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Culture

On pogrom anniversary, rabbi carries torch from Germany to England

On the 72nd anniversary of a major Nazi pogrom against the Jews, a British rabbi is embarking on a symbolic journey, carrying a flame from his grandfather's synagogue in Frankfurt to his own in London.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

Wittenberg is spending three weeks on the road - with a flashlight and his dog

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg has lit a symbolic torch from the "everlasting light" of the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt, which inexplicably survived the destruction of the Nazis on November 9, 1938. Wittenberg's grandfather was a rabbi there during the so-called Kristallnacht , or Night of Broken Glass. All throughout Germany and Austria, Jewish homes, business, and synagogues were ransacked and thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps.

Now, accompanied by his dog Mitzpah, he is carrying the torch by foot and by ferry. In London, he will use it to symbolically light the eternal flame of a new synagogue for his own congregation. The three-week project also serves as a fundraiser to support a variety of charities and interfaith projects.

Deutsche Welle spoke with the rabbi in Cologne, at the midway point through his walk.

Deutsche Welle: Rabbi Wittenberg, can you tell me where the idea came from to take this walk, and what the journey is really all about?

Jonathan Wittenberg: It was really when I was rereading my grandfather's memoirs, at the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I just wanted to remember what had happened to him. And I read there how he was called by the Gestapo on the 10th of November, on the allegation that he had the keys to the Westend synagogue, which he didn't.

Rabbi Wittenberg walking with a Friar at Maria-Laach monestary

The rabbi stopped at Maria-Laach Abbey, in Germany's Eifel region

He wrote that he came to the main synagogue; the fire brigade was there, and they were doing nothing. He heard people in the crowd say […] that the interior of the Westend Synagogue had been destroyed - wrecked and trashed - but that the eternal light [a constant flame that is lit in every synagogue; eds.] was still burning. And people took that for a miracle.

This spoke to me. My own synagogue is building a new building. We've been working on it for 15 years and it's nearing completion. And I had the thought, because I am a lover of walking, of coming to Frankfurt, of lighting a symbolic flame, and bringing it back to London to light our new eternal light.

So you made 'light' the subject of your walk?

I was very struck by this idea, of light that burns despite darkness. It's an image that speaks to me in all kinds of ways as a rabbi. I encounter a lot of darkness people struggle with. I see the courage of people in facing illness, in facing death.

I also see the courage of people in a political context. One of the organizations I am supporting on this walk is the Parents' Circle, made up of parents who've lost children on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This group of parents, instead of blaming the others, instead of hating, they're saying, 'Well, this is a message that we need understanding.'

Tell me about the 'eternal light' that you are carrying. How did you get it, and how are you transporting it?

Very simply, it's an electric torch - a flashlight. It's symbolic. I'm not an Olympic runner, and nobody's going to let me into a cafe along the way with a great big torch on fire. But what I didn't want to do was just to come by plane and take the torch and just fly back. There's no substance to something like that.

Jonathan Wittenbeg sitting on a bench, his dog is next to him

The route traverses German wine country

The trip began at the Westend Synagogue on October 24. I was there with a group of about 20 people from London who came to share the start of the journey. The ceremony where I took the light was simple, just a couple of verses: "God is my light, and my salvation." One of the people with us was a hazzan [a singer trained to accompany Jewish religious services; eds.] who very beautifully sang those verses.

Coincidentally, that day was the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Westend Synagogue. I was invited to speak. It was very, very moving. My grandfather - my mother's father - had been the main rabbi there for almost 30 years. He died in 1975.

What do you feel you've learned about light along the way so far?

My understanding of the meaning of light is constantly growing and constantly changing. And just as light expands, so my understanding of it has expanded.

There is the beautiful natural light, while walking along the Main and Rhine rivers. And then there is the tremendous amount of kindness I've met in very ordinary circumstances.

On the second day, I was walking with a friend of mine who is a protestant minister. I needed something to eat, and we went into a place - it turned out to be in a castle along the hiking trail, a very posh place. I asked, 'Can I have some bread please?' And the man came back with a basket of fruit and all kinds of bread. I took out my purse to pay, and he said, 'No, please take it. It's a gift.'

I hadn't told him what I was doing but it was obvious that I was somehow…en route. I've encountered that kind of kindness all along. That is a kind of light.

You're not just trekking on this trip - you're visiting various religious sites, holding talks with social-interest groups, and visiting Jewish monuments. Has that added to your understanding of light?

Yes. There have been moments of contact with people who are engaged with what was the Jewish past in Germany. We stopped in the town of Bingen, at the Study Group for Judaism there. I asked the lady who leads it, 'Why do you do this?' She wasn't Jewish, didn't have Jewish ancestors. None of them did. She said she did it because her father had a close relationship to the Jewish community and had been helped by them.

Rabbi Wittenberg in front of a Thai Buddhist center

The rabbi stopped at a Thai Buddhist center along the way

Have you found anything unexpected so far?

Well, walking in the lower Rhineland up to Cologne, I've thought a lot about the Shoah, obviously. But I've also been conscious that here was a thousand years of Jewish creative history. We were in a tiny village, St. Goar. And in that tiny Rhineland village, the Sefer ha-Maharil, which is a key work in the progression of Ashkenazy Jewish law, was composed. It still affects our practices today.

So, I hadn't expected to feel such continuity with Jewish culture as I have felt - this sense of Jewish history, of learning, creativity, and study. I expected to feel far more estranged.

Your grandfather was German, and you speak excellent German although you yourself are English. Has this walk raised any thoughts about your own German ancestry?

I've been to Germany many times before, but never for this long. My grandfather loved the German Jewish culture. Unlike many, he didn't teach us to hate Germany. He said we should differentiate between Nazism and German culture.

I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about whether that differentiation could be made quite as neatly as that. But that was certainly his attitude, so I haven't had to overcome an inner revulsion to being in Germany - I never had it. And I deeply don't believe you can blame one generation for what another generation did.

Rabbi Wittenberg with his dog, Mitzpah

This is the second fundraising walk Wittenberg has taken with his dog, Mitzpah

But there is no doubt that there is a legacy. And I think finding ways to face that legacy together as much as possible - you can't do it with major perpetrators - but with people who are struggling with what the past has meant to them, I think enabling that kind of conversation is very important.

Was being on this trip during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, part of your plan?

On November 9 I'll be in Holland, since I've been asked to speak there. It would have made more sense to be in Germany, but that's where it worked out. In any case I definitely wanted to be traveling the route on Kristallnacht.

Towards the end of the walk I pick up the route of the Kindertransporte, [the name given to the movement to rescue some 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis by sending them to live in the UK, just prior to the outbreak of World War II; eds.] So that's something I find deeply moving.

I'm guessing you are something of a strange sight in the German countryside - a rabbi wearing a yarmulke and a backpack, with a dog in tow. Have you gotten some odd reactions?

Not at all - although people do keep stopping me to tell me that the flashlight in my backpack has been left on. They don't know I've done it on purpose.

Interview: Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Kate Bowen

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