In anyone’s life, there is the narrative of the quotidian — being too busy with work and family to focus on anything else (certainly not blogging), your children’s development (our son Luka has recently started to call Mrs. Pogoer Mommy, instead of Mimi; Leo is smiling and laughing a lot and recovered quickly from an intestinal virus), home renovations that seem never-ending, and so forth.
Then there is what I might call the legacy: the family backstory that is unchanging and informs the present by the power of its story and the constancy of its imagery in our lives.
Although I’ve never really written about this for public consumption before, my father was (is) a German Jew who grew up in Germany during the Nazi era and was lucky to escape with his life.
My father’s story is an important one, more suited to a book or at least a long magazine article than a blog post, and you needn’t just take my biased word for this; in October 2006, when he returned to Germany for the first time in 66 years, it received significant media coverage from newspapers in both Germany and Florida (where he now lives). It’s a story I’ve heard since my sister and I were kids, and from the ’70s on, it seems that with each passing year more and more people wanted to hear that story, and others like it. This applies both to the USA and, most recently, Germany itself, where a new generation has grown up who, rather than wanting to sweep the Holocaust under a carpet, so to speak, want to hear about what went on, and especially, want to hear from the last living survivors while they’re still around.
One of the catalysts of the new attitude in Germany is the Stolpersteine project, an initiative run as a one-man show by the prodigious and indefatigable artist Gunter Demnig, who for several years has been constantly traversing Germany and elsewhere in Europe installing concrete-and-brass cubes in the sidewalks outside of homes where Holocaust victims once lived. (His website reports that as of September 2007, 12,500 had been placed.) My father and stepmother traveled to Hilden, where his aunt, uncle and cousin had lived, and other significant places in his own history; he gave speeches to church groups and students (speaking German for the first time in six decades) and found closure to an extraordinarily traumatic period in his life, one that colored his worldview from then on, as how could it not.
It is, after all, my father’s story, not mine; I didn’t live through it, and grew up in totally different circumstances, largely in suburban Long Island. I suppose I kept my distance from it for so long for fear of being overwhelmed by such overpowering subject matter.
In any case, I’ve long since made my peace with my heritage, as my dad has with his. And in his honor, and in remembrance of Kristallnacht (69 years ago Friday), below is a copy of a speech I submitted to the lady in charge of planning the Stolpersteine initiative in Horstmar, a western German town of some 6,700 people where there once lived many Eichenwalds, including my grandfather and his family.
In fact, I know that the speech is too long for all of it to be read in Horstmar (the people would probably like to get home in time for lunch). But for what it’s worth, here it is, for my dad, and for all the late Jews of Germany who are now eligible for Stolpersteine outside their homes.
Dear ladies and gentlemen of Horstmar, and interested guests from elsewhere: greetings from Austin, Texas, USA.
My name is Wesley Eichenwald. My family tree traces back to your city through my father’s father, Walter Eichenwald. He was one of six children of Levi and Selma Eichenwald, my great-grandparents, who lived in the last century in the house where your “City-Apotheke” now stands, and later on the street now known as Stadtstiege.
I have given a good deal of thought as to what I could possibly say to you today. By profession I am a journalist; as such I work with words every day, but writing to the people of Horstmar on this day of remembrance is extraordinarily difficult. However, I will try.
Although Eichenwald is my family name, until recently I did not know much of my grandfather’s original family. In the United States, Eichenwald is a very unusual name – almost nobody knows how to spell it, or pronounce it. I am used to this, and try to accept it with good humor. By contrast, I know that 75 years ago, there were many Eichenwald families in Horstmar and throughout Westphalia – I have done some research, but thus far have only been able to connect my family directly to a few of them. I suppose everyone is your cousin if you go back far enough.
Between my grandfather Walter and his five brothers and sisters, only one, Walter’s older brother, my great-uncle Ernst, survived the Holocaust; he is the only one I ever met. Some of you may have read an article which ran in your local newspaper last June; the headline was, “Ernst Eichenwald Warnte Alle.” Which is true enough. Most of the Eichenwalds in Westphalia were not so fortunate.
My sister and I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, listening to my father’s stories around the dinner table in New York – of his family’s flight from Düsseldorf to Holland, of how he and his mother hid for 13 months in a hut in the woods on the grounds of a farmhouse; how he finally came to America in 1947 and started a new life. Just over a year ago, my father, at the age of 76, returned to Germany for the first time in over 66 years, to the town of Hilden, not far from Düsseldorf, where his uncle, aunt and cousin – who was his best friend – had lived before their own flight to Holland. Only his aunt survived – a talented pianist, who lived to see the liberation of Theresienstadt. And my father also visited the site of his own home in Benrath, where he and his parents and grandparents lived – it was there that Walter had moved after he married my grandmother in 1928.
The occasion of my father’s visit, you may not be surprised to hear, was a Stolpersteine ceremony such as the one being planned for the coming year in your city. I am told it is not that usual for survivors and relatives to be present for such occasions. Still, from the perspective of this descendant of German Jews, I can tell you it is much appreciated, and such openness feels like a new breeze blowing – a hopeful sign. It seems that the younger generation of Germans want to talk about what happened in those days – about how it could happen – and if they are interested, I would be happy to tell them what I know.
