Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | March 2017 | 25 minutes (6,248 words)
David Birnbaum got off the train in Baiersdorf. The Bavarian village 12 miles north of Nuremberg as the crow flies made a pleasant, pastoral impression. Green fields surrounded the railroad station, and men in leather trousers stood in front of traditional timbered houses.
In 2000, Birnbaum, a corporate business development manager, had come all the way from Rechovot, Israel. He had never heard of Baiersdorf until he looked at one of his family trees. His great-great-grandfather, the renowned numerologist Abraham Merzbacher, was born there in 1812, as was another famous relative, the mountaineer and explorer Gottfried Merzbacher. In the first half of the 19th century, the era in which the two men were born, almost one third of Baiersdorf’s 1,400 residents was Jewish.
David Birnbaum’s relatives had left Baiersdorf for various reasons and in all directions. Abraham Merzbacher went to study in Munich. He became a banker and collected one of the largest private Jewish libraries in the world. Gottfried Merzbacher caught wanderlust. He went to explore Central Asia’s Tian Shan mountains, indulging in nature’s “wondrously sweet, flowery alpine valleys… wild gorges… rock chains of unprecedented boldness.” Later, a glacial lake there was named after him. In his expedition “sketches” (available only in German) Merzbacher also wrote that in the magic of this “unworldly solitude (…) the struggles and passions caused by the contrast of people’s real or perceived interests appeared surreal, like phantoms.”
David Birnbaum knocked at the town hall in Baiersdorf’s neat main square. He expected to unearth information about his family by looking at 300- or 400-year-old old tax records at the town’s archive, as he had done in other places in Germany. A clerk said that the archive was a complete mess; no way that he’d find anything there. Normally, the clerk disclosed, they don’t even let people go to the Jewish cemetery unescorted. But since Birnbaum had come all the way from Israel and only had a few hours, he could take the big iron key and go to the cemetery which was, unlike other Jewish cemeteries, located right in the center of town.
* * *
My protestant paternal family has lived in Baiersdorf for generations. I grew up there until I was 12 and my parents divorced. When I asked my grandmother where our ancestors came from, the answer was always the same. “We have always been here. The Heinleins originated in Baiersdorf.”
As a child, when Baiersdorf was the center of my tiny little world, I pictured God making Adam Heinlein from the clay behind my house. He then made Eve Heinlein out of Adam’s rib. It hurt like hell.
My father’s mother wasn’t a warm woman. She was stoic and disciplined, with a wry sense of humor. It was hard to challenge her, and complaining was not part of her routine. Once, towards the end of her 98 years, I asked her if there was anything she would change about her life if she could start over. “I would do everything exactly the same way,” she told me. I inherited my grandmother’s sense of discipline and humor. I also inherited her perfectionism and scrutiny (legacies that feel more like a burden than a gift).
One of our routines was tending to my grandfather’s grave in the Christian cemetery. Each spring we planted flowers, and once a week we polished the granite bordering his grave and tombstone, the tallest one by far. As the town’s former mayor, the height of his stone corresponds with the honor he carried.
Sometimes I would climb up onto the thick sandstone wall that separated the Jewish cemetery from the Christian one where the Heinleins were laid to rest. Where had they all gone? Why did their cemetery look so messy? Why didn’t their descendants return to maintain their ancestors’ graves, as my grandmother and I did so faithfully?
In first or second grade, our class visited the Jewish cemetery. I learned that Baiersdorf’s Jews had not all gone to America. Many had died here in Baiersdorf. Our teachers spared us the horrific details of the Holocaust, but we were subjected to a test after the visit. We were asked to draw and explain one of the icons on the gravestones. I have always been a terrible artist and, while I remembered the praying hands on the rabbis’ stones, I didn’t dare try to draw them. Instead I attempted the Star of David. By the time I was done I had forgotten what it meant. I remember the inner struggle in the face of something that was very important but hard to grasp. My spidery star had eight points.
“What happened to all the Jews?” I asked my grandmother, authority on all things old and dead. “Why does their cemetery look so run down?”
