By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.
Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.
It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.
What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.
That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.
A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.
My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.
I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.
But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.
My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.
We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.
It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.
Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.
“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”
I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.
When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.
When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.
“Remember this,” she said to me.
I have remembered. Through all these many years.
To this very day.
Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.