Advertising

Sunday, August 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

To Germany: We'll Come, But We Have Something To Tell You

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

If Anne Brown could have turned herself into a shadow that first time she tried to go home again, she would have.

She couldn't talk to anyone, she told her husband Will. She wouldn't. Just give her time. She could find the places of her childhood in the places of her mind. Without asking for directions. Without asking anyone for anything.

She found the places of Schluchtern, the German town she was born in and driven out of, exactly where her memory directed. Just the same and yet forever changed.

The spare, boxy house on Bahnhofstrasse that her father had built in 1931 from plans by Germany's famed Bauhaus architects; the soap factory her great-great-grandfather had founded in 1825; the "new" synagogue her forebears had helped build in 1898; the Jewish cemetery with the gravestones dating to medieval times.

Anne Brown has gone back home to Schluchtern several times since that 1971 trip. And for the most part she has been a silent and shadowy presence there. But when she returns this week, she will have to talk with the people who were her classmates and neighbors more than 50 years ago, before the Nazis emptied Schluchtern of its Jews.

Besides helping the town celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building of the synagogue, Brown, 72, of Bellingham, her brother, Ernest Wolf, 70, of St. Louis, and 22 other former Jewish residents of the town will help the townspeople reconnect with their former neighbors, Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust.

The trip represents one small step toward repairing the damage done by Hitler's anti-Semitic policies to the people of Schluchtern, gentile and Jew.

Brown is nervous about going back, but "if we are going to have peace in the world, we have to reach out to other people. So many people in Schluchtern have never seen a Jew. They don't know we are ordinary people like them."

Snow White and Red Riding Hood

Schluchtern is a pause on the German Fairytale Road, which zigzags through the rolling green hills northeast of Frankfurt that were home to the brothers Grimm, Snow White, Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel.

The Grimm brothers' fairy tales don't mention the Jews who lived for at least 700 years around Schluchtern. But history records the murder in 1235 of 35 Jews from Fulda, a few miles away; they were buried in the Jewish cemetery at Schluchtern.

By the time Brown's and Wolf's ancestor was opening up his soap factory, the Jews of Schluchtern were becoming part of Germany's large middle class, Jews by religion but Germans by nationality. By the 1930s, before World War II, 10 percent of Schluchtern's 4,000 townspeople were Jewish.

Brown's parents, Fred and Paula Wolf, were well-off, cultured people who traveled to Frankfurt for concerts and the opera. Brown has several albums of photographs Fred took during those years with a Rolliecord camera she still has.

The photographs show life when it was good in Schluchtern and as it changed when Hitler came to power and began to put legal and social pressures on the Jews.

There are photographs of the soap factory, a century old when Fred Wolf inherited it. He employed hundreds of workers to manufacture the soap products in huge vats and sell them door-to-door as Fuller Brush salesmen were doing in America.

An `employee,' keeping tabs

In a group photo of employees taken in front of the factory in the late 1930s are several of Wolf's relatives - people he hired when, because of Nazi policies, they could no longer get work elsewhere. Among them is a man in a Nazi uniform - an "employee" hired under orders from the government. His real job was to keep tabs on the company and the Wolf family.

There are photographs, too, of the house. Wolf commissioned it when he married Paula, after World War I. He'd fought on the Kaiser's side in that war -one of about 100,000 Jews who did so - and received a battle wound and an Iron Cross for his service.

The house as chronicled by Fred's Rolliecord is imposing - three stories, squared-off, flat roofed, with sheer facades of glass and brick. There was room for a large family and several servants.

The house can be seen as an expression of the Wolf family's standing in the community as Germans, not Jews. The designs of the Bauhaus, a school of art and architecture, were known for being starkly functional - bauhaus means "house for building" - and distinctly German. (The Nazis disdained Bauhaus design as "art-Bolshevism," a snobbish reference to the communist other side of the political spectrum.)

