As Jews observe the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we enter a period not of celebration—notwithstanding the former being known as the “Jewish New Year”—but of profound reflection. Best known as a period of prayer and repentance, it is also, and explicitly, a period of remembrance: Yom Kippur is one of only four times each year when Jews recite the Yizkor prayer, primarily for deceased parents. It concludes, more broadly, with “Av Harachamim,” the eleventh-century prayer first written after crusaders destroyed German-Jewish communities.
We will recite it this year at a time when remembrance has become complicated—especially as it involves public memorials. It is in that context that a personal story of remembrance comes to mind, for suggesting what may currently seem counterintuitive: that there is much that we miss when a historic site has no monument.
My own encounter with such a site came on a trip to Germany that my wife and I took three years ago. It was a trip inspired by a long-ago conversation with my wife’s elderly cousin Roselle Weitzenkorn, who fled Northern Saxony in 1937. When we spoke with her in the mid-1970s in her Philadelphia apartment, she was still thoroughly German in many ways—and not just in her Kissingerian accent. She was a fan of the Bismarckian social-welfare state and looked down on what she viewed as the benighted United States. Her family, composed of small shopkeepers and cattle traders not far from Hamlin, was well assimilated to German life. Indeed, a member of her own family was named on the village Great War monument for his service to the Kaiser. But once the Nazis took power, Jewish children, such as Roselle’s niece Ilsa, were separated from Christians on the school playground. Soon after, the Hitler youth massed outside Ilsa’s father’s business one evening, threatening him for having traded with Gentiles. If that was not enough to convince them to flee Germany, there was, as Roselle put it, the night “I saw Hitler speak.”
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