lady painting

 

Dec 2008 Journal

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Letter from Israel: Kristallnacht memorial project

A few months ago I was put in contact with an organisation in Jerusalem called the Synagogue Memorial Organisation. It is engaged in preparing a volume or volumes in English which will commemorate all the Jewish communities of Germany which were attacked and destroyed in what is known as Kristallnacht, the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938. The Synagogue Memorial Organisation estimates that there were over 1,500 such communities.

The organisation, whose office is in Jerusalem, is run by a small team, headed by Professor Meier Schwarz, Emeritus Professor of Agriculture at the Bar Ilan and Hebrew Universities, a former member of Kibbutz Hafetz Hayim, an expert on Torah and science, and a former president of the World Association of Religious Jewish Scientists. Born in Germany in 1926 but brought up and educated in Israel, he is currently engaged in overseeing the Synagogue Memorial project. Although most of the funding for the undertaking comes from the US, Yad Vashem and other organisations are also involved.

The team in the office is aided by a small cohort of outside writers who undertake research into the communities allotted to them. The job of the writers is then to scour the internet and other sources, most of them in German, for information about ‘their’ communities. A website listing basic information about all the former communities in Germany has been set up by the Synagogue Memorial Organization - http://www.ashkenazhouse.org - and it is to this that the writers turn initially. I myself, for instance, was told to write up the five communities from Forchheim to Georgensmund, then to tackle the next ten from Schnaittach to Schweinfurt, and so on.

Each article must be written in accordance with the instructions issued by the Synagogue Memorial Organisation, specifying the date when the community is first mentioned, its size in 1933, the various aspects of its history, and of course the events of the pogrom of 1938. No article may exceed 255 words, which is quite difficult given that some sites (e.g. Alemannia Judaica; http://www.alemannia-judaica.de) abound in information about each community, its synagogue, history, and population, and in some cases even include contemporary newspaper reports. Many of these communities dated back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and suffered from discrimination and persecution of various kinds and intensity throughout their history. Of course, the ability to read and understand German, extract the main points from the often wordy text, and present them in the required form and in good English is essential.

Before embarking on the job of writing up a community, writers are instructed to look at the relevant entry in the German Wikipedia. There one suddenly sees history coming to life. Many entries show photos of idyllic villages, where Jews once settled and presumably made a living, and rustic houses adorned with typical German timbering set in beautiful countryside with verdant fields and lush woodland. There are pictures of rural markets with bustling housewives and robust farmers. One can easily imagine these scenes as being not very far removed from those that presented themselves to the eyes of our forebears many centuries ago.

All that ended in 1938, when the remaining Jewish population left or was deported to concentration camps. Almost all the synagogues were destroyed, together with their contents, though a few were preserved because they had been sold at a considerable loss and converted into, for example, beer halls or fire departments. The devastation of all the communities was complete. In recent years, some villages and towns have erected memorial plaques to their former Jewish communities.

Although it is sometimes agonisingly painful to do the work, I feel privileged to be associated with this important and worthwhile project.
 

 

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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