For many years I had thought about traveling to Germany. My father, who died when I was 3, and my mother's second husband, the man who brought me up, were both German Jews. Although curious about their roots, I had an ingrained hesitation, an aversion to Germany and things German that kept me from traveling to their ancestral homes. It was only when my wife Nina became pregnant that we decided it was time to learn about the past - before we started a new future. When we crossed into Germany, the border was nothing more than a small creek on a small country road: no guards, no passport inspection, nothing but a welcoming sign. The skinheads we imagined lurking behind every corner were nowhere in sight.
My grandmother, Hannah Eichenbronner Strauss, came to America from Germany as a teenager in the 1890s. Her only child -- my father, Fred Strauss -- predeceased her in 1959. Three years later, my mother married Henry Levinstein, my father's best friend. It was Henry whom I came to know as Dad and came to think of as my father. Unlike Fred Strauss, who had been born and raised in New York City, Dad had been born in a little town called Themar that wound up in East Germany after the war. Dad died in 1986, never having spoken a word about his first 14 years in Germany. Neither did his mother, Nanette, who lived more than half her 101 years in Germany and left there only in 1941.
I don't know that my mother or two brothers ever asked much about their experiences. I knew that Dad's father, Moritz, had died in Germany in the late 1930s. I remembered conflicting stories, that he had died in a concentration camp -- or perhaps not, but that he had been in a concentration camp. After Dad died I found a few postcards in an old desk. Some were from Moritz, from Buchenwald, making it clear that he had at least passed through a camp.
My wife and I left for Germany equipped with very few pieces of information to guide us. One was the name of the village where my grandmother Hannah had grown up. Wiesenbronn is much too small to appear in most atlases. I found it on a tourist map given to me by an old friend of my father who knew a little of the family history.
The other piece of information we had was a photograph of Dad as an infant. There was almost nothing to give away the location of the picture except that the uppermost part of a building could be seen in the background. In the photo, Dad couldn't have been more than two, so we imagined it came from 1922 at the latest. The picture could have been taken in Themar or in some other town; we had no idea. By the time we decided to visit Germany, there was no one left who could tell us.
As we drove deeper into rural Germany, Nina and I were surprised how much it looked like the Germany of fairy tales. The dark dense forests. The villages, perfectly nestled in the folds of soft hills, each with its narrow church steeple. The ancient houses, spotlessly maintained, no window without flowers. We found ourselves making fewer comments about skinheads lurking behind each bend and more about the natural beauty of Deutschland Mitte, as our map called the country's midsection.
"Do you have a plan?" Nina asked me for the dozenth time as we approached Wiesenbronn. I didn't. I supposed only to go to the cemetery and see what we might find. It wasn't actually until we passed Rödelsse, a neighboring village, that the name Wiesenbronn finally appeared on one of the directional signs that were set at every crossroads, pointing to all the tiny villages in the area.
Wiesenbronn was one of those tiny villages. It sat in the melded laps of a few low hills and seemed almost to be smug, solidly content in its beauty and long history. There were no large signs welcoming us to town. No drive-through restaurants. Very little that proclaimed itself loudly or garishly to be modern or hip or new or improved.
Fields of corn, hay, sunflowers and grapes extended in all directions until interrupted by the red roofs of neighboring villages. From the summit of a large hill above Wiesenbronn we could see half a dozen such small farming towns, each with its church steeple and gingerbread Rathaus (town hall). It was easy to imagine winter smoke rising from hundreds of chimneys, fueled by the endless cords of stacked firewood that crisscrossed the area like hedgerows. But we arrived in summer, on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. A cluster of crosses on the village directory marked the Friedhof, the cemetery. It took just a few minutes to walk there.
Four women were working in the cemetery tidying up. Not a blade of grass was out of place, no stone unpolished. Every grave was blanketed with plants and fresh flowers. We said our Guten Tag to the ladies and began looking around.
"You know, there aren't going to be any Jews in this cemetery," Nina said, pointing out what perhaps should have been obvious to us right away. There was no Hebrew, no Stars of David, on any of the stones.
"Bitte," I said to one of the ladies. "Meine Obermutter, Eichenbronner, aus Wiesenbronn," I explained, using up all the broken, incorrect German I had absorbed. The ladies shook their heads. They didn't know Eichenbronner. They didn't know Strauss either.
Sometimes Nina and I travel well equipped, with guidebooks and dictionaries and phrasebooks. This time we had decided to go without. In Germany we wanted to force ourselves to interact with Germans, to question them and depend on them. We arrived in Wiesenbronn speaking no German, with no guidebooks and no English-German dictionary.
"Why don't you ask her?" Nina suggested, gesturing to an older woman who stood a few feet away.
"Namen?" she asked. Strauss and Eichenbronner, I told her. Hearing Eichenbronner, the older woman said to her younger friends, "Hebräisch" and "Jüdischer."
