “I’m a Pole.”
“If you’re a Pole,” I said in disbelief, “what are you doing in this dismal part of Germany?”
The entire experience was surreal enough. But his reply sent a shiver through me. “During the war,” he said, “I commanded a group of Polish partisans. We hid in the forests. But when the war was over, my men tried to shoot me — because I was a Jew — so I fled to Germany for safety.”
Myron Kandel was the New York Herald Tribune’s correspondent in Germany in 1963-’64. He later spent 25 years as financial editor and economic commentator for CNN. He currently conducts a series of discussions titled “More than Money with Myron Kandel” at the JCC of Manhattan.