Chestertown, MD — Washington College's Office of the Provost & Dean will present "In Search of Ashkenaz: A Bittersweet Journey to Jewish Roots in Germany," a lecture/slide presentation by Dr. Gary S. Schiff, Adjunct Professor of History, at the Casey Academic Center Forum on Tuesday, November 11, at 5 p.m.
The lecture is presented in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of November 1938 in which nearly 100 German Jews were murdered and nearly 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps. It was the prelude to the Holocaust.
"In Search of Ashkenaz" is based on Schiff's July 2008 trip to Jewish historical sites in Germany; these sites tell a story going back through long centuries. "Jews have been living in Germany, as far as we can document, for at least 1,700 years," said Schiff. "There's a much deeper historical narrative there than just the 12 tragic years from 1933 to 1945."
"Ashkenaz" is the Old Hebrew word that referred to the Rhineland in particular and German-speaking lands in general. Herein lay the origins of Yiddish, a unique Hebrew-German language hybrid that the Jews took with them as they later migrated to Eastern Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Today, an estimated 90 percent of the world's Jews are of Ashkenazi descent.
Schiff's journey into the Ashkenazi past included visits to medieval Jewish synagogues and cemeteries dating back to the 11th century, to the ornate 19th-century Rothschild Palace that now houses Frankfurt's Jewish Museum, to the recently restored New Synagogue in Berlin, to the modernistic Munich Synagogue, and to Berlin's Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. (Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors, also designed the forthcoming World Trade Center Memorial to be erected at 9/11's "Ground Zero" in Lower Manhattan.)
Schiff also paid a visit to a place where Ashkenaz's most tragic memories dwell: the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. "My biggest impression was how small it was, how crowded it must have been," he said. Originally built to hold 7,000 inmates, "When the Americans liberated it in 1945, there were 32,000 survivors there among all the dead."
While at the concentration camp site, Schiff encountered a group of young German Army officers. "I asked them why they were here. They said, 'This is part of our training.' I thought that was noteworthy, that they're taught to revisit this grim part of their past, so it won't be forgotten."
Schiff found himself before Dachau's crematorium alongside one of the officers. "I asked him what he thought of it," Schiff recalled. "And he looked me in the eye and just said, 'Horror... Horror.'"
Admission to "In Search of Ashkenaz: A Bittersweet Journey to Jewish Roots in Germany" is free and open to the public.
October 29, 2008