In our family, the story of Evelyn, my mother-in-law’s audacious escape from Nazi Germany at the age of ten, still continues to resonate. On a trial run, in May 1938, she and her mother, Lilli, both fair-complexioned and Aryan in appearance, skirted frontier guards and went on to picnic in a field just within the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia that contained a substantial German-speaking population. Displaying utter insouciance, mother and daughter then crossed back into Germany, casually nodding at the guards as they strolled by them.
Having tested this, the following morning they filled their baskets with portable possessions, stuffing money and other valuables into their clothing, before approaching the same border control. Beyond a few innocent flirtations, the guards who had witnessed them the day before now thought nothing about impeding the picnickers, and the two of them once again traversed this fungible border. In the meantime, Lilli’s husband, Kurt, had paid smugglers to carry him across in the trunk of a car, and the three of them were able to reunite in Prague, where they immediately filed emigration papers. Some short while later and soon before the forced annexation by the Germans of the Sudetenland into which they had crossed, they were granted permission to travel to the United States. On occasion, my mother-in-law would speak of the flight from Prague to Amsterdam – the first time she had traveled in an airplane – and the ensuing journey by ship across the Atlantic. When I first met her toward the end of 1984, she had long been married to Herb, like her a German-born Jew. Though enrolled in different years, they had both been pupils at the same elementary school in Berlin but did not get to know each other until they had long been settled in their new homeland. Through the remainder of their lives, they were both immensely proud of having become U.S. citizens.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, the mayoral office in West Berlin invited Herb and Evelyn to revisit the city of their birth, and, although my mother-in-law harbored reservations about returning there, they both agreed, once home again in the United States, that their trip had allowed them to confront, if not to settle, the emotional baggage of the traumatic years of their youth. When in Berlin, they had located bombed sites where family homes had once stood, and – meaningfully for them – crossed over into the communist East for an escorted outing to the huge Weissensee Jewish cemetery in devoted remembrance of their relatives of an older generation who were buried there. They were disappointed that so many tombstones had been toppled, though they were able to identify those of their respective grandparents and to decipher a number of the inscriptions.
Herb died in 2012. In his final years, he began but did not complete a memoir of his experience in Berlin and Brussels to which his family had fled in 1936. During those final years, the couple had moved to a senior community where, following her husband’s death, Evelyn continued on her own. She was very much the matriarch of our extended family, mentally sharp though at eighty-eight years old stoically battling a number of physical ailments. Early this year, it was natural that my wife, Carole, should turn to her for good advice when we learned that our immediate family were similarly being invited to Germany. Although she was quite young when she had left Berlin, Evelyn retained in her memory the locale of her family home on the Kurfürstendamm, the city’s high-end boulevard. As well as pinpointing this and several other locations, she particularly urged us to include a visit to the Weissensee cemetery to re-inspect ancestral graves. She was extremely keen to learn what we might discover, and made it clear that she would wish to sponsor any necessary restoration work.
However, our invitation to visit Germany did not emanate from Berlin but from Frankfurt am Main, and, rather than Carole’s, was made possible through my maternal lineage, the two of us each being first-generation descendants of refugee parents on both our paternal and maternal sides. Though my father came from Leipzig, my mother, Vera Felsenstein (née Hirsch), was born and grew up in Frankfurt, and it was that historic city that now extended a generous invitation to linear offspring of former residents. In common with several other German cities, Frankfurt had originally offered this opportunity to past citizens but, over seventy years after the end of the Second World War, it was evident that through natural attrition there were relatively few first generation refugees still alive and fit enough to travel.
In the group of about thirty mainly second and third generation descendants, there was but one returnee, Renata, who was actually born in Frankfurt, though she was merely a toddler when her family fled the Nazis. With that one exception, all those who received invitations had to produce evidence that they were the children or grandchildren of former citizens of Frankfurt before they were accepted on the trip. Once that was established, invitations came through both for me and for our two children, Kenny, a twenty-six year old medical student, and Joanna, aged twenty two, who completed the final part of a Master’s degree in elementary and special education on the day before she flew to Frankfurt. As Carole’s family was not from Frankfurt our only direct expenditure that was understandably not covered by the host city was her air fare. Once in Frankfurt, she was fully part of the program, sharing the experience with the other group members who were gathered mainly from the United States, Israel, and Great Britain.