Brown has family photographs, too - her father always impeccably groomed in suit and tie, his hair slicked back Oscar Schlindler-style; her mother, a delicate woman with sad eyes.

Brown remembers a photograph of Ernest, her brother, with two school chums. One is making a Heil Hitler salute, and Ernest is trying to force his arm down.

Another pictures the Wolf children and eight cousins on their mother's side. They range from age 4 to 10. Brown is easy to pick out; her mother always tied her bobbed brown hair in a huge bow that sat on top of her head like a butterfly. The boys all look as though they have the wiggles.

Those photographs are more than records of Brown's family. They are a tribute to foresight and the courage of her parents to drop everything and run for their lives while there was still time.

Two of those wiggly boys in the photograph died in the Holocaust, along with some 120 members of Paula Wolf's family. Their families had fled, but not far enough - to France and Holland, where Hitler's army eventually caught up with them.

Brown has no idea how many relatives of her father also perished.

Fred and Paula Wolf were finding it increasingly difficult to live in Schluchtern as early as 1936 - three years before the rest of the world wearied of Hitler's relentless conquest of Europe and began to fight back.

In Schluchtern, Jewish children were being taunted on the schoolgrounds, fights were picked, hurtful words and rocks tossed. So the Wolfs packed their daughter Anne off to boarding school in Brighton, England. She was 10 and remembers writing bitter letters home, threatening to run away and accusing her parents of not loving her. She didn't understand how necessary it was that she go. The next year, the Wolfs sent Ernest to England, too.

Finally, time to leave

By 1937, Fred Wolf was finally convinced it was time for all of them to go.

"More and more stores had signs at the entrance, `Jews not wanted,' " he wrote in a letter to his grandchildren in 1979. "It became harder to get food and other needed items."

Jewish businesses were liquidated, bank accounts blocked. Laws were passed forbidding Jews from sending money out of the country. The Wolfs couldn't keep the children in the boarding school, so they found foster families in England to take them in.

The last straw for Wolf was when his non-Jewish employees averted their eyes and refused to speak when he'd run into them on the streets of Schluchtern.

Wolf asked the bank to help him find a buyer for the factory - the sale had to be approved by the Nazis. His wife hired a live-in English teacher and began trying to obtain visas to come to America. They packed their belongings into two moving-van-size crates, moved into an apartment and turned the house and factory over to Eugen Heinlein, an industrialist who'd owned a match factory and now had Nazi approval to make soap.

On Nov. 9, 1938, Germany exploded.

History records the riots that convulsed the country as Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass. Mobs destroyed Jews' homes and synagogues and looted their businesses. Before the night was over, 7,500 businesses were demolished, 171 synagogues burned down, 91 Jews murdered. Unknown numbers of Jews were raped, hundreds committed suicide and 26,000 were sent to concentration camps.

After five weeks spent in hiding, Wolf managed a temporary permit to go to England, where he'd wait again, this time for papers to America. Paula, his wife, stayed behind to help her father and brother arrange to flee to Palestine.

Then she fled Schluchtern, too.

The Heinleins moved into their Bauhaus home - Eugen, his wife and two children, about the ages of Anne and Ernest.

The Wolfs arrived in New York in April 1939. With them were one servant - a Catholic woman named Marie who insisted on coming with them - two containers full of furniture, fine linens and silverware; a black-and-white wirehaired terrier named Pipsi; and $720.

"Marie was the first one in the family to get a job, doing housework," Brown said. Her father found work as a laborer in a leather tannery, and her mother took jobs nursing newborns and their mothers.

The Wolfs settled into new lives in America, lives that weren't nearly as privileged and glamorous as they'd been born to. They didn't talk much about Germany, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

"I really didn't know what was going on until I was 14 or 15," Brown said. "There was a Life magazine I found, and there was an old rabbi on the cover, and the whole magazine was full of articles about Germany and the Nazi time. It was overwhelming to me. I don't remember feeling anything except overwhelmed."

