Have you ever been to a place where the weight of history is palpable? I visited a place like that in Germany, in the center of the city of Frankfurt.
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a walled enclosure where the Jews of Frankfurt were buried from the thirteenth century to 1828. During the Nazi era, much of the graveyard was desecrated and the stones were removed. Only one corner remains undisturbed, filled with headstones marked with Hebrew lettering and covered with moss. On the walls surrounding the cemetery, small plaques bear the names of the approximately 12,000 Frankfurt Jews who were killed during World War II. Among them is Anne Frank, who was born in the city.
In the middle of the bustle of Frankfurt, this is a place of silence. As we stood next to the grave markers, our guide told us about the Jewish history of the city, how Jews were a vital part of its society for many centuries despite living under burdensome restrictions and being prohibited by law from most professions. He spoke about the creation of the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and of the terrible Nazi years.
I admire the ways in which Germany has come to terms with the dark parts of its past, but places like this bring to mind the question of how this could happen, how a nation so cultured and educated and sophisticated could produce such evil. It is a reminder as well of how religion can be twisted (Martin Luther’s writings on the Jews of his day, for example, were used as Nazi propaganda). It is a cautionary tale for all of us in the modern world, of how the forces of hate can engulf a society.
And so this little cemetery remains, a keeper of memory and bearer of the weight of history.