of the blue came a letter from a thirteen-year old girl in Germany. Andrea
Nesswetter wanted to know how I remember my years at the Woehlerschule,
the public school I attended in my hometown of Frankfurt on Main. The
school was started in 1870, a year before the founding of the united German
Reich, and now it's about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. An exhibit
is planned, with photographs, memorabilia, and sketches of some of its
I'm sending Andrea the materials she's requested and as I wrote down the
memories of a German Jewish school boy I thought they might also be of
interest to readers of this column.
The Woehlerschule of my time offered four years of elementary education
and a 9-year secondary program in what is called a Gymnasium, which prepared
students for university. I was in the elementary school from 1927 until
1931 and the Gymnasium from 1931 to 1933. Adolf Hitler came to power during
that last year, having been named chancellor by President von Hindenburg
on January 30, 1933.
In my first school year I was hardly aware of any significant difference
between myself and the other 53 boys who
were in my class. Most of us took pride not only in being German, but
in being citizens of the once "Free City" of Frankfurt, though
it had lost that honorable status in 1866 when, on orders of Bismark,
it was incorporated into Prussia because it had been on the wrong side
in Prussia's war with Austria. Frankfurt was also the birthplace of Germany's
greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Frankfurters' feeling about
their city is epitomized in the modest rhyme “Es will mir nicht
in den Kopf hinein, wie kann nur ein Mensch nicht von Frankfurt sein"
(literally, "It just can't enter my head, how can a person not be
On one of my first days as a new pupil, a friend and his mother walked
with me to the Woehlerschule which was located some few blocks from my
home in Frankfurt's elegant Westend. That was the day the pupils were
separated into three different groups for the purpose of the state-sponsored
program of religious instruction. One group of my schoolmates turned out
to be Protestant (evangelisch), another was Catholic, and the smallest
group consisted of about eight or ten Jewish boys. For some reason I felt
elated to belong to so small a group, just a few children. Of course I
had been aware of my Jewish religious background but my family, like most
German Jews, was fully assimilated. (Slightly less than one percent of
Germany's population was Jewish. Synagogue prayer books included fervent
prayers for the well-being of the leaders of the fatherland; and before
1918 there were prayers for the Kaiser himself.)
I knew that my friend and his mother were Catholic though I attached no
special significance to the fact. Yet, when I walked home with them, and
saw my mother looking for me out of the window, I hollered with unmistakable
enthusiasm: “Mutti (mother), I'm Jewish, I'm Jewish." While
I have never denied my ethnic background, in the years to come I found
out that this was nothing to shout about in Nazi Germany. Looking back
on the incident I realize that this grouping of the pupils by their religion
reinforced feelings of separateness which were later to play into the
hands of the organized anti-Semitism that was so crucial to Nazi mythology
Another scene comes flooding back. How sad I was at the loss of my new
leather Schulranzen (backpack). It was a
treasured present from my parents. I went in tears to the teacher. It
turned out that it was still in the class room, but I
couldn't see it because it was on my back - a foreshadowing perhaps of
my eventual career as an absent-minded professor.
The elementary teacher was a very important figure for the school children,
since he or she remained with the same class for all their four years.
How affectionately I remember the revered man who was our teacher! Caring,
warmhearted, inspiring, Ernst Kaiser - our own Kaiser as we sometimes
referred to him - could make even German grammar interesting. He found
time to play Fussball (soccer) with us when school was out. He led us
through the forest trails of the Stadtwald on holidays, and sometimes
he took us picnicking in the Taunus, a beautiful mountain range nearby.
My mother was well known as a concert singer. A native of Vienna, she
had been first contralto at the renowned Frankfurt opera, where she sang,
among other roles, Carmen in "Carmen", Queen Amneris in "Aida",
Count Orlovsky in "Die Fledermaus", and Hansel in "Hansel
and Gretel". Sometimes people asked whether I had inherited her voice.
Once it became known that I had what sounded like the deep baritone of
an adult, I was led around to different classes and to the amusement,
I suppose, of the pupils their six-year old school chum would boom out
such songs as Lehar's "Yours is my heart alone". I need not
add how proud I was to be the son of Leonore Schwarz (mother's stage name).
After elementary school I was looking forward to entering Gymnasium and
to wearing the academic visor cap that
identified its proud students. But then Hitler came to power. It would
be difficult for German pupils of today, and indeed for Germans born after
the Nazi period, let alone Americans, to imagine what it was like to live
through that time, to encounter daily so many brown-shirted men (Nazi
stormtroopers) and uniformed members of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler youth),
greeting each other and everyone else with "Heil Hitler" instead
of "Good morning" or "Good day", and to see the Nazi
flag with the Swastika symbol wherever one went, or to be forced to hear
Hitler's speeches blasting out in public squares, even the Opernplatz.
At first I encountered no personal animosity from my fellow students.
But then they played a schoolyard game in which a dozen or so boys would
circle around a Jewish boy and kick him and call him names. It was then
that my parents transferred me to a small private co-educational school
for Jewish children.
In 1965, some thirty-five years after I had left his tutelage, I sought
out my old teacher Ernst Kaiser for what
turned out to be a moving and bittersweet reunion. I was spending the
summer, as Visiting Professor at the University of Frankfurt, the Goethe
Universitaet. Herr Kaiser was living in retirement in Darmstadt and he
and Mrs. Kaiser welcomed me warmly. I treasure to this day the present
he gave me, a booklet we pupils had made for him, full of personal photographs
and dedicatory remarks, many in rhyme. Both of us were touched as we leafed
through it, mindful of all that had taken place since those long ago days.
I was embarrassed when he insisted on showing me a document testifying
that, while he had served as a German officer during World War II, he
had persistently resisted the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Nazi years.
He was indeed a good man, whose main misfortune, like that of many others,
was that he was born to live through those terrible times. He was profoundly
shocked to learn how many of my family were killed by the Nazis.
My mother was among the millions of Jewish people murdered by the Nazis
for the absurd reason that they were born to Jewish parents rather than
to parents with a different religion. In 1988 I learned that her death
occurred in the Majdanek concentration camp, near Lublin in then German-occupied
Poland. In 1993 I visited the camp to honor her memory and to see for
myself. The horrible structures, the displays of victims' personal belongings,
the stark monument that shelters their ashes are wrenching reminders of
the unspeakable atrocities that were committed there.
Yes, it is not easy to look back on the tragic events of that period.
But it is necessary, so that German school children and children everywhere,
whatever their nationality, race, or religion, may learn the lessons of
that past, lessons that I hope will inspire them and all of us to work
for a future of mutual acceptance and respect for each other's humanity.