Category Archives: The Holocaust

At a Jewish Grave in Horstmar

Levi Eichenwald

Levi Eichenwald was my father’s father’s father; he died many years before I was born, and this is the only photo I’ve ever seen of him. Levi had three daughters and three sons (fathering children until he was well past 50), only two of whom survived the Holocaust. He died less than two weeks shy of his 77th birthday, and is buried in his home town of Horstmar, a small, tidy brick-and-stone village near Munster, Germany. I visited his grave in August of 2009, as part of a visit sponsored by the city of Hilden for the families of Jewish Holocaust victims.

I composed the following poem (or rather, it seemed to pretty much compose itself) over a couple of days in October of 2013, when I was asked to contribute  something for a memorial event held on the grounds of the former Horstmar synagogue on the 9th of November commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom (at which time the synagogue, along with many others across Germany, was destroyed).  The former home of my great-uncle Ernst Eichenwald (1896-1992), Levi’s son, still stands in Horstmar; several stolpersteine now grace the pavement outside.

Image
For Levi Eichenwald (1854-1931)

At Levi’s grave, the wide and weathered gray stone block

Marks where he lies and where others were expected.

Two plain blank slabs flank his own.

The plot leaves ample room for others.

His children ended scattered elsewhere,

Not in a proper grave in a pleasant spot on a quiet hill in this quiet town.

Else and her daughter Liesel: lost in Minsk.

Jenny, her husband Karl, and her two daughters, gone to Riga.

Otto to Salaspils, his wife Ruth and the two small ones gone as well,

To that gate marked Arbeit macht frei;

Now a school in Billerbeck bears their names.

Walter to Sobibor, and no more; his wife and son survived.

Two of Levi’s own, at least, reached the USA:

Bertha, fled to China, then San Francisco, but dead by 1949.

And not the last of them but the last, Ernst, the eldest son,

the cool-headed one who warned the rest,

Sailed with his wife and daughters to New York.

Survived to ninety-six, when people had begun to tell those tales again,

Confronting what had been. Then he tipped his cap and departed the world,

one week after his Grete.

Scattered too was the mother, Levi’s Selma, sent to godforsaken Maly Trostinec in the east.

Not her fate to rest beside her man.

And so lies Levi in his grave alone, forever. One wonders, is he lonely there,

Does he long for his family to join him in the old home soil?

Or is he grateful for having been spared the horrors himself,

Piled one on top of another like an overturned basket of apples,

When that stroke took him suddenly away that long-ago day in June?

He would have offered to change places with any or all of them, if he could,

If he had known,

Of that I have no doubt.

In the only photograph I have of him

The old tradesman glares out at us across the years,

Eyes wide, brows arched, the gaze haunts.

Is he angry? Accusing? Or simply tired but alert,

About to say something, I think, but what?

As if he knows, as if he’s seen.

________________________________________

The German translation follows.

An einem jüdischen Grab in Horstmar

Für Levi Eichenwald (1854-1931)

An Levis Grab markiert der große graue verwitterte Grabstein

den Ort wo er begraben liegt –

und wo andere begraben werden sollten.

 Zwei einfache unbeschriftete Grabplatten flankieren seine eigene,

das Grab lässt genug Platz für andere.

 Seine Kinder endeten anderswo – verstreutund nicht in einem richtigen Grab an einem schönen Ort

auf einem Hügel in dieser ruhigen Stadt.

Else, ihr Mann Arthur und ihre Tochter Liesel: in Minsk verschollen.

Jenny, ihr Mann Karl und die beiden Töchter: nach Riga gegangen.

Otto ging nach Salaspils,

der Weg seiner Frau Ruth und der beiden Kleinen:

von Riga aus zu dem Tor mit der Beschriftung “Arbeit macht frei”;

Jetzt trägt eine Schule in Billerbeck ihren Namen.

 Walter ging nach Sobibor,

er ist nicht mehr,

Frau und Sohn überlebten.

Aber zwei von Levis Kindern erreichten ihr Ziel, die USA.

Bertha floh nach China, dann nach San Francisco, und starb 1949;

Und auch Ernst, der älteste Sohn,

der kühl pragmatische Kopf unter ihnen,

der die anderen warnte,

schiffte sich mit Frau und Kindern nach New York ein.

Er wurde 96 und starb, als die Menschen begannen, die Geschichten wieder zu erzählen und sich auseinanderzusetzen mit dem, was geschehen war.

Dann tippte er sich an den Hut und verlies diese Welt,

eine Woche nach seiner Frau Grete.

