BY ARLENE APPELROUTH / AJT //
When I first moved here, it surprised me that whenever I met someone, after exchanging names and hometowns, the next question was always, “Where do you go to church?”
I knew Atlanta was in the Bible Belt but still was thrown off. At the time, we were living in a rented house in an old section of Dunwoody. Before long, I was uncomfortable there; the breaking point came when our 5-year-old daughter came home with a question that made me particularly uneasy.
“Why is it bad we don’t believe in Jesus?” she asked.
She hadn’t been allowed to enter the only other house on our street where there were children because of her religion and understandably wanted to know why she had been denied simply because she was Jewish. As a result, I told my husband Dan we had to move to Sandy Springs, where I knew a family whose block was 50 percent Jewish.
We bought our first house in Princeton Square, and the neighbors on either side were Jewish. And we felt even more at home knowing our old family friend Rabbi Donald Tam had arrived in Atlanta and was serving as an assistant rabbi at The Temple.
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It was great for my husband to reconnect with Rabbi Tam; the two had been college roommates at the University of Florida. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s population was booming, and more Jewish families were moving to the northern suburbs. We heard of a group from Martin’s Landing and Dunwoody were thinking about hiring a rabbi for the High Holy Days and soon became one of 20 families that contributed $50 to the cause.
The turnout was so large, a rabbi from the Hebrew Union convinced the organizers of the event to create a new synagogue. This became Temple Emanu-El, of which we were founding members.
It was thrilling to be part of something new. My husband had a strong Jewish background and a great baritone voice, so he volunteered to lead services until our fledgling but rapidly growing congregation could bring in a permanent spiritual leader.
Six months later, Rabbi Tam came on board; Dan remained on the bimah as lay cantor.
Between our synagogue affiliation and membership in the Jewish community center, we felt well-connected. We also participated in lectures and events from other organizations and institutions; for example, we never missed the Yom HaShoah observance at Greenwood Cemetery.
At the cemetery stands a permanent monument to remember the 6 million. Built in 1965, it is our city’s first Holocaust memorial (and the second-oldest in the nation), symbolically representing the unmarked graves of those who died at the hands of Nazis.
On this past April 7, my husband and I were – as always – among the hundreds of Atlantans sitting in folding chairs in front of the Greenwood Memorial.
A Moving Observance
This year, Yom HaShoah marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous event in Germany and Austria. Benjamin Hirsch, the keynote speaker at this year’s Greenwood observance, experienced this tragedy first-hand.
At the time, Hirsch was a 6-year-old boy in Germany. He shared his dramatic memories of the “Night of Broken Glass” and what happened to him afterwards in a 25-minute speech that was as descriptive as it was eloquent.
All in attendance sat and listened intently, mesmerized. I kept getting chills up and down my spine as Hirsch’s words made the holocaust come alive.
“My 11-year-old brother Asher came running home from shul screaming, ‘The synagogue’s on fire,’” Hirsch recounted. “We raced around the corner to see flames. Later, three Gestapo men with weapons and police dogs came knocking at our door, looking for my father. My mother came to the door, holding my nine-month-old sister Roselene in her arms.”
Hirsch described how the scene unfolded: One of the Nazis grabbed his sister, threw her on the floor and pointed a gun at the child as he shouted that his mother had 30 seconds to produce her husband, else he would shoot the baby, Asher and then Hirsch himself.
The words were chilling repeated all these years later:
“‘I will shoot all seven of your children, and then shoot you.’”
Fortunately, Hirsch and four of his siblings survived because his mother was able to place them on a Kindertransport, a train that brought Jewish children to major cities in Europe. His mother walked with her children for more than two miles to a station in Frankfurt, where they boarded a train to Paris.
“I could not understand Mom crying as she packed my suitcase, or my older siblings moping around the house,” he said.
Hirsch then detailed the compelling story of his subsequent years, spent in France, and later freedom while walking on a beach in Portugal prior to boarding a ship to New York. In the U.S., he lived in orphanages and foster homes and experienced anti-Semitism in school in Atlanta but learned to defend himself against bullies.
Eventually, he grew up to become a prominent, award-winning architect and the designer of the very memorial at which he spoke. During his time at the podium, the 80-year-old survivor expressed gratitude for his wife of 54 years, Jacqueline; their four children; 23 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
As I listened to Hirsch give his speech, I felt honored to be in his presence, proud to be a Jew, and grateful to call Atlanta my home.
Arlene Appelrouth earned a degree in news-editorial journalism from the University of Florida and her career as a writer and journalist spans a 50-year period; she currently studies memoir writing while working on her first book.