After our discussions with my mother-in-law, we decided that we would cross the Atlantic a few days in advance of the start of the Frankfurt program in order to also take in Berlin. The last time I had been there was on a brief working trip back in the 1980s when it was still a divided city. The hotel in which we stayed during the present visit was situated on Krausenstrasse three blocks from Check Point Charlie, and, in orienting myself, it was only after we arrived that I was able to learn that its locational footprint was in the former communist East Berlin. Although part of the wall has been preserved as a tourist attraction, central Berlin no longer emits the ambiance of a divided city.
The 368 metre (1,027 ft.) TV tower on the Alexanderplatz, visible from almost anywhere in the city, still stands as an iconic remnant of the aspirations of the failed German Democratic Republic, but the architecturally stunning new Mall of Berlin with its glass encased piazza on the Leipziger Platz in what was once East Berlin is much more a measure of the capitalist direction that the present city is now pursuing. So many crumbling buildings from the communist era have been torn down to make way for new developments. Reunified Berlin itself is still very much a work in progress but with not much doubt about its sense of direction. Today, little is made of the fact that the Mall of Berlin was constructed almost adjacent to the site of Hitler’s bunker. Even less touted is that the Mall is housed on the exact spot that was once the famous Wertheim department store, a Jewish-owned enterprise which also featured a magnificent covered atrium. When it was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century, it was the largest department store in Europe. That gigantic store was “aryanized” during the Nazi era and largely destroyed by allied bombings through the Second World War.
Central to our visit was our endeavor to explore the remnants of pre-war Jewish life in Berlin made all the more difficult because, until comparatively recently, it remained hidden through a combination of neglect, political division, and collective amnesia. It is only within the last thirty years or so that Germany has made genuine strides to reclaim Jewish life as a vital component of its larger cultural fabric. The opening of the Jewish Museum in 2001 and the influx to Berlin of Jews primarily from Russia and from Israel has aided that transformation. Anybody familiar with our son, Kenny, would agree that he is not by nature a “museum person” yet he was so fascinated by our visit to the Jewish Museum that, even after nearly three hours, it was difficult to prize him away from there. On Shabbat afternoon and the following Monday, we toured the brutalist blocks of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and gazed with awe at the beautifully restored façade of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, but we were there at the wrong time to gain access to either.
By bus on another day, we made our way to the hundred acre Weissensee cemetery that was inaugurated in the latter part of the nineteenth century to the neo-renaissance design of renowned architect Hugo Licht. Within its main gates and fronting Licht’s yellow-brick memorial chapel stands a simple slab inscribed to the memory of the victims of Nazi genocide. We were informed that, after the end of the war, it was the very first such commemorative monument erected anywhere in the world. It exists as a dedicated stopping point for silent prayer.
Armed with locational details, essential in a cemetery in which over 115,000 persons are buried, we then trekked for perhaps three quarters of a mile to its far end to honor the graves of Carole’s great grandparents. Although the main pathways remained intact and accessible, we were disconcerted by the neglected state of the cemetery in which whole aisles were choked with weeds and untended bushes, and the Hebrew and German inscriptions on many once noble tombs had moldered away and become indecipherable. We saw the occasional aisle where a dutiful family will have underwritten the cost of restoration in order to gain access to an ancestor’s tomb but such maintenances were, alas, too rare.
When we came to the particular lots where Carole’s ancestors are buried, we had to trip through a wilderness of unmarked pathways in which many grave stones had been overturned and become submerged beneath thickets of ivy. To her consternation and after much clambering, we were unable to locate the graves that we sought, and, after a long and fruitless search, we reluctantly gave up. Carole had intended to call her mother that evening but recognized that our account would only serve to leave her despondent. We agreed that we would postpone our report to her until after our return to the U.S. Our experience at Weissensee seemed aptly emblematic of the difficulty of recovering one’s ancestral roots in Berlin almost three quarters of a century after the obliteration of Jewish life there. We set off for Frankfurt with low expectations that our experience there would be any different.