“Because they all went to America a long time ago,” she said, unflinchingly.
“But why?” I prodded.
She didn’t know, she said. End of story.
My grandmother wasn’t entirely wrong. In 1861, when restrictions on Jewish settlements and occupations were lifted all over Bavaria, many Jews left the small, narrow-minded Baiersdorf. Some moved to the nearby towns of Erlangen or Nuremberg, where they had run stores and conducted business for generations but had been unable to buy homes. Others moved to Frankfurt, London, Israel and New York.
But 1861 is not where Baiersdorf’s Jewish story started. It goes back hundreds of years. Its enduring presence must have touched my grandmother, irked her, interested her in some way.
When I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, Germany’s discourse about the Holocaust was well-developed and firmly embedded in its educational life, its museums, public media and film. But below the open display of guilt and fact, there is something else. Even as a child, I could feel history moving through silent, dark channels.
* * *
Birnbaum, whose lyrical name means “pear tree” in German, tried to decipher the Hebrew inscriptions on the heavily weathered and broken sandstone. Many of the gravestones had been vandalized by the Nazis, and a significant number had been removed in its aftermath to pave courtyards. During the war, local authorities had filled the empty space with mulberry trees. Children harvested their leaves and carried them to the school’s attic to feed silkworms. To speed up their hatching, one of the teachers put the eggs in the oven. The first generation of silkworms died, but the second batch grew imposingly big, perfect to be shipped off to make parachutes for the war. Now, the mulberry trees were gone and there was a gaping hole in the middle.
Walking up and down the remaining rows of weather-beaten, damaged graves, Birnbaum almost gave up—when suddenly, “Oh my God, it’s Isaac Merzbacher! And next to him his wife’s Reiz’s grave.” Birnbaum has tears in his eyes as he recounts the discovery of his great-great-grandparents’ graves. “They have not been visited for maybe a hundred years. They deserve to have a Kaddish said for them, even if I’m here by myself.” After reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead, Birnbaum walked around town.
In Judengasse (Jew Alley) behind the cemetery he saw a plaque on a local bank that read, “Here used to be the synagogue.” Half a mile north he discovered Merzbacher Street, named after his ancestors. When Birnbaum came across a florist, he briefly acknowledged to himself that adorning a grave with flowers wasn’t a Jewish custom. But considering the emotional turmoil he felt and the fact that his ancestors had lived in Germany for so many years, he entered the shop. “I bought with the little money I had—because at the time I was young and penniless, with five kids—one orange rose for each ancestor,” Birnbaum remembers, after responding to my request on a Jewish genealogy website “I put one on each grave and stayed there for a little while more. It was strange to feel the family around me and yet there is nothing left. Everybody and everything is gone.”
Birnbaum lost all his grandparents in the Holocaust and during the war. His grandfather Karl, a leading lawyer from Munich, was taken to Dachau in 1938, where he yelled at the guards that he was “a good German.” They stripped him naked, dumped him in the snow and drenched him with water. He caught pneumonia and died in the camp. His wife Frederika, Birnbaum’s grandmother, fled to London, where she and five other relatives were killed in the Blitz. Birnbaum’s mother had been on the kinder transport and was one of the family’s only survivors.
* * *
As a teenager I continued to probe my paternal grandmother. A typical conversation would go something like this:
“How come you supported Hitler?” I would ask.
“It was simply the best time of my life!” She responded.
Together with friends and family, she would hop on a horse-drawn carriage and travel to Hitler’s annual Nuremberg rallies. “So much fun!” She exclaimed.
“But what about the millions of Jews who were killed?” I would demand.
“We didn’t know what they did with the Jews! There were no Jews in Baiersdorf.” She defended herself from her armchair by the window, her stern gaze turning away from me and out onto Main Street.
“Besides, they had it coming,” she said, averting her eyes from me. I came to understand that, in my grandmother’s narrow mind, the Heinleins belonged to Baiersdorf; the Jews didn’t.
