Dr Judith Guedalia

Od Avinu Chai - Revisiting Germany
"Germany," she shouted, as if I could have heard her here in Jerusalem through the open window. "The line is awful tonight, I thought I heard you say you are going to Germany."  I told her that she had heard correctly.
            My paternal grandfather, z"l, was born in Germany and left for England and then the U.S. before WWI.  His wife, my grandmother, was born in the States (120 or so years ago).  My maternal grandfather was from Germany as well.  According to family lore, he met my maternal grandmother, who was a registered nurse in the Jewish Hospital in Holland, on a train in Holland and my mother was born and educated in Amsterdam until they immigrated to Canada, just before WWII broke out.  As a matter of fact, they arrived in Southampton, England to meet the boat just as the German's invaded Holland.  So, my childhood experiences of the Shoah are very different from most of the Jews I know. (As an aside, my husband's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all American born, many of them were Spanish and Portuguese and not Ashkenazi). 
I bring this whole personal "megillah" to explain a few things before telling you about the big trip to Germany.   First, I will be using a "Nom de Plume" for my maiden name, and that of the town from where my grandfather hailed.  Second, it's important to understand that I grew up seeing and hearing native German people, be they Jewish or not (my Dad had German clients) and being a very curious kid I learned to understand and speak it,  (albeit a not very grammatical version).
About six months ago, I received an email from a very distant cousin (let's call him Nathan).  Nathan's Mom, z"l, was my grandfather's first cousin and since the late 1940s, he and has family have lived in San Francisco.  He called to tell me that the city of Roteheim (remember, this is not the town's real name) had invited him and his (our) family, who were the only Jews of the town, to attend a special occasion.  It seems the town had decided to name a Platz (Plaza) in memory of our ancestor (his great grandfather and my great-great-grandfather's father) Heinrich Roteheim (not his real name).  I immediately said, "count me in." 
Cousin Nathan had been born in the family "haus," which had been inhabited by the only Jewish family in the town since 1597; the Jewish cemetery (Aisbach-Bickenbach) dates from 1300.  He grew up and went to elementary school there, leaving only when his father, an engineer by education and trade, was "let go" from his job because of nazi (I won't capitalize this word) rules.  Nathan, a brother and their parents were in Auschwitz; the eldest brother escaped to Palestine.  Though he and his parents survived the concentration camp, his brother was killed.  The eldest brother, who went to Israel, joined the army and was killed in service to our country.  After the war, Nathan, and his parents went to Holland, then France, before finally settling in the U.S. 
The fact that Nathan, who is now a spry 82 years old, returns to Germany regularly to see old friends (most of whom are not Jewish) and give lectures for teens on his experience as a young child in the Holocaust, was a definite incentive to go on this trip.  We were being hosted by the Bürgermeister of the city.  You see, our ancestors had been very involved in the Jewish Community, and as it grew, over hundreds of years remained so. Cousin Nathan waxed poetic about the parsimonious locals hosting us, and how they seemed to be ganz bauch-gepinzeled about our coming.  (Ganz bauch-gepinzeled was one of my Dad's favorite German descriptions.  It means being pleased with oneself - its literal translation is belly scratched, a behavior seen in "very pleased" monkeys). I told him, we were excited to be coming but to remember we wouldn't be eating anything our hosts prepared.  "What about the Weisse Spargel and fresh strawberries, one cannot visit Germany in this season and do without?" he practically cried.
And so along with the clothes, paper plates, plastic flatware, aluminum foil, and the vacuum-packed tuna, we packed the Asparagus Cooker I had ordered from Amazon.com.   

