After 90 Years, a Menorah That Symbolized Defiance Is Rekindled in Germany

BERLIN — Rachel Posner, a rabbi’s wife in Kiel, Germany, took a photograph in 1931 that she had no idea would one day resonate with people across the world: It was of her family’s Hanukkah menorah, nine candles framed in a window through which a large Nazi banner could be seen hanging across the street.

“‘Death to Judah,’ so the flag says. ‘Judah lives forever,’ so the light answers,” she scribbled defiantly on the back of the photograph.

Now, 90 years since her family fled Germany with the menorah, it has returned, along with her descendants, to be lit for the first time in the country since the family escaped.

“It was a complicated decision, to come here. I had mixed feelings about going to Germany,” said Nava Gilo, Ms. Posner’s granddaughter.

She and her brother brought the menorah with them from Israel, where the family has made a home since fleeing Germany in 1933, before the country was established. They had never been to Germany and said they never had a desire to go to the place where their relatives had been persecuted or had died in the Holocaust.

Ms. Gilo said that changed for her earlier this year after the mayor of the Posner family’s former hometown, Kiel, wrote to them. He invited them to visit an exhibition about their family’s history — and their iconic photo.

The Posner descendants decided not just to come to Germany, but to bring the menorah with them.

For most of the year, the menorah is exhibited at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem. The family donated it on the condition that it could reclaim the heirloom every Hanukkah.

Its visit to Germany this year, organized by the German Friends of Yad Vashem, began with a trip to Kiel and ended on Monday, the second night of Hanukkah, with the lighting of the menorah on a window sill at Berlin’s grand Bellevue Palace, the official residence of the German president.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, center, and his wife, Elke Budenbender, lit a candle during a Hanukkah celebration on Monday with Yehuda Mansbach, grandson of the Posner family.Credit…Filip Singer/EPA, via Shutterstock

“We are experiencing the wonderful gift of reconciliation,” said the president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the start of the ceremony. “And today, we see that 90 years after this menorah was last lit in Germany, there is once again a daily Jewish life here.”

He lit the candles alongside Ms. Gilo’s brother, Yehuda Mansbach, who sang the blessings over the candles.

Ms. Gilo said she believed their grandmother understood the power of the photo of the family menorah, but could never have foreseen just how much it would resonate.

The picture was one of 17 photos the rabbi’s wife sent to Germany in 1974, when the Kiel museum put out a call for photographs of Jewish life. Yet it was only two decades later, Ms. Gilo said, that the image began to spread.

Ms. Gilo thought her grandmother, who died in 1982, would be amazed to know they would one day return to Germany with the menorah because of her photograph.

“I don’t think she ever would believe we would be doing this,” she said. “The photo of the menorah is so famous now, and I don’t think she could have ever imagined it would be like this.”

Before lighting the menorah in Berlin, the family displayed its heirloom in Kiel, which is currently offering an exhibition about Jewish life in the city through the story of the Posners.

Despite her hesitancy about coming to the place her grandparents fled, Ms. Gilo said the experience was heartening.

“I especially liked our visits with some schoolchildren in Kiel — so many of them were immigrants, from so many countries,” she said. “And all of them had questions about the photograph. All of them were interested in learning about it.”

The menorah is being used as part of a campaign by the German Friends of Yad Vashem, entitled “Show Light.”

The grandchildren of the Posner family on Monday in Berlin with Mr. Steinmeier, right, and Ms. Budenbender.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The promoters aim to raise awareness against hate, particularly antisemitism. In his speech, Mr. Steinmeier said he was especially disturbed to see antisemitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories again in Germany “in the middle of our society.”

Although Germany is having a reckoning with its Nazi past and the Holocaust, like many other countries, including the United States, it has seen a rise in antisemitic hate crimes in recent years. In 2019, a gunman made a failed attempt to attack a synagogue in the German city of Halle.

Ms. Gilo said the message of her family’s visit to Germany was “to work against hate.”

“We all have to bring the light,” she said. “Everyone has to try to be brave — like my grandmother.”

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