Doug Emhoff’s trip to Poland and Germany brings him back to Jewish ancestral roots

US second gentleman describes meeting Holocaust survivors who recently fled war in Ukraine as ’emotional and intense,’ recalls his own grandparents’ flight to safety in America

US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, right,  speaks with 101-year-old Margot Friedländer, center, during a meeting with Holocaust survivors in Berlin, January 31, 2023. (US Embassy Berlin)
US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, right, speaks with 101-year-old Margot Friedländer, center, during a meeting with Holocaust survivors in Berlin, January 31, 2023. (US Embassy Berlin)

BERLIN (JTA) — For US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, the final hours of a five-day working trip to Poland and Germany brought everything into focus.

It was here in the underground information center in Germany’s central Holocaust memorial that Emhoff sat down with several survivors, including two who had recently fled war-torn Ukraine.

Sitting in a small circle, they shared their stories. One of them “was saved in the Holocaust as a young baby, settled in Ukraine and then just had to flee again. And she was taken in by Germany,” Emhoff said in remarks immediately following the meeting. “It was a real emotional and intense way to finish the trip.”

The journey, which he undertook with Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, included visits to Krakow, Poland; to the nearby memorial and museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau; and to the Polish village of Emhoff’s ancestors, Gorlice.

It was all intended to feed into the design of a “national action plan against antisemitism” that Emhoff is working on with Lipstadt and others. The second gentleman has made combating Jew-hatred his main focus since entering the White House, touring college campuses to talk on the subject, and leading events with Jewish organizations.

But this trip, which began on Friday, aligning with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, took Emhoff’s efforts onto the international stage — and brought him back to his ancestral Jewish roots.

Emhoff’s two days in Berlin were a whirlwind. On Monday, he met with US Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann, Germany’s commissioner of Jewish life Felix Klein, and other leaders. On Tuesday, he and Lipstadt took part in an interfaith roundtable hosted by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, before visiting a historic synagogue in former East Berlin and meeting with members of the community. He also visited three Holocaust memorials in the city center: one dedicated to Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazis, another to homosexual victims, and finally Germany’s massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

From left, shown at a meeting in Berlin, January 30, 2023: US antisemitism monitor Deborah Lipstadt, US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, US Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann, Germany’s commissioner on Jewish life Felix Klein and Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. (US Embassy Berlin)

Speaking Tuesday morning to the small gathering of Muslims, Christians, and Jews hosted at the Central Council headquarters, Emhoff said he could not help thinking of his grandparents, who had escaped persecution in Poland and settled in the United States.

“They found opportunity and freedom,” he said, “and now, 120 years later, their great-grandchild is the first Jewish spouse of a United States president or vice president, who is working to combat hate and antisemitism. That’s something isn’t it?” he said, as if pinching himself. “It’s a remarkable full circle.”

Abraham Lehrer, Central Council vice president, told the guests that interfaith relations between Jews and Christians are generally good and that the groups have developed channels of communication “in case of heavy disputes.”

Relations with Muslims function well on the grassroots level, he said, “but it is quite difficult with heads of some organizations, because a lot of them still have connections to antisemitic or antidemocratic organizations.” Participants in the round table commented afterward on the “positive atmosphere.”

“I was very impressed by the young Muslim man [Burak Yilmaz], who is organizing trips for young Muslims to visit Auschwitz,” said Rabbi Szolt Balla, who serves a congregation in Leipzig and is rabbi for the German Armed Forces. “It was a very good and productive thing to meet in this circle,” he added

Emhoff told reporters the purpose of the trip was to share best practices and feed ideas into the “national action plan” that he is working on with Lipstadt, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain and White House Liaison to the American Jewish community Shelley Greenspan.

“We are going to put our heads together and talk about what we learned and then put it into the pipeline so we can come out with the most effective national plan,” Emhoff told reporters after the day’s meetings. He added that he would be addressing the United Nations in early February.

US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff signs a visitor book at The Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, January 30, 2023. (US Embassy Berlin)

Emhoff’s last official act in Germany was his meeting with survivors. He changed his schedule “just in order to meet with them and listen to their stories,” said Rudiger Mahlo, German representative of the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Sonja Tartakovska, who had survived a Nazi mass shooting operation in her village during World War II, told Emhoff how she had to flee Ukraine last year without a change of clothing. She is one of the Ukrainian Jews whom the Claims Conference brought to Germany last spring, said Mahlo, who took part in the meeting.

The fact that former Holocaust victims were now seeking refuge in Germany was not missed.

“We have been talking about the Holocaust, talking about antisemitism, about violence and oppression and here in Europe all these years later these things are still happening through this unjust, unprovoked war,” Emhoff told reporters after the final meeting of the day.

From people like Tartakovska “you hear these stories of survival. A lot of it was a twist of fate, just some luck. A non-Jewish stranger deciding on a whim to do something, that then led to a life long-lived.”

“I was also struck: One woman” — German Holocaust survivor Margot Friedlaender — “was 101 years old. Imagine living with those memories for 80 years. Those are the kinds of things I take back with me,” Emhoff said.

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