I imagine that very few Jews can step onto German soil without bearing the particular baggage of our tremulous shared history — whether snugged gently to the breast or grasped firmly in hand — that volatile package of memory, pain and unanswerable questions is carried by nearly all of us.
Walking up to the non-descript immigration desk at the Flughafen Frankfurt am Main airport wheeling my carry-on and holding both my American and Israeli passports, my Guten Tag was answered with the bored, practiced nod of a functionary waiting for his shift to end. My response to his query about the purpose of my trip, though, brought a warm smile to his face. Mein Vatter geboren in Hessen was met with an actual pride-infused welcome. The tow-headed twenty-something (whose smile showed no irony at all) was happy to see me, someone named Moses, flying in from Israel, visiting what for he and me both was so oddly the Vaterland.
Yekkes — we were, along with so many of my father’s large circle of friends. Sundays in Washington Heights were filled with aufshnitz and wurst at my Oma and Opa’s apartment on Bennet Ave. just past the bridge. While my father spoke perfectly accented American English to all, he spoke German to his parents, aunts and uncles. I can still remember my childhood surprise upon discovering kids whose grandparents spoke with no foreign accent.
Now we had come to Germany, my son and I, to visit the tiny village of Grossropperhausen, where my father was born, as was his father and his — back to around 1670. It was on a lovely Sunday morning that we set out on the hour-and-a-half drive from Frankfurt through the rolling hills of Hessen. Verdant fields and winding rural roads met us upon leaving the autobahn. Stef and Carla, a fiftyish couple whose three grown children were off gallivanting in the Far East, were our guides for the day. They, like my father, were born in this bucolic village of lovely timbered houses, wooden barns and wide pastures just beginning to show their green finery in April. Their house, where they raised their family, was a cozy, compact square with a steep and narrow wooden staircase leading to the upper floor. Built in 1873, it was here that my grandfather had been called to the Torah on his bar-mitzvah and my father entered into the covenant of our people. The building had once been Grossroperhausen’s synagogue.
The village houses lay adjacent one to another, each stolidly resting on its proper German stonework along the narrow, but clean well-kept lanes that wound through town. While the green spaces around us spread out lazily to the horizon, life in a small village like this, then as now, was lived closely. Only the cemeteries, one uphill through the woods and another in the old church courtyard, ever separated the Jews from the Gentiles in Grossropperhausen.
Stef was a wonderful guide — excited to see we were able to read the Hebrew on the well-worn tombstones — he spoke to us of his own childhood in the village. That was a time when there were still enough people to support a grocery and a pub. No more. Now a liter of milk was a five kilometer drive away.
We stopped by Stef’s friend’s house. A young girl listening to her iPod lay in a hammock hung over the village creek which gurgled next to the stone casement of a barn filled with wondrously carved whimsical wooden sculptures. Ernst’s brightly painted six-foot tall hot-water bottles, hair-dryer-holding men, and women posing with birds on their heads were spread throughout. Steph explained how they made cider in the courtyard each fall and drank beer while screening movies in the barn over long summer evenings. A few years ago, they had shown all of The Lord of the Rings in the nearby park — a grassy hillock bounded on two sides by 13-century crumbling walls.
Our visit drew to a close kicking back with some cider in Stef’s home. Almost as an afterthought, Carla excused herself to rummage around in the garage for something that “we might like to see.” She returned ten minutes later empty handed, but invited us downstairs where a well-worn 5-foot-long wooden plank stood on its end. It was cracked, beginning to rot with age, and dirty from storage. On it were carved in German and Hebrew the verse from Psalms, “This is the Lord’s gate, the righteous shall enter.” Aside from my forefather’s graves, the board, which once adorned this house, once a house of prayer, was the last testament to a Jewish presence in Grossropperhausen that had spanned over three hundred years and ended when my grandfather escaped with his life in 1938, just after Kristallnacht.
We left Stef and Carla to their cider and movies, to their green fields and quiet woods. Flying home over Tel Aviv that evening, I thought about that plank, gathering dust and mold. I thought about my grandfather’s quiet laugh, his ach du liebers, the way he always smelled of his beloved cigars. I thought about the way my father, a child standing on the bow of a ship steaming into New York’s harbor had become an American, built a business, held seven grandchildren in his arms—four of them born here in Israel. I had debated whether to ask Stef for that board. As the bright lights of Tel Aviv rose up to meet on our final approach, I wondered if it wouldn’t be better to simply let it return to dust.