Dear Germany -- Chronicling A Trip Back - To A Town Her Family Had Been Forced To Flee
Special To The Seattle Times
Tonight, as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins at sundown, Anne Wolf Brown is back in her Bellingham home. She and her family have just returned from an emotional week in Schluchtern, Germany - the hometown she fled as a child during the Holocaust.
Last month we told the story of how Schluchtern, population 16,000, had traced her and 22 other Jews who'd been driven away by the Nazis. Each was invited, with a guest, to return for a week, at the town's expense. The celebration would mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the town's synagogue.
Today, we share parts of Brown's diary and family photo album of the trip.
Wednesday, Aug. 26
Arrival: We had left with mixed feelings of apprehension and excitement. Upon our arrival in Schluchtern, those apprehensions disappeared immediately. We 50 visitors were warmly welcomed. Besides the 23 of us who had lived in Schluchtern and our companions, there were younger-generation family members who had wanted to come, too, and so paid their own way. We ranged in age from 16 to 84, three coming from Israel, one from France, two from England, one from Switzerland, and the rest from many parts of the U.S. Almost 40 percent of us were Wolf relatives, some of whom had never met each other before and others who had been separated for many years . . .
Evening: My brother Ernest and I and our families invited Frau Marie-Luise Heinlein and her children and their families to dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant. Frau Heinlein now lives in the house our father built in 1931. (Heinlein's father-in-law, Eugen, was a Nazi industrialist who took over the Wolf family's house and soap factory. The Heinlein children had once offered to return the house to the Wolfs, but they declined.) We quickly all felt like family and knew we would continue to stay in touch.
. . . Frau Heinlein offered her washing machine for our use, but when it got too late for us to finish the laundry, she insisted on doing it herself and would bring it to us the following day . . .
Thursday, Aug. 27
The week's festivities started with a welcome at City Hall with poetry, music and speeches; local residents packed the gathering.. . .
Friday, Aug. 28 After touring the museum and old part of the city in nearby Fulda, we attended Friday night services at the town's synagogue. The congregation consists of five local families - the only Jews left of a once thriving community - and new Jewish immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine. As the evening came to a close, we sang familiar Jewish songs.
Saturday, Aug. 29
Afternoon: One of the most amazing invitations came from a couple, Peter and Usche Wallauer, who live outside town in a beautiful large farmhouse surrounded by lush gardens. They had read about the Jewish visitors coming and told the reunion organizers they wished to invite everyone to supper. Speakers hung over the house broadcast old waltzes, and a table of glasses of schnapps to toast everyone was at the ready . . .
Evening: A guesthouse in the nearby woods invited visitors and community members for supper. A surprise was the arrival of Ernie's nurse from childhood, Rosa Gensch. Several childhood friends introduced themselves to me. They remembered playing together, but I had no memory of this after more than 60 years. What impressed me was their warmth and sincerity. There was much hugging and picture-taking.
Sunday, Aug. 30
Morning: We gathered at the old cemetery where the mayor laid a wreath at the memorial for those killed during the Holocaust. We all said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer to remember the dead. This was the first time for many to realize that the majority of the old gravestones were no longer in place. They had been used during the Nazi times as foundation for an extension of the soap factory . . .
Early afternoon: We gathered at the Heinlein house for a wonderful brunch with Frau Heinlein and all three of her daughters, their husbands and her three grandchildren. . . . This was also an occasion for us to tour the house where Ernest and I had lived as children. What an amazing modern house for that time! (It was designed by architects of the renowned Bauhaus school.) In hopes of bringing a bit of the past home to our own gardens, my daughter, Debbie, and Ernest's daughter, Kayte, gathered seeds from lilac bushes that their grandfather had planted . . .
Late afternoon: For the official celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Schluchtern Synagogue in 1898, we assembled for its rededication in the upstairs of the remodeled building. It had been ransacked and the interior burned on Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass - Nov. 9, 1938, when mobs destroyed Jews' homes and synagogues and looted business in Germany and Austria). Later it became a clothing factory, and only in 1995 was it rebuilt into the Schluchtern cultural center. It's no longer a functioning synagogue, for this reason: In the 1930s, 10 percent of Schluchtern's population of 4,000 had been Jewish; now the only Jews are two young arrivals who came to teach school.
The highlight of the event for us was the lighting of more than 100 candles in memory of all the Jews of Schluchtern who had died in the Holocaust. As each candle was lit, the name of a victim was read. There was an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss among everyone in attendance, Jew and non-Jew.
Tuesday, Sept. 1
Morning: We were invited to high schools to speak with students about their school's Holocaust curriculum, to hear their feelings and to answer their questions. As in most groups, only a few had the courage to speak with us, but those few allowed for a good discussion. We heard how one young man's uncle was persecuted for his anti-Nazi beliefs. We also heard from a student who had spent last year as an exchange student in the U.S. and found anti-Germany feeling among some he met. We hope that we all learned from each other . . .
Afternoon: One of the most emotional experiences of the week was the presentation of "Dunnes Eis" (Thin Ice), a play about the Holocaust and events leading up to it. The play was researched, written and produced by 11 high school students, ages 14 to 17, from Schluchtern and surrounding cities. Each student played both Jewish and non-Jewish parts, both persecuted and persecutor. They performed this play for German audiences twice this past July, and plan to take it to Israel next year. For them to perform this in the synagogue in front of survivors and their familes was very courageous. It was an incredibly moving experience for all involved. For several visitors it was too much, causing them to leave the hall.
Evening: The visitors were joined for supper by many of the student actors who wanted to continue to dialogue with us, and many local residents who had befriended us during the week, as well as the mayor, who came to say goodbye. The room was elbow-to-elbow . . .
So many of the people we met were either very young or not yet born during the Nazi period. Like all of us, they have hopes for a peaceful future. We will stay in touch by mail and e-mail with many we were touched by.
We arrived with a feeling of apprehension and left with the knowledge that we opened doors of understanding - and that this is one step in the right direction.
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