The Burden Of Memory
The Jewish cemetery in Gross-Gerau is neat and well-tended; the headstones are upright, the lawns are manicured. Just a few years ago, it was an overgrown tangle of weeds and vines, the headstones broken and askew. There was no public record of who was buried where; now, every grave has been carefully cataloged.
Something is changing in Germany.
For more than half a century, the Jews who survived Hitler’s “Final Solution” have carried the responsibility of memory: of remembering their agony, of forcing an indifferent and often hostile world to hear their story, and–perhaps most difficult–of living beyond it. Now as the generation that witnessed World War II reaches old age, keeping their memories alive has taken on a new urgency that is evident in Germany itself.
Public debate on the Nazi period has led many Germans to confront and try to rectify their nation’s past. These children and grandchildren of the Nazi generation have created what they call a “culture of remembrance,” restoring synagogues, erecting memorials, conducting research and videotaping interviews with Holocaust survivors and with refugees who found safety in other countries.
The culture of remembrance got its start in Berlin and other cities and has begun to spread to rural areas, even reaching villages such as Gross-Gerau, where no Jews have lived since the Holocaust.
Early last year, my mother, Edith Schumer of Skokie, received an unexpected letter from Ulf Kluck, director of an organization with the surprising name of the German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture in the county of Kreis Gross-Gerau. My mother is a native of that county, born in the village of Stockstadt. Her parents, Frieda and Siegmund Westerfeld, sent her to live with relatives in Chicago in 1938, not long before they were killed by the Nazis. My mother was 12 years old.
Kluck’s letter invited my mother, along with other former citizens of Kreis Gross-Gerau, to return for a visit. “You will have the opportunity to visit sites of your memory and meet people whom you know from former times,” he wrote.
Although she responded, my mother didn’t accept right away. Almost 10 years ago, she and I had gone back together on our own. The trip had been rewarding but terribly sad and difficult for my mother. Then, a few weeks after Kluck’s letter, she received a fax from a woman named Christa Schreck asking us to stay at her house in Stockstadt. “You are welcome in my house, and I am honor-bound that you come to us,” she wrote.
In their sincerity, in their evident effort to invite and warmly accommodate their visitors, these letters brimmed with a need to right the past.
It was a touching follow-up letter that persuaded my mother to go. In it, Kluck sent a detailed itinerary that appeared to cover everything my mother might want to know about the trip. The letter ended with a question poignant in its sensitivity: “Do you need kosher food?”
When my mother and I arrive at the Frankfurt Airport on a chilly May morning, Kluck and two other members of the organization are there to greet us. “This is so exciting for me,” says Ingle Pheiffer, a young man in his late 20s who works at the local nursing home, Phillipshospital. “You are the first Jews from Stockstadt I ever met.”
His interest in the past was piqued by the bits of stories he has heard from the old people in the nursing home. “They are haunted,” Pheiffer says. “They will say something about the Nazi period, but then when I ask questions, they won’t say any more. I want to know what happened.”
He is not alone. After many years of ignoring the war, Germany today is awash in memory. Kluck, a tall man in his late 50s with white hair and a mustache, recalls no discussion of the Holocaust during his education. But Pheiffer’s generation was taught about the Holocaust in school. Children born later than 1960 were the first generation required to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” German television and movie theaters have featured countless documentaries and movies such as “Schindler’s List.”
Still, the postwar generations rarely heard personal accounts of the war, and almost never from their parents.
“Nobody talked,” Kluck says while driving the 25 miles to the synagogue at Erfelden, where my mother’s family had occasionally attended services. “The word `Jew’ didn’t exist. It was a shameful secret that no one mentioned. We knew we were not to ask.”
Denial is a typical response to atrocity. Iris Chang writes in “The Rape of Nanking” of how the Japanese have coped with their recent history in much the same way. “Denial,” she says, “is an integral part of atrocity, and it’s a natural part after a society has committed genocide. First you kill, and then the memory of killing is killed.”
On our drive to the synagogue, we see dozens of Tudor-style homes dating back to the 18th Century. Some are carefully renovated; others are still held together with cow manure and dirt. Meticulously tended gardens bloom with lilacs, geraniums and poppies. In farm fields between the towns, the area’s specialty, white asparagus, grows under neat rows of dirt heaped to protect it from the sun.
Many streets are lined with tall, gangly trees trimmed high and close to the trunk so that their summer leaves grow to form a canopy. But now, in mid-spring, the trees look grotesquely overpruned.