In America, the first hundred days are often considered as crucial markers of the direction of a new presidency in which key policies are laid down. In Germany, Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933, and within his first hundred days enacted a targeted raft of laws aimed at curbing the rights and freedoms of Jews. Before the end of his hundred days, my mother – Vera Hirsch – an assimilated Jew from Frankfurt had correctly read the writing on the wall and fled the country of her birth. That spring, she had been in her final year as a medical student and was completing her clinical rotation at the Krankenhaus Sachsenhausen, a prominent private hospital in Frankfurt. Doing her rounds on the ward, she approached one of her patients to inquire how she was feeling, and was blasted with a vicious tirade accusing her of being “an impertinent Jewish woman” who had overstepped her inferior status. The patient called for the doctor in charge, evidently a Nazi, who, after listening to her complaint, turned furiously on my mother and straightaway ordered her out of the hospital, accusing her of “having bad manners.” My mother kept a journal, and in it she shows how this brief contretemps left her totally stunned:
“I am sure it was right that the doctor was mad if his patient actually complained to him, but to scold me in that manner and treat me like a criminal was completely unjustified, that is, the man does not even know me and might have been thinking that he was dealing with a pert and ill-mannered person.
What can I say to justify myself? I simply did not know what to do….
I had no idea why he talked that way about the outrageousness I committed; did not know what he was talking about….
Ugh, for the first time, I feel for myself what it means to be treated as an outcast.” [Translated]
Despite efforts to do so, in England to which she escaped, she was unable to resume her medical studies. Instead, she embarked on a new and ultimately successful career as a personnel manager working for a large retail consortium. In her early days as a refugee, her main focus was to help her own parents get out of Germany, which they did, evacuating the family home in 1934. Apart from an unavoidable three-day business trip there in the 1950s when her time was confined to the conference room, neither she nor her parents ever again set foot in Frankfurt. Nor did they express any desire to return to the country that had caused their expulsion, and, far more culpable than that, the persecution and systematic murder of close relatives, friends and acquaintances, and innumerable other innocent fellow Jews at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Their revulsion against all things German was demonstrable. When my mother died in 1992, the only conscious gesture that she made to the profession from which she was divested by the Nazis was to leave her body to science.
Earlier this year, when my family received our formal invitation from Oberbürgermeister Peter Feldmann (the Lord Mayor of Frankfurt) it was couched in a diplomatic language that acknowledged the deep hurt that was still being felt by many second and third generation survivors. “From my conversation with former visitors,” he wrote, “I am well aware of the mental and emotional pains that the old wounds inflicted by the holocaust are still causing you. I therefore feel all the more thankful for your kind willingness to accept the invitation of the City of Frankfurt am Main.” Herr Feldman’s message was no doubt intended to assuage some of the embedded moral doubts about visiting his city.
A further letter that reached us within days was sent by Frau Angelika Rieber, the chairwoman of a group that is named the Projekt Jüdisches Leben in Frankfurt am Main. This letter too began sensitively by recognizing that “coming to your parents’ home town might be connected with mixed feelings,” but offered the enticing prospect of sharing in the research of their past by “going to places of your parents’ or grandparents’ childhood, former homes, schools or cemeteries where your ancestors are buried.” Although there was a strong altruistic element here, the letter went on to uphold the real importance of keeping “the memory of German-Jewish history and culture alive” into the present day by passing that “knowledge on to our schools,” and addressing this to both students and teachers. Frau Rieber affirmed that the destruction of “the cultural activities and the significant contribution of the Jewish Community to life in Frankfurt” could be offset, albeit imperfectly, by repossessing enduring individual stories and memories carried from their parents or grandparents by second and third generation survivors and refugees from the Holocaust.
During our unforgettable week in Frankfurt, the Mayor’s office and the Projekt Jüdisches Leben joined in a collective effort to make welcome each and every member of the group. From plenary sessions both at the start and at the end of the week in which we shared with each other the experience of our individual families to the welcoming lunch at the historic Palmengarten and a final banquet in the beautifully restored City Hall, every detail of our visit was carefully thought out and orchestrated with flawless precision. We were not treated, in the touristic sense, as visitors but as former citizens of the city of Frankfurt. Too easily, a cynic or outsider may interpret this as an over deferential, even gratuitous, means of glossing over German guilt for the crimes of their forefathers but that would be a gross distortion of our experience. More than seventy years after, it was evident that the generations who grew up subsequent to the Holocaust continue to wrestle with an overwhelming mental and emotional burden that they have come to realize is their country’s tragic inheritance. They realize too that, in a very different sense, the families of survivors are no less burdened, and an important part of our visit to Frankfurt was to search for meaningful commonalities. A shared event and a private conversation will serve to exemplify the merit of this course of action.
