Sacred Task

Sacred Task

On the morning after Kristallnacht, 8-year-old Alfred Gottschalk walked with his grandfather, Gustav Gerson, to the Oberwesel synagogue. The building, located near Germans’ homes in the Rhineland village, had escaped the fires that destroyed thousands of Jewish sites in Germany and Austria the night of Nov. 9, 1938. Instead, it was trashed and tarred.

Gerson, a lay leader of the synagogue, collected the Torah scroll fragments that lay on the floor and in the nearby river. He handed them to young Alfred. “One day,” Gerson declared, “you’ll put them together again.”

The holy scraps of parchment disappeared with Gerson, who died of natural causes before the Holocaust. And the memory of Kristallnacht was forgotten by his grandson, who immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1939 and grew up in Brooklyn.

“I had suppressed it,” says Rabbi Gottschalk, former president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who recently was appointed president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Manhattan.

Rabbi Gottschalk succeeds David Altshuler, who has resigned to become president of the United Jewish Communities’ newly formed foundation.

At 69, five years after he left the presidency of HUC to become the Reform seminary’s chancellor, the rabbi assumes responsibility for the 2 2-year-old institution in Battery Park City that has become one of the city’s most-visible Jewish presences.

More than 300,000 people, including some 35,000 schoolchildren, have toured the museum, which lies across the Hudson River from Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

“It’s a challenge. I’m challenged by things that haven’t been done,” says Rabbi Gottschalk, who lists the admission of women into the rabbinical ordination program, and the establishment of a campus in Jerusalem and of a school for Jewish communal service at the Los Angeles campus among his accomplishments at HUC.

At the museum his first priority will be the new “East Wing,” a $45 million extension that will house expanded space for exhibitions and educational activities.

Announcement of the expansion, whose costs are to be split by the city and privately raised donations, comes 10 months after a dispute between City Hall and Albany over the source of the government funds.

As the museum’s top professional, Rabbi Gottschalk will be in charge of planning its philosophical course, educational programs, and fund raising. He will not be day-to-day administrator of the institution; another person will be hired to do that.

The rabbi, who will move to New York from Cincinnati with his wife Deanne, has announced that he will serve a maximum of five years.

“I’m in good health,” he says.

His appointment is effective on Jan. 1, the date that a long-postponed sabbatical from HUC — for writing, lecturing and travelling — was to begin. His new job means a sabbatical from his sabbatical.

“One of the things that intrigued me was the opportunity to build a new Jewish educational center,” says the rabbi, who was ordained by HUC and received a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

It is too early to discuss details about the museum’s educational center, construction on which is to start in a year, or about anticipated changes at the museum, he says.

Rabbi Gottschalk says the offer to head the museum came “totally out of the blue.” He was approached a month ago by Robert Morgenthau, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, and other board members.

“Number one, he’s a survivor,” Morgenthau says. “He’s got a very moving story. He’s a real scholar. He’s run a big institution. He’s a wonderful human being. He seemed like the ideal guy.

“He’s going to stabilize the present and enlarge the future,” Morgenthau said.

“I though about it,” Rabbi Gottschalk says. “I talked about it with my wife.”

He accepted the job, he says, as “a sacred task. My generation [of Holocaust survivors and refugees] is the last generation of witnesses. We need to provide for the future … for continuation of the memory.”

As for his suppressed memory of Kristallnacht…In 1970 he was preparing a speech to deliver for inauguration as HUC president. His son, Marc Hillel, prodded him to mention the events that shaped his life — including Kristallnacht.

“I didn’t remember it until then,” the rabbi says. “I’m sure there are other memories I had blotted out,” a common phenomenon among Holocaust survivors and refugees. Finally, the memories came back. “It took a while.”

Oberwesel was the site of a blood libel — accusations that Jews had ritually murdered a young Christian boy named Werner — in the Middle Ages, Rabbi Gottschalk says. “It was a quiet town — except on Werner’s Day, when my friends used to beat me up.”

On the night of Nov. 9, 1938, his family’s erstwhile neighbors were “howling at the door. They pounded. They shouted obscenities.”

Though Alfred and his parents found refuge in the United States, “virtually all” of his extended family died in the Holocaust.

With a strengthened Holocaust consciousness after 1970, Rabbi Gottschalk helped organize a Holocaust course at HUC, was appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and attended the first planning meeting for the museum he will soon head.

“I’m a generalist in the field,” Rabbi Gottschalk said. An expert on Ahad Ha’am, an 19th-century Zionist thinker, the rabbi says he has embarked on personal study to increase his knowledge of the Holocaust era.

His work at the museum, he said, is a way to obey the command made 61 years ago. “I’m still putting the pieces together for my grandfather.”

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