A Jew from Texas, who knew?
(After Prague and a day exploring the Dresden Jewish community, we continued to a Dresden suburb.)
The next day Naomi and I visited Stenz, the town north of Dresden where her father and grandmother lived in the years before they emigrated in June 1941. We went with Gabi and her husband Alex, who did most of the translating. We first stopped in Königsbrück, a town next to Stenz, where we met with Werner, the nephew of Franz Osang, a local resident who had hired Eric, in his early teen years, as a carpenter’s apprentice. Werner was a church sexton and delighted to meet us at his Catholic church. Naomi spread documents about her family in a room off the main sanctuary—photos of her grandfather the soccer star, birth certificates, her father’s Bronze Star medal commendation, a copy of a telegram confirming Valeska and Eric’s passage on the Excelsior out of Germany as the gates were closing.
Werner shared a story from his father, who remembered the day in 1941 when Eric and Valeska left to take the train to Dresden and on into their new life—Eric, he recalled, carried a violin case, a detail that Eric would confirm for us. The musical streak in the family would later figure into our journeys across Berlin in search of sites associated with Eric’s uncle, Leopold, an orchestra conductor.
The church itself greatly interested me because it had an Israeli Government exhibit about the history of Zionism and Israel. The exhibit spoke to Germans’ commitment to learning about and supporting Jews. In addition, the church had a plaque memorializing the repression of Jews and other groups during the Third Reich.
We drove from the church to a wooded area, down a rutted road, where Werner pointed to a field where Valeska’s business, a plant nursery, and home had been in the 1930s, next to a watermill called the Grünmetzmühle. The German Army “bought” the site before the war for training, and then the victorious Red Army seized the property after the war. Everything had vanished, replaced by a sign that warned “Achtung!” From there, we visited the cemetery where Franz Osang was buried when he died in 1940. Naomi placed a stone on the grave in memory of this brave and honorable man who showed kindness to Eric.
Werner had to return to the church to oversee a funeral. At that point, Naomi and I thought our visit to Stenz was ending, but in fact the connections were only beginning.
Gabi and Alex drove us to the nearby street where Valeska and Eric rented rooms in a house before they left. Nobody was home, but we saw the next-door neighbors in their yard observing us. With great pluck, Gabi and Alex walked over to introduce themselves and explain the purpose of our visit. Naomi and I joined them to meet an elderly woman with her two sons and a woman, perhaps her granddaughter.
The elderly woman, Regina, was 80 and had lived in the house all her life. The sweep of history that flowed past her front door astounded me: Weimar Germany, Nazi Germany, the war, the Russians, the communist years of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, or the DDR), the abrupt transition to a united Germany, all observed from the house in Stenz.
She became emotional talking about long-buried memories. She recalled Eric giving her brother a toy fire truck, and that Valeska gave sweets to her family. We must have spoken with the family for an hour about her experiences and the years of a divided Germany.
Did anybody else from past decades still live in the area, we asked. She mentioned a man more Eric’s age, Hans, who still lived nearby. She gave us an address within walking distance. With thanks and exchanges of names, we parted.
We found the house and with the boldness of investigative reporters, Alex knocked on the door. A woman who looked to be in her early 80s answered the door. We asked if Hans was in. Yes, that was her husband, she said. Gabi and Alex explained our purpose, so she went inside and brought her husband out. A dapper man at 90 in a pullover sweater, Hans quickly got into the spirit of the discussion and shared his memories. He had gone to school with Eric, he confirmed, and remembered him from classes in elementary school. Eric had once brought a world atlas to class and the students pored over it, identifying countries.
Han’s memories of Eric stopped at a certain point. When he and others had to join the Hitler Youth, Eric, well, was left out of the “inner circle.” Hans related a story told by a local man who swore he saw Eric as a U.S. Army soldier near the war’s end, as he guarded German POWs. He called out “Erich, Erich!” but heard no response.
Naomi later told her father the story, and Eric said that, yes, he did remember somebody shouting his name, but at the time he thought it must be somebody else and, anyway, you can’t very well halt a column of POWs to chat with a childhood acquaintance.
(After we returned to the U.S., Hans’ son emailed a class photo from the early 1930s to Eric, with the two of them sitting side by side—boys instantly recognizable as old men 80 years later).
After a final round of photo and thanks, Gabi and Alex drove us to a restaurant and then dropped us off at the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, or the Bundeswehr Military History Museum. The displays, both thematic and chronological, were enlightening and gave an unblinking sense of the cultural context of German military matters through World War II and its aftermath.
The time in Dresden ended with a trip to the Saxon Switzerland National Park, reached via a boat ride on the Elbe and then a bus trip into spectacular rock formations that have attracted tourists for hundreds of years. Graffiti dating back to the 1700s chiseled in rocks spoke to the area’s enduring appeal. If Dresden had focused on Jewish matters , the park took us into a more primal Teutonic setting, at least in my imagination. The misty weather accentuated the wildness and mysteries of the tree-covered cliffs. I could imagine Richard Wagner coming here for inspiration for his Ring Cycle operas, as the Valkyries swooped among the fog-wreathed boulders and great empty spaces between drop-offs.
Even as we hiked and experienced an older Germany, the newer Germany took center stage in Berlin. On that Sunday, a mass rally protesting anti-semitism took place at the Brandenburg Gate. Promotional materials proclaimed “Steh Auf! Nie wieder Judenhass!” (Get Up! Never Again Hatred of Jews!). Organized by the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the rally featured top government speakers, including Prime Minister Angela Merkel. I very much wanted to attend the event and compare it to similar Jewish-themed rallies I’ve attended over the years in New York. I wondered if it would make any difference in the level or expression of anti-semitism in Germany or elsewhere
I doubt it. Europe continues to live down to my expectations.