My attitude about international travel is that Hashem did not give us mitzvot that cannot be adhered to under all circumstances and that in all places in His world, planning and strategizing is the key.
We arrived at the airport, rented a car and drove to Worms, a city near the "home-town."  My sister and her husband met us there, rounding out the Kosher Israeli Family.  We went to Rashi's Beis Medrash and shul, and saw the mikveh, which was filled by a natural underground well.  We visited the cemetery with graves dating back from 1011 among them HaRav Meir, the Maharam of Rothenburg (c. 1215 - 2 May 1293).  Rav Meir, was a German rabbi, poet, and a major author of the tosafot on Rashi's commentary of the TalmudHe was kidnapped and held for ransom, in about 1286, during the time of King Rudolf I.  There had been an edict instituted to persecute the Jews and use them as cash reserves.  Tradition has it that the amount of 23,000 marks silver was raised, by the Rosh, to ransom him, but Rav Meir refused, fearing it would encourage the imprisonment of other rabbis. He died in prison having been held captive for seven years. Fourteen years after his death, a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Shlomo (Susskind) Wimpfen, who was subsequently laid to rest in Worms beside him.
Coming from Israel where we can date cities and artifacts to the time of our forefathers, experiencing "sensate" history is not a big deal.  However, for those of us who came from America, first inhabited by Jews in 1654, being able to visit the headstone of a gadol from 1293 was indeed a special zechut.
 On the day the Platz was to be named, we gathered at 9:45 (pünktlich), for the 10:00 a.m. beginning.  The Bürgermeister spoke for the city and Nathan spoke for the family, all in German.  Both my sister and I were amazed how much we understood.  
Interestingly, when discussing the destruction of the town's synagogue, the word geschichte was used, as in the town's synagogue was destroyed at the beginning of the geschichte on the Night of the Broken Glass.  The word does mean history, but we knew it also means yarn or tale, as in admonishing a child by saying: "I don't want to hear about your geschichte; you need to go to bed NOW!"  Psychologically speaking, this double entendre may be an example of the subtle attempts of "distancing" the Germans from the events of the war, used by the Germans. 
From the Platz naming we took a short walk to our mutual "homestead."  It is used today as a women and children's clinic of the Heiliger Geist (Holy Ghost) Hospital - the nomenclature has its own black humor!
The paid-for-by-the-city lunch was next. The quaint manor house in which it was to be held had been set up for komish (odd) me.  I had spoken to them previously and emailed them a picture of my new Spargel (asparagus) pot. My sister was staying in the manor house; so all the paper goods and stuff we needed were readily available in her room.  One of the gentile guests whispered to my sister, "This is a restaurant, you don't have to cook or clean," but we just did our thing with the spargel and had fresh strawberries for dessert!!

From there we went to the cemetery where our family is buried and were admitted by the man-who-has-the-key (on a previous visit almost 37 years ago, my husband the kids and I climbed over the fence!).  Our families are Kohanim and as such are buried around the periphery of cemeteries so that they can be 'visited' without their family members getting too near.  The oldest graves were from 1300.  My husband said a Hashkaba (Sephardi version of prayer for the dead) at the gates before we washed our hands with water from a nearby spargel stand, where we bought a kilo of (raw) weisse spargel to bring home to my mom.  


In a nearby town we visited a small quaint one-room synagogue.  It seems as though the shul was in use over 150 years ago.  Its remains were found in the early 1990s during the construction of an office building, and the city spent thousands of dollars reconstructing it.  There is a balcony for women, and chairs were set up in front of a lectern.  As it turned out, that night at 8 p.m. there was to be a monthly lecture on "The Jewish Ritual of Mikveh."
Of course we went.  The local priest and the head of the Education Department welcomed us; we were old friends, having met in the morning at the Platz naming ceremony.  What was AMAZING was that the audience, who was seated by 7:45 (!), numbered close to 60!  The lecture was all in German with the gentile professor showing slides he took at Masada and other more modern mikveh locations (such as Frankfort) using many citations in Hebrew from the Torah, Mishnah and Shulchan Aruch!  He noted that the main source of a mikveh is Mayim Chayim-Living Water.  He went on to say that if they leave just having learned that there is a difference between sauber (clean) and rein (clean/pure) then he taught them a lot. 
Of course I had to speak up at the end!  I thanked them all for the day and said that just like the like the Living Water, which as the wonderful professor demonstrated, is in use today all around the world, the city and this lecture brought to life my family in a very 'living' fashion. 

In the morning we went back to our REAL home, Eretz Yisrael.


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