Three Attend Groundbreaking at Mainz Synagogue

[Archived from January 09, 2009]

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

Over seventy years have passed since the synagogue in Mainz went up in flames on Kristallnacht, like so many others across Germany; and in the course of the Holocaust, the city’s population was decimated.

However, Mainz, Germany, today is a very different place. One of Louisville’s Sister Cities, Mainz is home to 1800 Jews, and in late November, they broke ground for a new synagogue, Licht der Diaspora (Maor Hagolah in Hebrew or Light of the Diaspora in English), to be erected on the site of the one destroyed by the Nazis.

Rabbi Stanley Miles of Temple Shalom and two congregants, Milton Greenbaum and Al Ungar traveled to Mainz for the groundbreaking and a side trip to Wenkheim, a tiny village near Bavaria that is Greenbaum’s ancestral home.

The story actually began the morning after Yom Kippur. “I was awakened by a phone call from Michael Boel, who is the chairperson of the Mainz Committee of Louisville’s Sister Cities program,” Rabbi Miles said. “Michael invited me to represent Louisville at the groundbreaking for the new synagogue in Mainz.”

Rabbi Miles said the new building has been designed by Manuel Herz to look like the Hebrew word kedushah, holiness. “It will be built in the next 15-18 months at a cost of 10 million euros, paid for by the government of Germany,” he said.

The day of the groundbreaking, the three Louisvillians were witnesses to an event “that is important in both Jewish history and German history,” he continued. “Mianz has had an organized Jewish community for over 1,000 years. There were years of peace and growth, and there were years of terror and destruction.”

During the good times, Mainz was a center for Jewish learning. The bad times encompassed the Crusades, the black death and the Holocaust. The Un’tane Tokef prayer, that sets the tone for the High Holidays, reminding us that we all stand before God, who judges who will live and who will die, was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz.

While the synagogue the Nazis destroyed was home to a Reform congregation, Rabbi Miles reports that today the Mainz Jewish community is largely Orthodox.

While in Mainz, Rabbi Miles, Greenbaum and Ungar were able to do some sightseeing, stopping at the Gutenberg Museum and St. Stephens Church, home of the only Chagal windows in Germany. “There are Chagall windows in this church,” Rabbi Miles explained, “because of the relationship between Monsignor Meyer and Marc Chagall, alav hashalom. Monsignor Meyer’s father was Jewish, and he was hidden during the Holocaust by a Catholic family. Monsignor Meyer is also related to Hans Bensinger of our City.”

On November 24, the trio’s host, Marie Luise Karst, drove them to Wenkheim. “When Milton’s father, Sam, left the community in the 1920’s,” Rabbi Miles explained, “there were 400 people in the village – approximately 100 of them being of the Jewish faith. Today, there are 700 people in the village with a Jewish population of 0.”

But Wenkheim does not ignore its Jewish heritage. “They have taken it upon themselves to renovate the synagogue and the mikvah” which is located in the basement of the synagogue. It is one of the few original synagogues still standing. “The synagogue was spared destruction on Kristallnacht,” Rabbi Miles said, “because it was located next to the only gas station in Wenkheim, and the Nazis were afraid if they burned down the synagogue, it would blow up the entire city.”

The current residents of the city have gone even further to preserve their history. They commissioned a book that tells the story of its Jewish citizens. “When we were given the book detailing the history of Wenkheim,” Rabbi Miles recounted, “as Milton Greenbaum thumbed through it, his face lit up when he turned to page 77, because there is a photograph of his grandfather.”

Before leaving the village, the Louisville delegation visited the Jewish cemetery where they said Kaddish over the graves of some of Greenbaum’s ancestors.

The trip was emotional and meaningful for Rabbi Miles, Greenbaum and Ungar.

Noting that the German Jewish community is growing faster than any other Jewish community in the European Union, Rabbi Miles feels that a new chapter of Jewish history is opening in Germany. Its Jewish population is the fastest growing in the European Union, and their devotion to Judaism and desire to make a meaningful life there is a positive harbinger of things to come.

“It is extremely significant that the synagogue is called Licht der Diaspora, Or Lagolah, Light of the Diaspora,” he concluded, “where conventional wisdom was the light of Jewish life, and learning was cruelly extinguished, it begins to burn once again; a strong and optimistic message for all of us.”

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