A Rabbi and a Doctor Walked into Berlin…

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the official Holocaust memorial of Germany

A rabbi and a doctor, each the only child of Holocaust survivors, walking buddies, longtime friends, and a 20-year age difference between them. Each searching for signs of the life their parents were forced to leave behind in Germany more than a generation ago. Each wondering if atonement and redemption are possible. Each looking for answers to questions they’d carried throughout their lives.


It was against this backdrop that Rabbi Mark Schiftan and Doctor Frank Boehm, both now retired, set off on what they both say was a pilgrimage to Berlin. “It all began with our Monday walks,” says Schiftan, “I’d read an article in The Atlantic about what the German government had done to memorialize the Holocaust, and said to Frank, ‘Let’s go.’”


That article, written by Clint Smith, titled “America still can’t figure out how to memorialize the sins of our history. What can we learn from Germany,” lays out a path from the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 to the present day, unpacking the ways the German government deals with their painful history. Schiftan says he had three main goals for the trip. “First, since we both have German ancestry and both our families were forced to leave, we wanted to be there to say, ‘We’re still here.’ Second, I wanted to see what the German government did to atone and apologize for the Holocaust. And finally, what have they done to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation, and to teach the broader lesson of what happens when human beings are dehumanized.”


Boehm received German citizenship last year, something he says completed a circle in his family. “In 1935 the German government took away my parents’ citizenship. In 2023 I got it back.” Boehm says he kept his new citizenship papers in his pocket while he was in Berlin.


Smith’s article begins by describing the horrors the American soldiers encountered when they entered Dachau and details their reactions. A subtitle in the article says, “The first memorials to the Holocaust were the bodies in the concentration camps.” But neither the article, nor Schiftan and Boehm, dwell on the most obvious examples of man’s inhumanity to man. The pair visited many other sites that bear witness to what happened there.


They visited Gleis 17, fifty yards of train track from which Jews in Berlin were deported to concentration camps. Along the wall of the memorial are plaques with the date, number of

Jews to board the train, the names, and the camps they were sent to. Schiftan says he read every single name on each plaque, the last one dated 1945 with just 18 Jews deported. “I needed to pay honor to those people. You see these things and realize it was an abhorrent moment in time.”


Possibly the most impactful place Schiftan and Boehm visited was Wannsee, an idyllic country home outside of Berlin along the bank of Wannsee Lake. The surroundings belie the villa’s dark past. Wannsee is where, on January 20, 1942, leaders of the Nazi regime gathered to discuss and refine their ideas about implementing “the final solution,” the plan to exterminate once and for all, the Jews of Eastern Europe. Boehm says the experience hit him hard. “I was surprised at my reaction. I cried the hardest there.” Boehm says all copies of the original 30-page plan were burned, except for one. “Here was a country at the center of culture and science of the world. For all that to end with these 15 individuals…” Here Boehm, still moved, is at a loss for any more words.



Each morning, as is Schiftan and Boehm’s custom, the two met up early for coffee and a walk. They roamed the streets of Berlin, walking in the footsteps of their parents, soaking in the sights and sounds of the modern-day city, and feeling surprisingly connected to their past. They even visited a local flea market. “I felt connected to my parents,” says Schiftan, who is fluent in Yiddush, “I was speaking as they would to each other.” Boehm says he felt acceptance. “I felt a brightness there. I felt at home.” Schiftan found other unexpected comforts during his wanderings in Berlin. “Everything that was a value with which I was raised was a value there. The punctuality, the orderliness, the commitment to the best way to get things done.”

During the walks around the city, they encountered yet another sign of German atonement. Embedded in the cobblestones in front of many of the houses are small metal plaques, called Stolperstein, or “stumbling stone.” Each of these brass cubes are engraved with the name of the person who once lived there, their birthday, and other dates, day of deportation, date, and location of death. The stones were created in 1996 by German artist Gunter Demnig, whose father fought for Nazi Germany. Demnig continues to create and place the stones today.



Boehm says the Stolpersteine are but one sign the German people are continuing to remember and learn from their past. “I feel the country is saying they’re sorry in the best way.” Schiftan agrees. “They excel at looking at that time in history and not only doing a full atonement, but also teaching about it to make sure it is not repeated.”


There were lighter moments, too. A visit to the opera for a performance of, wait for it, Richard Wagner, an irony not lost on Boehm and Schiftan. “Mark wasn’t sure I’d want to go,” says Boehm, “But it was an incredible experience.”


A visit to the Neue Synagogue brought further satisfaction that Jewish life is thriving in Berlin’s small community “There were young kids running around at the day school,” says Boehm. And Schiftan even took his place on the bimah for a moment of triumph and reflection. “I felt totally at home there,” says Schiftan.” Still, during services, the two stood to say Kaddish. “We wanted to say it [kaddish] even though it wasn’t a yahrtzeit. We wanted to pay respect and remember,” says Boehm.

Just a day after their return, Boehm and Schiftan reflect on all they saw, and what they found. Schiftan says he was struck by the comparison between the book burnings in the 1930s and what is happening in the United States today. As the two stood in front of Berlin’s main university, the site where 20,000 banned books were burned in 1933, Schiftan says, “We have a long way to go in this country to deal with the fear of looking at our problematic past as opposed to looking at those lessons and seeing how we can atone so it doesn’t happen again.” Schiftan shares a prophetic quote from German author Heinrich Heine who said in the early 1920s, “Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”


Both Schiftan and Boehm say this trip was an opportunity to not only learn but to pay homage to their parents. “I was always enamored by my father’s vision and his decision to leave Germany. After he heard Hitler speak in 1931 or ’32, he told my mother they had to leave,” says Boehm.


Schiftan says he experienced a full range of emotion. “We saw horrific sites that made me wonder how this all could have happened. And other moments where the part of me of Germanic descent felt at home. I felt my father’s presence with me.”


Schiftan also says many questions remain that will remain unanswered. “I would have loved to have asked my parents: what was it like? That sense that things were closing in. What was it like leaving your family behind? How often did you think about your brothers, your mother, and what happened to them? I think my father would have loved knowing his son came back and stood as a Jew in his homeland.”


Boehm says, “A rabbi and a doctor walked into Berlin and felt everything that was there.”


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