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Strangers on a Train in Germany

Strangers on a Train in Germany

Who was this kippah-clad, non-Jewish looking German sitting across from me?


Frankfurt, Germany is closed down on Christmas, and I took the opportunity to visit Heidelberg, an hour away by rail. I walked through the train looking for a window seat where, guidebooks in hand, I could follow all the storied towns along the way. My eyes fell upon a young man wearing a black skullcap. An Orthodox Jew, I thought. Despite the pallid face of a yeshiva bocher, and the yarmulke clasped to his hair in traditional style, there was something troubling about the identification.

“Funny, you don't look Jewish.” The punch line from a joke about Chinese Hebrews tickled my mind. The face looked German and the hair in careful, casual wisps gently falling over the forehead suggested mod or punk rock.

But it was worth a try. I sat down facing the lad, who now looked as if he were in his early 20s. I don't know what made me so bold, but I started up immediately, and in Hebrew, “Ata Yehudi?'' (“Are you a Jew?'')

Kehn, ve-ata?'' (“Yes, and you?'')

We established contact immediately. And a good thing, too, because he was getting off at Darmstadt, the first stop. I felt an urgent need to extract information. After visits to Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, I had to know what another Jew was doing in this land drenched with the blood of 6 million Jews.

“That's a serious question,'' the young man sighed deeply. “When I finish at the university in two years, I will have to decide whether I can continue to live in this country.''

He was born in Germany and had lived there all his life except for two years of study in Israel. He was living in West Berlin and working for a degree in sociology.

Yes, he acknowledged, opportunities for intense study in Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew are meager in West Berlin - none at the university. But he manages, he smiled, pointing to a sacred text he was carrying.

I needed to know more, and time was almost up. I felt inept and frustrated, unable to ask the right question.

“Isn't Darmstadt where the famous 15th-century manuscript of the Haggadah comes from?'' I asked, hoping that the question would somehow find the mark.

“Yes,'' he said, “and I believe that they keep it under glass in the rare book section of the Landesbibliothek. But, of course, the museum is closed today on account of Christmas.''

I took that as confirmation that nothing remained of the illustrious Jewish community that lived in the town for 500 years. Why ask particulars as to how the Nazis methodically hunted down and exterminated Jews even in the smallest of hamlets under their control?

We spoke intensely; we had a lot to cover in a short time. His parents, too, were born in Germany and spent the war years in Berlin.

I was preparing to hear another tale of how they were not recognized as Jews because they didn't look Jewish. That had been the story of the man in Warsaw who showed me around the ghetto on my recent trip to Poland.

Looking at the boy facing me on the train, I could believe that of his parents. Or were they hidden by some righteous gentile who was subsequently honored for bravery by Yad Vashem, the institution in Jerusalem devoted to the Holocaust? But he volunteered nothing, letting me dangle with the empty excitement of an overheated imagination.

The train was slowing down now and time was running out. Had I missed every clue? Calm down, I whispered to myself; not every Jew in Germany has a saga. He bent down to put his books into his bag, and the black skullcap now confronted me as a blatant proclamation of his orthodoxy. Why that suggested to me the key question, I cannot imagine, but I blurted it out.

“How do your parents react to your piety?''

“Badly,'' he said with a wan smile as he buttoned his coat. “They are very hostile.'' He spared me the final question. The train stopped; we had reached Darmstadt. He turned to go and paused only to add, “They were Nazis and are bitter anti-Semites. I converted to Judaism,'' which he repeated in English as if he was not sure of the Hebrew word.

“They never forgave me. I am going home to visit them on Christmas.''

This article originally appeared in 1987 in the Christian Science Monitor.

June 21, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 21

(16) Anonymous, June 27, 2014 9:56 AM

Fascinating and food for thought

Thank you for the excellent article. I find the comments encouraging, albeit the reality for converts in Germany - so my observation - is actually rather different: most "born " Jews do not accept converst per se, so that many people who convert "hide" this status. Provided the conversion is sincere - and one ought to trust the Beth Din and not constantly sit "in judgement" of people who have converted (in my opinion, post conversion, they should not be constantly reminded of this status). Is it the insecurity about the own Jewish identity esp lack of knowledge and of halacha (commandment to love the convert) that causes too often Jews in Germany to be so racist? I witnessed how born Jews chased an asian convert out of shul, threatening to call police. Not nice.

