Our train left Prague at 6:30 p.m. northbound for Dresden. Naomi and I watched the stations creak past, wondering when the signs would switch from Czech to German. Unlike travels in Europe in the 1980s, we knew in the EU there would be no border stop, no retrieval of passports. But we sensed we would move from one emotional world to another when the evening train passed the border into the country from which our families—her father and grandmother, my grandmother and great-grandparents—had come to the United States.
In the darkness, we couldn’t see the landscape or clues of a transition. One station after another swept by in Czech, then names finally changed and we knew we had crossed into Germany. What would we find?
Neither of us had ever been to Germany. I had considered a visit during a month in Europe in 1984, but I ran out of time. Still, the desire remained. Germany haunted the background of the family of my girlfriend, Naomi, whose father Eric Leiseroff had been born in Dresden and emigrated to the U.S. with his mother Valeska in June 1941, on one of the very last trains out of Germany before the gates slammed shut. The 2014 trip began with an invitation to Eric from the Dresden government to visit the city in September for an annual program for former Jewish residents and their families. For 20 years, the city has hosted groups for tours, a visit to the new synagogue and the cemetery, and stories of flight and survival.
Born Erich Leiserowitsch, Eric politely told the city liaison that, at 88, he had never flown before and didn’t want to return. He had already been back to Germany once, as a 19-year old soldier with the 89th Infantry Division in 1945 and that was enough excitement for him. He helped liberate the concentration camp Ohrdruf (a subcamp of Buchenwald) and used his native German-language skills to interrogate German prisoners. He didn’t need any more Germany. . Eric once told me, “I came back from the war and I just wanted a boring life.” He’s had a stable life, with a marriage that’s still going strong after 64 years, and a 58-year career as a salesman for a paper manufacturing firm, a gig that he maintained into his 80s.
However, he suggested his daughter Naomi and I could represent him. The city agreed, and in the spring we began building a two-week European vacation around Dresden, starting in Prague, going to Dresden and finishing in Berlin.
Before we left, Naomi and I worked out our itineraries as the returning not-quite-natives. She was in touch with Gabi, a volunteer researcher for the Dresden Jewish community who would take us to Stenz, the town north of Dresden where Eric and his Valeska lived before they left for Lisbon and continued to New York on the S.S. Excalibur. She also followed up on a contact Eric had made with the fan club of the century-old soccer team, Tennis Borussia, for which his father Simon Leiserowitsch had been a star player in the years before and after World War I. Leaders of the club jumped at the chance to connect with the granddaughter of the renowned player known then as “Sim Leiser.” She made copies of photos of her grandfather, whom she never knew since her grandparents divorced in the late 1920s and Sim moved to British Mandate Palestine and had no more contact with Valeska and Eric.
My own family connections to Germany are more distant. My mother’s maternal grandparents were born in Posen, Germany in the 1860s and then moved to Texas. Her paternal great-grandfather was Rabbi Heinrich “Hayyim” Schwarz, born in Kempen near the Dutch border in 1824. He moved to the little town of Hempstead, Texas in 1873, becoming the first ordained rabbi in the state. I never heard any family stories passed down about life in Germany. My father’s mother, Rhea, had been born in Breslau around 1899, then part of Germany, now Wroclaw, Poland following World War II. I never knew my grandmother following my parents’ divorce when I was 3 years old, so I have no stories from her.
I also had a non-family link to Germany. From 1980 to 1994, I had been a volunteer “friendly visitor” for Project Dorot, which connects elderly Jews to volunteers who keep in touch with them. I joined the program soon after I moved to the city after graduating from Princeton. I was assigned to Rena Frank, a retired nurse who lived on W. 102nd Street on the Upper West Side. She was a Berlin native who trained as a nurse at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital, then moved to London in 1938 and New York in 1952. Our relationship of at-least weekly calls and occasional visits drew me to her life in the 1930s. She recalled Germans spitting on her, and the death of her mother in a concentration camp. She always retained a heavy German accent and I enjoyed hearing her kibitz in German with her friends. Our visits lasted for hours, as she plied me with cucumber and cheese sandwiches, cookies and packages of articles from Jewish and local publications.
The city government of Berlin repeatedly invited her back for a visit, but she declined, although she did give me the Berlin calendar she received each year. When she died, I inherited documents from her journey, including a reissued birth certificate from the 1930s and a work permit, each bearing swastika stamps. I ultimately donated these and other materials to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, which studies German-Jewish history. Rena died in 1994, but her life still resonates with me. Indeed, part of my son’s Hebrew name is Reuven, in honor of Rena.
Before the trip, I sent copies of these two 1930s documents in an email to public relations director, Gerhard, of the Jewish Hospital, Das Jüdische Krankenhaus Berlin. I said wished to visit the hospital during my visit to pay my respects to Rena’s memory. I knew neither the hospital’s location nor whether it welcomed visitors, but I wanted to at least ask. I had a warm reply and Gerhard and I set September 17 as the date.
Prague had no family connections. In a jet-lag daze, we took a bus tour the first day, nodding off but getting a feel for the geography In coming days, we spent hours in the Jewish Museum area, including the Old-New Shul and the cemetery crowded with ancient tombstones leaning against one another as if for support.
We took a day trip to the Terezin transit camp north of Prague. I was surprised to see the familiar words “Arbeit Macht Frei” over an arch there—did the Germans use this as a brand identity for their extermination efforts?
The trip was sobering, especially the museum with examples of children’s art and the walls covered with names of Jews deported from the Czech lands. Those included Franz Kafka’s sisters and so many others. Our tour guide said that current Terezin residents are mostly people who had lived there before the war, or their descendants.
Nobody else wanted to live in a town with a curse on it.