Steve North is a broadcast journalist with CBS News.
The spry old woman came up to my mother and grabbed her arm.
“Is it true?”, she asked excitedly in German. “You are from Isfried’s family?” “Yes”, my startled mom replied. “He’s my first cousin; he’s 84 now. After we left Germany he and I grew up together in one little apartment in New York, with our parents and grandparents”.
“Oh, my goodness”, the woman exclaimed, her mind racing back to the 1930’s. “My name is Aenne. We used to play hide and seek together, and one time he got stuck under a woodpile, and none of us could find him. It took forever to get him out”. Then, she lowered her voice. “Please, when you return to New York, you must tell him that when he and his parents packed up to leave, all of us cried and cried. Please let him know that”.
It was an unexpected encounter in a week punctuated by poignant moments and dreadful surprises. To mark my mother’s 80th birthday,
we decided to bring her two grandchildren to Germany, to see where she was born and to provide a visceral understanding of why the family fled to the U.S. after Hitler’s rise to power. Talia and Aviv Gilboa of Encino, 20 and 17 years old at the time of our journey early this summer, attended Valley Beth Shalom day school and New Jewish Community High School, and are therefore well-educated about the Holocaust.
But I knew from personal experience that seeing is believing, in the most literal sense. In 1983, my mother, born Brunhilde Bachenheimer in Marburg, Germany, accepted an invitation to return to her “Heimat”, which is superficially translated as “homeland”, but has been more accurately described as “a specifically German concept to which people are bound by their birth, their childhood, and their earliest experiences.”
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I made that trip 26 years ago with my parents, and for the first time in my life, at age 30, the legends I had grown up with became reality. It was a long-awaited catharsis for my mother, who was greeted by joyous, elderly former neighbors as if it were their own daughter returning after nearly a half-century.
Although she had no plans to ever again set foot in Germany, as her milestone birthday approached this year, I convinced her and my sister (who, for scheduling reasons, couldn’t join us) that we had one small window of opportunity to open one large door to Talia and Aviv’s family history. “OK”, my mom agreed. “The first trip was for me; this one is for the kids.”
And so we found ourselves in the ornate 500-year-old Marburg City Hall, where the Burgermeister presented my mother with a copy of her 1929 birth certificate, then had another official take us on a personal tour of the now locked and abandoned “Frauen-Klinik” where she was born. My mother long ago changed her name from Brunhilde to Bunny, and was delighted to find drawings of bunny rabbits on one of the birthing-room doors. “This must be my room!”, she declared.
Later that day, we enjoyed a warm visit with our only relative who returned to Germany after the war, my grandmother’s cousin Friedel. Now 93, she recalled the poem she had recited at my grandparents’ 1928 wedding, spoke lovingly of my great-grandparents, then recounted the 1933 incident in which my mother and grandmother were staying at her parents’ house while they were out of town, and it was ransacked by Nazi stormtroopers. After dinner at her spacious Frankfurt home, surrounded by Friedel’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, I told Talia and Aviv they had met the last living link to our family’s thousand-year history in Germany.
We spent the next few days almost literally lurching from one town to another, from the tarnished past to the ambivalent present, and with
nearly every lovely moment of personal discovery and connection
tainted by the ever-present knowledge of the evil that had emanated from this place.
Officials of Rauisch-Holzhausen, my Opa’s (grandfather’s) village, accompanied us to the graves of my mom’s grandparents, scurrying
around in the soft rain and wet leaves to find us rocks to set on the tombstones.
We inspected the crumbling building that served as the Jewish school
a century ago, when Opa Siegfried and his two brothers were boys,
then arrived at the nearby site where they had lived. The white-haired woman who lives in the new home built on the spot came out with a large, heavy chunk of wood, announcing “This is from your father’s house! We saved it when we tore it down”. And a few yards away, I showed Talia and Aviv the former Jewish community center, where, in 1943, the remaining Jews were rounded up before being deported to their deaths.