My father likes to tell a story. His great-grandfather bought a boat ticket to America. The evening before the ship sailed he ripped the ticket apart and said, “There is no place like home.” My father recalls all this in his typical Franconian inflection, earthy, heavy, close to the ground. The message was the Heinleins didn’t—have to, or dare to?—leave Baiersdorf. (I left right after high school.)
During one of our infrequent phone calls, my father announces that he has solved the riddle of why Jews had always been hated in Germany. They were hated, he says, because they were smarter, more educated and more affluent than “real Germans.”
We talk about how they were good with money because for a long time banking and trade were among the few occupations they were allowed to perform. Education is valued and strongly embedded in the Jewish culture.
My father, who thinks about money a lot and who in his lifetime has accumulated quite a fortune, tells me that he read a biography about Peggy Guggenheim, the famous New York socialite and art collector. “You know that Peggy Guggenheim’s ancestors can be traced back to Baiersdorf?” he asks.
My father is far from being an intellectual—my grandmother, his mother, huffed at the thought of people thinking or reading too much—but he is an art lover with a small but decent collection. He loves to read biographies of collectors and philanthropists. They are the friends he’s never had. I tell him that my husband’s office is located in Peggy Guggenheim’s old house on the Upper East Side and that once during a party the painter Jackson Pollock peed in her fireplace (an anecdote my husband likes to share with visitors, and one I knew my father would appreciate). “Have you peed in it, too?” he asks laughing. It has always been hard to raise the level of our conversation out of the sandbox without getting into each other’s hair.
I hung up and looked into Peggy Guggenheim’s ancestry. Peggy’s grandfather, James Seligmann, was born in Baiersdorf, where his parents David and Fanny owned a dry goods shop.
In Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, Stephen Birmingham writes that “Baiersdorf is so small that it does not appear on most maps of Germany.” He describes David’s house on Judengasse as little and sagging, and his business as going terribly. Mirroring the place that raised him, David was apparently poor, lonely, sickly, small, stooped, and dour. He “was not technically ‘old,’ but at twenty-nine he seemed so.”
One day in 1818, David took off to a neighboring village to return with “a plump, young girl named Fanny” as his wife.
I am not sure how Birmingham knew that Baiersdorfers “whispered on the Judengasse that David Seligman was incapable of fathering children,” or that “Fanny’s condition in the next few months was watched with more than usual interest”—we’ll just have to take his word for it. The gist of the story is that it was surprising that anything good could come out of Baiersdorf.
In the late 1800s, David’s 11 children left Baiersdorf; some went to Frankfurt, others to England and the U.S., where they became prominent bankers. David’s son James had five children, among them Peggy Guggenheim’s mother Florette, who married Benjamin Guggenheim, a rich businessman who later perished on the Titanic. The Seligman brothers dropped an ‘n’ from their name but they never fully forgot Baiersdorf: In 1904, they founded the Seligmann Kindergarten, for Jewish and Christian children both, to commemorate their parents David and Fanny.
When I grew up, the Jewish names on street signs and plaques seemed like calls from distant cousins. In Judengasse, the town’s carnival took place. The winding Seligmann Street led past the Seligman Kindergarten and to the train station, my first independent connection to the outside world.
* * *
When I last visited Baiersdorf, I scheduled a tour with Horst Gemeinhardt, a retired high school history teacher and the town’s self-appointed historian.
Herr Gemeinhardt has an official demeanor. He carries a hefty folder with documents and an umbrella. Before he begins his tightly choreographed tour I ask whether I can put my recorder into his coat pocket. “Be my guest,” he says stoically. “It’s not as if we have a choice.”
At the town’s WWI memorial, Herr Gemeinhardt points to the names of two Jewish brothers. Max and Ernst Hirschkind had fought and died for Germany in World War I.
I remember the name Hirschkind from my walks with my maternal grandmother, an unhappy transplant from Berlin. Unlike my father’s mother, this one had the warmth and innocence of a newborn kitten. Incapable of withholding her feelings she cried easily. (I inherited that, too.) She used to tell me, in anguish, how as a maid in Berlin she witnessed her old Jewish neighbors beaten onto trucks and taken away. On our walks we would often stop in front of the memorial and practice reading while holding hands. Hirsch-kind. The child of a deer. How was that possible, I wondered? Even later, when I understood that hardly anything was to be taken literally, I envied the Hirschkinds for their name.
