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
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
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.