This year for Tu B’Shvat, I want to write about a different kind of tree. This is a tree you cannot see with your eyes, but you can feel it in your soul. It’s a root system with fruit that you can’t eat, but you can taste it mamash.
I want to refer to a special kind of a tree that I recently found, but not in Israel. I found this tree in Germany.
I am one of three siblings, and our mother was born in Germany. Our grandparents escaped from there by the skin of their teeth and made it out into the Midwesternhinterlands of the U.S. of A. We grew up with stories about Germany, about relatives who made it out, and about relatives who were forced to stay. About what it was like to live as practically the only Jews in the small village of Rupertsofen near the Rhine, in “Riesling Country;” and how our grandfather “Opa” – a cattle-dealer by trade – was “beat up by the Nazis” (we noticed his black eye in an old engagement picture), how he was run off the road when riding his motorcycle (we noticed his limp and that one shoe was a little bigger than the other), and how their house’s windows were stoned by locals.
They fled their village, in which their family had been living for hundreds of years, and hid among the masses in Frankfurt. Meanwhile they applied for immigration to the USA, and soon they were sailing past the Statue of Liberty on the USS Washington. Lucky for them, they had relatives in northern Missouri who had fled Germany a few years beforehand. Mom was 6 years old. She remembered nothing of Germany, but when she arrived without any change of clothes in a small rural community, her new non-Jewishneighbors – who weren’t much more well-off but at least had more clothes – lent her their own. What a welcome change of neighbors.
But some relatives weren’t so lucky. They got stuck. And they got murdered. So saying the word “Germany” in our household was not like saying “Argentina” or “Senegal.” It was a word with a lot of baggage.
After the war, our grandparents were offered a trip back to Germany by the German government. They wanted to go back and visit their relatives’ graves. But they refused to spend even one night in Germany. They stayed in Switzerland and took a cab. When they got to Rupertsofen, only Opa got out of the cab; Oma stayed inside by choice. Opa stood in front of his old house and just gazed at it. Suddenly, a neighbor came out of the house, noticed our grandfather, and walked up to him. With much pathos, he said to the
visitor: “Milan, Milan! We had no idea! We had no idea!” Opa was so disgusted that he turned around, got back into the cab, and they went straight back to Switzerland. And that was the end of that. My mom? She refused to even *set foot* in Germany.
So after hearing all that while growing up, what was I supposed to think? What was my connection to Germany supposed to be? For years, I followed in the footsteps of my mother. I wanted nothing to do with Germany or anything German. I would not even think of visiting there. And I decided not to buy any German products (that’s right, Sarah S.).
But then, over time, a few things changed. My grandparents died. My mother passed away, too. And then the War in Lebanon broke out in 2006. Because of various IDF snafus, we were left with almost no food and water. And it was summer. We foraged,we improvised, we rationed, we made do with little. But ten days is a long time to do that when you’re under pressure. You need fuel! Our staff sergeant, still back in Israel, went to various food factories and shnorred. That’s right, he asked for handouts. Some places were nicer than others, but we couldn’t get what we needed. Finally, one factory came through with a vitally important product: energy bars! It turns out that the most popular energy bar in Germany is called “Corny” and they have a site in Israel for local distribution. They were the first people to give our sergeant what we needed. The problem was getting to us in our rabbit holes over the border. But it happened.
Partly in armored vehicles, and partly by parachute, we got what we needed. And soon, we were snarfing down Corny energy bars in Lebanon as if there was no tomorrow (there wasn’t), and you could tell the difference immediately. Energy bars can give you energy! (especially if they’re covered with chocolate.) They saved our unit. Yes, the Germans saved the IDF. This little bit of irony did not go unnoticed among us. But when the war was over, things had changed; and so had I. I rethought a lot of things in my life, and one of them was my behavior towards things German. Not just candy bars. And not just merchandise.
Later, things changed even more. My sister, while searching the internet for traces of our family that were left behind in Rupertsofen, found new information. The name of Opa’s brother, whom we knew died at the hands of the Nazis, was mentioned on the web. We found when and how his family was taken, to what ghetto, and when they were shot. Remembrance Pages were filled out and filed with Yad Vashem. Then, in a freak happenstance, she made a most amazing discovery: a women from Rupertsofen, along with the local priest, did research into the history of the local Jewish community, and posted their well-researched essay in German on the web. It was called: “Living with Milan and Sarah: The Jews of Rupertsofen.”
This fascinating piece of research told how Jews began to settle in the area centuries beforehand, what they were allowed and forbidden to do, the taxes they were forced to pay, the discrimination and violence they were forced to deal with, etc. At the center of this essay was…us! The family of our own Opa, the Blumenthals. Milan…was our Opa!
We discovered things we never knew. And it was all meticulously documented, which the Germans do well. Our great-great-grandfather built the synagogue of Rupertsofen in 1860. Wow! There were actual *conversations* recorded between the Jewish cattledealers of Rupertsofen and their clients. The events of Kristalnacht were recorded. A description of Shabbat in Opa’s home is given in great detail. The epitaphs from the local Jewish cemetery were recorded. And also, a sentence recorded by a non-Jewish resident of the village stated: “When the Nazi regime came, Brigitte, Milan’s daughter, stood in the archway and cried, because she could not understand why she was not allowed to go to the other children’s homes to play.” Hey, that’s our Mom you’re writing about there! We had discovered…ourselves.
By email and phone, the elderly woman – a retired teacher – and the friendly priest, were contacted. They are both knowledgeable in all things Jewish. The priest, it turns out, spent years living and studying in Jerusalem, and speaks beautiful Hebrew! A few months later, a tour group from that area of the Rhine Valley came to visit Israel thanks to his suggestion. We met them and asked questions and heard stories and exchanged gifts. They sang for us the famous song written by Heinriche Heine about the local claim-to-fame: The Lorelei.
