Despair and inspiration on Kristallnacht anniversary
Yet not all is well in the town of Greifswald, where stones commemorating Holocaust victims were stolen on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Turning on my computer last Saturday night to reconnect with the world after a day of Sabbath rest, I was shocked to encounter Greifswald, a charming, but obscure, German university town on the Baltic Sea - and my professional home for the past two years - at the top of the major Israeli newspapers' websites.
On November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), I proceeded to read with dismay, vandals had made off with all 11 of the city's Stolpersteine - literally "stumbling stones" - small sidewalk plaques that commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust in front of their former homes across Germany and Europe.
This deed has shattered my image of this city of some 60,000, known mainly for its university and its membership in the medieval Hanseatic League trading organization. To be sure, even prior to accepting my position as a Jewish studies professor here, I was aware that this part of the former East Germany has a reputation for right-wing extremism.
But as my days here passed into months and now years, with nary a sign of neo-Nazis anywhere, I became increasingly confident that, whatever the problems afflicting the region as a whole, Greifswald - home to Germany's fourth-oldest, and an increasingly prominent and culturally diverse, university - was different. Indeed, on the very eve of what is here typically called Reichspogromnacht (Kristallnacht is considered too vague a euphemism), as I ate my vegetarian doner in a local joint, I was encouraged to hear the Azerbaijani proprietor, who has had his store vandalized in the past, report that the right-wing presence in Greifswald had substantially receded in recent years. That cheery optimism has now, alas, been placed in doubt.
After my initial outrage subsided, however, I began to formulate a more nuanced picture of the reality here. As on every Kristallnacht anniversary, a ceremony last Friday memorialized the 11 Jews of Greifswald who were killed in the Holocaust. It was held in the small plaza adjacent to the apartment which, in the prewar years, hosted the community's prayer space and social center, and where a memorial plaque now stands. (The Jews of Greifswald were never numerous enough to build a formal synagogue.)
In nearby Wolgast, meanwhile, 1,000 people marched against racism and right-wing extremism. And the University of Greifswald was quick to publicize and condemn the theft of two of the Stolpersteine from its own property. The official statement proceeded to identify the memorialized individuals: the historian Dr. Gerhard Knoche (1893-1944), who wrote a dissertation on the Jews under the Carolingians and later perished in Auschwitz; and the geologist Dr. Rudolf Kaufmann, who was stripped of his doctorate in 1937 and shot by Germans soldiers in Lithuania in 1941.
How ironic, I thought: It was only because their Stolpersteine were stolen that I learned for the first time who these two individuals were.
More than anything else, however, I recalled the truly wonderful concert I attended on Thursday night in the university's Aula. In this ornate, 18th-century auditorium, used for only the most important of events, world-class young musicians played the works of composers condemned and oppressed by the Third Reich - many of whom, even though they survived the war years, never managed to recapture the success they had enjoyed prior to the Nazi rise to power. Unlike writers or artists, whose works can be easily disseminated in print, the case of musicians is particularly difficult, noted moderator Volker Ahmels, since they will not be remembered unless their music is played.
Sponsored by the local chapter of the Protestant Working Group for the Church and Judaism (Arbeitskreis Kirche und Judentum), and organized by Ahmels' Center for Ostracized Music (Zentrum fuer Verfemte Musik ), based in nearby Rostock, the concert focused on the music of Hans Gal. Born in 1890, the Jewish Gal achieved critical acclaim as a musicologist and composer in the 1920s before being appointed director of the conservatory in Mainz in 1929. But four years later, he was dismissed from his post and his works were banned. Though Gal managed to escape the Nazis, eventually settling in Edinburgh, where he remained active until his death in 1987, he is virtually unknown in Germany to this day. Thanks to the dedication of Ahmels and others, his legacy is now being revived.
After a difficult few months in Germany - a rabbi with whom we are friendly was recently assaulted in front of his home in Berlin, and the banning of ritual circumcision by a German court in Cologne last May has set Jews throughout the country on edge - here was a valuable and needed reminder of all that is good here. As I listened to Gal's punchy sonata for clarinet and piano and his sonorous violin sonata, I reflected that this is the essence of justice: providing a long-forgotten Jewish composer with the audience that was denied him for so long. I was grateful to my German hosts for exposing me to this portion of our common legacy. And I felt proud to be a part of the University of Greifswald community that had hosted this event, for a moment proud indeed to live in the Federal Republic of Germany. The theft of 11 Stolpersteine last Friday in Greifswald is a worrisome sign, rightly publicized, and rightly condemned. But we should not let it overshadow other undertakings - those humanistic gestures of repentance and recovery that are, thankfully, so much a part of the current German landscape.
Daniel Stein Kokin, an American, is junior professor of Jewish literature and culture at the Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald.