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Pilgrimage from Darkness

Pilgrimage from Darkness: Nuremberg to Jerusalem

Copyright Date: 2004
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  • Book Info
    Pilgrimage from Darkness
    Book Description:

    Oskar Eder was born near Nuremberg in 1925. His youth was influenced by Germany's xenophobic patriotism and Nazi politics. Suffering teenage angst and falling under the sway of the Jungvolk, the younger branch of the Hitler Youth, he was suspicious of his socialist parents' loyalties. He admired older, tougher boys and went on to become a member of the Luftwaffe.

    During pilot training he discovered that his sheltered small-town life and Nazi propaganda had hidden the fact that something was fundamentally wrong with Germany. After the war he acquired a law degree and began practicing law but was spiritually destitute.

    Inspired by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and by Indian spiritualism, he began a search for his own spirit. He delved into the philosophies of the Middle East and Asia, first as a Sufi student and then among yogic Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyyan Muslims.

    In his quest he found his way to the gates of Jerusalem and joined a circle that included Jerusalem's foremost thinkers and philosophers. In Israel he worked the land on a kibbutz, studied Hebrew, read the Bible, and came face to face both with his own guilt and with German Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

    This haunting biography recounts how he found a personal spirituality that eased the pain of his past. After the struggle to assimilate himself with Jewish people and adapt to their culture, he converted to Judaism and took a new name, Asher.

    Today, welcomed into a society that had many reasons to reject him, he is married to an Israeli Holocaust survivor whom he met at an international peace conference. They live as observant Jews in Jerusalem.

    David E. Feldman lives in Long Beach, New York.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-627-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
    (pp. 7-10)
    (pp. 11-18)

    When the sun came up that morning in the late summer of 1969, it seemed to Leonard, as he stood at the hotel window, that the light shone up from the ground rather than down from the sky. The view from Jerusalem’s King David Hotel was bathed in a soft yellow glow, the same light, he supposed, that had lit the site for centuries.

    Captured in the luminescence were David’s Tower and the ancient stone walls of the Old City across the valley, and in Leonard’s mind, the centuries forged together into a single instant.

    He turned to his wife,...

  4. 1
    (pp. 19-30)

    The thin four-year-old boy with the light blond hair sat cross-legged in a garden on a sloping hill amidst strawberries, carrots, peaches, and plums. He scrutinized pieces of fruit, reaching out with skinny arms, picking any he deemed ripe and placing them in a small wooden basket his mother had given him. It was the summer of 1929, and, as was often the case, the boy refused to eat anything but fruit from the garden. His mother had given up trying to feed him meat or cheese and his father had learned that beating the boy only steeled his resolve....

  5. 2
    (pp. 31-41)

    Lauf’s elementary school was a fifteen-minute walk from Oskar’s home, and until his sister was old enough to come with him, Oskar usually made the trip alone. He was not allowed to socialize or play with the other boys. He agreed with his mother’s assessment of them as too rough, yet he admired their athleticism and hardiness. Shy and quiet from years alone in his garden, Oskar did not have the assertiveness to approach them. His lone friend was Konrad, a boy who lived not far from the Eders. Konrad’s father owned a small paper mill and knew Oskar’s father...

  6. 3
    (pp. 42-51)

    One of the priests at school was explaining the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer; Oskar’s hand shot up.

    “Please, sir, what does the word ‘hallowed’ mean?”

    “It means ‘holy.’ We are asked to live a life that contributes to the holiness of his name by being a good person, you see.”

    Oskar’s hand went up again; this time he called out his question without waiting to be asked. “Why does the Lord need us to make his name holy?” His expression was so serious, his mouth so set, and his eyes so focused, that, though weary of the child’s questions,...

  7. 4
    (pp. 52-65)

    “How long did you say the train ride to Hersbruck is?” Oskar had come into the kitchen, turned the radio to a classical station, and was spreading honey on a roll. He nodded when his mother held up the kettle of malt coffee.

    “Not long, Oggie. Perhaps twenty minutes.”

    “I think I’ll like this school better than I would have liked the Gymnasium. Those ancient languages ...” He made a sour face.

    His father, who had finished breakfast, poked his head into the kitchen. “You have a good head for science and math. TheRealschuleis just the place for...

  8. 5
    (pp. 66-77)

    “I could use some help fixing that broken cabinet Oggie. What about tomorrow, after school?”

    “Can’t do it.”

    His mother put down her fork. “But you love helping your father fix things.”

    “I didn’t say I wouldn’t love it. I said I can’t.”

    “Why not?” his father asked quietly.

    Oskar continued to chew. His sister had stopped eating and was looking curiously at her brother, who seemed entirely absorbed with eating: he watched his fork dive at the noodles on his plate, pierce a few, and raise them up and into his mouth. All apparently fascinating.

    “Just can’t. Busy.”


  9. 6
    (pp. 78-90)

    A new, government-sponsored program had been announced. Individual families from one village would swap children with those from the next. The interchangeability of children and parents would demonstrate that children do not belong to the parents, but to greater Germany ... to the Reich.

    Oskar’s newly cultivated indifference towards his parents joined with his enthusiasm for theJungvolkto ward off all but the vaguest remnant of homesickness he might have felt. And even that melted away when he tasted the food his new “mother” cooked, which was entirely different from his own mother’s food. Her sauces and spices, even...

  10. 7
    (pp. 91-102)

    On an overcast afternoon in 1942 Oskar jumped off the train, ran all the way home, and found his mother sitting at the table with his sister, exactly as they did every day, the radio blaring what he considered to be BBC propaganda.

    “I’ve got something to tell you, Mother,” he crowed. “And you, too, Hilde. Do you know what they gave me for my leadership in theJungvolk?

    Neither answered. His mother gave an annoyed wave.

    “Mother! I’m talking to you!” His voice grew proud and patriotic. Now she looked up, giving him a look only a mother could...

  11. 8
    (pp. 103-113)

    The village was quiet, except for early morning birdsongs and the voices of women on their way to market, sounds Oskar was happy to hear. The silence was pleasant after Stralsund, and could be enjoyed rather than waited out as a lull between sorties and attacks.

    The day went by quickly and in late afternoon there was time to walk in the hills with Heinz, his new, well-read friend. “Do you hear it?” Heinz looked at Oskar, who was instantly on the alert, down in a crouch.

    “What? Where is it?”

    “No,” Heinz laughed. “The soft lapping of a lake’s...

  12. 9
    (pp. 114-122)

    The back of the truck stank from sweat; no one spoke. Oskar could tell from the sun’s position that they were heading east, which worried him. A vision of the coughing Jew appeared now and then in his mind, but Oskar was too caught up with his new circumstances to dwell on recent acquaintances.

    He climbed down from the back of the truck and stretched the kinks from his legs, then glanced at one of the men nearest him. “Vienna?” he said.

    “More or less,” the man answered.

    “Between Vienna and Linz,” someone offered.

    “Closer to Vienna,” said the first...

  13. 10
    (pp. 123-140)

    He arrived exhausted. On the ride back from Austria he had silently viewed a passing panorama of devastation. Cities had been bombed to powder, urban landscapes reduced to bits of rock and bent metal. Forchheim and nearby Erlangen, fortunately, had escaped air raids and, unlike Nuremberg, were relatively undamaged.

    Within days of Oskar’s arrival, Sophie’s joy at seeing her only son safely returned dissipated enough for her to gather her children in the salon and offer a grave description of the war’s local tolls. “Your grandfather’s house was hit and burned out. Anton and Nikki live on the first floor...

  14. 11
    (pp. 141-153)

    The voices around him grew faint, and the wood panelling disappeared.

    The information he had been reviewing vanished and he was faced with Schopenhauer’s idea that we cannot directly perceive or experience what is truly real. An evasive nonanswer, Oskar decided; he was searching for bedrock, some kind of philosophical foundation to replace the crumbled ruins he had been left with. A serious applicant for that position must be universal, unshakable, permanent. Individual experience, Schopenhauer claimed, was deceptive, not at all what it appeared. The nature of reality is Will, and, unfortunately for all of us, it is ultimately unfulfillable,...