Immediately I became apprehensive. I had no idea how people would react to interloping Jews poking around their towns, their cemeteries, their history. I as much expected to be told to go away as to be helped. But the ladies did not seem the least bit uneasy. I went ahead.
"Ja," I said while pointing to Nina and me, "Jüdischer." I can remember as a kid thinking it better not to identify myself as a Jew, and even telling people that, yes, Strauss was German but that my family was Lutheran. Once I told my mother that I didn't feel Jewish at all. "Tell that to Hitler when he comes back," she said with uncharacteristic bluntness. And here we were, in Germany, telling complete strangers, the fathers of whom did who knows what in the war, that we were Jewish.
The older woman said "Jüdischer Friedhof in Rödelsse, nicht in Wiesenbronn."
Before heading back to Rödelsse, we took a quick walk around the town. Wiesenbronn itself was as tidy as the cemetery, immaculate homes and perfectly clean, smooth streets that hardly seemed in need of the repaving that was going on. In the center of the village were two inns, a convenience store and a bank with an ATM that would give us money from our account in San Francisco. And not 50 feet away were half a dozen homes that had barns right behind them filled with pigs, and front and back yards piled high with Misthaufen, neatly kept heaps of manure. Everything in Wiesenbronn was the stereotype of German precision -- except the air, which reeked, almost burned, with the smell of fermenting pig waste.
"Do you have a plan?" Nina asked again as Rödelsse came into view.
"We'll go to the cemetery," I told her.
"I can't believe we came to Germany without a German dictionary," she said.
We didn't have to enter the Rödelsse cemetery to know we were in the wrong place. Beyond the gates were only crosses. Three women sat outside, keeping company. We greeted them and asked, "Bitte, Jüdischer Friedhof?"
This inaugurated a prolonged discussion in which the women clearly disagreed about the least complicated way to find the Jewish cemetery. One of the women finally decided to show us. In the car she chatted continuously, in German, while directing us through town. (A characteristic of all the Germans we met was that even after it was completely apparent that we did not speak German, they would just keep prattling along as if we did.) "Schlüssel," the woman kept saying. We arrived at the tidy home of a pig farmer. "Moment," she said before going into the house.
She came back a few minutes later. In her hand she carried a small canvas bag the form of which clearly outlined a book. "Juden Freidhof" was written on the canvas. She turned it over and out slid a key. "Schlüssel," she said.
At the edge of town she told us to stop. She was going to her garden and would not accompany us any farther. Over and over she repeated the directions to the cemetery -- in German. Left, then right, then right again. We nodded our understanding, but in front of us there was nothing but farmland and open country. The road wound into the fields and disappeared from sight.
At the first left we curved around a field of blossoming sunflowers. The first right took us among vineyards and stacks of firewood. The next right and we were off the pavement, heading into what seemed to be nothing but open fields. "Oh my," Nina said softly.
Ahead of us a Star of David, silvery in the shimmering heat of the summer afternoon, rose above a small building that formed one corner of a large, walled compound. Inside we could see countless gravestones, most of them hip and even shoulder-deep in vegetation.
With only the name of a town, we had flown across nine time zones and driven a day and a half. A twist of the key and the lock on the gate popped open. Each link of the heavy chain rattled as I pulled it free. We went in.
The weeds in the cemetery were not forgiving ones. Wild roses with stout shoots and thick thorns grew entangled among flowering purple thistles. Each step was like breaking trail in the brambles of a fairy-tale thicket. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Butterflies and bees swarmed, busily at work, unused to intruders.
Many of the stones had sunken so that only the tops, carved as crowns, were visible. Those still high above the ground were mainly obscured by weeds. Only by stamping could we see the engravings. Within minutes Nina had to stop; the bristles of the overgrowth had already made dozens of small cuts on her bare legs.
The weeds weren't the only obstacles. Termite mounds hidden in the thick grass gave way like rotten floorboards. My ankles caught on the rusting andirons and chains that outlined decaying plots. The jagged edges of broken slabs raked my shins. It was very slow going. Before I had made my way through the first row, Nina called out, "Did you see over there?"
The cemetery was large, perhaps three acres or more. Nina pointed to a far corner I had not yet seen where there were hundreds of graves. It seemed pointless. Many of the stones were corroding, with large fragments flaking away as if from pieces of stale pastry. Only the marble markers were legible. Yet many of those were in Hebrew. It would have taken us forever to decipher them. Nina, pregnant, impatient with the improbability of it all, waited uncomfortably. My plan was not working. I finished the first row having found nothing. There were Rossmans, Sterns, lots of Sondheims and one Einstein. But no Eichenbronners and no Strausses.
From beyond the cemetery walls, fields rolled down to red-roofed Rödelsse. The cascade of a church carillon spilled over the cemetery. It was a gorgeous afternoon. My jeans were damp with sweat. Pollen caked my hands and neck. My every pore itched with the heat. I began the second row of 30 graves.
