Aharon Brodman, the orthodox Munich rabbi, commemorates his grandfather who died in Auschwitz. Then he comes to his father, who was born in 1936, survived several camps and was one of those in Dachau, where the Nazis tried out how people starve in a terrible way. “My father died two years ago,” he says, and asks himself: “How is it that I’m standing here, here in Dachau?”
Brodman speaks at the Dachau concentration camp memorial. This first German concentration camp was established in March 1933, just a few weeks after the Nazis came to power. The German horror site remained in operation for twelve years. More than 200,000 prisoners were interned here, including 50,000 Jews. 41,000 people lost their lives in Dachau.
Brodman’s audience includes dozens of rabbis from all over Europe. Others come from Morocco, Iran, Mexico or Colombia. Hearing the words, they descend in silence to the memorial surmounted by a gilded seven-armed chandelier. “It’s a place of terror, a place of so much suffering,” says Brodman.
Rabbi in the “capital of the movement”
The visit to Dachau concludes the three-day General Assembly of the European Rabbinical Conference, or CER for short. These are historic days: Never in the history of the Federal Republic were there so many rabbis, 300 Jewish clergy, in Germany at the same time.
After Berlin 2013, this is only the second General Assembly in Germany. The CER President, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, used only three German terms in a 15-minute interview with Deutsche Welle in English: “Altes Rathaus”, “Reichskristallnacht” and “Pogromnacht”.
Then he recalls that the propaganda minister of the Hitler government, Joseph Goebbels, incited the population to violently attack Jews and destroy synagogues on November 9, 1938 in Munich’s Old Town Hall.
Munich, the “capital of the movement”, as it was once called, the brown Nazi movement. And now Munich of all places has more rabbis as guests than any other German city before. Actually a welcome reason for German politicians to emphasize this. But no Federal President and no member of the Federal Cabinet stopped by or at least spoke a greeting via video.
Markus Söder with “warm Shalom”
At least Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder will appear before the rabbis on Monday. The CSU politician greets them with his own charm – “a warm Shalom” – in a casual speech, talks about the “fate” of the Shoah, thanks them for the visit, appears touched and twice encourages the rabbis to spend money in the city .
Söder then suggests that the European rabbis could always hold their major biennial meetings in Munich. The state government would offer all the help it could. Even until the end of the conference, one can feel how impressed some of the rabbis are.
Rabbinical meeting under tight security
But 250 orthodox rabbis from 47 countries, clearly recognizable as believing Jews – that is also a security issue for Germany. Even before the start of the conference, police officers also roam around the hotel in the east of Munich at night. Plainclothes security forces are patrolling the building throughout the day.
On Tuesday, twelve rabbis traveled in a bus to Munich’s Olympic Park to commemorate the eleven Israeli athletes who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games. A few dozen police officers are on site, and the group cannot be overlooked. A similar picture when the rabbis visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial.
“There is no such thing as harmless anti-Semitism”
Germany in 2022: The number of anti-Jewish attacks is increasing, but politicians have started to act more actively in recent years, both legally and in terms of security policy. The federal government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, confirmed to the rabbis that politicians were acting decisively and would also take further steps.
Klein says there is “no harmless anti-Semitism” and that Germany is well on the way to “getting a grip on the challenge of anti-Semitism.” And repeated warnings to fight hate online and anti-Semitism in certain Muslim milieus more vigorously.
The hope of grassroots encounters
The CER President, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, calls the blossoming of new Jewish communities in Germany a “miracle”, there is “Jewish life in Germany again.” When Goldschmidt warns of anti-Semitism and restrictions on religious freedom, he always has the whole of Europe in mind. If, for example, the circumcision of newborn boys or ritual slaughter were banned in a country, Jewish life would become impossible there and Jews would have to leave the country.
Daniel Höltgen, the Council of Europe’s special representative on anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and other forms of religious intolerance and hate crime, advocates tackling Muslim anti-Semitism. Religious communities and civil society should also get more involved. Höltgen relies on “grassroots encounters”, on local initiatives that should specifically address the issue.
Like in Malmö, a city that has long been notorious for its hatred of Jews. No city in Sweden left more Jews. There, the young Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen is now bringing Jewish and Muslim youth together. Perhaps an example for other rabbis.
“The Jews are leaving Russia”
The fight against anti-Semitism is a focus of the meeting, and at their general meetings the rabbis always discuss questions of religious law or liturgical regulations. It is also about guidelines to prevent sexual abuse. But all issues are overshadowed by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, many of the rabbis have relatives in the region. The coordinator of the CER refugee aid, Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, describes the drastic fate of Holocaust survivors from eastern Ukraine.
And the situation of the Jews in Russia is also changing. “A significant portion of the Jews have already left the country,” says Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is himself chief rabbi of Moscow. “And another significant portion is considering taking that step.” Goldschmidt currently lives mostly in Jerusalem.
Charlotte Knobloch with an impressive speech
The grand old lady of the Jewish community in Germany, 89-year-old Charlotte Knobloch, embodies the tension of these days like no other person. She survived the Nazi period in hiding as a child and for a long time thought Jewish life in Germany was no longer possible. In Dachau she gave the most impressive speech. The place warns “like no other in Germany of ‘Never Again’. Never again exclusion, never again disenfranchisement!”
The way to the concentration camp memorial, she tells the rabbis, is “not an easy step for any of them. And here in Dachau we can see why this step remains so difficult.” It is important to keep this in mind. “The time without contemporary witnesses will soon come. The responsibility remains the same.” But at the same time, Knobloch keeps raving about this flourishing Jewish life in Germany, which she never thought possible. Of new synagogues and lively communities.
That’s why this report shouldn’t end in Dachau. On the final evening before, the 300 rabbis party until well after midnight, Hasidic rock music with pious and cheerful lyrics roars through the hall. And the rabbis, old and young, dance exuberantly in front of the stage. That too is Jewish life in 2022.