BERLIN (AFP) — A Jewish heirloom at the center of one of the most searing images of the Nazis’ rise has returned to Germany, as political leaders pledged on Monday to combat a resurgence of antisemitism.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier joined in the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum used during the so-called Festival of Lights, which belonged to the Posners, a German Jewish family.
In 1931, a rabbi’s wife, Rachel Posner, photographed the family’s brass menorah on their windowsill in the northern port city of Kiel.
Opposite their apartment was the Nazi party’s regional headquarters with a large swastika flag hanging menacingly from the facade.
On the back of the snapshot Rachel wrote an inscription: “The flag says ‘death to Judaism,’ the light says ‘Judaism will live for ever.'”
The image came to stand for the looming threat to Europe’s Jews — six million of whom would perish in the Holocaust — but also Jewish resilience.
Steinmeier said at the sundown ceremony at Berlin’s Bellevue palace that the lighting of the menorah filled him with “deep gratitude and humility and above all, happiness.”
He thanked the Posner family for their “generosity” in sharing their family history on what was certain to also be a “painful” visit to Germany from Israel.
Yehuda Mansbach, the couple’s grandson, wept openly after lighting the two candles.
Steinmeier called the rebirth of Jewish life in Germany after the Holocaust a “miracle,” noting that there were now menorahs glowing in “tens of thousands of windows” across the country this Hanukkah.
“This light is a strong societal symbol against hatred,” he said, symbols that were “bitterly necessary” due to “growing antisemitism.”
“Each of us must stand up against every form of antisemitism,” he said. “No one must look away. And our state, our authorities must be vigilant, and relentless in prosecuting crimes.”
Germany in May reported a new record in the number of politically motivated crimes last year, including a nearly 29-percent jump in anti-Semitic offenses to 3,027. The vast majority — 2,552 — were attributed to the far-right scene.
The Posners’ granddaughter, Nava Gilo, 68, told AFP it was a “big honor” to be welcomed by the president, calling the event “very moving.”
“It’s complicated (to be in Germany),” she said.
“We came because it is an educational mission for us. We are very glad that we came, to meet all the good people. Many people in Germany, like us, want to make sure that something like the Holocaust never happens again.”
In 1933, just months after the Nazis came to power, Rabbi Akiva Posner, Rachel and their three children Avraham Chaim, Tova and Shulamit fled Germany for Palestine, taking their menorah with them as they built a new life.
Years later they loaned the relic to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with the proviso that the family could use the candelabrum each year for Hanukkah.
More than 90 years on, the descendants brought the menorah back to Kiel on a trip sponsored by the German Friends of Yad Vashem, a grassroots remembrance group. It was displayed in a local museum for three days last week before the family brought it to Berlin.
Rachel’s photograph only came to international attention in the 1970s when a Kiel museum put out a call for relics recalling Jewish life in the city.
Since then the image has served as a chilling symbol of the horrors to come but also the Jewish community’s defiance and will to survive.
Also on Monday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz celebrated Hanukkah for what he said was the first time with children, at a Jewish school in Berlin that is also hosting young refugees from Ukraine.
Scholz noted that Germany’s Jewish community with about 200,000 members was the “third largest in Europe” — a fact he also described as a “miracle.”
He thanked its leaders for their support of the Ukrainian newcomers, and German pupils for “making them feel welcome”.