Confronting the past in a German village

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

BERNKASTEL, Germany — My wife Varda’s deep German roots brought us once again to the streets that her family knew, and to look for the graves of those who passed on before there were no graves for Jews killed by other Germans.

This trip is to the village of Bernkastel alongside the Mosel, on the road west from Koblenz and the Rhine going toward Luxembourg and France. It’s a delightful place, currently a vacation spot for Germans, with a well earned reputation for wine.

It was home to the Lieser family, a history of being the village tanners, a stinking craft allowed to Jews, as well as leatherworkers and the owners of a shoe store in the village center.

The family provided the woman who became the mother of Varda’s father, and whose name (Rosa) was translated to Hebrew and given to Varda by parents then sure that Rosa had been killed in the East.

Varda and her sister Gabi, along with our respective families, plus some overseas cousins, may be all that remains from the Liesers of Bernkastel. However, with every new birth, we celebrate, once again, our victory over the Nazis.

Both sides of Varda’s family contributed to German forces in World War I, posted against my own father in his American uniform. Varda’s uncle was killed in the war.

War service reinforced the family’s patriotism. By some reports, Jews served disproportionately in the German army. Perhaps it was an expression of feeling more at home there than the Jews of other countries.

What came a decade later was–at least at first–difficult to absorb. Some remained for years–and some too long—expecting that the madness would pass.

Varda’s grandfather was wounded in the 1914 war, and later suffered from a condition that caused his death in 1942. Because of his army service, authorities in Dusseldorf allowed Rosa to remain at home and nurse him until his death, at which point she was sent to Theresienstadt in July, 1942, then onward to her death at Maly Torstinoc in Belarus on September 21, 1942.

The Germans kept records about their Jews, subsequently made available to families. Varda’s files include a letter from the American Consulate in Frankfurt, written in 1954 about her grandmother and her Aunt Gretta, and a letter from the Dutch Red Cross about her Uncle Karl. Karl had fled the family home in Dusseldorf to seek refuge in the Netherlands, was turned over by Dutch informants to the Germans, and sent to Auschwitz on July 15, 1942.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but marrying Varda provided entry to something like an Israeli aristocracy. There’s a street named after Haim Arlozorov in virtually every Israeli city. He was the Secretary General of the Labor Federation, who traveled to Germany in 1933. He had been a schoolmate (some say a boy friend or lover) of Hedwig Goebels, the wife of Josef, a minister in Hitler’s government. Arlozorov sought the help of Hedwig to ease the exit of Jews, but she warned him to stay away, and that continued effort to seek her help would endanger him.

During his visit to Berlin, Arlozorov met with his cousin, Varda’s maternal grandmother, and convinced her to leave Germany with her children.

Shortly after Arlozorov returned to Tel Aviv, he was murdered when walking with his wife along the beach.

The event became a major event in Israeli history. Labor politicians accused their right wing rivals of killing him. The claim was enough so that Menachem Begin appointed a commission, meant to reject the allegation, when he became the first non-Labor Prime Minister in 1977. By then memories of those surviving were dim, and the commission finished its work without a clear outcome. Among the other possibilities is that the killing was a random act, perhaps by an Arab seeking to kill Jews. Or that it was the act of assassins sent by the Germans, who could not tolerate a story that the Jew Arlozorov had been a high school lover of Hedwig Goebbels.

Varda’s maternal grandmother never learned to converse in Hebrew and Varda became fluent in German as a child. Her ambivalence about Germany has occasionally affected her willingness to visit the country and speak the language. She has engaged Germans in conversation, and at times has refused to speak German. She has also avoided accepting any citizenship other than Israeli, although several close relatives have acquired German passports.

During the 1950s, and then again when the Soviet Union collapsed and individuals were allowed to travel, Israeli radio had a daily segment with the names of Holocaust survivors seeking family contacts in Israel or elsewhere. Varda listened to the program as a child, hoping but never hearing the name of her Grandmother Rosa.