A highlight of our group’s visit to the Deutsche National Bibliothek (German National Library) on the second day of our stay was a moving speech by Herr Christoph Stillemunkes, the Ministerialrat (“Undersecretary”) of Education for the State of Hesse, who began by acknowledging that, without exaggeration, the “crimes [of the Nazi era] have damaged and desecrated Germany for ever.” Then, addressing our group of former citizens directly, he upheld that the special “gift [of]…having you here” is in the hope that as children and grandchildren of “eyewitnesses and survivors,” you might be willing, “to address the generation [of young Germans] presently growing up to tell them about your [and your family’s] fate.” By doing so, you will help them to recognize that they have “the luck to grow up in a stable constitutional state, in a tightened democracy and under peaceful conditions.”
For Ministerialrat Stillemunke, our visit provided a unique window into “preserv[ing] remembrance, that is knowing what happened,…and draw[ing] the consequence to advocate human dignity and human rights.” The full text of his meaningful address has been preserved here. To perpetuate such ideals, the National Library, based in Frankfurt, set up from shortly after its post-war foundation a “German Exile Archive 1933-1945,” which “collects publications by German-speaking emigrants as well as their personal papers and documents from the years of the Nazi dictatorship.” Its avowed purpose is to take its holdings beyond academic and specialist circles and introduce them to the wider public. To enhance the collection, a personal appeal was made by Dr. Sylvia Asmus, Head of the German Exile Archive, to us as former citizens to consider donating surviving family documents and artifacts to the library. Such donations would join the company of the papers of such luminaries as Lion Feuchtwanger and Thomas Mann as well as manuscript material of many lesser known figures whose experience in exile deserved retrieval as a means of demonstrating the cultural loss brought about by the Nazi dictatorship.
The private conversation took place in the office of Dr. Reinhard Lohölter, the recently retired dean of Frankfurt University’s Medical School, who generously devoted a full morning to escorting my family around the still intact building where my mother had once been a student. Our meeting was set up by Frau Rieber of the Projekt Jüdisches Leben, and we were accompanied too by the photo-journalist Frau Eva Krafczyk. The old medical school contains a small archive devoted to immunologist and Nobel prize winner Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), and we were also able to tour the impressive new buildings that house an auditorium named for Dr. Franz Volhard (1872-1950), a leading internist, under whom my mother had studied. In the spring of 1933, he had written an affidavit in her favor in the (as it turned out, vain) hope that she might resume and complete her medical training in England. For his opposition to the new regime, he was shortly after dismissed from his professorship, and only reinstated after the war. Over drinks in Dr. Lohölter’s office, I mentioned my own experience of growing up in London as the child of refugee parents who almost never talked openly about life under the Nazis. As he was within a few years of my own age, I ventured to inquire of him whether he would be willing to enlarge on his own experience of growing up in post-war Germany when so many of his parents’ and grandparents’ contemporaries had been active Nazis. Was it possible at that time, I asked him, for a young German to come to terms with the crimes of the previous generation? And did that generation really know what was happening to those of their fellow citizens, particularly Jews, who were being persecuted as enemies of the state?
Dr. Lohölter pondered for a few moments before replying, and, as he did so, his eyes started to well up. He told us about conversations he had had with his own mother, who, though she wasn’t acquainted with her, turned out to be an exact contemporary of Evelyn. She had recalled to him the horror of witnessing the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht in November 1938, and her unsettling realization that her Jewish neighbors and former classmates were vanishing without trace. Despite the post-war denial of knowledge by so many Germans of the atrocities that were perpetrated in the name of the regime, in his mind there was absolutely no question that, perhaps without some of the more horrific details, his parents’ generation were aware of what was happening. For him, the guilt for the tragedy that had occurred in the years before he was born was his and his generation’s fateful inheritance which he had no cause to deny. We found a common language in our shared sorrow and in the realization that, even seventy years after, the reverberations of the Holocaust persisted on both sides. It was one more validation of our week in Frankfurt. Writing in the Frankfurter Neue Presse, our companion, the journalist Frau Krafczyk, reported on our visit (see http://www.fnp.de/lokales/frankfurt/Auf-Spurensuche-am-Main;art675,2626055), noting the obligation of knowing what can transpire when democratic values are brutally suppressed under a murderous regime.