Weit weg war auch die Mutter, Levis Frau Selma,

ins gottverlassene Maly Trostinec in den Osten geschickt.

Es war ihr nicht vergönnt, neben ihrem Mann begraben zu werden.

Und so liegt Levi hier in seinem Grab, für immer allein.

Man fragt sich,

ist er einsam hier?

Sehnt er sich danach, dass seine Familie sich in der heimischen Erde zu ihm gesellt?

Oder ist er froh, dass ihm diese Schrecken erspart blieben,

dass der Schlaganfall ihn plötzlich dahinraffte

an diesem Junitag vor langer Zeit?

Er hätte angeboten mit ihnen allen oder einzeln zu tauschen,

wenn er gekonnt hätte,

wenn er es gewusst hätte.

Hieran zweifele ich nicht.

Auf dem einzigen Foto, das ich von ihm habe

starrt uns der alte Händler durch die Jahre an;

Große Augen, zusammengezogene Augenbrauen – der Blick verfolgt einen.

Ist er zornig?

Klagt er an?

Oder ist er einfach müde aber wachsam?

Kurz davor etwas zu sagen, so scheint es mir, aber was?

Als wenn er es weiß, als wenn er es gesehen hätte.

 

 

Wes Eichenwald

 

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A new Spring, a new sound: a concert in Holland, 1946

Lenteavond program cover, April 4, 1946

Maddi Bernstein (left) and her sister, my grandmother Thea, in Soest, Holland, August 16, 1946
Inside pages of the program

Inside pages of program

Thea_Maddi_Rie

Amsterdam, 7 February 1947: Nearing the end of their time in Europe, Maddi (L) and Thea (R) flank their very good friend Johanna (Rie) de Hartog, who would, with her husband John, soon accompany them on the S.S. Veendam of the Holland America Line on their journey to the USA, where they would shape new lives.

On April 4, 1946, my great-aunt Maddi Bernstein, a concert pianist, played in a “Lenteavond” (Spring Evening) concert in Soest, Holland, along with her friends Miep Quelle and Mien van der Ploeg. Maddi, who less than a year previously had been a prisoner at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, was 43 years old at the time. Discovered in hiding in Holland with her husband Henry and son Rolf, she had been interned with them in Westerbork and then Theresienstadt, before Rolf and Henry had been sent to Auschwitz in October 1944 and promptly murdered. Maddi alone survived. In July 1945 she had shown up at the home of the Blankensteins, from where she had been taken, and reunited with her sister Thea and her nephew, my father. I can’t imagine what must have been going through her mind that evening, as the trio played through an extensive evening of Schumann and Schubert (Maddi loved the Romantic era in classical music; she would have gotten along well with my wife Donna, a big fan of German lieder) and a variety of Dutch composers. [Click on the images and photo to enlarge; click twice to really enlarge.]

Miep Quelle (1922-2000), incidentally (as my friend Thea in Holland informs me), was a journalist for many years for the Dutch newspaper Trouw, which had began as an illegal underground paper during the war, writing under the name Mink van Rijswijk. She also wrote several books.

A little over a year later, Maddi would sail to New York along with her sister, nephew and an orphaned niece; by the early 1950s she would move to Waupun, Wisconsin. She played occasional concerts in the Waupun area before arthritis took away her ability to play the way she wanted to; she would keep her baby grand piano with her to the end of her life. I’m sorry that I never had the chance to hear her play.

The program reads:

SPRING EVENING

A new Spring…

A new sound.

on Thursday, April 4, 1946 in “Eltheto,” Driftje (Soest), at exactly 8:00 p.m.

The Eltheto building, long since torn down, was a church building frequently used as a cultural and community center. There were a couple of complimentary notices in the local press. It was a beautiful evening, one review stated, and at the end the trio graciously received well-deserved floral bouquets. A new spring, indeed.


Reviews of the Soest concert in the local press


Notices of Maddi Bernstein’s concerts in Wisconsin (undated, likely early 1950s)

“There will come a time when the past reaches out and grabs you”: My speech in Benrath, Germany

Outside Hauptstraße 46

Outside Hauptstraße 46

During the last week of August, I was the guest of the town of Hilden, Germany for ceremonies centered around the installation of three Stolpersteine on the sidewalk outside the building that once housed my father’s family’s drygoods business on a main street in nearby Benrath (now a southern suburb of Düsseldorf but formerly an independent town). For those of you unfamiliar with Stolpersteine, the word means “stumbling stones” or “stumbling blocks” — they are, basically, small stones set in the sidewalk outside a house, bearing brass plates giving the names of victims of the Holocaust who once lived there (not necessarily limited to Jews, and not necessarily killed during the wartime period; Stolpersteine are occasionally placed for persons forced to emigrate, for example, who may still be alive today). The project was originated in 1994 by the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, who has placed over 20,000 of them to date.

