On Nov. 8, 1938, Kristallnacht, the German synagogue in Augsburg where Rabbi Walter Jacob’s father served as rabbi was set on fire by Nazis.
Almost 80 years to the day, Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar of Rodef Shalom Congregation, received a letter from German President Frank Walter Steinmeier, expressing condolences and shock in regard to the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill.
“My wife and I were filled with sorrow by the news of the attack on the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh which claimed so many lives,” the letter stated, according to Jacob, translating the missive from German to English. “Let me express my compassion and solidarity along with deeply felt sympathy for the survivors. For you I wish the strength to comfort the survivors in their sorrow and despair.
“Your family sought shelter from the Nazi persecution and found a new and safe home in the United States,” the letter continued. “During our time together last year I was touched and moved by your memories of those difficult times.
I remain all the more concerned now that you have become a renewed victim of such barbaric anti-Semitism. I can hardly fathom the sorrow and pain of lost friends in your neighboring community. These recent events again demonstrate that the struggle against anti-Semitism must continue unabated. For this you and the Jewish community can count on me and my country to always be at your side.”
Jacob has a continuing connection to the country of his birth. In 1999, Jacob — along with Rabbi Walter Homolka — established the Abraham Geiger College in Germany, the first post-Holocaust rabbinical seminary in Europe. Abraham Geiger College is funded by the German government and charges no tuition fees. In 2006, the college ordained its first three rabbis — the first rabbis to be ordained in Germany since the Holocaust.
In January 1933, there were about 565,000 Jews living in Germany. In 1950, there were just 37,000, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But there has been a resurgence of Jewish life in Germany, with 100,000 now living there, making it the eighth-largest Jewish community in the world and the fourth largest in Western Europe, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Soon after his father’s synagogue was burned during Kristallnacht, Jacob and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in Springfield, Mo. Jacob was 9 years old.
Jacob went on to earn his rabbinic ordination in 1955 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He served as senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom from 1966 until his retirement in 1996.
Although Jacob knows firsthand the horrors of anti-Semitism, he does not believe the massacre at the Tree of Life building necessarily foretells a crisis for Jews in the United States.
“It’s probably part of my nature,” Jacob said. “I see this more as an isolated matter, but it is serious.”
The response of the wider community to the attack has contributed to his optimism.
“The reaction of the whole country shows they are with us,” said Jacob. “That’s what needs to be emphasized. On the other hand, we need to look at this very seriously to see what can be done that’s useful.”
“Obvious” solutions include addressing access to assault rifles, he said, but the community also needs to consider “how do we get people to be more sensitive to their neighbors.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.