It took me 45 minutes to work through the first two rows. I thought I would plod through the next four and then take a cursory look at the hundreds of other stones. A few graves into the third row I stepped on the overgrowth and saw "Samson Eichenbronner" clearly marked in black marble. The year of death: 1923. Next to Samson was Louise Eichenbronner, died 1926. I had never heard either of those names. Were these my great-grandparents? The grimy sweat that had soaked my jeans turned chill with the discovery. I continued looking.
We spent two more hours in the cemetery, finding no more Eichenbronners. As I looked, Nina read through the visitors' book that we had been given with the key. There were excerpts from German books on Jewish cemeteries and hundreds of signatures, mainly in German but many in Hebrew and a few in English. As we left the cemetery an ultralight plane flew overhead. A hot-air balloon rose not far away, perhaps on a late afternoon tour of the vineyards. I leafed through the visitors' book and although I could understand almost nothing of what was written, I was overcome with a sense of connection and deep sadness. Here were dozens of people who had come to this out-of-the-way cemetery, trying to make sense of a senseless past. It felt as though history was washing through us - even as it had ignored and abandoned these hundreds of graves.
At the house where we had picked up the key it took a minute or two for the old man to answer his door. Thirty steps away, 50 pigs clustered at the barn gate. The smell was overwhelming. I handed him the book and the key. "Danke," I said. His face and hands were rough, hard-worked. He took the things from me and said nothing. I had no idea who he was or why he was in charge of the key. I had no way to ask.
We sat in the car as I jotted down some notes. The old man came out of the house and slowly, stiffly, walked over. He leaned down and put his head in the window. Somehow we signaled that our visit had been worthwhile. He hung around for a few minutes as though he expected that we would learn German just from his presence. But we didn't. He nodded, and went back to his house.
We had dinner that night at the only place that was open in Wiesenbronn. Our waiter suggested what type of wurst we should have and what type of local beer I might try. We told him that we were looking for family roots.
"You forgot one small detail," Nina said as the waiter went to the kitchen. I hadn't told him we were Jewish, still nervous about how that "small detail" might be received. The waiter came back and told us that no one in the place knew any Eichenbronners. That's when I told him we were Jewish and that there hadn't been anyone in the town for a long time. "Obviously," he said, quietly. In a word that might have been cynical, he somehow combined his limited English with melancholy and compassion. I explained that as far as I knew the Eichenbronners had left before Hitler. "Anyway ..." he said, as though that fact should give very little consolation.
A while later he returned with a name and number. We should contact the Burghermeister, Herr Müller, who knew all the local history and spoke English fluently. He would be able to help us.
The next morning I tried to call Burghermeister Müller. But the pay phone wouldn't take coins and, on a Sunday morning in a small town in Germany, there was no place where I could buy a phone card. Plus Nina was anxious to move on. We had found the cemetery. We had found names. Perhaps that was enough.
"Let's at least drive around town before we leave," I said. In the car it wouldn't take long to cover Wiesenbronn's few streets.
We could have missed it just as easily as we saw it. In the first block one of the homes had a signboard with the name Müller carved on it. As we passed, a man came out the front door.
"Herr Müller?" I asked.
"Ja," he said.
"Burghermeister Müller?" I asked to make certain.
"Ja," he said.
"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" I asked.
"Nein," he answered.
With my crippled, elemental German, I explained about "Meine Jüdischer Grossmutter aus Wiesenbronn."
"Moment," he said gesturing for us to wait as he left the house.
Ten minutes later he reappeared with an elegant woman in her early sixties. She had short gray hair and a chiffon scarf draped over her red jacket, which seemed very fashionable in a town whose every corner smelled of animal waste.
I again explained about Meine Grossmutter Eichenbronner and Frau Hoffman answered, in very good English, that she knew "a great deal about your great-grandfather Samson Eichenbronner. What would you like to know?" she asked.
It was 10:30 in the morning. We spent the next five and a half hours with Frau Hoffman.
On the patio behind the Burghermeister's home, Frau Hoffman told us of Samson Eichenbronner's service in the Prussian-French war of 1870-71 and how he had started the local veterans' club after the German victory. She explained his cattle-trading business: buying them in Rhön, an impoverished area far away; shipping them by train to the railhead a few miles north of town; and then hiring local boys to drive them south to Wiesenbronn.
Frau Hoffman then took us down Kobaldstrasse and showed us the Eichenbronner home. She told us how the Jewish community leader, Herr Herbert, had resisted on Kristallnacht, the night of breaking glass, when the Nazis ransacked his house, and how he never returned after being taken away.
I still wasn't entirely certain that Samson Eichenbronner was indeed my great-grandfather. From the pay phone on the corner, I called AT&T Direct and was talking to my mother in New York in seconds. "How many brothers and sisters did Grandma Strauss have?" I asked her. It was early in the morning in New York, and it took Mom a while to wake up and gather her thoughts.