Talk - and more talk

That is why in 1978, on one of those trips when Anne Brown stood staring at the house from the anonymity of the street, she felt a momentary panic when a woman came out. One of Eugen Heinlein's family.

Can I help you?

She took Brown and her husband into the house. The Browns and the Heinleins talked, had lunch and talked more.

The first connection was made, 40 years after it was broken.

Heinlein, the Nazi industrialist, died a few years ago. He had a good side, the family told Brown. He had saved Schluchtern during the last days of the war. He had arranged for a trainload of dynamite, left there to be used on the town if the advancing Allied armies came, to be sent elsewhere.

They respected him for that, they said, but not for his Nazi past.

The house had a good side, too, the Heinleins told Brown. It had taken a hit from an American bomb, shuddered on its foundation, but remained standing.

The Heinleins were relieved when Brown and her brother told them they had no intention of returning to Schluchtern, of suing for all that was taken from them by the Nazis. They had made good lives in America.

"I am forever grateful to my father for bringing us here," Brown said.

For many years, the Heinlein family eased their guilt by sending Fred Wolf restitution in the form of a monthly check. Another check came from the German government.

Brown has been back to Schluchtern several times since, always visiting with the Heinleins, but talking with no one else.

The town is no longer a village in the rolling hills of the fairy tales. Regular train service and an autobahn, not a two-lane road, connect it with Frankfurt, 50 miles away. About 16,000 people live there - but no Jews. It's known for manufacturing textiles, furniture, leather and industrial materials. The soap factory was torn down three years ago.

Schluchtern's attempt at easing the pain of the past is unusual in Germany only in that it is a small town.

Cities like Frankfurt and Dusseldorf have long built memorials and museums to the Hitler past and sought pardon from the Jews, said Monica Kingreen, an amateur historian and teacher who is responsible for the town's celebration this week.

Kingreen lives in Windecken, a village about 150 miles away from Schluchtern, and teaches children from elementary to high school to understand Germany's Nazi past. She wrote a book about Schluchtern's Jews and suggested the 100th anniversary of the synagogue might be a good time to ask those still living to come home.

"Usually the smaller villages didn't dare to do this," Kingreen said in a phone interview from her home. "Some of the same people still live there. Those who were involved in Kristallnacht are still there. They remember what happened in Nazi times. Some of the people we invited were too old to come. But some said, `I can't come back to the city that repelled me and persecuted my family.' But that was only one response. Most said they would love to come."

Overcoming Hitler's `solution'

It's not the prospect of forgiveness that will bring them, though.

It's because it's the thing to do, Brown and her brother, Ernest Wolf, said. It's also to show the townspeople of Schluchtern that their family was able to overcome Hitler's "final solution."

"We want to let them know that we've succeeded, that life has been very good for us," Brown said.

Ernest Wolf will take with him a packet of information for the Schluchtern records.

The packet will include a photograph of Fred Wolf stirring vats of fragrant, frothy soap in an American factory where he went to work. When he retired from that job, he studied and became a bookkeeper. It will tell of Paula Wolf, who became a practical nurse. The Wolfs died a few years ago after long, productive lives.

There will be Anne Brown's and Ernest Wolf's grandfather's passport to go to Israel in 1938.

And the packet will include information about Ernest and Anne. Ernest returned to Europe many times as European manager for a chemical company before he started his own business manufacturing sunroofs for automobiles. Anne was the subject of a newspaper article when she retired in 1986 after 20 years as a public health nurse who worked with developmentally disabled children and was honored by the Bellingham-Whatcom County Health Department.

"I hope to fill in the history they've got," Wolf said. "They have photos of Jews being rounded up and pictures of them at the train station. But they don't know how we ended up. I think it's a good thing for people to reach out, to get rid of prejudice. So many of the problems we have today are because people don't do that.

"But I also want to show them the hole that was left in their culture."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 464-2248. The e-mail address is: smac-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

advertising


Get home delivery today!

Advertising

Advertising