(15) Anonymous, June 26, 2014 6:58 AM


And then my grandfather was in Russia some years later. He had asked his father where to go, SS or Wehrmacht. His father told him, better the Wehrmacht, NOT SS. Many of my siplings where at SS. Often young ones. They thought, it was a Ehre to be a member of them. So one of my grandaunts told me. And she had tears in her eyes, when she told me, what they had to sing in School, when a jewish man wandered under the window of the classroom.And another man told me, he was from schlesia, and came later to my Country, that in this area every Family is "jüdisch versippt"... I wondered how nowadays somebody is able to think this way. After THIS history. But many younger people think this way too.
I feel sometimes, that it is NOT over. If you show you have nothing against Israel and jewish people, some people look, speak and/or act aggressive. Sometimes I have then a wish to tell I´m jewish (I´m not), to make them shut up their mouth. In my younger times, somebody I know thought about wearing "Schabbes-Locken", just as reaction of those behaviour of his own family.
One of my friends told me, her aunt was interested to emigrate from USSR to Israel (her father was jewish), but she did not so, because she was fearing, what could happen there because of antisemitic arabs. That she thoughts, it is everywhere dangerous to be a jew. And then I thought, what happened during all the times, again and again, after some years of resting and feeling some kind of savety and then ... again to them, that they have such deep, deep fear. What does this over all this hundreds of years with people, being rejected and maltreated just because of their Religion, ... Shure, there are good and not so good people in every culture, in every country, in every time. But just because of being jew? Or being black, green red, ... I cannot understand this.

(14) Sonja, June 26, 2014 6:56 AM

Addition to my comment yesterday

I want to add, this things:
When I was very young, I was at my grandgrandfathers and -mothers grave on a christian graveyard with my grandmother to care about this grave. I often stood at the border to the graveyard of the former jewish inhabitants. I asked about the inscriptions I couldn´t read (because hebraic). And I wondered. About a double-grave without the wife´s name. And I saw a solo-grave of a man who died in the 1950s. With a very german name, I thought. I asked, why there are no younger graves, where are they. I was answered: "They are gone!" "But where?" - Silence. And there was something in the sound of the voice, which hindered me to ask more. I asked for the half inscribed grave, why there isn´t the other half inscribed, where the woman is gone, what happened. Just silence. And I thought, there was a swallow and I felt, better not to ask further. Later my grandfather told me, that without the jewish people his father would never have such a help like from the jewish to get a better life. So they couldn´t have anything against this helpfully friends. That they were "just like us, only another religion, they went to the Synagoge and we to church" And i asked, what a Synagoge is. And he told me "this was in a way like our church, but for jews". And he told me about the destroying of the synagoge in my home village and the speak of a Gauleiter in front of this building. My grandfather stood there and had very much fear about his father´s life, because of a young woman, she came back from a deportation station and then there was the Gestapo and my grandgrandfather was ordered there to their office, came back some days later, lost his permission to work, ... And the family feared about his security, ...

(13) Sonja, June 25, 2014 4:12 PM

This could be a story of mine, I always thought, that it doesn´t matter which religion somebody has. If she/he´s a good human, who does not want to do harm to another human beings. Sometimes I would like to convert, because of so many things, lies, angriness about askings, if we´re jewish, just because of the names of my children, ...
And: One of my ancestors told me, never to marry a jew or a muslim! She had something against them, and I know, that some of her family were strict Nazis. Another person told me once, that some of the strictest liked to show that they are especially good Nazis, because of their ancestors (maybe one was "not-arian" or "Israelit")
Further Information:
In some catholic birth registrations at that time and the short time of "Weimarer Republik" I found notations like "Israelit" in the line, were the fathers name is written. And this was a very critical information for the survival of the birthlings later during the Holocaust.
And: Some people which had connections and money could eliminate informations like this in birth registrations and so on, if there were notations in dokuments of former times, so that the "Ariernachweis" didn´t show, if one or more of the ancestors were jewish.

(12) Sabus, June 25, 2014 11:09 AM

Thanks Lot for the interesting Story.

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