First Person

Havdalah spice box reminder of father’s legacy of hope

An heirloom Havdalah spice box is displayed with photographs of Esther Blumenfeld’s late father, Rabbi Karl Richter. (Courtesy Esther Blumenfeld)

After the death of his youngest sister in Stuttgart, Germany, my father thought deeply about the meaning of life and death, and the idea of becoming a rabbi became a calling. The 17-year-old Karl Richter, with youthful enthusiasm, decided to do his university as well as rabbinical studies at the seminary in Breslau. The year was 1928.

Like most students he had very little money to spare since everything was spent on books and life’s necessities, but one day, while walking past a tiny shop, he spied a beautiful silver Havdalah spice box. The little tower with the flag on top beckoned to him, so he convinced the owner of the shop that he would bring a few coins each week to pay for it, because the little spice box had captured his heart.

Karl Richter met his wife, Ruth, in 1933, they were married in 1935, and he accepted a pulpit in Stettin, Germany.

Every Saturday night the Havdalah spices would sweeten the air as they acknowledged the departure of the Sabbath Queen, and they would live ordinary lives until the following Shabbat. From 1933 to 1939 my parents heard the threats against the Jewish people, but did not believe them. The world heard the threats but did not listen.

In January 1938, my father packed his books and his precious spice box to accept a position in the main synagogue as one of the two remaining communal rabbis in Mannheim, an industrial city on the Rhine River. A  young man, ordained only three years before, he found himself entrusted with grave responsibilities.

In 1938 the hostile German government raised anti-Semitism to its central article of faith and all hope was shattered. The young rabbi and his wife had a 2-year-old toddler, and their world had gone mad. The smell of the sweet spices of the Havdalah box gave little comfort because Shabbat prayers for peace seemed futile.

On Nov. 9, 1938, the great destruction began. Kristallnacht announced total war against the Jewish people. On the “Night of Broken Glass,” synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed across the Reich, at least 91 Jews were killed and tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested.

Although it was difficult to emigrate, many people helped the Richters to escape to the United States in 1939. They brought few belongings with them, but the precious spice box was spared.

As a small child, I can remember opening the door of the box, putting in the cloves, and imagining the departing Sabbath Queen sprinkling prayers of peace in her path.

On Nov. 9, 1998, my father spoke at a commemoration of Kristallnacht at the Kaufman Concert Hall of New York’s 92nd Street Y. A minivan then transported my parents to the airport for a flight to Mannheim, where my father, now in his mid-80s, spoke at the dedication of the new synagogue.

Karl Richter, the last surviving graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, died Sept. 25, 2005. I now have the precious spice box that he purchased those many years ago, and I remember the words he said upon his return to Mannheim in 1998:

“May the flame of hatred be extinguished forever. May we be blessed with the flame of hope, the flame of love and the flame of reconciliation.”

Esther Richter Blumenfeld, an author and playwright, lives in Tucson.

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