Most normal students in high school would spend their winter break relaxing and watching mindless television. Fortunately, the five students I shared my winter break with and I are not normal students. For the eight days following Feb. 14, the six of us explored the Jewish history and culture of southern Germany, being educated on what it was like to be a Jew during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. By the end of the trip, we ended up learning more than we thought possible.
Our group was organized through Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, to which we all belong, by Elisabeth Prial. Elisabeth’s parents both escaped the Holocaust, along with other family members. Unfortunately, the Nazis murdered many of her parent’s cousins, aunts and uncles. The student group included Lathan Lev, Shawn Lutz, Sara Lutz, George Cappachioni, Shayna Held and me. Also in the group was our Youth Group Advisor Emily Besthoff, Rabbi Howard Nacht, Elisabeth Heiman Prial, along with her son, Daniel, who spoke fluent German and was able to translate for us.
After a six and a half hour flight, as well as a 6-hour jump in time, we landed at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. The first three nights of the trip were spent with host families, organized through their school, the Ostalb-Gymnasium, Bopfingen, and all of our programed activities included our German host students.
The first night of the trip was, undebatably, the most significant. The synagogue in the town of Oberdorf had not been used since 1938, when it was damaged during the Kristallnacht Pogrom. Together with more than 100 local residents, we held the first Sabbath evening service in over 75 years lead by Rabbi Howard Nacht. The residents of the town were thrilled to be part of Jewish Culture, as it was something they had never experienced before. Rabbi Nacht read from the Torah that was originally donated to the synagogue in Oberdorf by the Heiman Family in the 1870’s.
The 10 of us were the only Jews that many of the residents of this town had met. It was incredible to watch members of different faiths come together and share the experience that had not been shared since the World War II. Regardless of religion, the service was beautiful for everybody, even those who could not understand the language being spoken.
For the next few days, we, together with our German host students, explored the vast Jewish history hidden within this amazing town where Jews and Christians once lived in harmony side-by-side. This included visiting the town’s Jewish cemetery, meeting the Bürgermeister Dr. Gunter Bühler, visiting the Town Hall, and traveling to Dachau, a forced labor camp where the Nazis murdered many thousands of people from 1933-1945.
Dachau was an incredibly emotional experience for all of us. Upon entering the camp, the main gate had “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed on it. This translates to “work will set you free.” This chilling slogan was put there as a sarcastic term, that unfortunately, most of the camps occupants believed, and many of them died from being over-worked and underfed.
The feeling that I got while walking through the cramped bunks, the crematorium and the gas chamber is indescribable. As hard as it was, it felt like a necessary struggle for us to see what some people had to go through, just for belonging to the same religion that many of us practice openly today. All of these experiences were shared with our host families as well. Everybody was visibly shaken by the experience. After the first three nights, we had to say goodbye to our new friends, but the 12 of us became very close on the trip, and there are plans being developed for them to come to New York to experience our modern Jewish culture.
The rest of the trip was spent in Rothenberg, Creglingen and Frankfurt. Each of these stops was rich in Jewish history, from the synagogues left behind, to the homes that used to be occupied by Jews, to the jobs and practices that used to be strictly restricted for Jews to hold. In Archshofen, a small village just outside of Creglingen, we got to see where Elisabeth Prial’s mother, Susanna Heiman, née Wolffs, grew up. Susanna Heiman is whom the Temple B’nai Torah Religious School is named after, and it was captivating to see what it would have been like to grow up Jewish before, and during the Nazi Regime.
Overall, this trip was a life-changing experience. I found out hundreds of things about my own religion that I didn’t know before, and hopefully, other people can share experiences like these, which can help rid the world of any hatred based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. After all, education is the best defense against tyranny.