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Article 11
Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday, July 1, 2001

Looking to a better future, but not forgetting about the past
John J. Neumaier

My wife Sally and I are home again after two bittersweet but rewarding weeks in my old hometown of Frankfurt on Main. Every day brought back memories, some very sad, some happy, some full of mixed emotions. As guests of the city, we stayed at the elegant Frankfurter Hof Hotel - itself a reminder of bygone days, since my mother, a well-known first contralto at the Frankfurt Opera, sang in a concert there some 70 years ago.

The city government treated the returning 70 former citizens of Frankfurt, and their spouses, children, or other companions, with genuine cordiality and tactful respect. The largest contingent came from the United States, many from Israel and South America, and one or two from England, Canada, Costa Rica, and South Africa. The German talent for efficient organization was put to good use, with guided bus excursions, visits to centers of Jewish life, evenings of opera and theater, even a boat ride on the Main.

The new Germans are gravely burdened with their past and seemed determined to show their Jewish visitors the remarkable progress that’s been made in building a multi-cultural city and society. Thirty percent of Frankfurt’s 650,000 residents are from other countries. Many come from Eastern and Southern Europe, drawn by Frankfurt’s vigorous industrial and financial life. And the face of the city has changed enormously. Modern skyscrapers vie with old and restored patrician mansions. Blocks and blocks of new construction have replaced the rubble left when massive Allied air raids destroyed much of the old city in March 1944.

We were struck by the sensitive speech of the city spokesperson, Horst Hemzahl, at the opening session of our visit, held in the hall of the Philantropin, a once prominent Jewish school. Hemzahl said (in German): “Your visit is not taken for granted; indeed, I believe that it was for many of you a most difficult decision.” He reminded us that as a city of commerce, Frankfurt used to be known for its liberality and its openness to the rest of the world: “However, this was not so under the wretched years of National Socialism, when criminal propaganda poisoned the ideas and hearts of many people and prepared the atmosphere for the persecution, deportation and murder of Jews and other groups of the population.” Like many other Germans we encountered, he in no way suggested that we forget or forgive the horrible crimes that were committed against the millions of victims.

A reception attended by some 500 people was held in the famed Römer, Frankfurt’s reconstructed ancient town-hall. The articulate and able Oberbürgermeisterin (Lady-Mayor) Petra Roth gave the principal address, noting that this was the 20th anniversary of Frankfurt’s yearly hosting of formerly persecuted Frankfurt citizens. She showed genuine empathy with the terrible memories of the returning guests, memories of the unforgettable crimes of the Third Reich, and she described how the city of Frankfurt is keeping those memories alive, working in concert with the city’s new Jewish community of some 6,000, and seeking to meet the challenge of building a more open society.

Among the memorable programs and visits arranged by the city were the beautiful new Jewish Community Center, the Henry and Emma Budge home for the aged, a session with a Jewish-Christian dialogue group (which has published some remarkable books of remembrance), and the Jewish Museum, in the handsome old Rothschild mansion on the banks of the Main.

The Jewish Museum has some remarkable cultural, historical, and art collections, including a replica of the renowned old Jewish ghetto, once one of Europe’s largest. An affiliate of the Jewish Museum, the Judengasse Museum, stands next to the ancient Jewish cemetery, which is enclosed by a block-long wall of memory bearing a plaque for each of the 11,000 Jewish citizens of Frankfurt who were exiled and killed, including my mother and the loved ones of many other returnees. We met with two young women scholars, Jutta Zwilling and Heike Drummer, who have established a commemorative data bank for the 11,000, and are continuing to collect information for the Jewish Museum’s archive.

A unique opportunity for learning - and sharing - occurred when returnees talked with students in Frankfurt schools, about the Kristallnacht pogrom, about eye witness experiences under the Nazi regime, and about the Holocaust itself, and answered students’ questions about America and other lands. These high school class meetings with survivors were arranged by a group of dedicated leaders (mostly women) of the Pedagogical Institute of Frankfurt, as part of an ongoing project entitled “Jewish Life in Frankfurt”.

Its coordinator, Angelica Rieber, stressed the importance of having students learn about German history, directly from the victims, of the anti-Semitic persecutions and extermination policies of the Third Reich. The teachers described how various Frankfurt schools taught about the Holocaust. Three of us who were once students at the Wöhlerschule were especially interested in the report of a Wöhlerschule teacher, Waltraud Giesen, who, with her colleagues, has devoted many years of her teaching to Holocaust education. Their most recent project is the book Lebenspuren which traces the lives of “Jewish Wöhlerschule students, Victims of the Terror 1938-1945", published on the occasion of the May 4 opening of a memorial garden commemorating the school’s 27 murdered Jewish students.

Another highpoint was an excursion to Worms, where Jews lived for centuries, under changing conditions of oppression and toleration. It was not until the Nazis took over that the thousand-year-old Jewish tradition of Worms and its cultural achievements was ruptured. A sensitive and very knowledgeable guide, Angela Popp, traced the story and led us through the Jewish museum and the reconstructed synagogue.

In the Worms Jewish museum I found two letters which epitomize the horrendous atmosphere that pervaded the city during the time of Hitler’s Germany. One was the suicide note of a Jewish physician, Dr. Fritz Gernsheim and his wife Rosa, written on July 27, 1938. Here is a translation:

“Both of us have done with life. The torments of the last few months have ground us down and the tax-examining-commission has brought the barrel to overflow. We know well that we have not violated any law, and entrust attorney Nathan with taking care of our estate.

“Our, old, loyal maid Anna Weiss, should receive as recompense and reward for her devotion 2000 Marks, Babette Schüttler, our current house help 300 Marks and my driver Phillip Rausch 100 Marks. In addition, of the first two named, the first one receives the drawing room furniture and whatever other furniture she can use. Babette Schüttler receives the furniture of her present bedroom, and other pieces selected by her.

“Rausch too can select various things. Police chief Bischoff in Speyer - my wine. The Jewish Home for Seniors in Worms receives 1000 Marks.”

In an accompanying letter, Dr. Gersheim specifies that his dog should be left in Anna Muttterstadt’s care until it died, and (in the spirit of Socrates) he left 50 marks per year for the dog tax (appending that amount for the first year).

The second letter was issued October 6, 1938 by an official of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis), addressed to Valentin Jung, Carpenter, of Weinsheim. It warned Jung that the Party had

“established incontestably that still in the year 1938 you have allowed the Jewish physician Dr. Gernsheim, Worms, to treat you, that is, you have gone to him for consultation. The Jew is the eternal enemy of the German people, and a decent German cannot have any connection whatsoever with a Jew, or, as in your case, to put himself irresponsibly in his care. I therefore ask you as a German only to trust Germans, and to discontinue any relationship with Jews.

“If you do not change your attitude in the future, the Party will see itself forced to examine your political reliability, and you should then draw the appropriate consequences that will follow. Heil Hitler!”

In this summary of our visit, I cannot, of course, speak for the entire group. Still, I believe that many of us were persuaded that a substantial number of citizens whom we met, especially of the second and third generation, recognize, as we do, that the “accident of birth”, must not prevent people working together for a better future, not by forgetting the past, but by learning from it.

Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.