In the city of Rotenburg, Professor Heinrich Nuhn, a retired German historian who now devotes his life to teaching the Jewish history of his area, brought us to the Jewish cemetery, where I took a photo of
Aviv standing next to the grave of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Yehuda Levi Rosenbaum, born in 1767. “I am jealous of you”, the professor joked, “because I can’t trace my own ancestors back that far, but I’m so happy I’ve been able to do this for your family”. He has photographed every Jewish gravestone in the region and painstakingly translated the fading Hebrew inscriptions into German… an accomplishment that’s allowed us to construct a “Stammbaum”, a family tree, spanning nine generations.
Dr. Nuhn also introduced us to a class of high school students at the city’s Jakob Grimm Schule. I struggled to give a speech in German,
in which I told the kids that although they bore no personal guilt for what occurred in the Shoah, I hoped they would feel a heightened responsibility to fight anti-Semitism and racism, and to heed the
Torah’s instruction to not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is spilled.
After a q&a session with the serious and attentive pupils, 18-year-old Charlotte approached us. “I want to tell you something”, she said. “When I was a child and heard my parents speaking of the Holocaust, I thought it was a story they were making up, like a fairy tale, to scare us into behaving. How could anything like this really happen? But now that I know it did, I am so ashamed”.
Later that day, some of the students joined us at a ceremony in nearby Baumbach, the ancestral village where my mother’s grandmother Betti Rosenbaum Bachenheimer was born and raised, and where my mom’s aunt, uncle and countless cousins had lived. More than 80 people attended the open-air event, arranged by Dr. Nuhn and local officials, which began with a brass band from the church of neighboring Heinebach incongruously and enthusiastically playing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”.
The purpose of the gathering, at which we were the guests of honor, was to affix a plaque to the building that was the community’s synagogue and Jewish school from the 1860’s until the Nazi era. The sign, which my mother unveiled, contained the names of everyone from the village who had been killed in the Holocaust. After my mom, niece, nephew and I stood before it and recited Kaddish, I played a message for the crowd that I’d recorded in New York the previous week. It was from my grandfather’s first cousin Marga, who grew up in Baumbach, going daily to that synagogue and school. As the 88-year-old woman’s soft, lilting voice filled the crowded plaza, recounting her childhood memories and naming her murdered relatives, I was astonished to see a number of people… including a young reporter sitting next to me who was covering the event… burst into tears.
In the village of Kirchhain, where my mom lived in a three-story apartment building until she was four and once happily took rides on her father’s pony around town, dark shadows of the past again intruded on the bright summer sunshine. Although we were greeted warmly by local officials, it was almost physically painful to tour the remnant of the synagogue little Brunhilde had attended with her parents. The building had been largely destroyed by fire on Kristallnacht in 1938, and is now the private home of a family that owns an attached furniture factory. As we walked up the original stairs of the shul and gazed at the internal doors and delicately painted ceilings and arches, all from its days as a house of worship, my mother whispered “Why isn’t this a museum?”
Minutes later, we stood outside my mom’s former residence… but that’s as far as we got. Despite a plea from town hall to allow us in for a brief look, the owner, an elderly woman whose father had been a prominent local Nazi, refused. A village employee privately shared with me documents showing that distant Bachenheimer relatives had owned the building at the time my mother lived there, so it was no great shock that the Nazi’s still bitterly anti-Semitic daughter wanted nothing to do with any returning Jews, especially from that particular family.
But there was a shock awaiting us in Heinebach, my Oma’s village. In 1933, after the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses commenced, my grandfather could no longer make a living, so my mother and her parents moved from their apartment in Kirchhain to Heinebach, to live with my grandmother’s parents in her childhood home. My great-grandfather Baruch was a longtime leader of the Jewish community, and well-respected by his Christian neighbors. That, however, proved no protection against the local Nazis and Hitler Youth members, who continually attacked the house, and on one climactic day of chaos and violence, dragged my grandfather away and beat him. After he returned home (with the help of a sympathetic policeman), young Brunhilde looked out the window and saw a figure swinging from the lamppost outside the house. It was an effigy of Opa Siegfried. My mother did not understand what it meant, but my grandparents knew it was time to go, and within a year, they managed to get the documents that allowed the family to escape to New York.