Many years ago, Herr Gemeinhardt recorded an interview with Marga Lederer, one of the few Baiersdorfers he could find who was willing to talk about what happened in the years leading up to World War II. The Hirschkinds were well integrated. Even Christian Baiersdorfers bought meat from Philipp Hirschkind, the town’s last kosher butcher and the father of Max and Ernst.
“I don’t know what the Nazis have against us,” Frau Hirschkind complained to Frau Lederer’s mother. “We sacrificed our two sons for the fatherland!”
It’s drizzling and Herr Gemeinhardt suggests we sit down in his car and start working through his heavy folder. Each sheet of paper is in an individual clear vinyl sleeve. Herr Gemeinhardt goes through them conscientiously, showing me a map of my little hometown, evenly speckled with red ink. He had meticulously colored-in the houses on Main Street and beyond that once belonged to Jews. He tells me that until Kristallnacht there hadn’t been any pogroms, and that documents only show neighborly squabbles. Jews and Christians argued over broken gutters and the width of access roads. Then he shows me another map that he has carefully colored-in to signify the different nobilities that ruled Germany’s south in the 17th century. Purple, red and periwinkle.
Centrally located within the principality of Bayreuth, Baiersdorf was an exception in that it allowed Jews to settle starting in the Middle Ages. Since 1611, Baiersdorf was the seat of the principality’s rabbinate, and Jews from many surrounding cities and villages attended synagogue and were buried here. Because Jews provided the margrave with weapons, gold and horses, they were spared the persecution and expulsion they suffered in other Bavarian towns. Their population grew continuously until the mid-19th century.
As we drive down Main Street in the rain, Herr Gemeinhardt tells me that he grew up in Sudentenland, a German enclave in what was then Czechoslovakia. In 1946, while his father was a prisoner of war, he and his mother were loaded onto cattle cars and transported into the Soviet Zone. Herr Gemeinhardt knew what it felt like to be an outsider. One of the prerequisites to receiving food stamps was to attend an exhibition that showcased the horrors of the Holocaust. “Those were my entry points to history,” he says.
Herr Gemeinhardt is not the type who openly displays his emotions, but when I ask him whether there was anything related to his research that he found touching, he tells me how neighbors stumbled across a grave plaque in their yard when one of the cemetery’s walls collapsed. Dutifully, he reported the find to the Jewish Association of Bavaria who told him to keep the plaque while they figure out what to do with it. Herr Gemeinhardt thoroughly cleaned it before storing it in his basement. When he had it translated, he learned that the woman to whom it was dedicated was a mother who died, apparently while resting after childbirth.
* * *
Of course my grandmother was not the only one who resented Baiersdorf’s Jews. In 1929, Der Stürmer, the Nazi propaganda rag published by Julius Streicher, who was executed as a war criminal in the Nuremberg trials, circulated an article titled “The Magnanimous Seligman.” In it, the writer mocked Charles Seligman, one of Peggy Guggenheim’s uncles, for donating a large sum to the Seligmann Kindergarten, which had fallen on hard times. Jews were allowed to donate money to non-Jews only, Der Stürmer asserted, to justify and increase the hatred “real Germans” felt for them.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, Baiersdorf was poor and with few opportunities. Hitler promised change—and change was what the little town wanted. Residents were quick to adorn Main Street with Swastika flags. One of Gemeinhardt’s sources remarked that people must have ordered the flags well in advance of the elections.
A town with more livestock than humans, Baiersdorf lost no time putting its agricultural experience and bounty to use. Everyone with aspirations had taken to his heels, leaving a fertile ground for Hitler’s “Blood and Soil” ideology.
According to the Nazis, the Jews had driven farmers from their land, dividing it into smaller parcels, because they couldn’t pay the high interests that the Jews charged them. In 1933, the government implemented a “Blood and Soil” law, with the aim to “preserve the farming community as the blood-source of the German people.” Selected lands were declared hereditary; an Erbhof (inherited farm) could not be mortgaged or divided.
