First of two parts
many years absence I returned last month to my native city of Frankfurt
on Main. My hope was to find out more about the final days of my mother
before she was deported by the Gestapo to her death in the concentration
camp at Majdanek, in Poland, in 1942. I had heard about new sources of
information and agencies of commemoration from a Frankfurt teacher, Waltraud
Giesen, who, with her associates, has done remarkable work in making her
young students more aware of the Holocaust. Waltraud helped put me in
touch with the various institutions which are memorializing the 11,000
Frankfurt citizens who were victims of the Nazis.
My Viennese-born mother, Leonore Schwarz, began her career singing with
the opera companies of Graz and Magdeburg, and in 1917 she became first
contralto at the famed Frankfurt Opera. She sang Carmen, Amneris (Aida),
Count Orlofsky (Fledermaus), and in many other operas, to wide acclaim.
(Mother’s photo is as Amneris, queen of Egypt) When I was born,
in 1921, my father, a Frankfurt businessman, insisted (in accordance with
prevailing custom) that she give up the opera. She continued her career
as a concert singer however, appearing with such stars as Fredric Schorr
(Metropolitan) and Leo Slezak (Vienna State Opera). Then came January
30, 1933, the date of Hitler's rise to power. From that time on, the Nazis'
cultural purification laws decreed that Jewish artists could perform only
for "non-Aryan" audiences.
The Frankfurt historians with whom I met during my visit were particularly
interested in seeing my copies of Jewish Kulturbund programs of my mother’s
concerts in the 1930's. Needless to say, my stay in Frankfurt was emotionally
very difficult for me, being reminded each day of the tragic and most
cruel loss of the wonderful human being that she was -- to me, as mother,
and to my late father, as his admired and beloved wife. I realize that
her terrible fate was suffered by many millions of other human beings.
But it is no less a personal tragedy, and survivors like myself often
have guilt feelings about whether we did everything that we could have
done to save our loved ones.
It was in 1938 that my parents redoubled their efforts to emigrate. My
father requested that my mother be given a non-quota visa like the one
he was getting, on the basis of the affidavit provided by his American
son, Dr. Arthur Neumaier, my half-brother. The official who headed the
United States consulate at Stuttgart (widely known to be an anti-Semite)
refused the request. As a result, mother's number on the list of the small
U.S. immigration quota did not come up until 1942, too late to save her
life. I had received a lower quota number (No.11113), thanks to my unknown
American brother’s affidavit, and it enabled me to get to England
in 1939 and to the United States in 1940. Mother continued living alone
in Frankfurt. She was 54 years old when she was murdered.
One of the Frankfurt institutions we visited was the research agency Zeitsprung.
Under contract to the Jewish Museum and financed by the city of Frankfurt,
it has the goal of developing a data bank on the Jewish citizens who were
victims. It is a huge undertaking and will take years to complete. During
my interview with Frau Zwilling of the research staff, I gave her information
and photos of my parents which she added to the computer entry on my mother.
Of particular historical significance to Frankfurt is the downtown square
named Boerneplatz, after Ludwig Boerne, a prominent Jewish citizen. In
1935, ever intent on "aryanization," a Nazi commission renamed
it "Dominican Square". After the war, the city erected the Judengasse
Museum there; it contains archeological reconstructions of the remains
of the one-time ghetto and of its Judengasse (lane of Jews). The first
Jewish settlers arrived in Frankfurt in the 12th century.
Next to the museum is the ancient Jewish cemetery and the site of what
was once Frankfurt's Boerneplatz Synagogue, built in 1882. The Nazis burned
it down, along with the other three synagogues, on November 9-10, 1938,
the night of the infamous pogrom which the Germans call Kristallnacht,
and which foreshadowed the Holocaust. A memorial wall, which borders the
cemetery, contains the nameplates of the deported and murdered Frankfurt
Jews. There we found the name of my mother.
While Jews experienced persecution over and over during their 850 years
of residence in the city, and during their presence in Germany since the
4th century, none was as cruel and as systematic as that perpetrated by
the mass murderers led by Adolf Hitler. In January 1933, the city's Jewish
population numbered about 30,000. By 1943, only 30 were left. Actually,
Jews had constituted less than one percent of the population of Germany
prior to 1933; most of the millions who were murdered in the Holocaust
were citizens of Poland and other Eastern European countries.
Inevitably, each of the four times I have gone back to my home town I've
been overcome with an eerie mix of nostalgia and happy memories of life
with my parents in the so-called Westend, the elegant western quarter
of Frankfurt. I showed the area to my younger son (who was with me on
this trip) just as I had to my two older children, who had accompanied
me on a visit in 1965. First, the house on Friedrichstrasse, not far from
the Palmengarten, the big park where I used to play and watch the strutting
peacocks. Just a block away was my second home, on the corner of Freiherr
vom Steinstrasse, where I lived with my parents from 1927 until 1939.
It was from that apartment that I watched the flames leap up from the
beautiful Westend Synagogue on that night in November, 1938, and saw the
firemen standing by, making sure only that the neighboring buildings did
not catch fire. Still, it was the one Frankfurt synagogue which could
be rebuilt. Now fully restored, its sanctuary and services have changed
from reform to orthodox, following the wishes of its congregation of Jewish
newcomers from Eastern European countries. My son and I were cordially
welcomed when we attended a Friday evening service, which is now conducted
entirely in Hebrew. In former times, it was mostly in German (including
a prayer for President Hindenburg). The street entrance is now protected
by a stone barricade and we were only permitted to enter after showing
our passports to three Israelis, who apparently stood guard against terrorist
It was a moving experience for me to be inside of the apartment in the
Freiherr vom Steinstrasse where I had seen my mother for the last time.
The flat is occupied by a kind and generous Jewish immigrant from Rumania
who has his large medical practice and laboratories in the rooms that
I once knew so intimately. I showed the doctor and his wife photos of
how the rooms looked when I lived there, including one showing my parents
and me in mother's music room, shortly before I left Germany. Later we
exchanged stories about how the Holocaust had affected our families. The
couple were members of the Westend Synagogue and found they had much in
common with my son, who is affiliated with a synagogue in Seattle. They
were equally gracious to me, though I am unaffiliated.
I wish I could name here all the wonderful people I met in my quest of
remembrance, including representatives of the city and many helpful Frankfurt
citizens. During Hitler's dictatorship most of them would have been classified
as "Aryan". I value them with warm feeling, not for their diverse
backgrounds - but simply as decent human beings.
(This report continues in next month’s Neumaier column)