Dec 2014

Michael Panitz

“There are People with Stony Hearts. There are Stones with Human Hearts” — on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

My personal connection to the Berlin Wall is tangible and powerful, but it does not lie within the mainstream. I was not present when the Wall came down. My family and my people were not reunited when East and West Germany overcame the divisions forced upon them by Great Power rivalries and Cold War spheres of control. My family and people had left Germany earlier, some by steamship, others as smoke.
Many of us keep selected small items on our desks, keepsakes reminding us of places we have visited, relationships that have shaped us, values we hold dear. Two of my keepsakes sit side by side, and it seems to me that they have much to say to each other:
The first is a concrete fragment of the Berlin Wall, its former surface side spray painted in what was likely a portion of a graffiti message. It was given to me in the Winter of 1989/1990 by a doctoral candidate in Jewish history who taught on the faculty of the parochial school I administered in New York City. She had gone to Berlin to conduct archival research, and brought me back the fragment, knowing that as a fellow historian, I would cherish it. The other keepsake is a photograph, taken by my former college roommate, of a Jewish man, wrapped in his prayer shawl, seated at “the Kotel”, the retaining wall of Herod’s Jerusalem Temple. The Kotel is the only surviving portion of what was and remains the absolute center of the Jewish spiritual world.
Berlin and Jerusalem: two foci in the ellipse of Jewish existence, connected by many arcs of relationship. For Jews, Berlin represents what was once a high point in the symbiosis of Jewish and Western culture, and then the tragic center of the destruction of that symbiosis. The modern State of Israel arose from the ashes of the conflagration whose chief arsonists planned their fires from Berlin. But now, once again, Berlin is a place of hope and even, to some degree, fulfillment, for Germans and Jews alike.
The young Moses Mendelssohn traveled from his home in Dessau to Berlin in the mid-18th century, entering through the gate used for cattle and for Jews. During his lifetime, and centered around his own circle of friendships and disciples, including the playwright and theologian G.E. Lessing, the Jewish haskalah and the German Aufklaerung met and cross-fertilized. Not only in the synagogue, but also in the salon, the school and the symphony hall, the chessboard and the coffee house, the German Jew, bent on leaving the ghetto while still preserving the essence of his identity, interacted with other Germans eager to create a distinctively modern nation.
The failure of that symbiosis took most German Jews by surprise. But a few far-sighted ones, such as Gershom Scholem, the founder of the modern, critical study of Jewish mysticism, left Germany for the Land of Israel before it was too late. The German-Jewish wave of immigrants to Israel in the 1930’s strengthened the professional, artistic and academic culture of the growing society there, and those who could not find employment in their land of refuge put down their violins, picked up trowels, and built much of the cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv. German culture is one of the many threads in the quilt of Israeli life, but it is still a vital part of the fabric created in that Altneuland.
Today, Berlin is a magnet for Jews who have fled the former Soviet Union, and also hosts a growing Israeli population. Recently, its central synagogue has reopened. The rebirth of freedom in Berlin since 1989 has also had a secondary effect for the Jewish community.
Berlin and Jerusalem: each one defined for crucial periods of her history by a wall. In 1967, just before the Six-Day War, the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer premiered “Jerusalem of Gold”, in which she described her beloved city: “In the trance of tree and stone/ captive as in a dream/ the city that dwells alone/ and in her heart, a wall.” In another song of 1967, “The Wall”, Dov Seltzer wrote of the bereaved women who pressed lips and chins to the newly-liberated Western Wall, weeping for their fallen citizen-soldier husbands, brothers and sons. The refrain of his song is “There are people with stony hearts/ There are stones with human hearts.”
For me, the fragment of the Berlin Wall and the photograph of the Jerusalem Wall are an unlikely but powerful pair. The accomplishment of the German people is that one wall has come down. The accomplishment of the Jewish people is that a different wall, with a different valence, remains standing, not to divide, but to be accessible to all.

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