"Oh I don't know. There were a lot," she said. "Maybe 10 or 12. I think only three or four came to this country." Frau Hoffman had said there had been eight children.
"What did Grandma Strauss' father do?" I asked. Mom said she thought he was a Pferdehändler, which is literally horse trader. But the German word is very close to Fleischhändler, or cattle or meat dealer. The numbers, the dates, the occupations were all close enough. Samson Eichenbronner was certainly one of the ancestors I had come to Germany never imagining to find.
We wondered why this elegant schoolteacher had become so interested in local Jewish history. She explained that in 1982 one of her sons had begun a history of the Jewish population of Wiesenbronn as a school assignment. Many people did not want to talk at that time, but one man, who had once worked for Samson Eichenbronner, spoke so voluminously that the son grew tired and called in his mother for help. Soon she became more interested than he. Now retired after 40 years as an art teacher, she continued to research local Jewish history. Nina asked her why.
As a teacher (and a German), Frau Hoffman was very precise with her words. She told us that "bad things, evil things" had happened in Wiesenbronn.
She thought people, particularly the younger generations, should know -- even if some did not want to know. Frau Hoffman was also a religious person. She had been to church that morning, and to the cemetery and to her garden as well.
She told us that there were things in her past, more precisely in her parents' past, that made her feel guilty. It wasn't so much guilt, she explained, but a sense of sadness and remorse. While she grew up knowing that bad things had happened to Jews, she first believed as she had been told: that they had only happened in Berlin and the other big cities. But there was also the memory of smelling fire as a 6-year-old in her hometown of Nördlingen and then seeing the charred remains of the synagogue the next day. And the memory of the first time she saw an adult cry, when a Christian neighbor and family friend came to her childhood home after his Jewish wife had been taken away. He sat there among his neighbors and sobbed.
Over lunch at the Gasthaus, we talked about how thrilled she was when Germany was reunified and how she had never believed it would happen, how she was certain it could never happen and how her relatives from East Germany showed up at her door the very day the border opened. I sensed that because of the separation she had experienced in her own family, she understood why Jews sometimes come back to Wiesenbronn.
She explained that the Rödelsse cemetery dated from 1432. "Can you imagine? That's 60 years before Columbus," I said to Nina, trying to grasp the notion of Jews, my ancestors, having lived in one place for 500 years. I have moved at least 20 times in the last 30 years. Here families once lived -- and some still do -- in one place for half a millennium.
Nina asked Frau Hoffman why the cemetery was even still there. She figured that the Nazis would have attempted to erase every trace of Jewish existence, even that of the dead. Frau Hoffman explained that the local people have always been deeply religious and even those who were the most ardent Nazis would not disturb the dead. Somehow that transcended their idea of who should live.
From her file, Frau Hoffman pulled out the Wiesenbronn census. The Germans had been very precise about recordkeeping. In 1910 there had been 836 people in town and 44 Jews. In 1925, the population had risen to 882 but the number of Jews was down to 27. In 1939 it had fallen to nine. In 1942 the census became more precise, enumerated monthly. In February of 1942 there were three Jews left in Wiesenbronn. In March, there were none.
Eventually there were no more questions to ask. It was time to go. We thanked Frau Hoffman and told her as best we could that what she was doing was a very good thing. As we left Wiesenbronn, Nina said, "You know what she does is so wonderful. And she's doing it just because it's the right thing to do." It seemed to us that we had been guided to her. There had been too many coincidences along the way for it to simply have been chance.
Had the gravestone been illegible, as so many were, perhaps we would have driven on. Had we not seen Burghermeister Müller's sign, had he not been at home, had Frau Hoffman not been at her home when Herr Müller bicycled over, we would have left Wiesenbronn with only memories of graves. There would have been no other images, because our camera battery had given out just after we arrived. In a little town in Germany, on a Sunday, there was no place to buy a replacement.
We left Wiesenbronn by the same route over which my great-grandfather once drove his cattle. This part of Bavaria is not dramatic, just lovely rolling countryside. As we drove north, reflecting on the simple decency of what Frau Hoffman was doing, we found our feelings about Germany changing. We had met no skinheads, had heard no anti-Semitism. It was very difficult to equate our experience in Wiesenbronn with our feelings about and knowledge of the past.
Themar, where my dad, Henry Levinstein, was born in 1919, probably isn't more than 100 miles from Wiesenbronn as the crow flies. Although liberated by the Americans after World War II, Themar wound up in the Soviet zone. Somehow I expected, I wanted, Themar to be a teeny-tiny village locked in the 1920s and 30s - perhaps because I wanted to feel and see where and how Dad had grown up.