  15. 12
    (pp. 154-165)

    Memories and ghosts of the war haunted him in the yellow, distorted twilight hours between waking and sleeping, , when reality is experienced through the prism of the subconscious mind. Fifty million killed was beyond his comprehension—multitudes of innocent civilians sent coldly to their deaths by his own country, by Bavarians descended from the same noble Ludwig of his mother’s whispered stories. In his mind, Oskar continued to search for escape, for validation, for identity. The atomic bomb compounded the shame and horror he felt with a new fear, the spectre of another unimaginable horror; if fifty million could...

  16. 13
    (pp. 166-179)

    The Baghdad police were friendly, even jovial. While his lieutenants stood by, the chief asked where they were going, and, when Vilayat explained that their next stop would be Teheran, the swarthy official leaned back, hands folded across his chest, appraising the five young Europeans. He seemed to come to a decision and leaned forward, as though telling them a secret

    “You’ve heard of the Thief of Baghdad? I’ll tell you a story. There’s also a Thief of Teheran.” He leaned back in his chair. “The Thief of Baghdad thought life here was becoming too risky, so, you see, he...

  17. 14
    (pp. 180-192)

    A woman in Germany had given him a written recommendation to a swami named Shivananda in an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas. Oskar dug through his belongings and was glad to find that the note had not been lost.

    He packed what little he had into an English army knapsack he had bought in Delhi. Included was a Bible he had purchased at a British Bible shop. He had not yet decided whether to read it.

    He took a train north to Dehra Dun, then spent a few hours on a bus to Rishikesh. The ashram was at...

  18. 15
    (pp. 193-205)

    Namaste.” The ashram devotees bowed to Oskar, palms together at their chests.

    Namaste,” he responded, from a similar posture.

    He asked Swami Shivananda what the greeting represented and whether that knowledge would be of help on his quest for fulfillment.

    “One hand represents you, the other represents the one you are greeting.” He brought his hands together to demonstrate. “You bow to the divine in that person, which is also the divine in yourself. And so, you are one.”

    Oskar asked Leela what the swami meant by “divine” and how such a concept might differ from “infinity.”

    “Before leaving Greece,”...

  19. 16
    (pp. 206-221)

    He watched the sky through the window of the train on the way to Calcutta the next day, remembering the first time he had read about Ramakrishna, remembering the nice lady at the American library at Erlangen who had referred the book to him. That book had watered that original seed of change that had brought him to this moment, traveling to the ashram of Ramakrishna in Dakineshevar. He watched high thin clouds float over arid acreage as the train approached the city, and he saw that his own experience was like that, that he was watching and experiencing physical...

  20. 17
    (pp. 222-240)

    Vinoba Bhave was a small, chocolate-colored man whose eyes communicated the intensity of his commitment while his fine hands and delicate fingers seemed at odds with the dreary work asked of them. In his loose, white shirt and pants he led a multicultural, colorfully dressed group of regulars and part-timers in abhoodan yatra, which means, literally, a land donation pilgrimage. He would become known as India’s “walking saint.”

    He was an unlicensed teacher (and jailed several times for it) who had worked closely with Gandhi. After the assassination, he traveled around India asking the wealthy to donate their idle...

  21. 18
    (pp. 241-255)

    Oskar looked down from the six-thousand-year-old tell, one of the oldest excavations on earth and his first stop in Jericho. From the hillside he saw tall, vibrant palms and lush fields surrounding the historic site, aware that below his feet centuries of settlements, sites of construction, war and reconstruction had all come and gone. Surrounding the oasis of Jericho lay the barren Jordan valley, flanked to the east by the mountains of Moab and to the west by the rocky hills of the Judean desert. He had a dizzying awareness, as he had had at the Babylon excavations in Iraq,...

  22. 19
    (pp. 256-269)

    Oskar stood near the window looking out into the street, which was tinged yellow by the afternoon light. “Israeli Jerusalem is so much more humane than I was told it would be.” He turned to his host. “I wonder if it’s just Jerusalem or if everyone in Israel is so straightforward and thoughtful.”

