By Lisa Salko
I’m often asked how I can have forgiveness in my heart towards a country that has perpetrated such heinous crimes against my family and six million other Jews. It’s a logical and fair question, with a complicated yet inspiring answer.
In 2017, around the same time that we witnessed the horrors of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, VA, 13 Jewish drivers’ licenses were discovered in a government office in a quintessential Bavarian town called Lichtenfels – the town where several generations of my maternal family lived. The licenses had been confiscated by the Nazis during Kristallnacht on November 9 and 10, 1938. Three of those 13 licenses belonged to my family: My grandfather, Sigmund Marx, and my two great uncles, Alfred Marx and Alfred Oppenheimer.
Following their discovery nearly 80 years after Kristallnacht, the Lichtenfels District Administrator, Mr. Christian Meißner, felt a moral imperative to “do the right thing”. Rather than archive the licenses, as required by German law, he knew he had to try to reunite the licenses with their descendants. He saw that there was a difference between law and justice. That singular and courageous decision put a group of Jewish descendants and a group of German “upstanders” on a path towards reconciliation.
Mr. Meißner approached the local Gymnasium (high school) and suggested that it could be a research project for its history seminar class – a class of extraordinary 17 & 18-year old students with open minds and hearts who were prepared to learn about the darkest chapter in their towns history, all while connecting deeply with these 13 ordinary yet extraordinary Jews.
The project – “13 Jewish Drivers’ Licenses” – was helmed by their outstanding teacher, Mr. Manfred Brösamle-Lambrecht – who expertly guided his students through this intensive research project. The objectives: first and foremost through the research, locate the descendants and reunite them with the licenses and secondly, recreate what happened in Lichtenfels before, during and after Kristallnacht and use it as a teachable moment about the darkest chapter in human history, so timely and relevant given the rise of the far-right in Germany.
In November 2018, as the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht approached, nine descendants from the United States and one from Argentina were invited to Lichtenfels – as guests of honor – to learn more about this remarkable project. And most importantly, to reclaim a part of their family. That alone would have been enough. And yet, during our weeklong visit we experienced a town’s commitment to examining its past so intensely and deeply, so the atrocities born out of Kristallnacht can never happen again.
We watched as the first Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” in Lichtenfels were installed for my family by Gunter Demnig, the German artist who created the Stolpersteine Project. The first words engraved on each Stolpersteine say “Here Lived”. Lichtenfelsers, many whose ancestors were Nazis, watched with respect and reverence as our family and their names had been brought back into the light from a dark horrific past.
On November 9th, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we attended a remembrance service where we gathered along with townspeople from the community at the former synagogue at Judengaße 12. The synagogue which had been destroyed during Kristallnacht is no longer an active synagogue since there is no Jewish community left in Lichtenfels. That community was eradicated shortly after Kristallnacht, never to flourish again. In 2020, there still are no Jews living in Lichtenfels. And yet, a beautiful and moving service with music and prayers followed. Together, Jewish descendants and Lichtenfels Gentiles sang “Shalom Aleichem” which means “peace be upon you”.
We heard the words of Mayor Andreas Hügerich, who said that “as a city we want to set a signal that the victims won’t be forgotten, a signal against racism and antisemitism. A signal for tolerance, openness and humanity.”
We’ve witnessed the impressive work of these students. A group of remarkable young people, who woke up the collective consciousness of their community and, according to Charlotte Knobloch, VP of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, “they have become role models for sustainable commemorative work in Germany.”
It’s been nearly 2 years since this extraordinary and life-changing trip, yet I continue to watch the town of Lichtenfels “walk the walk” and educate their community about the atrocities born out of Kristallnacht. A street will be now named after Sophie Seliger, a Lichtenfels Jew who was brutally tortured and murdered by the Nazis.
A virtual walking tour throughout Lichtenfels is in the works – a follow-up Gymnasium project stemming from the “13 Jewish Drivers’ Licenses” project – whose goal is to explore not only the 13 Jews from the “13 Jewish Drivers’ Licenses” project but other Lichtenfels Jews and their fate, all while continuing to educate its youth and community about the Holocaust. It will be online (in German and English) and available for all to experience and, most importantly, to learn from.
This past January the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, spoke at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem. In part he said, “Here at Yad Vashem burns the Eternal Flame in remembrance of the victims of the Shoah…The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity, it was committed by my countrymen…it originated from my country…The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire.”
We live in a world where words of hatred have become commonplace and accepted. It was words of hatred that ignited the Holocaust, a chapter in world history that is quickly fading into memory. But I also know that action speaks louder than any hateful word. All I have to do is look back to my time in Lichtenfels for all that they have done and continue to do. And for that, I have forgiveness in my heart.