Thanks to the indefatigable researches of Frau Rieber, we returned to the university later that day, this time to the archive section of the main library. Upon entry, we were escorted to a table, and handed a file that contained my mother’s registration and photo-attached identity card, and a page-long compulsory questionnaire for non-Aryan students (“Fragebogen für nichtarische Studierende”) dated 4 May 1933, in response to which she had been made to declare that neither her parents nor grandparents were of the Aryan race, that her family had not taken steps to renounce their Jewish faith, that her ancestors on both sides had lived in Germany for hundreds of years, that her father had been conscripted and fought in the First World War, and that she herself was not affiliated to any political party or organization.
Accompanying this was a testimonial letter (“Aerzlichtes Zeugnis”) from Dr. Marcel Traugott, a consultant in gynecology, claiming that because of recurring insomnia and persistent headaches my mother was seeking an intercalation of three or four months before resuming her studies. Ominously, at the head of the letter Professor Traugott had been obliged to strike out his professional address as a Nazi mandate had been decreed the previous month barring Jewish physicians from public practice. I found out later that Traugott and his family also escaped from Nazi Germany, and he was able to resume his medical practice in Zurich. The doctor’s purposely fabricated diagnosis may have helped my mother when she finally left Germany for England at the end of the same week. This extraordinary batch of papers brought home to us the abruptness of the trauma of my mother’s departure from her natal city of Frankfurt and from the medical ambitions that, until the advent of the Nazi dictatorship less than one hundred days before, had determined the course of her young life. Privately and without prejudice, I wondered whether the present university would have been willing to grant her a posthumous medical qualification, but felt that such an initiative would have to arise from there.
A highlight of the very packed visiting program was an escorted tour of the old Jewish cemetery, and also of the adjacent Judengasse Museum on Battonnstrasse, which has been sympathetically restored and only recently re-opened. The location of these is on the site of the old Jewish Ghetto, created in 1460 and purportedly the oldest Jewish ghetto in Europe (see Museum Judengasse). The cemetery itself, like that of the Weissensee in Berlin, suffered from extensive mutilation during and after the war, but unlike its counterpart in the capital city, major efforts have been made by the city of Frankfurt to repair the damage as far as that is possible. Although the exact positioning of individual graves has been irreparably lost, the headstones marking the burial within the cemetery of such seminal figures as the Talmudic scholar Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz (1731-1805) and the banker Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) have been remounted. Almost all of the old cemetery’s headstones are inscribed in Hebrew. Mounted on the walls that surround the exterior of the cemetery are small rectangular plaques yielding the individual names of the more than 11,000 Jews of Frankfurt who perished during the Holocaust. Surprisingly because most of my father’s family were from elsewhere, we found plaques in memory of his uncle and aunt, Moritz and Klara Felsenstein, who escaped from Frankfurt to Amsterdam but following the Nazi invasion of Holland were deported to Westerbork in 1943 and from there to Auschwitz. Other members of our group located similar plaques erected to perpetuate the memory of their lost loved ones. It was yet another moment for silent prayer.
Again with the help of Frau Rieber who had made the rounds in advance, we made separate arrangements to visit the Rat-Beil-Strasse cemetery, the burial place of Frankfurt’s Jews from 1828 through to 1929, enfolding within it some 40,000 graves. It was described to us as the “Alt-Neue Friedhof” (the Old-New Cemetery) to distinguish it from the old cemetery that we had visited on Battonnstrasse and a new cemetery that is still being used as the main Jewish community grave site of today. The contrast with the Weissensee was immediate. Not only had this cemetery largely escaped allied bombing and Nazi desecration but its interior was well kept and, for the most part, carefully tended. Among those buried here are Paul Ehrlich, whose archive we had inspected at the medical school, the court artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, the famous orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (no relation!), and the women’s rights pioneer Bertha Pappenheim. We were fortunate to be introduced to Herr Majer Szanckower, its long-serving custodian, and it was evident from his genial conversation that, though grossly in need of more funds to support his work, he took great pride in the cemetery’s preservation.