I remember my great-uncle Ernst and Tante Grete very well. They died within a week of each other in 1992 – she was 88, he was 96. At the time of their deaths, they had been married almost 66 years – a good lifetime in itself. Uncle Ernst was a practical person above all, intelligent, methodical, and courageous, as was my Tante Grete, who was a very kind lady, gracious and stylish and a devoted mother and grandmother. Their qualities served them well during the Nazi period, and they were smart enough to see that they had to leave before it was too late – something too many of their relatives and friends did not.
Uncle Ernst was a veteran of the First World War, where he fought for his fatherland, was seriously wounded and awarded the Iron Cross. He recovered, and life went on; he married Grete Hertz of Beckum, and started a family. In June of 1940, he sailed with his family from England to the USA, and he too started life over, in New York, at the age of 44.
Uncle Ernst and Tante Grete eventually bought a modest home in Florida, with orange trees in their backyard. They did not cut ties completely with Germany – they returned for several visits over the years, and saw friends there. They were particularly fond of Bad Pyrmont. I always thought: what a triumph over bitterness – how cool, you might say, to come back on your own terms. Not that you would pretend that nothing happened, but, still.
As a journalist I have interviewed many people of all sorts, and I know that everybody, no matter how seemingly humble, so conventionally ordinary, has a story to tell. Not only my family, not only the Jews of Germany, or wherever, but everybody. I didn’t quite know what to think when I heard about the efforts by interested parties in Germany to uncover and publicize the stories of my great-uncles and aunts, distant cousins and all the other families of Horstmar, Billerbeck, and everywhere Jewish people had once called home.
After so many years, it is no small consolation for me and my relatives to know that the legacy of not only our family, but of all the Jews in Germany, is not forgotten after all this time. As extraordinary horrible an event as the Holocaust was in the history of the world, just as unusual it is that over 60 years after the awful events in question, interest in those times not only continues, but in some ways is even stronger than ever, and there is ever greater willingness to look at the past. This is, I think, due in no small part to the efforts of the remarkable Mr. Demnig and his Stolpersteine, as well as the teachers, scholars, and clergymen of your country, writers like Veronika Meyer-Ravenstein – whose book Zersplitterte Sterne [Fragmented Stars], under the sponsorship of the Wolfgang Suwelack-Stiftung, chronicled the history of the Jewish families of Billerbeck, including the sad fate of my father’s young cousins, Rolf-Dieter and Eva Eichenwald, whose father Otto was my grandfather’s younger brother. They perished in the Konzentrationslager Riga – and today in Billerbeck, they have become known far beyond their short years as symbols of innocent victims of the insanity. It is, incidentally, due to the work of Mr. Suwelack’s organization, along with students and teachers at the Realschule Billerbeck, that I have made their acquaintance at all, for which I am grateful.
Of what happened to these people, and millions like them, we know all too well – denied the chance to live out their lives, however they would have gone, they have instead become stones in our path that we occasionally stumble upon.
Although our family history is part of who we are, I believe it does not entirely define us. I believe that we are persons of free will, and the fabric of our lives is the end result of thousands of choices we make during the course of our years on earth.
I did not live the history of the war years, or have to make my grandparents’ hard choices, but yet it is part of who I am. I did not know them personally, but I have heard so many stories about similar people, with similar destinies, that they are part of me as well. And now, regardless of your own history and experiences, because you care enough to want to hear about them yourselves, they have also, in a way, become part of who you are, in 21st century Germany. And so we, who have never met, have this connection through space and time.
But there is more to it than that. Everybody has a story, but – although certain nationalities and peer groups share certain common experiences – in the end, we are all individuals. I believe we need to see each other as more than just labels – be it “Jews,” or “survivors,” Catholics or Germans or Americans, Italians, Romanians or Turks. I’m not saying we should ignore our differences, but the very moment when we learn to look beyond the superficial and see each other as individuals, is the moment when prejudice, bigotry and blind hatred begin to loosen their grip on society, and minds begin to open.
Of course the most important thing is fostering an atmosphere of tolerance among peoples of other religions and backgrounds, whether they’re Jewish or not. (Just because not everybody thinks this way does not mean it isn’t worth trying at all!) People say “never again,” as they should, but I always thought that “never again” applies to everyone, not just the Jews, and this is certainly relevant to today’s world.
Although I am always aware of the fate of my ancestors, the Nazis and the Holocaust are not things I dwell on in every waking moment. I owe it to myself, my wife, and our two sons, twin boys not yet three years old, to live a meaningful, productive and, I hope, happy life. Some may think that the concept of the brotherhood of man, and “peace, love and understanding,” is an outdated and irrelevant cliché; I say it’s something still worth striving for – after all, what is the alternative?
I hope very much, if I am fortunate enough, to be able to meet some of you in person during the laying of the Stolpersteine in Horstmar in the coming year. My best wishes to you all.