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Return to Fulda

Kenneth R. Weinstein

Once my son Harry’s bar mitzvah teacher told him he was ready to read Torah and Haftarah fluently anywhere in the world, Harry decided that after his bar mitzvah in Washington, D.C. he would have a second bar mitzvah in Fulda, Germany.  Fulda was the town my family fled after Kristallnacht; and, despite the circumstances of their leaving, Harry’s choice seemed natural.

The Jewish community of Fulda dates back a thousand years.  It was the victim of perhaps history’s first blood libel: In 1235, after five Christian boys were killed in Fulda on Christmas Day, residents and traveling Crusaders accused the town’s Jews of ritual murder and burned 34 of them at the stake.  The martyrs of Fulda were memorialized in numerous kinot read on Tisha b’Av.  Remarkably, Emperor Frederick II decided to investigate the chargesthrough a commission composed of learned Jews who had converted to Christianity.  The commissioners found Fulda’s Jews innocent, on grounds that Jewish tradition regarded the handling of blood as impure; the verdict came too late for those executed. 

Fulda’s Jews were targeted again after the Black Plague in 1349, when 600 of them were murdered for purportedly poisoning their Gentile neighbors’ well water.  Nevertheless, despite serial violence, expulsions, and other regular anti-Semitic outbursts, Fulda’s Jews survived, with a synagogue on the Judengasse (Jewish alley) before the 16th century and a community book of memories dating to the 1500s.  The Jewish cemetery was in the town center, a concrete reminder of Jews’ central role in Fulda’s history.

More than surviving, Fulda became known as a learned community.  It had a yeshiva dating to the 17th century, led by rabbis like the Maharam (Meir ben Yaakov ha-Kohen Schiff 1608-44), famous for his talmudic commentaries.  In 1784 the community expanded Jewish learning beyond yeshiva, opening one of Germany’s first Jewish schools to provide general education to young children.  One of Fulda’s last rabbis, Michael Cahn (1849-1920), was a follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz movement, dedicated to both Jewish and secular learning.  The town became known throughout Europe for the kashrut of “Fulder Tefillin“ and produced more than its fair share of Jews who served in World War I and graduated from gymnasium with an abitur (German baccaulaureate). Fulda’s last synagogue was a small but beautiful Moorish structure built in 1859 and expanded in 1927.  In 1930 Fulda’s Jews were a close-knit modern Orthodox community of about 1,100, four percent of Fulda’s overall population of 28,000. 

For a long time after the Nazis came to power, my grandfather, a physician and a veteran of World War I, decorated with the Iron Cross for his service on the Western front, refused to leave Germany.  He, like other Jewish and non-Jewish Fuldaers, hoped Hitler would not last.  But on Kristallnacht in 1938, the synagogue and the book of memories were destroyed.  Two years later, the cemetery, where my great-grandfather was buried, was paved over. 

Like other Fulda Jews, my grandfather and his family, including my late mother, escapedto Switzerland, France, Mexico and, finally, Sunnyside, Queens.  By 1939, only 415 Jews remained in Fulda; by 1942, more than half of them had been sent to the death camps.  In 1965 there were 20 Jews in Fulda; in the 1970s and 1980s the number had dwindled into the teens.  Services were rarely held.  Cold War Fulda was 15 minutes from the East German border on the road to Frankfurt, a likely battleground in the event of hostilities; when a minyan was required, there were soldiers from the nearby U.S. Army base.

All this changed in 1990, when a newly reunified Germany decided to open its doors to Jews from the former Soviet Union.  German’s official Jewish population, 28,000 in 1989, has ballooned to almost 120,000 registered community members (and is probably more than twice that figure if one includes “unaffiliated” Russian Jews).  Historic communities teetering toward disappearance have been revived by Jews from the East. 

The revival has brought problems.  As brilliantly captured in Wladimir Kaminer’s best-selling novel Russiendisko (“Russian Disco,” 2000), many refugees had no past connection to Jewish religious life; manyparadox of paradoxessought refuge in Germany for economic reasons alone.  But the benefits of the revival are real.  The Jewish population of Munich is now larger, at 10,000, than it was before World War II and worships in a beautiful synagogue on the same Jakobsplatz property where its pre-war synagogue stood.  Berlin’s Jewish population, a mere 6,500 in the 1980s, now stands at 120,000, a full two-thirds of the pre-war figure.