We spent the night between Wiesenbronn and Themar in Meiningen, a town I recalled Dad having mentioned. A few blocks from our hotel, Nina saw a Star of David on a small marker. The simple German writing on the marker led us to understand that it stood on the site of the Meiningen synagogue, burned in November 1938 during what was memorialized in bronze as a pogrom. In the distance, across a large meadow, a huge gingerbread hotel was being renovated. The synagogue's location had been a fine one.
Just outside Themar, and the crumbling remnants of its fortress wall, welcoming signs proclaimed "Themar. 1200 Jahr -- 796 -- 1996." Themar was celebrating its 1,200th year.
"What's your plan now?" Nina asked as we arrived. My plan hadn't changed. We would go to the cemetery and see what we might find. Unlike in Wiesenbronn, I thought people who knew Dad or his parents might still be alive. We only had to find them.
As we drove into Themar, a UPS truck passed us. A billboard indicated that the nearest McDonald's was just six and a half miles away. Clearly this was no longer the Themar of Dad's youth.
We arrived around noon. Nina was hungry, so we stopped at a bakery. We waited until only one woman was left behind us in line before we ordered. Pointing and using our fingers to indicate "how many," we bought a few things.
"So are you going to ask?" Nina said. I felt uneasy about asking for the cemetery. We were in the former East Germany. We knew evil things had, in fact, happened in Themar. I didn't know how we might be received. Hesitantly, I began my 10-second inquiry about the Jüdischer Friedhof.
We were told that it was in a neighboring town, Marisfelt. The woman behind us, who spoke no English, seemed quite interested and followed us outside. At that moment, her English-speaking daughter walked up. We explained we'd like to find someone who might be able to speak to us about Themar before the war. She translated this and her mother responded, quite enthusiastically and with lots of head nodding, "Meine Mutter."
"I'm going to show her the picture," I said to Nina, meaning the photo of Dad and his mother from the early 1920s.
"Why?" she said, ever skeptical. "They're not going to be able to recognize anything."
I held out the sepia-toned childhood picture of Dad for the two women. To our complete amazement they instantly began nodding their heads. They knew the place. It was still there. In a town that's been around for 1,200 years, buildings tend to stay put. The older woman got in our car.
A few blocks away, she told us to stop and pointed to the detail that had made it so easy for her to identify the location; the top story of the building had three small, domed windows clearly visible in the picture. Our passenger, Ingrid Saam, lived right around the corner.
We thanked her, said goodbye and set out to find the exact spot where the picture had been taken. We could see through the hedges into backyards, but could find no way in. As we headed back to our car, a teenage boy wearing a "No Nazis" T-shirt walked toward us. I still felt uncomfortable asking strangers about things Jewish, but figured he would be sympathetic.
No, he told us in English, he didn't know anyone who knew the neighborhood history. He suggested we speak with the English teacher at the school around the corner. As he left, Frau Saam reappeared. We explained that we were going to get the English teacher from school to help us. But first we wanted to find the spot where the picture had been taken.
As we retraced our steps, Frau Saam pointed out the many homes that had once been Jewish. She didn't know the Levinstein family, but she knew which house had held the synagogue and school and thought that might be it. It was around the corner, on Ernst Thalman Strasse, named for the Communist leader who died in Buchenwald in 1944. Back then the street was known as Oberstadtstrasse.
The house was freshly painted a light sky blue. Geraniums spilled from the window planters. Any connection to the Jewish community or Levinstein family was long gone. "Hair & Beauty" occupied the first floor. The large picture windows were filled with photos of beautiful women styled with the latest mousses.
In the backyard, apples ripened on several small trees. Behind the orchard and the garden was a small grassy area and from there one could see the building in the photo. I held the cracked, yellowing snapshot up at arm's length. From the spot where Nina and I stood, the perspective was exactly the same as where my dad and his mother had stood more than 70 years earlier. We were in the right place.
We walked back to the school, hoping to find the English-speaking teacher.
"Can you believe this?" Nina said. I couldn't. In a place where there hadn't lived a Jew for more than half a century, the school was named for Anne Frank.
Frau Saam scurried into the school and within minutes returned with Frau Kammbach, the English teacher. "My lunch," she said, referring to the peach in her hand. It turned out that she was a friend of Frau Saam's family.
Frau Saam led us around the block. In the entry hall of her home there was a folding wheelchair. The tightly turned staircase was made that much smaller by the curving, coiled metal guides of a handicap lift system.
On the third floor, she introduced us to her 73-year-old mother, Waltraud Wilhelm. Frau Wilhelm came in from the kitchen on crutches, turned around and dropped herself into a chair. Like her daughter Ingrid, she, too, was nearly a caricature: rosy cheeks, snowy hair, broad beautiful smile and bright, bright blue eyes. I began my talk. "Mein Vater, Mein Grossvater, Meine Grossmutter aus Themar. Namen Levinstein."
Frau Wilhelm nodded and began to talk, and Frau Kammbach translated.