When they left, they sold the large house for a pittance to the next- door neighbors, the Gonnermanns, who tore it down and erected a barn. My grandmother Jenny had no pleasant memories of the Gonnermanns, but she often spoke fondly of her other neighbors, the Haegers. In fact, she gave me a photo from December, 1933 of my mother in the Haeger home, standing in front of the family’s Christmas tree and next to an ancient-looking Frau Haeger, telling me “They were the only Christians who still talked to us after Hitler came in”.
When we were planning the trip, I asked Dr. Nuhn if any of the Haegers still lived in Heinebach. He responded that a granddaughter of Frau Haeger had grown up hearing wonderful things about Jenny, and was eager to greet us.
We arrived at Irmgaard Haeger’s home, and showed her the 1933 photo. She had never seen it before, and was moved to tears. “This is you,” she asked, her eyes flitting from the old picture to my mother sitting next to her, “this little girl, with my Oma? I can’t believe it”. After conversation and cookies, Dr. Nuhn told me Irmgaard had a story she wanted to share about some of our relatives, so we moved into a quiet room and I turned on my tape recorder.
Great-grandmother Betti’s sister, Goldina Wallach, lived just up the street from my grandmother’s house in Heinebach. Goldina and her husband had four children, three of whom fled Germany in the 1930’s for Palestine. But the youngest child, Margot, had Down syndrome, and for some reason, that prevented the couple from getting out. Margot and her parents were deported from Heinebach in 1943. In Israel once, Margot’s brother showed me a letter he’d received in 1945 from an Auschwitz survivor, saying “I was in the camp with your mother and sister, and I will not go into details, but I can tell you the date of their Yahrzeit”.
I had long wondered what the lives of my grandfather’s aunt, uncle and cousin had been like after most of their other relatives and Jewish neighbors had left, and now, I was about to get an awful inkling.
Irmgaard began slowly. “It was 1942, and I was about six years old.
I remember this girl Margot, the handicapped child. She was pushing her doll carriage on our street, the Kirchstrasse. I still have the image in my mind”.
Her voice began rising and the words started coming faster. “Suddenly, from the neighbor’s house, the boy, Heinz Gonnermann, came out with a big, thick stick and began beating the girl. Margot was screaming and crying and crying. Another neighbor, the old Frau Schaeffer, came outside, and started yelling ‘Leave this child alone, leave her be’!”
Irmgaard, clearly agitated as she recalled the scene, continued. “Finally Heinz went away, with Margot still crying. This made such a deep impression on me. I asked myself, ‘How could anyone beat a girl like this?’ I just never forgot it. OK, look, he was only a boy himself, a few years older than me, and Jewish children then were “freiwild” for all the other kids, but still…”
“Freiwild”. It’s a hunting term, essentially meaning any animals in view are unprotected fair game, and can be targeted for killing.
And then Irmgaard finished the tale that had so traumatized her as a child: “To this day, even, when I see this man, this terrible memory comes to mind”.
I sat there, stunned. Certainly, this incident could not possibly compare to the horrors that were later inflicted upon Margot and her parents, but hearing the eyewitness account, so vividly told, was deeply disturbing.
Ten minutes later, we all were standing on the Kirchstrasse, outside the fence that once encircled the family’s home. My mother and I showed Talia and Aviv the small garden where she had played as a child, and the lamppost from which the effigy had been hung. We pointed to the church at the end of the block, and my mom recalled the pleasant sound of the churchbells that had so often woken her up, so long ago.
As we stood and talked and took pictures, I kept noticing a figure seated in front of the barn that now stands where my mother’s house had been. It had not moved for 15 minutes, and I actually thought it might be a mannequin. But upon walking a bit closer, I saw it was a stout elderly man, watching us intently.
“Who is that?”, I asked Imrgaard. “Oh, that’s him”, she said matter-of-factly. “That’s Heinz”.
I gasped, and without even thinking, marched directly into the yard. “Herr Gonnermann”, I said, “I am the grandson of the Bachenheimer family, and that is my mother Brunhilde who used to live here. We visited here in 1983, and I took these photos of your mother”. Heinz peered at the pictures, and nodded. “Ja, that’s my mother. She’s dead now”.