During the drive, Kluck tells the story of the synagogue’s restoration, which required five years and $500,000 in private and public money. The work was done in the early ’90s and spurred a trend of renovating synagogues in nearby counties. “We use it as a cultural center,” Kluck says. “Otherwise, there would be no use for it, since there aren’t any Jews living in the area.”
The small building comes into view. We are startled to see, at the peak of its roof, a spire topped with a seven-pointed star. “An 85-year-old remembered the original star,” Kluck explains. “He insisted it had seven points, not six. He drew and drew. I was sure he wasn’t right, but this man put in so much work that I felt I had to do it as he said.”
Inside the synagogue, Society members are hosting an informal coffee to greet the six guest families. At first the tone is light and congenial; introductions all around, then the buzzing conversations that characterize every reunion, as distant relatives track their connections. We learn that one guest is my mother’s distant cousin from the next town, Biebesheim.
Several guests whisper among themselves that they are uneasy about being in Germany again. “I changed my plans several times,” says escapee Richard Ermann, formerly of Biebesheim. “I couldn’t make up my mind. But I knew that if I didn’t come now, I’d never see my town again.”
Even in the brief time that they have been here, the former residents recognize that their hosts are nothing like the Germans they remember from their youth. “They are so hospitable,” says guest Alexander Kahn, who was born in Worfelden. “It’s unbelievable.”
“We want to welcome you to Germany,” says Walter Ullrich, chairman of the organization, rising to greet the group. A burly man with graying hair and a gray beard, Ullrich is wearing a hat inside the synagogue out of respect for Jewish laws. He describes the work of the German Society to Preserve Jewish Culture: to maintain what remains of Jewish life, to research the past and introduce its study into school curricula, to establish connections with Jewish refugees from the area.
“The important thing,” he says, “is that you should feel comfortable here.”
After his welcome, the crowd breaks into small groups. I meet Mechthild Kratz, a 46-year-old redhead in granny glasses, who is the society’s only full-time employee. “It is the work of our life to collect everything,” says Kratz, who as a researcher scours old newspaper clippings for details of Jewish life during the 1930s and ’40s. Her job is especially challenging, she says, because many documents were destroyed in an effort to obscure individuals’ guilt as the war drew to an end. In the 1960s, more documents were discarded in what can be seen only as a nationwide purge of history.
“Now the trend is toward remembering,” Kratz says.
Ullrich makes his way over to me and asks about my family. “Well,” I begin. “My grandparents died–” Politely, he cuts me off. “Killed,” he says. “They were killed. It is a big difference. A very big difference.”
Then he tells me that his father and grandfather were strong Nazis. “I’m haunted by the question of, “Would I do the same thing?’ ” he says. “It’s a very bad feeling. And I never know. So I do everything in my power to make sure that no one has to be haunted by this question again.”
The Society has its roots in the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ 1938 smashing of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. In 1988, churches throughout the country marked the mournful occasion by creating a “Night of Remembrance.” Services were held, candles lit, names of survivors and escapees read at memorials and churches.
In the Gross-Gerau area alone, more than 6,000 people participated in the event, which became an instant annual tradition. Each Nov. 9, ceremonies are held at the memorial near the site of the town’s synagogue, now a parking lot. The memorial’s inscription reads: “Here stood the house of God for the Jewish congregation which was built in 1892. It was destroyed on the 9th of November in 1938 by the order of an inhumane regime. A warning to the living!”
The shift in Germans’ attitudes can be explained in part by demographic changes. Gone are the days when Germany’s population could be divided neatly by religion: 90 percent Protestant, 6 percent Catholic, 4 percent Jewish. Today, Germany’s population includes some 35 nationalities and more than 100 religious denominations in a roughly even mix of Protestants and Catholics, plus growing numbers of Muslims, Buddhists and even Jews.
Yet, not all Germans support the Society to Preserve Jewish Culture. “Some feel that there’s no point in talking about the past,” says Kluck. “Especially some of the young people. They feel they shouldn’t have to repent for their grandparents’ crimes.”
And a minority remain anti-Semitic. A survey conducted three years ago by the American Jewish Congress, which now runs an office in Berlin, found that 20 to 25 percent hold anti-Semitic opinions. Last year there were six attacks on Jewish cemeteries in Germany; nearly all Jewish institutions operate under police guard.
Regardless of their feelings about Jews–and some have never met a Jew–some Germans have deeply personal reasons for remembering the Holocaust.
Elsa and Ulrich Trumbolt, unlike many Europeans, do not live in a family home handed down from one generation to the next. The house they began renting in 1978 had belonged to one of the Jewish families that fled their town of Buttelborn.
Even after 20 years, “I feel like a thief,” says Elsa, her eyes glazing with tears. “I know that there is no reason to think I’m a thief, but when the former Jewish resident came to this house–his birthplace and the place of his youth–I felt guilty.”
