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The German Policeman Who Saved Torah Scrolls During The Holocaust

A rainbow spans over fields near Sehnde in the Hanover region, central Germany. Image by Getty Images

An old man in a blue kibbutz cap, who grew up in the same German village as my father, showed me the Torah that had been rescued during Kristallnacht — not by the Jews, but by Christian neighbors: “Ja , Nazi orders or no, the Christians decided to save what they could for the Jews. They buried the Torah outside the Jewish cemetery, deep in the woods, and after all the craziness ended, they sent it to us here. And we have it still.”

We were in the Memorial Room on a moshav  in Israel, founded by a group of Jews from the village who left Germany together for Palestine in 1937, the same year my family fled to America. The Torah, mounted in its glass case, shared the wall with the names of the village Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 126 of them carved into stone beside an eternal flame. On the opposite wall, a giant, circular needlepoint warned “Never Again” in Hebrew. It was my mother’s handiwork, donated to the moshav  because my American family had stayed connected to my father’s boyhood friends. In fact, my father, two months before he died in 1973, suddenly decided to be buried there. So here he lay, and here I was visiting,

The Torah story surprised me. I’d grown up in post-World War II America, watching Hollywood movies of evil Germans killing Jew — and never thought of Germans rescuing anything Jewish. True, my father often reminisced about his Schwarzwald  village where, before Hitler “everyone — Christian and Jew — got along. ” But that was in the early 1900s; the Torah was rescued in the middle of the Third Reich. I wondered who did it and why.

Which is why, in the late 1990s, I ended up in dozens of living rooms and kitchens, interviewing the village Jews who fled Hitler, now on three continents, and their Christian neighbors, still in the village. I didn’t interview any committed Nazis, only Germans remembered by most as decent people, neither heroes nor villains. The result was “Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village,” published in 2008, with refrains that I kept discovering in my new book, “When History Is Personal” (2018), a surprise because I was focusing on my assimilated American life, mid-twentieth century to today.

I would love to say that half of my father’s village rescued the Torah, but it was one policeman, plus a handful of others that buried two Torah breastplates and a sword owned by a Jewish war hero from World War I. Our village was small! Where would we hide someone?  said the Christian villagers. I was skeptical, but former village Jews, now in New York, Florida and Israel, backed them up: Many neighbors were decent people, but like us, they were helpless. What could they do?  They hated Hitler’s Germany and its betrayal, but not all  their former neighbors. Yet another surprise.

And then a fourth — these Christians and Jews told overlapping stories of small decencies: how the shoemaker fixed Jewish shoes and shared his ration cards. How the barber cut Jewish hair under the sign “No Jews Allowed Here.” How the former mayor’s wife lent her good raincoat to someone heading to the East. How the farmer’s daughter cleaned the house of, washed and brought food to her old Jewish neighbor. How the Torah — actually, two Torahs — were saved. How the shopkeeper gave food over the back fence at night. How the bus driver kept driving the Jews, one even to Switzerland. How a farmer who had power of attorney over Jewish fields returned the fields after the war. How the three Catholic nuns who were nurses kept treating sick Jews until they were reassigned to another village far away. How the mayor kept helping the Jews until he was transferred. How the priest spoke out against what was happening to the Jews in a sermon until he was severely reprimanded. How the head of Hitler Youth lighted the Shabbat candles for the Jewish youth group that met in the same building on Friday nights. How someone let the Jewish schoolteacher file an official complaint about the vandals in the Jewish cemetery in 1940. “Unheard of!” How a farm wife said at the farmers’ meeting, “Law or no law, I will not force Jews to work for me on their Sabbath.” How someone hid the plaque of the Jewish war veteran that died during WW1 that I saw in the town hall of the village. How neighbors helped a half-Jewish family live in the village throughout the war. The rest let them be. How the carpenters fixed the Jewish windows after Kristallnacht  and were sent to the Front a week later “as punishment,” and none came back.