Where in Berlin we had sought in vain for the graves of Carole’s great grandparents, here we had no difficulty in finding my own ancestors both on my mother’s maternal and paternal sides. Although most of these had passed away around the turn of the twentieth century and before she was born, my mother often regaled us with stories of their lives, which in turn she must have picked up from her mother. She told us of her maternal grandfather, Joseph Ettlinger, a successful self-made tradesman, who lost his father when he was still quite young. As the oldest child in the family, he went on to support his four sisters and one brother, all of whom appear to have married before him with generous dowries that were supplied by him. In his early forties, he fell in love and married the attractive and highly intelligent Klara Edenfeld, the daughter of a wealthy wholesale cloth merchant who originated from Würzburg in Bavaria. They in turn had three daughters, the youngest of whom was my grandmother. In a quiet tree covered cemetery plot, we found two polished black quartz obelisks marking their graves and also an adjacent third for my grandmother’s eldest sister and her husband.
In another section, we located, also in fine condition, the last resting place of my paternal great grandparents, Pauline (née Horwitz) and Julius Hirsch. My mother was four years old when Pauline died in 1914 but one of her earliest recollections was receiving from her grandmother some basic lessons on how to knit. “My stitches,” wrote my mother many years later, “were so tight that at each move from one needle to the other, I needed help and called out “zieh mal” (“please pull”), and I can still see her [Pauline] chuckle with laughter at each “zieh mal”, and calling for more.” Contrary to the majority of people in Germany, who were jubilant when war broke out just shortly before her death, Pauline is supposed to have wept, and cried: “This will be a disaster.” These and a host of other such family anecdotes sped fertilely through my mind as we recited the traditional mourners’ Kaddish before their respective graves. In so many ways, the Projekt Jüdisches Leben was fulfilling its purpose quite brilliantly in bringing our family’s lost past to life and making a reality of what before had seemed little more than notional.
Surviving correspondence from 1933 and early 1934 between my mother following her escape to London and my grandmother still in Frankfurt had long preserved for me the family address on the second floor of a nineteenth-century house on Oberlindau. Its situation was on a quiet street in the Westend of the city, close by the handsome Alte Oper (Old Opera House) and three hundred yards from the Rothschild Park. Allied bombing of Frankfurt in 1943 and 1944 had destroyed the Rothschild Palace, the jewel of the park, and, as we were told, obliterated the houses on the Oberlindau. When we wandered the street, which was within a mile of our hotel, we found that it had retained its residential ambiance through new buildings that had been erected in the reconstruction of Frankfurt during the 1950s. However, just a single house had survived the war, and that turned out to be Oberlindau 51, where my grandparents had lived and my mother had grown up. Even more than our finding again the family graves of my respective great grandparents, the discovery of my mother’s house, still intact where others had fallen, was a complete heartthrob moment! We gazed up at the second-floor windows and balconies, and, as this was a corner house, I was left wondering which direction my mother’s childhood bedroom faced. A dental practice now occupied the ground floor which meant that the front door to the house was ajar, and, in the shadow of my mother’s footsteps, we were able to climb the two ornate flights of staircase to the entrance of what had been the family apartment. Frau Rieber, who once again accompanied us, took the liberty of ringing the doorbell but sadly no one answered. I shall probably never know whether the present occupants would have welcomed us or considered our visit an intrusion, but, standing on the landing outside the door to the apartment, there was already more than enough to enrich the imagination.
Appropriately, on the final full day of our stay, members of the visiting group were each invited into high schools across Frankfurt to give talks endeavoring to relink our families to the city. As Germany already has a significant immigrant presence — recently increased by an influx of as many as one million refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries of the Middle East — the population of the schools would (as we indeed found) turn out to be multiethnic. Come the day, not all members of our group felt comfortable addressing an audience. And so, late on, my wife Carole, accompanied by our daughter Joanna, agreed to talk at two different schools, using some of my prepared Powerpoint slides but also adding a number of her own so as to include the Berlin experience of her family. In justification of our visit to Frankfurt, my particular choice of school filled me with excitement — triggering emotional goosebumps that I’ve rarely felt before — as I was invited to talk at the Bettinaschule, the renamed Viktoriaschule where my own mother had once been a pupil. In her day, it had been an all-girls school but was now co-educational. The original building had not survived the war, and the school, since renamed after the nineteenth century Frankfurt-born writer, Bettina von Arnim, was rebuilt close by.
