Names Come to Life

Black and white photograph of an elderly couple

Emanuel and Johanna Stern, ca. 1903; Jewish Museum Berlin, gift of Alexander Summerville

Just over two years ago, I penned a blog text describing a Passover Haggada that I had purchased online. It caught my attention due to the lists of names written on the inside front and back covers of individuals who attended the Passover Seders over the course of seven years that were held in two residences in Berlin, both of which were in close proximity to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Research revealed a substantial amount of information about various persons named therein and my text concluded with the hope that contact might be established with descendants of some of those found in the lists.

At the end of March of this year, I flew to Stockholm to visit Alexander Summerville, the great grandson of Paul Aron, in whose home in the Hedemannstraße 13/14 Passover Seders took place in five of the years for which lists exist in the Haggada.  continue reading

“I see a land bright and clear,
and the time’s comin’ near
When we’ll live in this land, you and me…”

Pessach is approaching – the festival of exodus and freedom. This year, there is less talk of having the festive meal at large community gatherings. It is obvious, although unspoken, that smaller gatherings in the home make more sense. We are becoming alienated from our community centers through fear. Keep a low profile. Don’t speak Hebrew on the streets. Some people are removing the mezuzah from their front doorposts, a traditional object that visibly identifies a Jewish household. There is a mood of caution and nervous apprehension.

How did it get to this point?

Advertisement for the "Cycling Unites"-Critical-Mass-Tour in Berlin on 22 March 2015: Imam Ferid Heider and Rabbi Daniel Alter are cycling together

Advertisement with Imam Ferid Heider and Rabbi Daniel Alter for the “Cycling Unites”-Critical-Mass-Tour in Berlin on 22 March 2015, photo: Michal Friedlander

June, 2014
A drunken man rolls slowly off the train platform and plops onto the tracks at Friedrichstrasse station. Around sixty people witness the moment and look away, hoping that someone else will solve the stinky, awkward problem. And so it was. An Italian and an Israeli jumped down to haul the semi-conscious man to safety. The passengers walked around the startled little group, pressing forward to make the oncoming train.

July 2014
Dinner party small talk. The discussions nearest me are taking a more political turn and I am just not in the mood to talk about Israel. Too late. The young man next to me asks if I saw the recent pro-Palestinian demonstration on the Kurfürstendamm? He becomes very still and lowers his voice.  continue reading

In World War I

The Festival of Liberation at the Front

Yesterday evening, Monday, 14 April 2014, was the start of the eight-day Passover festivities. These kick off each year with the first Seder, the name of which derives from the Hebrew word seder, meaning order, because a particular ritual sequence is observed the entire evening.

The ritual Seder program is laid down in the Haggadah, an often beautifully illustrated book. (Incidentally, some especially precious Haggadot are currently on display in our special exhibition “The Creation of the World” and our director of archives recently described in his blog why even a nondescript Haggadah might be of great value to a museum.) Traditional texts and songs are recited from the Haggadah. Symbolic dishes and drinks deck the tables, ready to be consumed at specific moments during the evening.

Men in uniform occupy seats in a theater auditorium.

German soldiers celebrate Passover in the occupied town of Jelgava (near Riga). © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: anonymous. Donated by Lore Emanuel

But why is this night different from all other nights? This is a question that Jews all over the world ask themselves year after year at the Seder dinner. The answer is: it is the festival of liberation, for it commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt. Everyone is supposed to feel, each year, as if she or he personally is about to leave Egypt. As a token of tribute to this new-won freedom, people comfortably recline while eating and drinking—for to take this position was the prerogative solely of free individuals in antiquity, not of slaves.  continue reading