Small acts of defiance. Nothing to brag about, and few did. And yet, if I been a German Gentile back then, I would feel better had I done any or many of those small acts. And if I had known that others were also doing them, I might have risked more. But decency is often a solitary act; it is evil that draws the noisy crowd.

Holocaust historians have a hierarchy of goodness for those days. Resisters  are on top, perpetrators  on the bottom and one notch up are bystanders , who looked the other way and did nothing. But recently, I read there’s a fourth category: the upstanders, who manage small acts of kindnesses, if not too dangerous. I thought: these are the ones in my catalog of small decencies.

In Israel, at Yad Vashem, no upstander from my father’s village is named as a righteous Christian; their deeds were too small for public recognition. But quietly, since 1973, these former neighbors have been building a bridge of reconciliation. First, they exchanged visits between their Schwarzwald village and the Israeli moshav. Then a book, “In Stein Gehauen,” was published, telling the history of the local Jews in German and Hebrew, beginning with the first family who came from Poland in 1645 and ending with the last group of Jews deported in 1942.

It was a joint project of one old-timer, who spent eight years doing research, and a new couple, publishers from Stuttgart, who bought the farmhouse down the road from the old Jewish cemetery and became interested in the former local Jews. Joining forces with a group of Germans, one hundred in all, who were dedicated to keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive, they spearheaded an exhibition called “Ort der Zuflucht und Verheissung, ” “Place of Refuge and Promise.” It told, through photographs, oral histories and archival records, how a group of village Jews escaped Hitler and started again in Israel. Over 5,000 Germans from southwest Germany came to see the exhibit, displayed in what was the old synagogue, now a Protestant church. From there, the exhibition went to the moshav  in Israel—and on to Jerusalem, Berlin and Stuttgart.

Central to the exhibit was a photo of the rescued Torah with its soiled edges, its knife slash and its Hebrew, faint but readable. It inspired many Germans to visit the original, still mounted in the Memorial Room of the moshav , a symbol of survival and one policeman’s decency. But the other small decencies that I’d discovered, however, hang nowhere, buried with forgotten lives.

I wish the list of other small acts had traveled with the exhibit, hanging beside the Torah. I wish bystanders everywhere would read them and imagine new possibilities for defying the haters who have dominated our headlines. In my father’s village, probably only 15% of the villagers were upstanders during the Third Reich. But what if 80% had risked small acts of decency and defiance? Could Hitler have survived? I like to think not.

This week I read how the citizens of very conservative Morristown, Tennessee raised $60,000 to help their Latino neighbors after an ICE factory raid broke up the lives of eighty-nine families. People — like fifty-year-old Hank Smith, a salesman who had voted for Trump in 2016, and was “indifferent to the anti-immigrant invective until the raid,” according to reporter Jonathan Blitzer who interviewed him — contributed. But after the raid, Smith said he had second thoughts: “I am a Christian; God loves everybody equally, and I never had a problem with anyone being here.” His pastor, David Williams, confirms that such feelings led to raising $60,000: “The people in the middle have had their hearts soften because of the raid.” In other words, a clear example of bystanders becoming upstanders. If only the story had made front-page news in major newspapers and trended on Twitter; but I found it in a “New Yorker” daily email, which I almost missed.

This week I received an invitation to attend the 80th birthday celebration of the moshav. It came from Barbara and Heinz, the German publishing couple in my father’s village who are determined as ever to keep Germans and Jews remembering the past together:

Dear Friends,

In 2018, Shavei Tzion turns 80! As we told you in our summer 2017 newsletter, we would like to visit Israel with a delegation from Horb/Rexingen in the fall and also spend some days in Shavei Tzion…It would be wonderful if this day could see a big get-together of Shavei Tzion families and friends from all over the world!

If you want to participate, please get in touch with Menachem…We hope to see you all again in Shavei Tzion this October!

Best wishes

I hope to go — my small gesture in the ongoing need to build bridges of connection and honor decency, which we need now more than ever.


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