Christa Schreck, with whom my mother and I stayed in Stockstadt, is a high school teacher who works with learning-disabled teenagers. She says her grandmother worked in Phillipshospital, which housed disabled children during the 1930s. One night, we stay up late as she tells us her story.
“My grandmother was forced (under threat to her life) to prepare the children for the trains,” she says, tears streaming down her face. “She couldn’t stand it.” Neither can Schreck. “I am like a microchip. I retain all the pain of my grandmother.”
During the week, we visit the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, take a bus tour narrated by a German-Jewish historian and stop at the cemetery in Gross-Gerau, where relatives of the guests are buried. Later in the week, we go to the local Erfelden museum, across the street from the synagogue with the seven-pointed star.
One exhibit meticulously reconstructs the old Jewish dry goods store, including its original cabinetry with drawers for flour and sugar and other goods. “If we throw it away,” explains Katarina Kluck, Ulf’s wife, “we would forget.”
The Society picks up the tab for everything–every meal, every drink, even some souvenirs. The Germans open every door, pick up any dropped piece of paper, find answers to questions the guests raise. As guests and hosts become friendly, some escapees have difficulty reconciling these new feelings of affection with their previous hostility toward all Germans.
My mother is no exception. One afternoon, we are leaving a museum when the zipper on her coat gets stuck. Karl Kahn, a guest who is my mother’s first cousin, looks on as one of the hosts quickly comes to my mother’s aid. Like a mother helping a child, she loosens the stuck zipper and neatly zips up my mother’s coat.
Kahn shakes his head. “First, they kill us,” he murmurs. “And now they kill us with kindness.”
On another afternoon, we stop for a drink after a particularly long day. My mother turns to Ulf Kluck and asks, “Why do you do all this?”
“It’s all that is left to do,” he says. “What else can we do?”
“You didn’t have to do anything,” she answers.
“Oh, but we must do something,” he says. “It is a problem for the whole society. We must live with our past.”
As the week passes, some guests chafe under the attentiveness of their hosts. “She’s like a Jewish mother,” says Richard Ermann of his German host, Elfriede Marwitz. “She is constantly fretting about what she can do to make us comfortable.”
“They just can’t do enough for us,” other guests mutter to one another, not entirely trusting their hosts.
When I ask Walter Ullrich about this perception of being over-pampered, he simply says, “We are very careful with the Jewish community.”
But sometimes, as with the seven-pointed star, there are missteps. On our previous trip in 1995, the local newspaper printed a story about my mother’s return under the headline, “Die Judin Edith Westerfeld Besucht Stockstadt,” which means, “The Jew Edith Westerfeld Visits Stockstadt.” To my mother, the headline was no neutral description; it was a slur that suggested that basic German attitudes had not changed. Despite repeated assurances that no offense was intended, she spent several hours debating whether or not to leave that very day.
Now, only four years later, she is celebrating her 74th birthday in her hometown. Our hosts, learning of the occasion, throw a small party at Christa Schreck’s house. My mother and I are astonished and moved as the Trumbolts, the Klucks and several of our other new friends arrive with food, flowers, a cake, even gifts.
Clearly overwhelmed by all the attention, my mother turns to me while our hosts are talking among themselves. “They’re all looking for forgiveness,” she whispers. “They all have to hug. They’re so happy just to have someone to hug from that time. They’re so happy that I survived.”
Champagne is poured all around as our German hosts toast my mother and me, this reunion and her birthday. Then a woman who speaks almost no English stands and lifts her glass. She gazes lingeringly around the table and offers her toast:
The culture of remembrance has accomplished a sea change in Germany. Yet there are wounds that will not heal.
My mother’s cousin, Karl Kahn, who escaped to the United States when he was 14, declined several invitations during the last five years to visit his hometown, Worfelden. In a letter, Kahn said he would never come back because former Nazis still live in Worfelden–and he named names. Heinz Sandner, a member of the town’s Society to Preserve Jewish Culture, posted the correspondence in an exhibit at the Village Hall. But he obliterated the names.
“It’s like a secret society,” Sandner explained. “The elders don’t want it known who were the Nazis. In village life, if your grandfather is a Nazi, you are labeled.”
Sandner pleaded with Kahn for five years. At last, he agreed to return to Germany. As part of the town’s welcome, the local church of Worfelden invited him to give its Sunday sermon. He did so in his native German, the better to make his message understood.
“Don’t build monuments,” Kahn told the congregation. “Educate your children. Remembrance is not in stone, but in the hearts of men.”