several years, the city of Frankfurt on Main (like many German cities)
has invited those who were driven into exile by the Nazis to return, with
their spouses, for a two-week stay as guests of the city. This spring,
my wife and I will be among that group.
In preparation for the visit, the city of Frankfurt sent each participant
a documented anthology “After Kristallnacht - Jewish Life and anti-Jewish
Politics in Frankfurt am Main 1938-1945". It is a frightful account
of the brutal persecution of the Jews of Frankfurt and of their deportation
to the Nazi death camps. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler was appointed
chancellor by Germany’s venerated President Paul von Hindenburg,
the city of Frankfurt had slightly more than 26,000 Jewish citizens, which
was 4.7 percent of its total population. No other German city had a higher
percentage, although in all of Germany Jews made up less than one percent
of the population.
During the war years, more than 11,000 Jews were deported from Frankfurt,
most of them to their death. Documents record ten deportations, averaging
1,000 each, in 1941 and 1942, and several smaller “unofficial”
deportations between 1943 and 1945. Of the 1,100 Jews who were taken on
October 19, 1941, directly from their homes (mostly in the Westend of
Frankfurt, where my parents and I once lived) only three survived. By
June 1943 only 626 Jews remained in Frankfurt; 700 had committed suicide
rather than be transported to a death camp.
After the war, with few exceptions, officials of the Frankfurt Geheime
Staatspolizei (Gestapo - German Secret Police) and other officials who
had directed the organized persecution and deportation of Jews went unpunished.
A new generation of Frankfurt officials is confronting this shameful history
by making the facts of the Nazi crimes in their city widely available.
As the time for my departure to Frankfurt approaches, many thoughts fill
my mind. The murder of many millions of people and the grief over the
loss of loved ones in death camps, ghettos, and on death marches is still
a deeply painful emotional burden, even after sixty years. The Nazi plan
for the “Final Solution”, formalized at the infamous Wannsee
conference in Berlin in 1942 and carried out with cruel precision, resulted
in the inhuman and systematic extermination of two thirds of Europe’s
Jews. How can I return to that country, someone asked me.
Though Jews will not forgive or forget the Holocaust, Jewish attitudes
toward Germany differ. There are some who refuse to even set foot in Germany.
Others, a tiny minority, have returned to Germany to live. Most recently
controversy arose over the decision by a Jewish American organization
to honor Thomas Middelhoff, head of Bertellsman, a huge German communications
corporation which had many business dealings with the Nazis. Middelhoff
has been much praised for his work in behalf of Holocaust survivors and
other Jewish causes.
Whatever the merits of the Middlehoff case, I do not believe in genetic
guilt. The children of the guilty should be judged not by where they were
born or what their parents did, but how they themselves act.
I can understand Jewish hostility toward Germany. My own father detested
not only the Nazis, but was irreconcilably furious with his German homeland
for permitting the persecution and mass murder of Jews. His beloved wife,
my mother, and many relatives were put to death in German concentration
camps in Poland, Austria, and France. That my father had served six years
in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army and been decorated for his years as a front
line soldier in World War I made him even more bitter.
On a personal level, I cannot erase from my mind the horrors and injustices
of daily life that my parents and I encountered in Nazi Germany. Thanks
to Hitler, many Germans benefited financially by taking over Jewish property.
In my father’s case, his business associate expelled him because
he was Jewish; they had been co-owners of a prospering film advertising
firm in Frankfurt.
In 1934 I withdrew from public school when in the school yard a dozen
or so teenagers would put a Jewish boy in the middle of a circle and beat
him up. A year later, all Jewish students were expelled from that school.
In November 1938, as a seventeen-year old, I witnessed the pogrom the
Germans called Kristallnacht and saw the burning of our synagogue and
the broken windows of Jewish stores and other acts of vandalism in downtown
Frankfurt. It was a terrifying time; 540 Jewish men were sent to concentration
camps, where they were horribly mistreated and some of them were killed.
My father also was arrested, but released because of his advanced age.
The Nazis prohibited my mother, formerly a celebrated opera singer, from
giving concerts except for Jewish audiences. The greatest personal tragedy
my father and I suffered was the deportation of my mother in June of 1942
to the death camp at Majdanek near Lublin, Poland, where she was cruelly
murdered. The day she was deported she had had a conference about money
matters with a Frankfurt banker at her home. Most of my parents’
funds had been confiscated. Someone observed the meeting between an “Aryan”
and a “non-Aryan” and denounced the banker, who was then taken
to Gestapo headquarters. He was Catholic with a large family, and my mother
decided to follow and to help him by explaining their meeting. The Gestapo
ordered her deportation and would not even let her go home to pack the
one suitcase which deportees were allowed. A Christian woman friend of
mother’s wrote me how her daughter was permitted to pack a suitcase
for mother and bring it after dark to the train (often a cattle wagon).
I deduce from the Frankfurt Anthology that my mother must have been in
the sixth deportation, in a group of 1,100 on June 11, 1942, a few days
before her 53d birthday. An official German chronicle of murdered Jews
lists her as “verschollen” (disappeared) in June, 1942 at
I survived thanks to an English couple, whom I had met in Switzerland
in 1935. Immediately after the 1938 pogrom I wrote them accepting their
long-standing invitation, to stay at their home until my U.S. quota immigration
number came up. In March 1939 I departed for England.
My father too was saved. In January 1940 he received a non-quota visa
via his American son (my half-brother, a Minnesota physician). However,
the U.S. consul in Stuttgart, widely known to be anti-Semitic, refused
a non-quota visa to my mother, telling my father that she was only the
step-mother, and besides there was a Congress making policy, and “not
just Mr. Roosevelt”.
These are but some of the sad memories that will accompany me to Frankfurt.
But there are others, including the happy childhood with my parents, before
Hitler came to power. I have also made friends in Frankfurt during previous
visits. In the summer of 1965 I was Visiting Professor at the Goethe Universität.
In 1998 I visited my old school (the Wöhlerschule) which, as part
of its 125th anniversary mounted memorial exhibits about the school boys
who had been exiled from Hitler’s Germany. It was organized by Waltraud
Giesen and her associates. Waltraud has devoted years to teaching about
the Holocaust and doing research on the fate of the Jewish students who
were killed or exiled. Just this month, the Wöhlerschule dedicated
a permanent memorial to the murdered Jewish school boys.
Frankfurt has done much to memorialize the Jewish women and men who were
murdered or driven out, and to acquaint Germans with the terrible and
tragic story of Jewish and other victims of Nazi Germany. Next month I
will report about the visit.