The present-day incarnation of Fraulein Johanna Albrecht, my mother’s classroom teacher from first grade to graduation, is Frau Rachel Hoffmann, and, with considerable warmth and enthusiasm, she introduced me and my son Kenny to her class as the son and grandson of a former pupil who had been forced to flee the country at the start of the Nazi regime. Because our talk was in English, I was initially concerned that German pupils in their early teens might have difficulty in understanding us, and it was gratifying to find that for the majority of the students that was not a problem. They listened intently and, at the end of our presentation, asked intelligent and informed questions. By the diktat of history, the Holocaust commands a prominent place in the curriculum in all German schools, and its place there is not only to ensure that students are made aware of the horror of genocide and equivalent crimes against humanity but also to remind them of the values and benefits that come from living in a democratic and multicultural society. I am certain that these are the sentiments that the tutelary spirit of my mother, in my mind hovering over us as we talked, would have understood and appreciated.
The day before these school visits was Mother’s Day in America, and Carole called through to New Jersey to impart our good wishes to Evelyn. She came back extremely worried from the telephone call as her mother’s voice had sounded slurred, and, instead of her usual sharp mind, there appeared to be confusion in her thinking. Two days later, we flew back to the United States, and Carole drove straight up to see her mother. She was very shocked at her sudden deterioration, and had her immediately admitted to hospital. Sadly, Evelyn died eight days later. During that time, she was too ill for us to impart to her what we had found in Berlin or to tell her about our extraordinary week in Frankfurt. In the context of our trip, Evelyn’s death became a double loss compounded by the fact that we were deprived from sharing our experience with her. Had she lived, there would most certainly have been lively conversation and further recollection. However much we valued it, we were abruptly reminded of the fragility of generational memory.
During the whole of our twelve-day visit to Germany, the individual experiences of Vera and Evelyn as refugees who each fled persecution had hung over us quite incessantly. When she left Germany, Evelyn was still a young girl who was supported by her parents whereas, traveling on her own, Vera was nearly two decades her senior and enticingly close to graduating as a doctor. In adapting to a new country, each had the advantage of near fluency in English, Evelyn enjoying the early tutelage in Berlin of an English nanny, and Vera gaining her linguistic skills through previous visits to London where another Frankfurt-born aunt had once lived. Despite initial adjustments and several setbacks, each had successfully built a new life in her respective country of adoption. Each had become married to a Jewish refugee from Germany so that, despite natural feelings of repulsion against their country of birth, there were still perceptible ties through such things as their circle of friends that included others of a similar background, the food which they cooked and ate, their cosmopolitan outlook, and (though they would be the last to admit it!) a little bit of a “yekke” mentality.
Many years later, through the marriage of their children, Evelyn and Vera came to enjoy each other’s conversation and friendship, each admiring particular qualities of resilience and empathy that they saw in the other. Today neither is here to speak for herself. Because she lived to see her grandchildren into their twenties, Evelyn will forever retain an important place in the memories of her grandchildren, Kenny and Joanna, though, if truth be told, our recent visit to Berlin added only superficially to that. By contrast, our children had no direct memories of Vera, who died when Kenny was less than two years old and before Joanna was born. Yet, through the largesse of the City of Frankfurt and the tireless efforts of the Projekt Jüdisches Leben, they now have something of a closeness with their paternal grandmother that could not have been imparted to them in any other way. As for myself, on our final evening in Frankfurt, after the talk at my mother’s school and a grand parting reception and gourmet dinner, I imagined taking a stroll in the dusk from our hotel to Oberlindau 51, where I would climb the stairs, knock on their door, and be greeted by my own grandparents and mother. It was too vivid a dream to ever wish to controvert.
Frank Felsenstein is the Reed D. Voran Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Humanities at Ball State University in Indiana. He is at present completing and looking to publish a memoir of his parents’ experience as refugees, provisionally entitled “No Life Without You: A Refugee Love Story.”