Hanukkah and Christmas Lights Intertwine in Former Nazi Hotbed
JNS.org – Most residents of Tübingen, Germany, probably don’t even know that the local “synagogenplatz” (synagogue plaza) even exists.
The rusted memorial to the synagogue — which burned to the ground during Kristallnacht — is one of the few tributes to Jewish life that once existed in the city, not that Jews ever really thrived there.
The source of Tübingen’s growth (its population is 90,000) and fame is its university, founded in 1477 by Eberhard the Bearded, who expelled all Jews from the medieval town. Before the rise of Hitler, about 100 Jews prayed at the synagogue, which was built in 1882. The names and fate of each are inscribed in metal; most managed to flee in time.
An apartment building has long since taken the place of the synagogue, and just a handful of Jews live in the city today. But on the fourth night of Hanukkah, about two dozen people gathered to light a life-sized hanukkiah in the cold and rain to honor the victims of the Holocaust, singing Hebrew hymns as a statement that light will overcome darkness — and that, at least in this town, miracles can really happen.
The bearers of these Hanukkah candles weren’t Jewish. In fact, many of them are descendants of avowed Nazis. They are members of TOS Ministries, a church in Tübingen that — for the past 10 years — has made it a religious mission to redeem the town, the souls of its residents and the Christian faith, by connecting Christianity to its Jewish roots, researching personal family history as it relates to the Holocaust and standing up for Israel.
While we should remember “the history of the perpetrators … the other part of history is the massive, passive majority who just stood by and watched and who remained silent, especially in churches,” said Pastor Jobst Bittner, the founder of TOS Ministries, from his office at the church complex.
A portion of the railroad tracks nearby, once used to deport Jews, has been set at the church’s entrance — as a reminder to “never forget.”
In American terms, TOS is an evangelical church. In Germany, it’s called a “Charismatic church.” What differentiates TOS from its Christian Zionist counterparts is that it operates from a city that was once a Nazi ideological hotbed.
Tübingen University was the first academic institution to proudly declare itself “Judenfrei” (free of Jews) under Hitler. Its prestige increased under the Third Reich, due to its institutes on “racial biology” and the “Jewish question.” TOS estimates that 600,000 Jews were murdered at the hands or orders of SS officers who came from Tübingen.
“What I teach in seminars and what I especially try to get across in churches is that antisemitism is nothing that began with Hitler, but is something that was there and hidden for centuries, especially in the church,” Bittner said. “And so every time the churches don’t take an honest look at church history, that prevails.” He said that “this hidden form of antisemitism is still there, and it usually finds expression in relation to Israel.”
In Israel and internationally, the church is best known for the annual “March of Life” program that started in the Tübingen region in 2007, to “reverse” the Nazi “death marches” that saw German soldiers liquidate concentration camps — much to the locals’ indifference. Since then, the marches have become meeting points for reconciliation between descendants of Holocaust victims and perpetrators.
Bittner’s theological studies, research and personal worship led him to discover Tübingen’s silence about its dark past. Some streets were still named after Nazi war criminals, and vestiges of Nazi-inspired teachings were still extant in university classrooms. As a sign of progress, the church points to the mayor the town it elected in 2007, whose grandfather was Jewish. City plaques now trace a “Nazi trail” of historical sites relating to National Socialism. And here’s the kicker: Today, the church celebrates Hanukkah.
“At some point we realized: if we think about the Jewish roots of our faith, somehow these festivals and holidays are a part of that,” Bittner said. “It started with Hanukkah. It was kind of the first [Jewish] festival we discovered for ourselves.”
Step into the church’s lobby during Hanukkah and you might mistake it for a synagogue. Walls are adorned with paintings of rabbis and Jewish children. “Mazel tov” is written on the bar, where hot drinks are served to the church’s 400 members. The sanctuary feels more like an auditorium, dominated by a statue of a menorah, with its fabric flames whirling alongside flags of the US, Israel and Germany.
The main Christian “giveaway” is a large wooden cross on the stage, situated behind a wooden pyramid decorated with Christmas ornaments. Oddly, there is no Christmas tree. For TOS, this Christmas icon is pagan at its source.
But at the Sunday service, there’s no mistaking the church’s Christian nature, even though the “Be’er Sheva” worship band sings passages from Psalms in perfect Hebrew — alongside rousing gospel music. These services are meant to recall the song-and-dance filled “house churches” that Bittner believes served as “synagogues” for Jesus’s early followers in Jerusalem. Christianity, he teaches, lost this informal and inspirational style when it was adopted by political forces hostile to Jews.
The TOS Hanukkah programming included nightly hanukkiah lightings, each at a different spot of significance for Tübingen’s Jew-hating past; a lecture on contemporary German antisemitism held at the university; a class on Yiddish; and a show featuring “The Dreydels,” a Jewish band from the region.
“It’s not that we demand that people observe this holiday,” said Bittner, “but… working through our history and facing the consequences, [we] birthed a deep love for Israel in our hearts.”