Mission: Berlin, Budapest, and anti-Semitism

Mission: Berlin, Budapest, and anti-Semitism

Federation trip participants witnessed the depths of hatred, reclamation of Jewish identity

Federation’s mission group celebrated Shabbat in Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue — the largest one in Europe. 
Photo by Mark Merkovitz
Federation’s mission group celebrated Shabbat in Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue — the largest one in Europe. Photo by Mark Merkovitz

In the Jewish Museum in Berlin, there’s an installation named “Shalekhet,” fallen leaves, by Menashe Kadishman. More than 10,000 faces with open mouths are carved into heavy, round iron plates that cover a pit in the floor. As participants walked across the faces, per museum instructions, Robin Persky said, “it sounded like the clacking of a train. It was an art exhibit, but its message was very clear.”

Persky and her husband Jeffrey were among 11 couples on a Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks mission to Berlin and Budapest. The mission, chaired by Beth and John Frieder of Princeton, explored European anti-Semitism. 

“The purpose of the trip was to learn about Jewry and anti-Semitism, historically and currently, and to come back and hopefully ignite something at home,” said Beth Frieder, an attorney, Jewish Center member, and self-described “perpetual volunteer.”

A secondary theme emerged from the trip, which ran April 27-May 5. Participants were moved by meeting young Germans and Hungarians who are discovering and embracing their Jewish heritage.

Some parents in post-Holocaust Europe, such as those raised in communist countries, did not raise children with Jewish identities. “Many of the Jews still live with the terrible fear and terrible experience and don’t want to pass on the burden of being Jewish to their children,” Persky told NJJN.

But these same children have, in some cases, rediscovered their Jewishness with pride. For instance, a young woman spoke to mission participants about Camp Szarvas, a Jewish sleepaway camp sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is located two hours from Budapest.

Mission chairs Beth and John Frieder in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photos by Lisa Smukler

According to Persky, the speaker said the camp helped her discover what it meant to be a Jew — an identity she embraced when she returned home. “But her family wanted no part of it,” Persky said.

Another presentation was by Stephen Kramer, president of the Berlin Jewish community, who briefed the group on a rise in neo-Nazi propaganda and the growing fear of anti-Semitism among the Jewish community. “Jews are not comfortable wearing kipas or outwardly showing their Jewish identity,” said Frieder.

At the Jewish Agency in Berlin, five Jewish students spoke to small groups of mission participants. A young man named Benjamin, 22, told Frieder’s group about discovering at age 10 that his mother was Jewish, but not his father. He wanted to explore Judaism so he attended a yeshiva before transferring to a public school for college preparatory work where he was the lone Jewish student.

Benjamin wore a kipa to school, was bullied, and said the administration ignored him. “He is really discouraged about life of an observant Jew in Germany at this time and is making aliyah to Israel,” Frieder said.

According to Frieder, the young adults said they found the Jewish Agency to be a “safe haven,” where they could celebrate holidays and ask questions about Judaism that their parents, many of whom are from East Germany, might not be able to answer.

Jackie Orr, who splits her time between New Hope, Pa., and Los Angeles, noticed a difference between how Germany and Hungary handle their World War II histories. She said she saw Holocaust memorials throughout Berlin, which made her feel “that the German government is not running away from their history and in many respects is taking responsibility for the horror of World War II.”

Jackie Orr, at left, and Susan Falcon at the Danube River in Pest, Hungary.

In Budapest, by contrast, she said, “we didn’t see the government really recognizing in the same way how complicit they were.”

Travelers found some of the sites on the itinerary haunting. Orr recalled walking from Grunewald Station, formerly a rail freight station, to Track or “Gleis” 17, one of three Berlin deportation points during World War II. Next to the overgrown track, which she said “symbolizes that the track is not going anywhere anymore,” small plaques cover the ground. On them is written the date of a transport, the number of deportees, and their destination.

“We didn’t go to a concentration camp, but this was powerful in a different kind of way,” Orr said.

She described the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was planned in January 1942, as a “beautiful Italian-style country estate.” Now a museum, the site displays documents detailing the mass extermination of Jews. What stood out for Orr was “the stark contrast between the darkest of times and the evilest of people, and this glamorous, beautiful setting.”

For Orr, another moving spot was the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial in Budapest. Cast iron shoes “of all different sizes and shapes” commemorate the shooting of Jews along the river’s edge between

Robin Persky at Berlin’s Boros Collection, an exhibit of contemporary art displayed in a World War II bunker.

Friday evening the mission attended Shabbat services at the large Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, followed by dinner at the Jewish Community Center with about 25 community members, including Rabbi Michael Paley, who works for the Joint Distribution Committee trying to build Jewish community in Budapest.

“Having dinner in a group like this made you feel like there was hope that there was a Jewish community that was thriving,” Persky said.

Orr finds hope for the Jewish future in the young people they met. She said, “It was very positive to meet the young adults who really were proud of being Jewish and were searching for a way to connect to their Judaism and other Jewish people, and to practice Judaism even though their parents may not have felt the same way and in spite of what their family history has been in Eastern Europe.”

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