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Invited to speak, I was very reluctant to go to Germany
We had been invited to participate in the International Federation of Dentistry’s meeting to be held in Berlin. I did not want to go. I do not hold present day Germans responsible for what the Nazis did, but I continue to this day to be repulsed by the destruction of so many millions of people during the Nazi era. I know I should “get over it”, but so far, I cannot.
Ultimately I accepted the offer to go to the conference, and we flew to Berlin. We stayed in a spectacular hotel along the Kurfurstendamm, a hotel that became the model for all handicapped/accessible hotels to be built in Europe.
Remnant of the Wall in Berlin, Germany
The wall had been torn down in 1989, just before our visit, and we were able to wander past Checkpoint Charlie into what had been East Germany. Starting at the Reichstag, we crossed the river into East Berlin walking along until we came to the Jewish quarter of the old city.
Unlike the rest of the city, the Old Jewish Quarter had not been restored, save for the original synagogue.
There were a number of homes along “Main Street” which were relatively intact. The roofs on the 3 story structures were all gone, long ago destroyed by Allied bomber raids over Berlin. At about the level of the second story, the exterior walls were pock marked with hits from mortar and tank shells. At street level, you could easily see the effects of small arms fire, the pock marks being quite small and distinct.
And then, we were at the entrance of the New Synagogue.
When the New Synagogue opened in Berlin in 1866, it was the largest religious meeting place for Jews in the city. It was big enough to hold 3200 worshipers, an extraordinary number, considering the history of Jews in Europe throughout the ages.
The New Synagogue was spared the devastation that most Jewish-owned buildings experienced during the Kristallnacht pogrom – the “Night of Broken Glass” on November 9, 1938, but it was severely bombed during World War II. Just the two main buildings facing the street survived intact, though scarred. When we saw it, reconstruction had begun, but it would not be re- opened until 1995. An armed guard stood at the entrance, protecting the building from attack by modern “skin heads” and others who were outraged to see the resurrection of this symbol of Judaism in Germany.
As we stood there, in the center of what had been the heart of Jewish culture prior to the rise of Hitler, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me if, instead of being a little Jewish boy in Silver Spring, Maryland, I had been a little Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.
“Well”, I thought, “little boys are small. I could easily have hidden away. Little boys are fast, and I could have run away and escaped.”
Then reality set in. With the Reichstag but a few hundred meters to the right, and the SS Headquarters but a few hundred meters to the left, I would not have escaped. I would have been murdered on the spot- or killed in one of the death camps.
The wonder is that any Jews at all made it out of Germany alive...
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