Bernkastel was the place where Varda’s father, Erich, spent summers as a child , along with his younger brother Karl and two cousins. Except for Karl, they all survived the war, and each told us stories about Erich and Bernkastel. Erich was the good student in the group, and he found evidence of his family’s background in Dusseldorf extending backward for at least 400 years. One of his cousins claims that his side of the family came to the Rhine with the Romans. That’s conceivable, but there’s nothing more than family stories for his claim.

One story encapsulates the complexities of German Jews. Erich’s Uncle Albert was a sniper in the German army, by all reports a patriot and not a religious Jew. But when he aimed at a French soldier, and heard his enemy begin morning prayers with שמע ישראל, Albert risked a death sentence by not pulling the trigger.

My own family came from the east, which would have disqualified me as Varda’s partner if she grew up in her father’s home town of Dusseldorf. I was born in the safety of the US to parents also born in the US. However, I recall conversations about relatives in Bialystok who were no longer answering letters. Since then I’ve found a long list of them in the files of Yad Vashem.

I’ve felt no pull to seek my roots in Europe. Family stories are that my people were nowhere close to the level of integration and participation in the surrounding society as were Varda’s family in Germany. On earlier trips, we found the homes where her mother lived in Berlin, and her father in Dusseldorf.

Older members of Varda’s family felt at home in Germany, and expressed pride to be German. Others reject Germany and everything associated with it.

From several family members, proud of being European and suspicious of Americans, I’ve heard that it was the less successful Europeans who migrated to the US, where they joined a semi-civilized society marked by Chicago gangsters and the Wild West.

Their stories fit what historians report for the Jews of Germany. One expression is that the Jews were more German than the Germans.

That’s no small part of the Holocaust puzzle.

Bernkastel’s Jewish community came to an end with Kristalnacht, the destruction of the synagogue and other Jewish sites.

This trip did not begin on a positive note. Two days before we flew to Frankfurt, authorities announced the evacuation of 60-70,000 people, including patients at two hospitals, to deal with a WW II bomb discovered at a construction site. It wouldn’t be clear if the airport would be open for our flight or if the train would run to our central city hotel. But these are Germans, as admirable as claimed by relatives when they talk of the 1920s. All was in order by the time we arrived.

Bernkastel is a picturesque German village, flooded with tourists sipping wine and licking ice cream. We found our way to the old Jewish cemetery, well cared for by the current generation of Germans whose ancestors plundered and burned on Kristalnacht. There was a school for the Jews and a synagogue, but there is nothing left except polite officials who provided a map and a key to the cemetery, and arranged a meeting in the city hall (Rathaus) for whatever details they could provide about Varda’s family in the 1920s.

Varda spoke at length with several people we met by chance, including a Catholic theologian who tramped here and there with us until he found the building marked as having been a synagogue. A couple alongside us at a restaurant spoke at length, with me understanding perhaps 15% of what transpired. When they moved from history to current affairs, I did comprehend that they would apply the infamous label of untermensch to Donald Trump.

The Burgermeister (mayor) described at length the family history, in the context of Jews’ many centuries in the village. He showed us the buildings that had been family shops and homes, and located the probable site of the tannery alongside a creek outside the center of town. Then he introduced us to an elderly shopkeeper who told us stories of Varda’s family that had been passed on by older members of her family.

Getting to know Varda has been a work in progress over the better part of four decades. I’ll risk a clarification by my perception that the visit has contributed to some resolutions. We’ve encountered people who have been decent, helpful, and willing to share their own stories. Among the Bergermeister’s stories was his memory of a picture showing an American tank toppling a historic statue of Jesus.

War stories have at least two sides.

From the shopkeepers now occupying what had been a Lieser store, we heard memories of Varda’s family, stories of helping them transport things to Palestine, received letters sent long ago by a family member who had moved to Haifa, plus tales of local anti-Semites, some of them active after the war.

Neither forgiveness nor forgetting has been part of Varda’s conversations. She has returned to bad tales from the Village’s history. But there has been a tendency to see the past as history that is behind us, and should not weigh too heavily on the present.

I sense a bit of the German patriotism acquired from her father, ie, when he was not weeping for his mother. Varda has described what there is to appreciate in this country: its order, performance, and owning up to responsibilities. That, too, like everything else, is a work in progress.

*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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