“Blood and Soil” propaganda celebrated rural values and made peasants cultural heroes. In Baiersdorf it was easily linked with century-old traditions that were waiting to be filled with new and triumphant meaning.
In February, men dressed up as monstrous straw bears to drive out the winter ghosts so seeding could begin. Children greeted the Fasalecken with a mixture of terror and glee, they thoroughly enjoyed the carnival in the summer and the opulent harvest festival in the fall.
For hundreds of years Baiersdorf has cultivated horseradish, and was quick to put it in use to celebrate the Führer. For the harvest festival peasants made swastikas out of horseradish stalks. Soon, Main Street was renamed Adolf Hitler Street and Seligmann Street became Horst-Wessel Street (after the infamous singer who wrote songs for Nazi events). The little park in the center of town became Adolf Hitler Park, and its big oak tree the Hitler Oak.
It was from this oak, right across from his home, that Joseph Gründonner was hung on Christmas day 1935.
At 34, Joseph Gründonner was married with a child. One of his contemporaries described the house painter as “sweet-tempered” and “incapable of harming a fly.”
One snowy winter night, after a few beers in a local tavern, Gründonner spoke up against Hitler. A fight ensued.
“He was beaten with a stein at the Muggle,” the now deceased florist Brigitte Kogler told Wilhelm Schoner, a hobby historian whose grandfather was mayor of Baiersdorf at the time of Gründonner’s murder. Emboldened by Hitler’s hate speech, the offenders locked up the dead—or dying—man in the tavern’s bathroom before dragging him through the snow to the park. Hidden behind a bush, Kogler’s father observed and photographed several men working together to hang Gründonner from the oak tree.
When the murderers noticed Kogler’s father in his hiding spot, they forced him to hand over the film. Some people in town knew who the lynchers were, but no one spoke up. No autopsy was conducted, and Gründonner was quickly buried. His obituary read: “The 34-year-old master painter Joseph Gründonner ended his life by hanging himself close to his home.”
* * *
On my last visit to Baiersdorf, my father digs out a big box that he said might hold some clues about my grandmother’s life. In it, we find my grandfather’s Nazi membership card. As the town’s biggest employer, my grandfather “was pressured” to join the party in 1942, he says.
A photo album holds pictures of my grandfather’s company and of my great grandparents with my father and his sister when they were babies. Several blank pages from which photos have been visibly removed follow the baby pictures. The album picks back up with a colorized childhood picture of my father and his sister. The picture artificially accentuates the children’s blond hair and blue eyes.
Herr Gemeinhardt says photos taken during the Third Reich are hard to come by. When the Germans lost the war, most families were quick to hide or destroy pictures that showed them sympathetic to Hitler’s ideology and regime.
My paternal grandmother, who was 23 when Hitler took power, was tight-lipped when it came to the Third Reich. Otherwise, she liked to gossip as much as the neighbor next door. I find it unlikely that her little town’s burgeoning anti-Semitism and its role in propping up Hitler’s regime escaped her.
Could my grandmother have missed that elementary school children in Baiersdorf were assigned essays about “Jewish greediness”? That the grade school teacher forbade her students to sit next to Werner Sommer, the only “Judenkind,” who was forced to sit by himself in the back? That Ludwig Kohn was called a “Judenstinker” by storekeepers? That he and his wife Lina, who lived less than half a mile from her house, were driven from their home on Kristallnacht and forced onto trucks by SA officers? That on that same fateful night Hans Schübel and his son-in-law, who owned a large livestock breeding operation less than a few hundred feet from her house, were badly beaten by SA officers, simply because Hans was married to Maria, one of Baiersdorf’s three remaining Jews? Other neighbors reported hearing the screams and cries coming from their house.
According to historian Andreas Jakob, a city archivist from nearby Erlangen whose book details the area’s tragic events of Kristallnacht, one defendant claimed during the postwar trials that “the Baiersdorfer SA didn’t know anything about the whole thing. They were incited by the Erlangers.”
