NEW YORK – Johann Lutjens never thought he would be reading to a 98-year-old Jewish woman on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
At first glance, Johann and Hilda Weitman are an unlikely pair. He is a boyish 20-year-old German with spiked red hair and a silver earring over his right eyebrow. She is a tiny woman with a wisp of neatly coiffed white hair who fled her native Poland in 1938 because the specter of Nazism was spreading across Europe.
She came here alone on the Polish ship Batori, sailing from the Baltic port of Gdansk on the first day of Passover, the holiday commemorating the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Most of Weitman’s family stayed in Poland and perished in the Holocaust.
Johann came here six months ago on an airplane, as part of a project designed to make amends for Nazi war crimes.
He visits Hilda on Wednesday afternoons to talk and read to her, because her eyesight has faded. On this day, he is reading her a newspaper article reporting that Jewish poverty in the New York metropolitan area is high.
She listens intently and then recalls the poverty she experienced as a child in Poland.
Johann is spending a year in New York working with Project Ezra, a non-profit organization that sends voluteers to provide companionship and perform household chores for 350 largely homebound clients.
Project Ezra gets its German volunteers through Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, an organization established by German Protestant churches that assigns German volunteers to Jewish social service organizations throughout the world.
Like many young people who volunteer through Action Reconciliation, Johann is a conscientious objector whose volunteer work serves as a substitute for his required German military service.
Johann visits Hilda and other frail clients on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood that was settled by Jews who had fled persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia. These immigrants established newspapers and theaters, and the neighborhood became the center of Jewish intellectual ferment in America in the early part of the last century.
Now the Lower East Side is undergoing profound change. It is being gentrified, and the Jewish population has dwindled. It is a crowded neighborhood where the convergence of cultures is striking.
Johann keeps pace wearing a dark green sweatshirt with the name of his hometown, Luneburg, written in bright orange letters.
He left Germany last September; he will complete his volunteer service in August and return home.
During a recent visit, Hilda offered Johann Ritz Crackers and hard candies, welcoming him like a son.
She explained why she accepted a German companion so warmly after losing her family to the Holocaust. “We can’t carry this hatred all the time,” she said.
“I forget that this boy that comes to read to me every week is a German. I know he’s a human being, and that’s how I look at him.”
As she spoke, she pointed to Johann for emphasis. “He is such a sweet boy – a sweet boy,” she said. “He wasn’t there when Hitler was there. He would do anything for me. I asked him to cut my nails. Who would do that? He did.”
Johann is the latest German volunteer to offer companionship to Weitman.
“I have more German friends than American friends,” she said, looking at a framed photograph of Paula, a young German woman who was a former visitor.
Hilda has been visited by German volunteers since Project Ezra became the first Jewish organization to accept young Germans to work here in 1983.
“We decided that the Jewish thing to do if someone asks for forgiveness, or a chance to make up for something they did in the past, the Jewish way is to give the person the wish,” said Mischa Avramoff, a co-founder of Project Ezra. Johann’s home visits and work at the weekly crafts class help the elderly fight loneliness and isolation.”
Project Ezra volunteers also escort the elderly to host synagogues where they are offered lunch and companionship. “Many of them feel like they are prisoners of their circumstances,” Avramoff observed. “The trips to other synagogues enlarge their vistas.”
Johann took the courses in Holocaust studies that are required in German schools.
He visited some of the former concentration camps, but he felt his understanding of the mass murder was incomplete. “I can’t think of a person capable of committing these crimes,” he said. “There is no logical explanation that can speak to my heart.”
He wanted to meet the survivors.
“This was probably my last chance to know people who survived the Holocaust,” he said. "Our generation’s responsibility is to know what happened and to know why it happened so that something like this could never happen again.”
Another elderly person whom Johann visits, Luba Worchell, is a 97-year-old woman who lives in a cramped apartment in the Baruch Houses, a city housing project.
An entire wall in her living room is covered with darkened pictures of the family murdered by the Germans in the former Soviet Union during the war.
As she slowly moved forward on her walker, Luba identified the family members.
She stopped at one photograph and said, “That’s my brother and his children – they killed them all.”
A ledge several feet above the photographs contained stuffed dolls that Luba makes to fill the lonely days. Former visitors from Action Reconciliation continue to bolster her morale by writing to her.
She displayed a wedding announcement from Phillip, a former volunteer.
He wrote: “It makes me very happy to think of the time we spent together. I really feel very privileged about it.”
Luba survived forced labor in her native Minsk by escaping into the woods and hiding for two years until the war ended.
How did she survive two years in the forest?
She waves off the question.
“I don’t want to talk about anything that happened then,” she says firmly, smothering her memories of life on the run with little food. She sits in her tiny kitchen with large multi-colored beads in the center of the table next to a large bottle of sparkling water.
Luba is making a necklace for a former volunteer.
Johann acknowledges he feels pain and guilt when the Holocaust is discussed, but his nationality is not an issue for his elderly clients.
They judge him only by his deeds.
“If you want to do a good thing, I am ready to embrace you,” said Weitman. "If someone wants to understand your pain you must embrace them.”
Johann establishes easy rapport with the elderly people he visits.
He treats them with the sensitivity and skill of someone older and more experienced.
Johann cannot change the past, but when he reads to Hilda and helps another woman thread a needle in the weekly crafts class, he hopes to build a better future.