    The professor, who was nearly as tall sitting down as Oskar was standing up, measured his words. “Perhaps Kibbutz Hazorea, a kibbutz of German Jews ...” He focused on Oskar and stretched his lips into a smile. “Yes, a good idea. Have you heard this word ‘kibbutz’?”...

  23. 20
    (pp. 270-282)

    He boarded a bus for Thessaloníki, where he toured the city’s ancient churches and applied for a permit to travel to Mount Athos, an autonomous territory on a mountainous peninsula which had been referred to as the Monks’ Republic since its inception during the fourth century. It housed monasteries of various ethnicities: Russian, Rumanian, Serb, Bulgarian, and an assortment of Greek origin. Many had been built at the feet of mountains or at the water’s edge, providing scenic fodder for meditation or inspiration. As in the Himalayas, hermits dwelled at higher elevations.

    Most of the men disembarked at the pier....

  24. 21
    (pp. 283-294)

    The little town of Hamm, not to be confused with the larger city of the same name to its north, is a village in the district of Sieg, which is also the name of one of the Rhine’s tributaries.

    Towards the town’s center Oskar found a large house in which lived a couple in their sixties. Heinrich was reticent and thin, his bony face encircling large brown eyes that said more than his words. His wife, Hedwig, was taller, slightly corpulent, and with wise, warm, welcoming eyes. They had no children of their own, and the six they had adopted...

  25. 22
    (pp. 295-306)

    Oskar arrived in Amman and then East Jerusalem, looked for Johannes in the agreed-upon cafe and, not finding him, strolled the old city, including the abandoned Jewish quarter. After Johannes arrived, the two compared notes, shared a cup of tea and a meal together, and went their separate ways. On November 30, 1959, Oskar passed without incident through the Mandelbaum Gate into West Jerusalem and went directly to Martha and Elsa’s home to tell the sisters he had returned and was hoping to study Hebrew. The sisters suggested he quickly return to Kibbutz Hazorea and register with Mordechai’sUlpan, where...

  26. 23
    (pp. 307-319)

    “If you like the valley as much as you say,” Tilde Jucker said emphatically, “stay here. The people of Yoqneam would welcome you.”

    “Do you really think so?”

    “Esther Krenski owns several plots of land in the valley,” said her husband, Isidore. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she would be happy to sell one to you and Adrian.”

    “We could talk to her,” Tilde went on. “We raise cattle in the same valley, so we’re neighbors of sorts.” Isidore nodded, his eyebrows raised as though Esther Krenski were in the room and had already agreed.

    “I’ll see if Adrian will...

  27. 24
    (pp. 320-332)

    Asher opened the door, and, after expressing initial surprise, invited the census taker into his hut.

    “Ben-Gurion ordered our project some time ago. Weren’t you expecting me?”

    “This isn’t exactly a big city. News travels slowly.” He directed the olive-skinned young man to sit in one of two chairs at his little wooden table.

    “I have some basic questions about your background, work and so forth.”

    Eventually they came to the matter of Asher’s religion. “I’m honestly not quite sure how to answer that.”

    “Are you a Jew?” the young man asked.

    “While I’m sympathetic and supportive, no, I am...

  28. 25
    (pp. 333-342)

    Asher had been writing letters with the same energy he had put into studying the Bible in English, German, and Hebrew. He was writing to Europeans, most often Christian Europeans, and also to leaders, including Jordan’s King Hussein. War, he wrote, must somehow be averted. Surely one must listen to a man from a country which had paid so heavily for starting wars, a former German soldier who had searched widely and carefully observed so much and who had such an avid interest in peace.

    The responses were few and far between, and rarely contained views in line with his...

    (pp. 343-346)

    After saying good-bye to his friends in Yoqneam, Asher and Naomi moved into her flat, a lovely penthouse in Jerusalem’s Kaf Tet B’November Street, whose name commemorates the date (November 29) of the United Nation’s decision in 1947 to recognize the State of Israel.

    Years later, when asked about her husband, Naomi, who has since taken the name “Hannah,” had this to say: “In spite of our different, even opposing, backgrounds, the common things were enough to bring and keep us together. Our differences posed a challenge for our growth. I was born Jewish but was not educated in our...

    (pp. 347-352)
    (pp. 353-355)
    David E. Feldman