Lori Tessel is our Senior Vice President, Principal Gifts and just returned from our Federation’s Major Gifts mission to Vienna and Berlin, which was led by Chairman of the Board Les Bider and General Campaign Chair Julie Platt. These are her personal reflections on the meaning of the trip.
Our Federation’s Major Gifts Mission to Berlin and Vienna just returned after 8 days filled with incredible stories of survival, renewal, history and passion. We traveled with 32 donors and explored numerous sites rich in culture, tragedy, and inspiration. Throughout the trip, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was walking on the same streets as those heroic and tragic figures before me. We were told stories of so many who suffered and were killed in the Holocaust, as well as stories of heroes who saved lives and envisioned a better world. For me, our most memorable moments were wrapped in these powerful feelings.
Our three days in Berlin were filled with the lessons of history and the impact of the past on the community’s present. So much in Berlin today is a recognition of the painful past, and walking on the streets, one is constantly reminded of how so many suffered. One of the most remarkable tributes to those murdered is a gold plaque placed in the ground in each spot where someone was murdered during the Holocaust. These markings state the victim’s name and their fate. We were told there are now about 10,000 of these all over the city. On our last day, we drove out to see the home where the Wannsee Conference took place in 1942, where the Nazi’s formulated their “final solution.” It is now a museum called the Wannsee Conference Center. It is a remembrance of murderous hate; and as we learned the tragic fate of the three teenage boys in Israel this week, it is a painful reality that it still exists today. Walking throughout this converted home with its magnificent views of the surrounding landscape, one is confused by the binding of such beauty and hatred.
After Wannsee, we drove to the infamous Track 17 where so many Jews were deported and then murdered by the Nazis. Standing in the rain, we mourned for those who departed from this train station never to return again. We walked down the track embracing each other for comfort as we thought about the pain suffered here. We held a memorial service there to remember and put our thoughts on the victims rather than the murderers. Within our group of 32, we had 8 children of survivors. These individuals shared their parents’ stories of survival and tearfully recounted the heroism, strength and luck that allowed them to survive. Each of their families suffered great losses. However, in all cases, the survivors became parents, grandparents and for some, great grandparents. These children of survivors are now leaders of our Jewish community, all with a deep passion and commitment to make sure that we continue to care for Jews in need, deepen our relationships in the community, and strengthen our next generations with the values that have sustained our people for thousands of years.
The next day, we arrived in Vienna for four full days of history, along with joy and pain, tragedy and beauty, and life and death. Our first night, we dined at Café Landtmann, a Viennese coffeehouse opened in 1873 and known for their famous patronage, including Sigmund Freud and Theodore Herzl. Imagine, at this very spot, these great minds and visionaries sharing their ideas with their peers, students and friends. I am struck by the fact that we are living the reality that both of these gifted individuals often dreamt. On our last day in Vienna, we drove 2 hours to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in the countryside. Feelings similar to those experienced in Wannsee and Track 17 are here as well. How can people carry out such murderous hate in such a gorgeous, idyllic countryside? How do residents of this farming community live with knowledge that Jews and non-Jews alike are being killed in their backyard? While walking through the camp, walking the same steps of the victims, we held each other, we cried and we remembered those who perished. We gathered at the end for a memorial service to honor those who were killed here and all who were murdered during the Holocaust. This time we end arm and arm, singing and uniting our voices so all can hear.
I leave Berlin and Vienna transformed. I recognize that I just walked the same streets as heroes and victims. I realize in order to understand my purpose, I need to do both. I hold in my heart the pain of those who were murdered as well as the dreams of Theodore Herzl. What are our dreams for our future? What will future generations say about us? What can we do today to ensure that our dreams become a reality for those future generations? This trip is a powerful reminder of how The Jewish Federation’s mission to care for Jews in need, engage in the community and ensure our Jewish future is the best answer to all these questions.
Lori Tessel is our Senior Vice President, Principal Gifts and can be contacted at LTessel@JewishLA.org. Special thanks to our donor Paul Pepperman for sharing his photos from the mission. Click here to see the complete gallery of his wonderful visual chronicle of the trip.