The history of my father’s family during the Nazi period in Germany, and afterward, is a long and complicated one, and the story of my father’s return to Germany after 66 years (in 2006) and his subsequent coming to terms with what the Nazis did in those terrible years, and the efforts at reconciliation by contemporary younger Germans,  is worthy of a book (and will actually be one, written by Karin Marquardt and published by the Verlag Stadtarchiv Hilden later this month; the following speech will make up its final pages). This was my father’s third Stolpersteine-related visit to Germany in three years, and my first; this was also likely the last for both of us. The three stones placed on August 27 were in honor of my grandfather Walter Eichenwald (1900-1943), his sister-in-law Helene Heumann Blumenfeld (1904-1944) and her husband Paul Blumenfeld (1902-1943). Walter and Paul were murdered at the Sobibor concentration camp on the same day in July 1943; Helene, in hiding in Holland, was a diabetic and died in October 1944 because of the unavailability of insulin. Besides my father and me, the ceremony was attended by the Blumenfelds’ daughter, my dad’s cousin Gay, who was herself making her first trip to Deutschland in 55 years.

As I note below, I was last in Benrath in 1994 on a private pilgrimage. Reading the following speech in German on the doorstep of my dad’s boyhood home, in front of a crowd of over 100 people, including video cameras, journalists and officials, ranks among the supreme moments of surreality in my entire life. But was it worth it? You bet. Am I glad I had the chance to participate in this unique opportunity, along with my father and cousin? Of course.

Here’s the speech, first in the original English and then in German.

_______________________________________________

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

No matter how modern and forward-looking you may consider yourself, if you live long enough there will come a time when the past reaches out and grabs you, saying, ‘Pay attention!’ And so it was with me.

I was first here fifteen years ago as a tourist. I had heard the stories from my father and grandmother; I had seen the old photos and postcards that my grandmother kept in boxes in her apartment. The tobacconist; the church; the hotel; the pharmacy; and the beautiful pink Schloss on the lake. A tidy little town with everything in its place.

And my family had their place here, too. The dry goods store with its bolts of cloth, furniture, pairs of socks, where the owners lived right above, in the handsome, sturdy house my great-grandfather had built in the early years of the last century. And finally I myself walked into the picture, but for obvious reasons, I felt it was no longer my picture. My experience was, in an odd way, like a dream of a time I had never known.

I returned to New York to tell my grandmother, Thea, about my visit to her home town. She was then 94 years old. It was the last time I saw her, as a few short weeks afterward she died peacefully.

My grandmother maintained an optimistic outlook on life for as long as I knew her; smiles and laughter came easily to her. Of course, I knew she had lost her husband Walter, and her brothers-in-law Paul and Henry, and her youngest sister Lene. And her other sister, my great-aunt Maddi, had lost both her husband and her young son Rolf, and she tried to put a brave face on things, traveling and visiting and corresponding with friends. But the darkness was close at hand; Maddi kept all the photos of her son hidden away in an old trunk in a closet, too painful to look at.

Who knows what their lives would have been, if they had been permitted to live them out here, alongside their neighbors and friends in Benrath. We cannot know. What we have come here for is to simply acknowledge their existence.

I think my grandmother and others of her generation would be astounded by the ceremony taking place today. But not displeased. To me, as the son and grandson of survivors, the work of remembrance and reconciliation that is going on now in this country is extraordinary. I believe that openness and honesty are good things, and sometimes not that easy to come by. But worth the effort.

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. With a few exceptions I did not know them personally, but I have heard so many stories about them and about similar people, with similar destinies, that they have become part of my story 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 before today, have this connection through space and time.

We cannot change what happened all those years ago. But what we can do is to hold close the lessons of those times.

For the work of remembrance is never finished. It is up to all of us to keep the names alive, to say: these people lived here, and they mattered. This is set in the sidewalk, but is also finding its place in books, exhibitions, and people’s hearts and minds.

And I might add that just as it is not only the German people who need to remember the wrongs done in their past, it is not only the Jews who need to be saved.

We cannot and must not confine our humanitarian impulses, our empathy, to people who look and sound like us, but with all the peoples of Earth.