At this point, I noticed that others in the group had, with great hesitation, started to follow behind me. Dr. Nuhn reached us first, and introduced himself to the rosy-cheeked old farmer. “We have been discussing the history of this area”, said the professor, “especially the incident that happened right on this street here in 1942, when the retarded girl Margot Wallach was beaten up.
Do you remember that?”
Gonnermann shook his head and said simply, “Nein”. As Irmgaard joined us, Dr. Nuhn continued. “Are you sure? It apparently was a big deal at the time, with the old Frau Schaeffer getting involved, and lots of yelling and crying”. Again, a shrug of the shoulders. “No, I don’t recall anything like that”.
And then, Gonnermann turned to my mother. “You know”, he said in a strong, clear voice, “your grandparents sold their home to my parents completely willingly, under the circumstances of the time”.
“Wow”, I thought to myself. “That, he has no trouble remembering”.
I looked at Irmgaard, whose face was just etched with pain, and I realized there was no point in pursuing this any further. We would be gone, but she had to continue living here. After another few highly uncomfortable minutes, we turned our backs on Herr Gonnermann and left the yard.
Three months after our trip, we are still processing this pilgrimage to my mother’s “Heimat”, which was, simultaneously, a return to the scene of the crime.
For my mother, the journey served the dual purpose of educating her grandchildren while paying tribute to her parents and grandparents, remembering the good people they were and the decent lives they led. She was moved by the sincerity of the young, and the regret of the old. “After the ceremony in Baumbach”, she recalls, “a man named Willi took me aside and said his mother had worked for some of our relatives, the Neuhaus family. He told me that when he was 18 years old, the Jews started to be taken away, and it was clear something terrible was happening, but he and his parents were too afraid to say or do anything, and that now, he is still so ashamed”.
A middle-aged man approached Talia and Aviv after the ceremony as well, with a message: “I want you young people to know that we are not the same as our grandparents, who did these things. Please remember that”.
And upon our return home, I called our cousin Isfried and told him his long-ago friend Aenne had spoken of playing hide and seek with him. “I remember nothing pleasant from that time”, he said, brushing off Aenne’s fond recollections. “I remember the Nazi rallies in Baumbach, my father’s cousins getting beaten up, we Jewish children having to sit on separate benches in school, with even the little kids eating up the Nazi propaganda. That’s what I remember. I don’t carry any grudges against the young people there now, but I only remember the bad things”.
Cousin Marga, meanwhile, was touched that her recorded message proved so moving to those attending the plaque ceremony, and she felt some comfort that the names of her lost loved ones, especially one favorite cousin of hers, are now posted in public. “I must tell you”, Marga confided, “I sometimes have a fantasy that she somehow survived, and is living somewhere in some strange country, not able to get in touch with us. I know it’s not true, but it helps me to think that”. So much heartbreak, amidst the healing.
And what of Talia and Aviv, who had traveled from the San Fernando Valley to another world? This trip, after all, was “for the kids”, as my mother said. Writing from his freshman dorm at U.C. Berkeley, on behalf of himself and his sister, Aviv tried to make sense of his week in Germany:
“What struck me most was the irony of it all, and the contradictions: the peaceful, brilliant green landscapes surrounding the black and white images; the warm welcomes followed by the remnants of anti-Semitism; the younger generation denouncing the mistakes of the old.
I believe I met my brave ancestors vicariously during this brief week of my life. The pictures were no longer black and white, the stories no longer abstract, the places no longer a spot on the map. Rather, it all became real and tangible.
In the place where the “Final Solution” was devised, a Jewish family was able to proudly walk the streets, and feel so very much alive. I felt victorious. And I will think of the dead and honor them by living, and never forgetting their stories.”
On our final day in Deutschland, it was raining as we packed up our car outside the hotel. “You see”, the gracious hotel manager said as he pointed to the sky, “Germany is crying because you are leaving”.
“I know”, I smiled, as I felt a raindrop… I think… on my cheek. “I know”.