October 25, 2013 admin

From Mainz

The phone has just gone and it’s made my day. I didn’t learn that I’d won the lottery, that David Grossman had agreed to speak in our Synagogue, or that another congregant was about to approach me for help in choosing a good Jewish name for their newly acquired hound.
I picked up the receiver and heard the deep voice of an old man; it took me a second to realise that he was speaking German. For a moment I was bewildered. He sounded exactly like my grandfather, or one of their friends, refugees from Germany almost to a person. They had always spoken with that same resonant timbre. That world came flooding back over me:  there I was, a little boy, then a teenager, offering tea and cakes, and the presence of these old people, their adherence to a culture swept away yet half-recreated in drawing rooms like these, filled me with a strange security, surrounded by those lives which had been so insecure.
The gentleman gave his name and added ‘From Mainz’. Then I realised; it was Magister Pfarrer Mayer. ‘I’ll be showing your group the Chagall windows when you visit’, he said. He didn’t do that so often anymore, he continued; at over ninety he was no longer such a young man, ‘But I hope I’ll make it’.
I had met him just once, a brief encounter which has often made me think of  T. S Eliot’s line ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’. I’d just completed the first day of my walk from Frankfurt to London. It was late evening and I was exhausted. But I’d been taken off at once to a reception in the new synagogue. ‘This is the Magister’, my host said, steering me through the guests, ‘He was the man who persuaded Chagall to make the windows. He has a Jewish background himself’. I recall a kind face; I remember a surge of perplexity: Chagall, minister of the church, Jewish background? Before I could formulate a question he and I were moved in opposite directions by the crowd.
I learnt afterwards that the stained glass windows in St Stephan’s in Mainz were the last Chagall ever made. He was 94 at the time. Unwilling after the Holocaust to have any such connection with Germany, he had been persuaded to the task as a work of reconciliation.
‘It’s extremely good of you to agree to show us round’, I said on the phone. ‘No’, he replied, explaining that nothing brought him more happiness than bringing people together. ‘A hundred thousand visitors come to see those windows each year.’
I found my booklet on the history of St Stephan’s in Mainz, that town famous in the Middle Ages for its Jewish learning, where the community was destroyed once in the First Crusade and a second time in the Shoah. It fell open on a picture of the northern window: an angel reading and flying at the same time, a menorah, a man meditating on a book, – unmistakable Chagall. Beneath it were the words, ‘Your word is a light to guide my feet’, a favourite verse.
I tried to imagine the Germany of those years: on the one hand, wounds, the memories of murders, loss incalculable and irreparable, the slow telling of stories, silence; on the other, shame, humility, also denial, disavowal, also truth. What must have been the substance of the conversation between Magister Mayer and Chagall: ‘Let your art guide us; let it teach us how to be, together…’ When I meet Magister Mayer I shall certainly ask. I’ve been given a second chance.
‘I’ll speak in German’, he continued down the phone, ‘and you’ll translate’. I’ll do my best. One’s life, after all, is an effort at translation, from what the heart knows to what the mouth says and the hands do.

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