Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Duelling is crazy

Ferdinand Lassalle fighting for Social Democracy
and human rights
While in Polish Wrosław, formerly German Breslau, I visited the Jewish cemetery. I took a taxi because it was not within walking distance of the city. My young driver only spoke broken English, whereas Wrosław's older generation is often quite at ease with German.

One trip to the cemetery was 18 Słoty, so I asked my driver how much it would cost if he waited 20 minutes and took me back downtown afterward. He answered: Another 18. I said: But you have to wait for me. He continued: For that fare, I shall stay the whole afternoon

I promised him 50 Słoty for all, including 20 minutes of waiting time, for my only intention was to visit Ferdinand Lassalle's tomb. This guy founded the Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein in Leipzig on May 23, 1836, and is considered the father of social democracy in German-speaking countries. Note Lassalle was far from being a proletarian, for he died prematurely, shot in a duel.

An old man guarded the entrance to the quiet graveyard. He was born the same year as me, and with him, I talked German. He offered me a special price for the entrance fee if I bought a brochure about the Jewish cemetery on sale in several major languages. He strongly recommended visiting Edith Stein's parents' graves, which were, strangely enough, buried in separate plots. Edmund Husserl's assistant, Edith Stein, once taught and lived in Freiburg before converting to Catholicism and entering the Carmelites' Order. When the Nazi persecution became violent, her order sent her to a hideout in a Dutch convent. All in vain, the Gestapo tracked her down and transported her to Auschwitz.

Lassalle's tomb
is made from black marble
Nevertheless, my attention was rather focused on Lassalle's clearly marked and well-kept tomb. I took several photos and then went back slowly to my waiting taxi passing the weather-beaten tombstones of the Werth- and Pringsheims, the Rubin- and Edelsteins, the Cohens and Meyers.

I asked my driver to take me to the recently redecorated synagogue. This relatively small building hidden in a backyard cannot be compared with the impressive Breslau synagogue that the Nazis burned down in the Reichskristallnacht on November 9, 1938.

I just arrived in time to catch the tail of a guided tour in German. A female guide informed us about Breslau's long-gone rich Jewish culture and history. She frequently took advice in Polish from an older petite gentleman dressed in black and wearing the kippa. Still impressed by Lassalle's "aristocratic" death, I asked him how the Jewish faith considered fighting a duel, a deed that the Catholic church regards as a deadly sin. The interpreting guide said: Here is an interesting question and translated it for the male expert. After some deliberation, he simply answered: I don't know.

We continued our guided tour, passing many photos of famous Jewish personalities from Breslau, among them Max Born, the Nobel prize physicist, well known to me. Suddenly a door in the back of the room opened, and an elegantly dressed gentleman wearing a beard and a kippa entered. The guide introduced him as the Great Rabbi of Wrosław. He carried a briefcase in one hand; in the other, he held a Starbucks grande coffee to go. He greeted our group briefly in German and started in an accented Polish, telling us about the present Jewish community in Wrosław, counting 300 members. 

While I was deliberating whether his coffee was kosher, he continued explaining that a recent CNN report about Jewish revival in Poland has given rise to 20 telephone calls per day from people discovering their Jewish origins. When he had finished his lecture, I used the opportunity to formulate my question again. Following some back-and-forth discussions between our guide and the Rabbi, he answered: It depends.

After the tour, I walked around a bit, studying the exhibition, and eventually left. And there it happened that just in front of me walked the Great Rabbi and the petite gentleman in black ... and they were talking in English! I approached and said: Pardon me, Rabbi, was there some misunderstanding? Maybe I should have asked my question in English and repeated it accordingly. He turned to me: Oh, you mean Lassalle fought a duel because of a woman? That's crazy! And left me stunned.

And suddenly everything fell into place: CNN, the coffee to go, his accented Polish. He was an American of Polish origin sent to Wrosław as a development worker (Entwicklungshelfer) for the Jewish community.

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