Inexplicably, the mayor of Baiersdorf at the time wasn’t questioned at the trials. While the exact occurrences of Kristallnacht in Baiersdorf remain blurry, we know that the Baiersdorfer SA had had a celebration at the local sports club on the eve of the pogrom, and that after the party the synagogue had been looted and severely damaged, and the Jewish cemetery destroyed.
Ludwig and Lina Kohn must have foreseen the pogrom. They tried to hide the synagogue’s chandelier as well as some precious religious items made of silver and brass in a shed by their house. The elderly Kohns had been planning to leave Germany in the spring of 1939. In the early hours of November 10, 1938, a group of SA officers hammered on their door. One of the SA officers mockingly adorned himself with some of the synagogue’s objects. Officers slit open the Kohn’s feather beds and hurled them out of the windows, along with furniture and fruit preserves. Anna Schoner, a neighbor who observed the attack from behind closed curtains, reported that the wives’ of SA soldiers were also involved in the destruction of the Kohns’s property. She quoted from Friedrich Schiller’s “Song of the Bell”: “Then women to hyenas growing / Do make with horror jester’s art…”
The truck with its prisoners from Baiersdorf approached Erlangen at dawn. Lina Kohn was “laughing hysterically,” Frau Schübel recalled at the postwar trials. The prisoners were unloaded in the town hall’s courtyard, joining about 50 families of Jews from neighboring villages.
Soon the farmer Hans Schübel showed up at the town hall and demanded vehemently that his wife be released. He would not leave the premises without her, he said. Because the couple didn’t follow Jewish customs, their marriage had been promoted to “privileged mixed marriage.” Their Erbhof was technically judenfrei, and their livestock business was an important economic force in Baiersdorf. Maria was let go, with one condition: She was to stay under house arrest indefinitely.
Ludwig and Lina Kohn weren’t as lucky. Together with other Jewish families they were transported to the Saalmann Villa in nearby Fürth. In 1942, they were deported to Izbica, a ghetto and transfer camp in Poland, where their traces vanish.
While there were only three Jews left in Baiersdorf in November 1938, there were several others who were born or had lived there for various periods and who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Shortly after Kristallnacht a local paper reported triumphantly that Baiersdorf was finally judenfrei. About the synagogue the article said, “The Star of David, which, for four hundred years shined cheekily from the synagogue, was removed; the interior décor has been destroyed. (…) Soon, a school and sports fields for the strengthening of our youth will be built where once stood synagogue and cemetery.”
* * *
As it turns out, Maria Schübel’s line did not die with her. One of her granddaughters still lives in Baiersdorf. My father encourages me to call her.
“I don’t know anything.” Frau Bachler instantly interrupts me when I tell her about my research. “There’s nothing I can tell you. And I don’t want anyone to write about this. It’s the past.” Here our conversation ends abruptly.
I voice my surprise about Frau Bachler’s response to David Birnbaum.
“Sabine, why are you surprised?” he asks almost reproachfully. “The fact that she lives in Baiersdorf signals that she wants to be totally integrated and one of the crowd and that she doesn’t want to stand out in any way. Otherwise she wouldn’t be living in Baiersdorf.” Birnbaum later emailed me photographs of his great grandparent’s sukkah, and of a special cup that his mother had inherited and used annually at Passover seder, as the centerpiece on the family table. “It was totally unique,” he writes about the cup, “with a patterned and engraved enamel coating on a pewter base, and a lid like the roof of a mosque in shape. As a small child I already knew that this was a gift brought back from the Caucasus Mountains by our relative [the mountaineer] Gottfried Merzbacher, who used to enjoy religious festivals with my great grandfather, although he himself was non-religious.” After Birnbaum married and had kids, he started hosting his own seder. He uses the cup every year as the centerpiece at his seder.
Baiersdorf was quick to cover up any traces that were left. Tangible objects were hard to come by. As the mayor after the war from 1949 into the late-seventies, my grandfather had the Baroque synagogue torn down. Gemeinhardt says that only the landmarks committee voiced opposition.
