The Ancient Prayer Slot and Freedom Today

Set into the walkway of our village, Dreieichenhain (Three Oaks Grove), Germany, in front of several very old Tudor style timbered houses, passers-by notice brass cobble stones. Engraved on the shiny surfaces are the names of the former owners of those houses, their birthdays and the date of their murder in concentration camps somewhere in Poland or East Germany, like Auschwitz. I had almost gotten used to walking past those brass cobble stones without thinking about the tragedy of it all, when today, I clearly recognized the symbol of hope and thanks once chiseled into red sandstone, hundreds of years ago, to hold a prayer entreating the Almighty for protection, guidance, well being and good health for inhabitants of that house, the pray slot.

Entering a Jewish home, you will have noticed on the right side, about shoulder height, a brass or silver plaque about half the width of a credit card, which has been set into the doorwell at an upward angle of 45°. You know it as the prayer slot. Behind the plaque in a slot is the house prayer. It might be written on parchment or simple paper in Hebrew, Yiddish, German or English or some other language, but it is the soul of the house and its dwellers and one of their connections with the Almighty.

When a member of the family passes the threshold, they touch that plaque, and say “thank you” for this place and my house and family. They remember the prayer that has been sacred to them and their family - sometimes for even for generations.

Today, one of those prayer slots (or what is left of it) caught my attention as I passed what seemed to be a red sandstone door way. Originally the entrance had had two Ionic columns on either side but today the columns are only reminders of where that door had once been. The Ionic columns remind one of the pride the patron once had to enhance the entrance of his home with these monoliths of red sandstone. Each weighing some five to ten tons, it must have been a costly undertaking to cut them from their stone quarry and transport them here by horse-drawn wagon. Although they are not of great dimensions, neither in height not circumference, so far as we know, no other house in town had such an affluent entrance. The Ionic columns symbolized success and identification with this village, inviting friends and acquaintances to visit that special home.

The steps leading up to the doorway have been removed and an oddly colored yellow brick wall connects the two Ionic columns. Most people do not recognize the former entrance as they pass along the Alte Schulegasse (Old School Lane) leading past the old school house build in 1460, over 550 years ago.

Interested passers-by simply notice two red sandstone columns protruding from the wall of the ancient timbered house, a relic of an era long since gone. Yet standing before the two columns something struck my eye. At the same time, from the tower of the old city gate, the tenor tone of a brass bell tolls the hour. Looking to the right, at about shoulder height (if you were to enter the house going up two or three steps), you see that a slot was once there, but has been crudely chiseled and hammered away. The angle of what remains of the slot is clearly 45°. That was once the slot retaining the house prayer of a Jewish home. Across the street you see a historical green sign telling the reader that in the cellar of that house was the Jewish ceremonial bath dating back to 1633.

Although there is no entrance to the house on this side, a rusty metal sign with the number one printed against a blue background is nailed to the wall to the right of the Ionic column on the right. The city still lists this as the main entrance to the Alte Schulgasse No. 1.

How many generations of have softly rubbed and patted that prayer slot as they entered that house? Five, ten, fifteen twenty generations? Forgive me, if it sounds sentimental or romanticized.

But step back for a moment and consider the complexity of life and survival in a world so far from one’s own homeland, which was so reverently remembered in prayer and in the Holy Scriptures by the dwellers of that home. The success of their lives, their love, their celebrations, their children, who courted, loved and returned through that doorway only to repeat the cycle to bring forth a new generation…again and again…all touching that prayer slot.

The entrance is gone. The family is gone. The friends and their beliefs are gone. Even the memories of them are gone. Yet, there it is today, still there, if battered and chipped, it serves as a silent reminder of all that once was; the prayer slot.

Those with compassion for life and the living, and those that have gone forward bravely into the world to make it better gaze at that prayer slot and are reminded that the battle for fairness and understanding and against ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance never ends.

Freedom and democracy were too young and Germany´s leadership possessed too little experienced with both of those great culture-molding instruments to prevent the unbridled rise of the criminal regime, which led a once great power into total destruction. The world´s most humanly hostile dictatorship was however not only a curse for the Jewish population of Europe, it sealed over 1,000 years of Germanic hegemony in Europe and the fate of millions and millions of its own people, their cities, their traditions and culture.

That battered prayer slot goes on to serve us, today. It is still there, even if the prayer concealed behind that brass plaque has been stripped away.

It is a reminder that we may never take our freedoms for granted. As free citizens, it is our duty to challenge power structures and question their motives, ethics and goals. The contest for freedom is a daily struggle. It is a battle that many greet with enthusiastic zeal. To those who take up the banner for freedom and for the legacy of the prayer slot, we are grateful.

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commented 2013-05-10 10:49:36 -0400 · Flag
The visible scars on that old house and its battered prayer slot, remind one of how long that family lived there and how the past is never a reliable basis for predicting the future. One must fight for the future.

With all the surveillance devices available today, how difficult would it be for a government to replace democracy with a police state – in Germany? What would that mean for European Union and the rest of the world?

While, on the one side, it was a mood that inspired this piece, my long-term preoccupation with strengthening freedom and democracy in this country is the real reason for writing this.

Using that headline, I am trying to attract attention to the Economic Forum, its thoughtful leadership and ideally, attract new members to work for leadership and democracy.
commented 2013-05-09 11:47:38 -0400 · Flag
Alexander A. writes:

What a profoundly touching and intimate grace note. So elegant and soulful.