It was November 1938, a few days before Kristallnacht, when Cantor Heinrich Schwarzwald led the final services at Offenbach’s main Synagogue. He recalls beseeching the congregants to “leave your land, the land of your birth, the land of your fathers,” quoting from Genesis 12:1, in Hebrew, so that the members of the German Gestapo who were present, wouldn’t understand him. Tragically, his sense of foreboding was not unfounded, and by the war’s end only 45 of Offenbach’s 5,000 Jews remained.
When he returned years later, Schwarzwald found the synagogue transformed into a magnificent concert hall and discotheque, now called the Offenbach Capitol, with only a small circumcision room remaining as a relic of the building’s Jewish past. Pained by the profane desecration of the synagogue, Schwarzwald resolved never again to step foot inside.
But last week the 90 year-old cantor joined nearly 800 people and Chabad’s Rabbi Menachem and Rivky Gurewitz, at a festive evening of Jewish song and concert starring the renowned popular singer, Avraham Fried, in the synagogue-turned-concert hall. “It was the best thing that ever happened to Offenbach,” says Elaine Hawbaker, an English Jew living in Offenbach.
“Today is the happiest day of my life,” said Schwarzwald. “I am so thankful that I have lived to see my old synagogue once again filled with the sounds of Jewish song and prayer, in celebration of a Jewish presence that was almost entirely wiped out.” The cantor recounted parts of the rabbi’s last sermon in the synagogue, and conversations that took place within the same building more than half a century ago. He spoke of friends and family, most of whom perished at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and recited the Kaddish in their memory.
For the audience and Offenbach’s Jewish community of 2,000, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the evening marked an important milestone. With the recent wave of anti-Semitism pervading Europe, and Offenbach’s large Muslim population, being Jewish has become very unpopular here, explains Rabbi Gurewitz. The concert was yet another one of Chabad’s various programs designed to encourage Jewish pride and a sense of belonging in increasingly hostile surroundings.
The event was a long time in the making, and according to Mrs. Gurewitz, at some points it seemed that it would never happen. “With the Middle East conflicts a source of real contention here, there was a lot of opposition to this concert.
Even the mayor was reluctant to show his support for the Jewish community at a time when the prevalent sentiment is mostly anti-Israel. But the mayor did appear, and in a move that Mrs. Gurewitz describes as “a little big miracle,” he promised to return the Offenbach Capitol (the city’s prized jewel), to the local Jewish community.
In a dramatic finale, the concert concluded with Schwarzwald and Fried together in song, singing “Oseh Shalom Bimromav”—“He Who makes peace above, may He make peace unto us, and to all of Israel, Amen.”