Frau Wilhelm remembered the Levinstein family well, she told us. She had passed the house at 17 Oberstadtstrasse every day on her way to school. She hadn't been inside but thought the Levinsteins lived on the first floor (where "Hair & Beauty" was), that the Jewish school was on the second floor and that the third floor was a community center.
She described Dad's father, Moritz, in detail. She remembered him as a man with thick glasses and a round face -- just as he appeared in photos. She remembered Nanette, Dad's mother, more clearly. She was "a beautiful lady, a fine lady," she said.
Soon the strudel, the one Frau Saam had bought in the bakery, came out, together with some cookies. Coffee and tea were poured and we sat around the doily-covered table. The apartment was compact, filled with overstuffed chairs, tchotchkes of every sort, pictures of the Alps, flowers and animals. Until we had been invited into a few German homes, I hadn't realized how foreign, and how German, my grandmother Nanette's home in America had been.
We explained to Frau Wilhelm that our purpose in coming to Themar was to see this small town that I had heard so little about. I explained that the family history in Germany had not been, as we understood, very happy, and as a result, it was talked about only rarely. I told her and another daughter, Frau Goldschmidt, who had joined us, that Dad had died 10 years ago and his mother five years later. There was really no one else left who knew much of the history. Would she mind telling us what she knew?
Frau Wilhelm began to tell us what she remembered. She was young at the time, only a teenager. Back then, she said, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm in Themar for the Nazis. Things had been bad and they seemed to be getting better. Like many of her friends, she was swept up in the excitement of something new. She paused often to shake her head, as though wondering how that young girl could be the same woman she is today.
She knew that Moritz had been arrested in Meiningen in November 1938 during Kristallnacht. She recalled that she and her family were surprised because he was well-liked in the community. She wasn't far into the story when she began to cry. Her eyes, so intensely blue, shimmered. Once she began to cry, we all began to cry. She said that not long after they heard that Moritz had been arrested, the news came to town that he had committed suicide. That he had jumped from the train into the river on his way back to Themar.
Frau Wilhelm, seeing Nina and me cry, explained that she wouldn't have told us this story if she had known it would be so disturbing. But she thought it was good for us to know what she knew and that's why she agreed to see us. She said that except for one neighbor who now lives in Florida she had never discussed what happened with anyone -- not even with her daughters, who sat and cried with us.
We explained to her that, in fact, what she said was more or less the story I had heard at home, that no one could ever confirm. We explained that it was very unusual for a religious Jew such as Moritz to take his own life, which made it difficult for people at home to believe the story. Some thought perhaps he had been beaten and thrown from the train.
She thought about this for a long time. She told us that the Levinstein home, the school and the synagogue had been very badly vandalized. That the story told in Themar was that Herr Levinstein, hearing about the destruction of his temple on his way home, became so distraught that he took his life. She hadn't known that he had been sent to Buchenwald for a few weeks and then released. She stopped and thought again. She said that there were never any people who came forward as witnesses from the train. After a long time in which she paused and wiped away more tears, she said yes, it could have been as you say.
We knew that one of the objectives of Kristallnacht was to frighten Jews into leaving Germany. But Frau Wilhelm said that in Themar, Moritz's death was not used to that end. He was a well-liked man. She thought it wouldn't have done the Nazis any good to boast that he had been murdered. Perhaps the story of his jumping to his death had been told to keep the local people calm.
We talked of other things. I asked her if she had ever heard of a "Dixie," a car I recalled Dad saying his father owned. It was so small Dad said that it sometimes toppled over going around a turn. "Ja, ja, ja," she said, laughing, her father had owned one as well. It was a two-seater and a third person could sit in the trunk, she told us. It did sometimes tip over on a turn, she said, but it was light enough that you could simply pick it up and keep going.
We were onto happier topics and Frau Wilhelm began gesturing with her hands as though making a patty-cake. "Matzo," we heard her say. The teacher explained that Frau Wilhelm recalled Dad's father making special cakes, always around Easter time. Having translated the word, Frau Kammbach asked, "What is matzo?"
It felt a bit funny to recount Bible stories to people from a Christian country. We explained about the flight from Egypt, how Jews eat matzo during Passover and that the Last Supper had actually been a seder. I remembered how a cousin had once told me that Dad's father had been nervous over his matzo-making business. He had not reported the income and the Nazis had been pressuring him to pay up.
"What happened to the other Jews who stayed in Themar?" Nina asked. There had been 35 or so Jewish families in Themar before Hitler. Not all had been taken or frightened away. Frau Wilhelm's face instantly reflected her mood. Again she became somber.
She told us that in 1942 all the Jews were ordered to report to the train station at 8 a.m. She remembered it clearly. Frau Kammbach continued to translate but shortly into the story Frau Wilhelm began to cry and waved her hands across her face, unable to go on. Her daughters on either side tried to console her, but even so many years later, the vision was too difficult for her to look at.