And then, just now, our American nephew finished a college semester abroad in Berlin. His dad – our brother – decided that this would be the ideal time for a visit to Rupertsofen. He officially called for A Jewish Heritage Family Roots Exploration to the Old Country. What was unthinkable years ago had become something actually conceivable. I felt in my heart that I must go. I must see these things with my own eyes.
I want to see where my ancestors built a synagogue, even if it doesn’t exist anymore. I want to say Kaddish at my ancestors’ graves. I want to record it all for any future generations that will one day want to know: “Where am I from? What are my roots? What is my story?”
For this is the most basic part of our Judaism: Our roots. The chain. The continuity of the Jewish People since our inception.
No matter how long or how short our personal family chain may be, it belongs to us in the most steadfast of ways. And nobody, not even Nazis or terrorists, can take it away.
So we went. It was like a dream. I woke up and there I was, in Germany. It was winter, the ground was covered with snow. Everything was dead. I saw the forests and I thought of the Jews who had to hide there in sub-freezing temperature. I saw the train stations and I thought of the deportations. I thought of how lucky we are to live now and not then. To live here and not there. In a greater historical context, we are one lucky generation!
We drove to Rupertsofen. We got out of the car. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in the village of my ancestors. I must say that it was one of the most moving and exciting days of my life. It was sad, too. But it was soul-shaking. We met two amazing “Righteous Gentiles,” Ellen the retired school teacher and author, and Michael the priest. What warm, loving people! They spent the entire day with us, showing us ancient records and buildings that connected us to our ancestors. I hugged them both and I just burst into tears. I don’t really know why; and I’ve never really cried like that before.
Inside of those tears was a lot of energy: thousands of years- and millions of Jewsworth. There was pain in those tears, but there was also a lot of love. Look what has happened! Within the period of some seventy years, instead of persecuting and humiliating and killing us, they are helping us learn about our own heritage! I thought about my own attitude towards minorities in Israel (i.e., Jews from Ethiopia, the Haredi community, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, the LGBT community, Bedouin, Druze, Circassians, Armenians, etc.). I know I need to constantly heighten my sensitivity to peoples’ needs, and that as a “majority community,” we can always improve ourselves;but I did feel proud that in general, and under the circumstances, I have seen with my own eyes how many Israelis, and the IDF in particular, are sensitive to the needs of minorities (unless their lives are in imminent danger).
We met the mayor, and a local journalist who came to cover the visit. We walked the streets of the small village. We stood at the site of our ancestors’ synagogue. We stood outside our ancestral home, just like Opa did after the war. We went to the cemetery, lit candles, and said Kaddish. We went to the church, and I wondered: what message did the local religious leaders spread to the masses here in the late 1930’s?
While we were there, a man walked in and said that he was mayor, too, and heard we were there visiting. Two mayors? It seems that they were two people in charge of various areas. No matter. He stood and spoke to us in German, which was translated to us: “We welcome you here. We invite you to come back. After all, you belong here. Your children and our children used to play together.” What? What was he saying? It sounded so political, so…fake. And it wasn’t true. Our mom, after all, stood in the archway and cried because they decided that Jewish kids weren’t worthy of being played with anymore. I was disgusted by his words, as were all the others, too –including the Germans present. I thought of Opa, who heard the same things when he came back after the war.
But we acted politely and waited for the man to finish his little speech and leave. Then we made our own little Family Statement in the village of our ancestors. We went upstairs to the organ, our musical brother sat down to play, and we rocked that church with Jewish songs, the likes of which they ain’t heard in all the Rhineland since the Crusades. And when we finished with a rousing chorus of Adon Olam – with Michael the priest leading us in his perfect Hebrew (!) – I thought: “Opa, this one’s for you.”
The thoughts kept streaming like the Rhine itself: “We came back here for you. And for Oma, and for Mom. And for all the relatives who didn’t make it out of here. But most of all, we came back for us. We need this. We need this for our identity. To know who we are, to know where we came from, and specially to know where we’re going. And we’re going to continue the chain.”
Germany seemed the exact opposite of Israel. And winter in Germany seemed the opposite of Tu B’Shvat: the holiday when the first sap starts flowing in the veins of the trees of the Land of Israel, when the first almond trees bloom. I looked around at the countryside in Germany and everything was dead. Frozen dead. And this is the real difference between our lands and our spirituality: For us, winter means rain and rain means life, plants poke their heads out of the ground, and almond trees start to bloom in Israel now. It is the basic formula one needs to know by heart, in order to truly understand our land, our traditions, our holidays. Winter is not the time to hibernate; it’s the time to come alive!
I highly recommend: make a trip at least once in life to explore and hunt-down family roots. It can rock you to the roots of your soul. Because this is our Jewish tree connection at its best: we Jews ARE trees. We all have roots, deep roots, meaningful roots, going back thousands of years. But we must know them, we must learn them, we must pass them down. So do not tarry: sit your grandparents down and grill them for every family tidbit, story, picture or heirloom they’ve ever come across. Record it. Surf the net or hire a genealogist and find where you’re from and why your name is your name. Map out the path of your family. Do it, not just for your ancestors or even yourselves; do it for the next generation. They will thank you for it, even if you won’t be around to hear it.
We have a saying in Judaism that is based on a verse in the Torah; it can be asked as a question or made as a statement: “For is a human being a tree of the field?” or “For a human being is a tree of the field!”
I implore us all to turn that question mark into an exclamation point; and what better time to start, than the birthday of the trees in Israel?!
Tu B’Shvat Sameach,