Berlin Reflection by Jonathan Butensky    


As I have the privilege of going on this trip, I think about others in my family who didn’t get a chance to travel or never got an opportunity to go to Germany and see the progress made post World War II.

              One of the strongest experiences was walking through the Holocaust Memorial site with the field of Stelae.  As our tour guide was explaining the background of the site, he said it was important to stay together as he didn’t want anyone to get lost.   I originally didn’t believe him as the Stalae started out so small but as we walked deeper and deeper into the ‘field’ it became more and more intimidating and hard to see others in our group.  The transition from the shorter Stalae to the much larger ones represented the slow descent of Germany in the 1930’s as the rules and laws against Jews escalated and almost led to mass extermination.  The undulating floors and lack of right angles led to disorientation until we started to exit out the opposite end of the exhibit.  Even though there were no external signs explaining explicitly what this was it was one of the more powerful experiences that I’ve had, and hope others continue to have.  The memorial is unexplained much like the laws and atrocities committed against the Jews is unexplained and has no grounding in reason or logic. 

              As we were chanting in Synagogue Fraenkelufer for Friday evening services all I could think about was my Grandpa, Cantor Harry Butensky.  My most cherished memories of him are from Passover Seder singing Dayenu or Chad Gadya with voice fluctuating and banging on the table.  I was reminded of how important it was to him not just to celebrate but celebrate whole-heartedly and loudly.  I also thought back to all those times around the Thanksgiving dinner table when we go around saying everything, we were thankful for.  Inevitably, Grandpa Harry would only be able to muster a couple of words and then get too choked up to ever finish.  I always think he was just to overcome with emotion because he had created this flourishing Jewish family firsthand after witnessing first-hand the atrocities of the Holocaust as a veteran from the military in World War II.  I’m glad that I had the chance to go back as a future generation and proudly sing, chant and pray where my grandpa once was even getting choked up as I was chanting with others in the heart of Germany in a historic and rebuilt Berlin.

This point was hammered home, I was reminded by this as a father and son arrived late and sat next to me for the service.  As they immediately joined in, they sat together chanting, swaying, reaffirming their connection to each other and to their Jewish faith. 

              As we were enjoying a Shabbat dinner afterwards with members of the congregation the woman who led the service (for the very first time at the temple!) told us to ‘remember the past and look to the future’.  As I remember the past during the service it occurred to me that Jews must continue to persist and continue practicing their faith across Germany and specifically Berlin. 

              This feeling was reinforced during our meeting with the artist Rachel Libeskind who said ‘in Berlin it makes you feel more Jewish’ because of its long history.  I felt that being here and will miss it as we’re making our way to Munich down in the southern part of Germany. 

              Even more powerful were the ‘faces’ that you walk over at the Jewish Museum both in terms of the voided space they were in but also the enormity the room that stretched what felt likely endlessly but also the depth of the metallic faces.  We were only walking over the top layer but looking down there were so many faces that you could see, some barely catching the light.  You always hear about the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, but that number Is very hard for us to visualize.  Even though there were much less than 6 million faces on the ground, it helped me better realize the enormity of what occurred.  I know that it is controversial but I’m glad that it is present to allow all visitors to better visualize what occurred – as a chemistry teacher It reminds me when I’m talking about the mole and avogdaro’s number, which is such a large number you need several analogies, so students understand the enormity of it.  Even though I’ve been to many Holocaust museums I’m glad that I was able to have the opportunity to attend the one in Berlin to better grasp the scale of the crimes.  It was so powerful in essence to come to the ‘scene of the crime’ here in Germany, especially in Berlin as I felt like I (and others in my past) were able to reclaim some of the past history and create more hope for a brighter future.

              Even though it has been tough personally this past week I feel that from my pain comes growth.  And from that growth I will be a better advisor to our Jewish students on campus as I’m able to better explain the Jewish experience. 

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