"What did she say?" Nina asked.
"She said that they were marching the Jews to the station and it was very unpleasant," Frau Kammbach told us. "There was a Jewish woman, whose both legs had been broken and the Nazis were ... That is where she stopped."
One of us must have asked how Frau Wilhelm had come to see all this and that is when Frau Kammbach explained. Frau Wilhelm had had childhood polio. Her window overlooked the street where this cattle herding of people took place. Paralyzed, unable to use her own legs, unable to leave the scene, she watched as the Nazis beat the Jewish woman with the broken legs who was also unable to move.
Frau Wilhelm continued to sob. The beating she had watched so many years earlier had not left her memory.
We spent three hours around the table at Frau Wilhelm's. While we were talking, her younger daughter had called the mayor in Marisfelt to arrange for a visit to the cemetery.
We asked if they had seen or heard of Schindler's List. One of the daughters had seen it, but Frau Wilhelm hadn't. She didn't think she could sit through it. Her daughter had described it to her and that was enough, she said.
Before we left, we talked about the changes they had experienced since the reunification. They, too, had never believed it would happen. They also felt a tremendous joy when their country was put back together. Frau Wilhelm said that when she saw the Alps for the first time five years earlier, it was one of the most moving experiences of her life.
The Marisfelt mayor had said he would meet us the following morning. The light that afternoon was so lovely I suggested to Nina that we go to Marisfelt anyway, if only to take pictures.
The three-mile drive was on a small two-lane road that turned 90 degrees every half mile as it cut through forests and across farmland. A handmade signpost stood at the last right-angle turn just before Marisfelt. One wooden arrow pointed up an overgrown dirt road to the Jüdischer Friedhof.
Like the cemetery in Rödelsse, the one in Marisfelt also occupied a beautiful spot above the town. Cattle were grazing in a large pasture alongside the road.
It was the "golden hour," when the setting sun makes everything a deeper, redder shade of itself. Someone had put a wooden table and bench up just outside the picket fence and aspen trees that surrounded the small graveyard.
The cemetery was much smaller and better kept than the one in Rödelsse. The grass was short and soft. One couldn't find a lovelier, more peaceful spot than the bench that overlooked the town.
The 50 or so graves were well organized from the oldest to the most recent. Going back several hundred years, they came to an abrupt halt a bit to the left of center in the first row. Without going in we could clearly see the name on the last grave, the one closest to the gate. "M. Löwenstein" it read. That was Moritz's grave. Somewhere along the way to America the name had become Levinstein. "Born November 17, 1884. Died December 6, 1938," less than a month after Kristallnacht. "Die Liebe höret nimmer auf" was inscribed on the plate. I'm told this is an old-fashioned form of German, but its meaning is eternal. "Love lasts forever" or "Love never dies," my grandmother had written. "It's like the beginning of the end," Nina said, remarking on the foreshortened series of graves that ended with Moritz's.
We took pictures, made some notes, wondered why the Jews had been given such a beautiful spot for their cemetery. Probably we could have searched out others who might have known more. We could have asked to see the local archives. But Frau Wilhelm's telling was enough. We had sensed the pain of this memory. We felt no need to go deeper.
We had come to Germany without a plan, without guidebooks or dictionaries and, to our amazement, had found out far more than we had imagined. Our subcutaneous anger at and fear of Germans had subsided. We had traced some of the steps of long-lost relatives.
But there was still one more stop I wanted to make. After his arrest, Dad's father had been taken to Buchenwald. Embarrassingly, we didn't know where it was. To our astonishment, several Germans we asked also didn't know. Their bewilderment made me wonder what had been remembered and what had been forgotten or never taught.
Buchenwald is a suburb of Weimar, which, like Themar, was also in East Germany. The drive there was the loveliest of all. At one point we found ourselves on a single-lane, dirt hunter's track for about 15 miles. We had no idea where we were. There were no signs, and just a few abandoned farms in the lush forest. As we bounced over deep ruts and jagged rocks, Nina commented repeatedly that she didn't think this was the right road for a woman five months pregnant.
Nina had not wanted to go to Buchenwald. "I'm not sure I can take it," she said. But I wanted to go. It seemed like the appropriate way to conclude our journey.
The road into Buchenwald itself crosses a long, empty forest. Paths abandoned many years ago disappear into the woods and make one wonder where they once led. An enormous, Soviet-style monument adorned only with the date "1945" is the first thing one sees.
"What's that?" Nina asked as we passed a structure near the visitor center. It was the railroad siding. It took no imagination at all to conjure the image of trains pulling up here and disgorging their cargo.
We arrived just as the hourly film presentation was about to begin. At 10 in the morning, the large auditorium was nearly empty. The film was in German, but even with no narration it would have been easy to understand. There were shots of Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton visiting the camp. Film clips of American soldiers turning their heads away from the stench, the rigid bodies stacked like cord wood.