Because the German government distributed the refugees throughout the country, the influx has also affected smaller German cities and towns.  Historically significant communities, especially in the former East GermanyErfurt, Potsdam, Leipzighave seen the startling, vibrant return of a Jewish life virtually nonexistent since the war. Fulda’s handful of post-war Jews found themselves welcoming as many as 500 newcomers from the EastRussia,Ukraine, and even Turkmenistan.  Few spoke so much as a word of German.  Even fewer grew up with any sense of Jewish heritage or practice.

In smaller towns like Fulda, the official Jewish community and its agencies have served as a gateway into German life, assisting immigrants with German language lessons and access to housing.  They have also helped navigate the bureaucracies and other public institutions that mystify all immigrants to modern democracies. 

Many of Fulda’s Jewish immigrants have adjusted with remarkable speed and skill.  Today, Fulda’s Jewish community is led with dedication and professionalism by Reuven Melamed, a Ukrainian immigrant in his mid-40s.  Melamed had little Jewish education in his childhood but received some in a Yeshiva Mekor Chaim program that was run by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Moscow to promote civic and cultural leadership skills among Jewish emigrés.  He leyns Torah and Haftarah every Shabbat.  Leading his new community has become his life’s work.

In 2009 I took my daughter, Raina, to visit Fulda.  We were haunted by the empty lot where the synagogue stood and the concrete buildings on the site of the cemetery but overwhelmed by our warm reception at Fulda’s new synagogue in the renovated 1900 building that housed the pre-war Jewish Community School.  At a Shabbat dinner, I spoke in German as a “son of the community”; Reuven translated into Russian.  I met Ruth Hess, an Auschwitz survivor and the last living member of the pre-war community of Jews.  When I introduced myself as Max Rosenberg’s grandson, she said without hesitation that she remembered visiting him as her physician at his home on the Nonnengassemore than 70 years earlier.

Hess talked about the new immigrants in terms I would have expected from my grandparents.  At first, she said, she didn’t care for them.  (Her old community shared the traditional Yekke disdain for Ostjuden; Polish Jews, before the war, had their own separate shul on the Judengasse.)  But, though language remained a barrier, she had come to accept and like the immigrants as fellow Jews.

This summer, three years after that first trip, I returned to Fulda with Harry.  As he was called to the bimah to leyn, then lead Musaf, I reflected that such a moment would never have seemed possible to my grandparents or my mother, for whom Jewish Fulda was always something dead and gone.  I translated into German, and Reuven again translated into Russian, as Harry told the community how lucky he was to read Torah and Haftarah in his family’s birthplace, a privilege denied by the Nazis to his great-uncle and so many others. 

In the three years between my two trips, the community has evolved.  The level of Yiddishkayt seems significantly improved; more people are able and eager to lead prayers.  The level of spoken German is also markedly better.

But there are new worries. Fulda’s Jewish population is again declining, from 460 in 2009 to barely 400 today. As in many smaller communities, a disproportionate percentage of Fulda’s population is past child-bearing age.  Concerns about whether Jews will ever be fully accepted in Germany, revived by the recent controversy over the legality of circumcision and, more generally, the apparent rise of European anti-Semitism, are still largely theoretical; but the demographic challenges to Jewish life are immediate and concrete.  Increasingly, younger Jews seek educational and economic opportunities in places with larger Jewish populations, like Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, and even Jerusalem.  

In one sense, this is a healthy sign of their integration into Jewish and German life; but there is something bittersweet about it, too.  Looking back over the community’s thousand-year history, I wonder where its future lies.  The Nazis virtually destroyed it.  Soviet Jews revived itbut, perhaps, only temporarily.  As older Jews pass away and younger ones move away, the fate of communities like Fulda again swings in the balance.  I wonder whether my children’s children will enjoy the same opportunity Raina and Harry did for a celebratory return to the home of their ancestors. 

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