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KOLOT – Davka in Berlin

By Abba and Dvora Caspi

During this past Chanukah, I was privileged to participate along with the Zamir Chorale of Boston and six other choirs from Israel, France, Italy and Germany in the fourth annual Louis Lewandowski Festival in Berlin, Germany, helping bring Jewish music back to the city where that great composer first set liturgical texts as beautiful choral compositions.

After a week of experiencing the joy of Jewish music and the sadness within me at the monuments and museums that are connected to Berlin’s tragic war history, I felt called upon to share a heart-felt “davka” moment with Zamir.

I was in an emotional place at Synagoge Rykestrasse, after rehearsing Yigdal and Adon Olam with Zamir and the other choirs for the final performance of the festival, which was conducted by the arranger of Adon Olam, Samuel Adler, himself a refugee from Germany.

Dvora Caspi at Weissensee Cemetery

Dvora Caspi at Weissensee Cemetery.

I was coming face-to-face with my own family’s tragic story. My grandparents were imprisoned in Terezin (Theresienstadt) and then murdered in Treblinka just two weeks before I was born, and now I was about to sing Jewish music davka in Berlin, in this beautiful synagogue that had once been used as a stable for the Nazi soldiers during the war years.

The tears and laughter of this powerful experience felt paradoxically amazing. Yes, in spite of everything, we are here.

I was very moved when our group participated, together with many German Jews and gentiles, in the rededication of the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue that had been closed for restoration, seeing the lighting of the ner tamid, the eternal light, the Chanukah lights and the Shabbat lights, while watching a children’s choir. I was part of a new history of revival in what had been East Berlin.

In the Jewish Museum there are hard-hitting stories of individuals, documenting their lives and their deaths resulting from extreme antisemitism, and I was moved to tears by the power of seeing these words in Berlin and stepping on those dramatic faces.

At the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, I placed stones at memorial plaques for Terezin, Auschwitz and Treblinka – places where my family was imprisoned and murdered in 1942. I was wearing my butterfly jacket while I was there and I was thinking of the children’s poetry book written in Terezin, called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, since I have had the privilege of seeing many beautiful butterflies.

This Water Tower, which was across the street from the synagogue where we had our final performance, is now surrounded by a children’s playground. (It reminded me of a Round House in Northhampton, Mass., where my parents lived when my mother studied social work at Smith.) I decided to walk around it and realized that the sign in German said it was used as a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1933. While I appreciate that the Germans now face their history, it felt like a paradox to me.

Meeting the Israeli singing group and Israelis living in Berlin, seeing dreidels – sevivonim – and chanukiyot in public spaces.

Connecting with a grandmother named Dvora, an Israeli living in Berlin, and her toddler granddaughter, Orli, who held my hand, and deciding to be penpals.

Sharing meaningful and deep stories with Irit from the Amakim Choir of Israel, and accepting her invitation to visit her on my next trip to Israel, where I lived with my family for 16 years.

I did not think I would ever want to come to Berlin, where the “final solution” was decided upon, and yet here I was feeling uplifted by the beautiful music and human connections I was creating.

I am very grateful for having had this opportunity to share my davka moment and experience this story in a new way through the transcendent power of music.

Thank you, Zamir, for welcoming me wholeheartedly and making this experience possible.

Abba and Dvora Caspi live in Manchester.

Readers are invited to submit original work on a topic of their choosing to Kolot. Submissions should be sent to

CAP: Abba and Dvora Caspi at Rykerstrasse Synagogue.

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