Sometimes anti-Semitism emerged in less obvious, more passive-aggressive or maybe just careless ways. The streets in the neighborhood where I grew up were named after regional nineteenth-century authors when my grandfather developed the area. There is Hermann Löns Street, named after a writer whose novels helped pave the way to Hitler’s “Blood and Soil.” The Ludwig Thoma Street was christened after an arch-Bavarian writer who called the Jewish-German author Kurt Tucholsky a “Galician gimp” and described Berlin as “a mixture of Galician Jew nest and New Yorker crime hood.” As my father expanded his father’s development, Damm Street, where I grew up, connected Thoma and Löns with Mayor Heinlein Street.
The more I learned about my hometown the more I wanted the objects and stories of Baiersdorf’s Jewry to leave their narrow confines, cross borders and oceans, survive and live on.
* * *
After I returned to New York, Herr Gemeinhardt sent me a meticulous list of people across the world who were looking for their ancestors and have gotten in touch with him. On the list was the name Charles Hirschkind, one of the great-grandsons of Baierdorf’s kosher butcher and an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. My heart jumped a bit. (The child of a deer!)
Hirschkind remembers a medieval painting of a map that used to hang in his grandfather’s house in Berkeley. The map, which has been handed down over generations, showed Baiersdorf as it once was. “When I was growing up, both my father and my grandfather would talk about Baiersdorf as a kind of distant home that they nostalgically embraced and sympathetically remembered. I remember my grandfather showing me the map when I was little. He had other things from Baiersdorf, various kinds of Jewish objects, menorahs and things. He spoke about it minimally but sympathetically. I think he felt a kind of attachment to the place, one that he continued to value, despite what had happened in the intervening years.”
Today Hirschkind sometimes regrets not having asked his father and grandfather more questions. Perfectly assimilated, his grandfather did not hold Judaism as being important for his identity. Hirschkind remembers his grandfather as German; he had a very strong German accent all his life. Out of nostalgia perhaps, he kept some of these objects. “There may have been some kind of relation here that he never expressed to me. But there was not the slightest kind of element of Jewish ritual that ever appeared in his house in performance, other than these scattered objects.” Hirschkind didn’t discover that he was Jewish until he was a teenager. The “purposeful silence” around this question was so extreme that Hirschkind wonders if it can be attributed to assimilation or trauma.
His grandfather Wilhelm immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 to work for a chemical company. But he returned to Germany with his family in 1933 and spent one year in Nuremberg, a fact that was rarely mentioned.
“It was a very particular time to be there,” Hirschkind says. “One would think that one would have all kinds of memories. ‘Wow, I was in this rather precarious location in these years!’” His father, then 13 or 14, went to a German school in the year Hitler took power, and the only thing he talked about was the harsh discipline in school. “No reference to Jewishness came up at all.”
Until 2013, when Hirschkind spent six months at the American Academy in Berlin, the only image he had of Baiersdorf was the old map that hung in his grandfather’s house. He says it gave him a warm impression.
When he contacted Gemeinhardt, the old local historian was quick to offer him a guided tour around town. As Hirschkind and I compare notes we realize that our tours were almost identical. Hirschkind remarks that the documentation was “wrapped up quite tightly and kept quite clean.” There was one exception to the standard itinerary, though: his family’s old house on Main Street.
After the butcher Philipp Hirschkind died, his house on Main Street was passed on to one of his sons, Heinrich Hirschkind. Heinrich sold the house in 1934 to the Kilians, another family with strong roots in Baiersdorf. Gemeinhardt told Charles what he knew about Heinrich’s terrible fate. Heinrich fled to France and was imprisoned in a concentration camp. He survived only to die a few months after the war. While Gemeinhardt did extensive research to find out what happened to Heinrich in the years between 1934 and 1945, only a few fragments emerged. It is unclear under what conditions he had sold his family’s house in 1934 and how he died.
At the bakery, Gemeinhardt presented Charles Hirschkind with a letter addressed to Anna Altman, one of Heinrich’s sisters and Charles’s great grandaunt in the U.S. After the war, the Kilian family found it important to have Anna confirm that the house had been purchased legitimately and not under constraint of Jewish persecution. Anna wrote back, confirming the purchase.