Two German men in their early 20s sat behind us, their legs up on the back of our row. They were both grunge-rocker types: shredded clothes, fluorescent hair, pierced and tattooed bodies. Not long into the film, one of them fell asleep. For the first time since we had arrived in Germany, I felt a rage building inside me. For a few minutes I tried to ignore his snoring. I couldn't.
"Hey!" I yelled. "This isn't a place for sleeping. Wake up!" He shook himself awake, probably having understood nothing of what I said except my tone. They stayed for the rest of the film and left. We never made eye contact.
Buchenwald was not one of the main killing camps. It was a processing facility, an industrial zone for slave labor and a holding pen. By the end of the war, 51,000 people had been killed there: many, perhaps the majority, non-Jews. In late 1938, 10,000 Jewish men arrested on Kristallnacht were sent to Buchenwald, among them Dad's father. Most were let go shortly after. Systemized extermination wouldn't begin for a few more years. It was on his way home that Moritz's life ended.
As we left the film presentation, buses and cars began to fill the large parking lot. I wasn't sure that either of us really wanted to tour the camp. How could we equate this place, high on a hill, surrounded by thick, quiet forests, overlooking a town famed as one of the great centers of German learning, with the past? How could we equate the wonderful experiences we had had with what had taken place here? Why were we even there, I wondered. We had not traveled to Germany to continue to hate the place but to try to understand it. So what was our actual purpose in coming to Buchenwald? We had seen the films, read the books, been to the museum in Washington. It was not our souls that required cleansing.
We saw the two German punks get into their car and leave. They didn't pass through the gates of the camp where the words Jedem das Seine ("Each to his own") are written in steel. They didn't note the hands on the clock tower that are permanently stopped at 3:15 in the afternoon, the time American forces liberated the camp. They didn't look out over the 40 or so rectangular gravel pads that mark the spots where the prison buildings once stood. Where Gypsies, criminals, Jews, homosexuals and other flotsam to be exploited and "cleansed" were housed. They didn't pass through either of the two buildings of any note that remained in the area.
One was the museum, which presented an excellent chronology of the Third Reich -- one that made clear how it happened; how all the different players who could have stopped it allowed it to happen. Maybe those two wouldn't have gotten anything from the museum, or, more likely, would have chosen not to believe what was documented in great detail.
But it was the other, smaller building, the one that stood to the right of the parade ground, where they really needed to go. One learned the history of Buchenwald from the feel of that building, not from the few signs that were posted on it. At the entrance a small plaque, in the languages of the great postwar powers, advised visitors that, in lieu of graves, the building should be considered the final resting place for the thousands who passed through the door we were about to enter. It asked that visitors respect it as a memorial.
It was the incineration house.
The first rooms were unremarkable and the path led back outside. The doors were thick and closed with a heavy, smooth action. There were no directional signs. There was only a single route to follow.
Nina stayed outside while I went to the basement. It was a hot summer day, but as I went down the one short flight, the penetrating chill of thick concrete quickly drove away the heat. Hooks lined the walls. At the far end of the room, a large freight elevator stood ready for cargo. I called Nina to come down. We were alone. The cold was something neither of us could shake. It was the type of cold that comes up through the soles of the feet and races through the bones. Perhaps to those who passed through this spot it no longer mattered. I wondered if it could have felt any colder in winter.
Upstairs there were no descriptions or plaques at all. There were no historical photos. The four ovens, their metal doors open, ready to receive just as the elevator remained ready to disgorge, needed no description. In between the ovens were a few bunches of wilted flowers. There were strings of tiny origami paper cranes. Nina and I had seen these draped by the tens of thousands at the Hiroshima memorial in Japan. Here there were many fewer. Today, Hiroshima is a huge, industrial city. Buchenwald remains a small place, in many ways still hidden in the woods.
We stood in the room alone. We said nothing. It was a solid, well-built building and what noise there might have been outside did not come in. Nina began to sob, deep choking sobs, the tears running down the inside of her throat catching and rippling upon themselves.
Outside, we passed by the memorial to the Jewish victims of Buchenwald that was written in German, English and Hebrew. "To the children yet to be born," it said.
We left Germany that afternoon. We had gone there perhaps expecting to find justification for our years of smoldering anger. What we found was far different from what we had imagined. The people we met -- thoughtful, concerned, compassionate -- made us reflect upon our own prejudices. The unfocused bitterness we instinctively felt toward all Germans and all things German had dissipated. We left no longer thinking of Germany as the personification of evil, now and forever, but wondering how long one holds the anguish of the past in one's heart. We still don't know the answer. We only know that for us it's shorter than we once thought.
A version of this story first appeared on Salon.com in September 1999. In 2000, it was recognized by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation with the Lowell Thomas Gold Award as the best story to appear on the Internet during the previous year.
The original Salon article, together with photos, can be found at: