He Stayed Behind

A stroll through the Jewish community of Nuremberg, with one of the only Jews born and still living there, is an eye-opening lesson in history.

NUREMBERG, Germany - Every Sunday morning, at 11 o'clock precisely, Arno Hamburger shows up at this city's Jewish cemetery. Accompanied by his dog, Eros, he surveys the area, walks past the thousands of tombstones, and verifies that the dead are indeed resting in peace.

Hamburger, who earlier this year celebrated his 87th birthday, is one of the few Jews who was born in Nuremberg before the Holocaust who still lives there. He calls himself a "dinosaur." Yet despite his age, he still reports every day to work as a member of the Nuremberg City Council. He is the oldest member of the Jewish community.

Nine thousand Jews lived here on the eve of World War II, and a huge tombstone in the heart of the cemetery commemorates the fact that 1,625 were murdered during the Holocaust. The graves of nine people killed during the rampages of Kristallnacht, in November 1938, are scattered through the cemetery. Today 1,800 Jews live here, almost all of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union who moved to Germany during the past 20 years.

Arno Hamburger
Ofer Aderet

"I treat them 'with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,' but am a father to all the Jews," declares Hamburger, speaking in Hebrew, as we pass near a new section of the graveyard where new immigrants are buried. "I tell them it is not our custom to place flowers on graves, but it's not easy [to stop them]," he says with some frustration. "It is difficult to be a Jew and even more difficult to be a 'chairman' of Jews."

When we pass the grave of his father, Adolf Hamburger, he points to the date inscribed on the tombstone. "It is his birthday today," he notes, a tear running down his face. The other side of the stone bears the names of five Hamburger family members who were murdered in Sobibor, Mauthausen and Izbica in eastern Poland during the war. Hamburger's parents survived and returned to this city afterward; his mother died in 1960, and his father in 1974.

In 1939, at age 16, Arno Hamburger escaped to Palestine, alone, on an immigrant ship. He was absorbed in a small farming community and quickly learned Hebrew. Later he joined the British Army and was assigned to the Jewish Brigade. "I wanted to fight Germany, the Nazis," he explains, adding that he saw action during the war in North Africa and Italy.

In 1945 he returned to his hometown, as a British soldier. At first he could not identify the city the Allies had almost totally destroyed: "When I saw the flames and the ruins, I was reminded of all the people who torched and destroyed our synagogues before the Holocaust. What happened to our synagogues had now happened to the criminals themselves."

After a prolonged search he found his parents living in a small building on the grounds of this cemetery. "This is where they were," he says, pointing to the place where the family was reunited, and noting that only six of the 24 relatives he had known before the Holocaust, including his parents, survived.

"I am an only son. I was their sole support because the rest of the family perished," he says, explaining his decision to stay in Nuremberg. "Honor your father and your mother," he adds, repeating the Fifth Commandment.

At first, Hamburger tried to persuade his parents to come with him to Palestine, but he quickly realized there was no chance of that: "I argued with my father, but he told me he could not learn a new language after all he had gone through. He wanted to get back to work and to lead a normal life. I had to help my parents and that's what I did. That is how I was stuck here, and I do not regret it."

Over the next three years he worked as a translator during the Nuremberg trials of senior Nazi war criminals. In fact, Hamburger was among the few who had served with the Allied forces and could read and decipher old German handwriting. Among others, he translated the personal diaries of Alfred Jodl, a senior Wehrmacht officer who was convicted of war crimes and executed. To this day, Hamburger also remembers the trial of Sigmund Rascher, a German physician who served with the SS in the Dachau concentration camp and conducted his experiments on inmates. "Anyone who reads those testimonies today - his hair stands on end," says Hamburger.

The hall in which the famous hearings were held serves as Nuremberg's court to this day: Today, common murderers are sentenced where the Nazi criminals stood trial. The prison where the Nazis were detained during the proceedings is also still in place.

'One Jew's enough'

In the early 1960s, Hamburger joined the Social Democratic Party, of which his father had become a member in the early 20th century. Since 1972, Hamburger has been one of the SPD's representatives on the city council. "I am the only Jew in the council," he muses, with a smile. "One Jew is enough for them."

A walk through the Jewish cemetery with him is an eye-opening lesson in the city's history. At first we pass the old grave of a mohel (ritual circumciser ) that is uniquely adorned with an engraving of a knife. Near it are buried Jews who served in the German army during World War I, whom the French took prisoner. The grave of Arthur Kahn, the first Jew from Nuremberg to be killed after the Nazis assumed power, is especially eye-catching. On April 12, 1933, he was murdered in the Dachau camp. Nearby are graves that still bear bullet marks.

"In this very place there was a gunfight between an SS unit stationed here and American soldiers who were standing behind the cemetery's wall. Some of the bullets hit the graves," Hamburger explains.

On many of the tombstones one can see four symmetrical holes - testimony to the metal plates once affixed to them, which bore the names of the deceased: "The Nazis removed the plates to use the metal for the war effort. That's why to this day one can see the holes." The Nazis also removed metal lettering from some of the stones, for the same purpose.

Hamburger's likable and friendly manner is perhaps misleading, as over the years he has become known as a stubborn fighter, strong and sharp-tongued, who has waged an ongoing battle alone for decades to help preserve organized Jewish life in a city whose name became synonymous with anti-Semitic laws and persecution of Jews.

"I am the way I am and no one will change me today. I have been a Jewish fighter, and a very aggressive one, since I was a boy," he says proudly, noting that his father encouraged him not to remain silent in the face of anti-Semitic acts. In 1933 he was kicked out of school after he severely beat up a German boy who cursed him.

"I hit him so hard they had to take him to the hospital," he recalls, and points to his crooked thumb, a testimony of that incident. "They [the authorities] warned my father that the next time I behaved like that, they would send him to a concentration camp ... I am respected in the [party] faction and in town because no one fools around with me. I am a straight talker. Whoever demonstrates weakness is not respected."

Hamburger says he sent his daughter and her children to live in Israel 30 years ago, after their lives were threatened. Today he has three grandchildren and two great grandchildren in Israel, but still lives here.

Some years ago, when the police wanted to build a wall around the local Jewish communal building, he refused. "This is not a ghetto," he told the authorities, who agreed. He still receives threatening letters and phone calls, including from neo-Nazis, but maintains that "they know I am not afraid." And he carries two handguns to be on the safe side.

"What good would it do if I were afraid of death? It will come. It is natural. It is the way of all flesh. I will be buried here at a grand old age," he says. "I am a proud resident of this city and proud of our contribution to improving its image around the world. We have turned it from the city associated with the Nuremberg Laws and Nazi Party meetings to a city that emphasizes human rights - we have overcome its Nazi past."

His main concern today is the future of the Jewish community, and finding someone who will succeed him as its head.

"Jewish communal life in Germany is a problem that I do not know how to solve," he says regretfully.

Putting flowers on graves is one specific problem that irks him; community members who were not circumcised are another. "We do not accept any member who refuses to be circumcised, even if he is 80 years old," Hamburger says emphatically, adding that he is also opposed to letting women serve as cantors and rabbis.

"It is out of the question. We are doing our best to preserve the community's Jewish character and not to create confusion," he asserts. The local synagogue and Jewish studies are the backbone for maintaining such Diaspora communities and "guarantees their future existence." In the meantime, Hamburger keeps going.

"May God give me strength and health until I feel my mind is no longer clear," he says, "and then I'll stop on my own account so people will not ask, 'How much longer will it take until this old fool quits?'"