Of course, it is a matter of how one defines a lawful purchase. Can we can call the sale of a Jewish house in 1934 as legitimate? The Nazis had opened their first concentration camp, Dachau, in 1933, and Jews were fleeing Germany in droves. Had Heinrich Hirschkind not sold the house he might have soon been disowned, facing the same fate as the old couple Kohn who were murdered in a concentration camp. The letter can’t possibly tell the whole story.
When Hirschkind suggested that he and his wife might ring the Kilians’s doorbell to see the house from the inside, Gemeinhardt responded that it wasn’t a good idea, Hirschkind remembers. “He said that the owners were very rightwing and that they would not appreciate us. There was something forbidding about that—and a little unnerving. It was the very same family that had been nervous about whether the Jews that used to live there would come back and claim the house that had been expropriated. They are still living there and they still have these kinds of attitudes, which were part of what produced the conditions of the Holocaust. And my wife is Pakistani and they probably wouldn’t like that either. It sounded like Horst Gemeinhardt had numerous conversations with them, and they have given him access to some documents that were useful to him. He wanted to keep that viable. I found all that disturbing. The very inaccessibility of the house was like a secret was being kept there, a rather dark secret.”
* * *
Wiedergutmachung is one of those long-winded compound words that the dictionary translates as “reparations” but that literally means “the act of making things good again.” Wiedergutmachung certainly isn’t just about paying reparations. Herr Gemeinhardt’s work is a form of Wiedergutmachung, and this essay is meant to be, too. While Germans like to pride themselves on teaching schoolchildren about the horrors of the Holocaust, blind spots as well as outright hostility and fear remain.
Charles Hirschkind, whose research focuses on how Europe’s Islamic past inhabits its present, shares with me an anecdote from his time at the American Academy in Berlin. After a lecture at the Wannseehaus, the lakeside villa where the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry, a German woman in the audience got up. She said, Hirschkind paraphrases, “We have to realize that there are few parts of the world that are capable of inheriting and living in accord with the glorious tradition of non-violence and we are one of the inheritors of this tradition.” Hirschkind was thunderstruck by the woman’s self-righteousness. “The horror had been turned into gold,” he says sarcastically.
I think what Hirschkind meant is that Germans are quick to compartmentalize. We are so proud of our guilt, of how we have become able to express it, that we have become almost untouchable. We have done things right. While we have tried hard to integrate the Holocaust in our public discourse, Hirschkind thinks that “there is a different kind of history of that experience that moves in more silent and subterranean channels and bubbles up to the top in unexpected and sometimes worrisome ways.” He explains, “It is in key moments of crisis that earlier history emerges—something we haven’t quite adequately come to terms with. On one hand, there is this mantra [in Germany], ‘We will never repeat this, we’ve put this behind us. We have confronted it and overcome it and we have learned from it. It has made us better and it has made us this enlightened people who have made us who we are today.’ And that goes hand in hand with an ongoing tension around the foreign, around foreigners.”
Oddly enough, Germany hasn’t established an open discourse about race and racism. Heavily abused by Adolf Hitler, race is a four-letter-word. If you talk about race in Germany, you talk about dogs. Even after living in Germany for generations, Turks, not unlike Jews in the past, are still considered Turks first and German a far distant second. Hitler, with his obsession with racial impurity and his fixation on creating a master race, tarnished the term to an extent that Germans have decided to scratch it from their vocabulary altogether. Not talking about race doesn’t get rid of racism, of course; it only suppresses it, at best creating a subconscious that reappears in unexpected places. At worst, it cements the ghosts of the past in places that no one dares to visits or discuss.
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Sabine Heinlein is the author of Among Murderers: Life After Prison. Her essays and articles can be found in German, American, and British publications, among them The New York Times, The Guardian, Psychology Today, Lithub, Poets & Writers, Texas Monthly and The Paris Review Daily. She is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Margolis Award and of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Editor: Sari Botton