And so, on this day, in this place, we must open ourselves to kindness without thought of reward; to tolerance of differences; and to the value of recognizing our common humanity through the work of helping others who might need it. As there were heroic actions performed in those times by brave and selfless men and women, so we must keep our eyes and ears open to the challenges of our own time.

Although I know well the story of my family and their history here, it is not something I dwell on in every waking moment. I owe it to myself, my wife, and my two sons, twin boys not yet five 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?

My best wishes to you all.

Rede anlässlich der Stolperstein-Verlegung für Walter Eichenwald, Paul Blumenfeld und Helene Blumenfeld, geb. Heumann,

am 27. August 2009 in Benrath

von Wes Eichenwald

Hochverehrte Gäste, meine Damen und Herren,

Ganz egal für wie modern und fortschrittlich man sich hält: Wenn man lange genug lebt kommt für jeden der Moment, in dem die Vergangenheit einen einholt, einen festhält und zu einem sagt: „Pass auf!“. So war es auch bei mir.

Zum ersten Mal war ich vor fünfzehn Jahren als Tourist hier. Ich kannte die Geschichten meines Vaters und meiner Großmutter; ich hatte die alten Fotos und Postkarten gesehen, die meine Großmutter in Kartons in Ihrer Wohnung aufbewahrte. Der Tabakladen, die Kirche, das Hotel, die Apotheke und das hübsche rosa Schloss am Teich: eine ordentliches Städtchen, wo alles an seinem Platz ist.

Meine Familie hatte dort auch ihren Platz. Der Kurzwarenladen mit seinen Stoffballen, Möbeln und Strümpfen, darüber die Wohnung in dem stattlichen Haus, das mein Urgroßvater zu Beginn des letzten Jahrhunderts baute. Zu guter Letzt trat ich nun selbst in dieses Bild ein, aber aus verständlichen Gründen hatte ich nicht mehr das Gefühl, dass es mein Bild sei. Ich erlebte hier etwas, das auf merkwürdige Weise wie der Traum von einer Zeit war, die ich nie gekannt hatte.

Ich kehrte nach New York zurück um meiner Großmutter Thea von meinem Besuch ihrer Heimatstadt zu erzählen. Sie war damals vierundneunzig Jahre alt und es war mein letzter Besuch bei ihr, denn nur ein paar Wochen später starb sie friedlich.

Solange ich sie kannte, hat meine Großmutter immer eine positive Einstellung zum Leben behalten; sie hat oft gelächelt und gelacht. Ich wusste natürlich, dass sie ihren Ehemann Walter, ihre Schwäger Paul und Henry und ihre jüngste Schwester Lene verloren hatte. Und ihre andere Schwester, meine Großtante Maddi, hatte ihren Mann und ihren jüngsten Sohn Rolf verloren, versuchte aber tapfer zu sein, reiste viel, besuchte Freunde und blieb mit ihnen über Briefe in Kontakt. Aber das Dunkel war nicht weit, Maddi hielt all die Fotos von ihrem Sohn versteckt in einem Koffer, der in einem Wandschrank stand, es war zu schmerzvoll sie anzuschauen.

Wer weiss, wie ihr Leben ausgesehen hätte, wäre es ihnen erlaubt gewesen es hier mit ihren Nachbarn und Freunden in Benrath zu verbringen. Wir können es nicht wissen. Wir sind einfach hergekommen, um ihre Existenz anzuerkennen.

Ich glaube, dass diese Feier heute meine Großmutter und andere aus ihrer Generation sprachlos machen würde, aber nicht unzufrieden. Für mich als Sohn und Enkel von Überlebenden ist der Prozess der Erinnerung und der Versöhnung der jetzt in diesem Land vor sich geht außergewöhnlich. Ich glaube, dass Offenheit und Ehrlichkeit gut sind, aber oft schwer zu erreichen. Aber sie sind diese Mühe wert.

Ich habe die Geschichte der Kriegsjahre nicht gelebt und musste nicht die schweren Entscheidungen meiner Großeltern treffen, aber trotzdem ist es ein Teil von dem, der ich bin. Mit wenigen Ausnahmen kannte ich sie nicht persönlich, aber ich habe so viele Geschichten über sie gehört und über ähnliche Menschen mit ähnlichen Schicksalen, dass sie Teil meiner eigenen Geschichte geworden sind.  Und jetzt, dadurch dass Sie sich dafür interessieren und selbst diese Geschichten hören wollen, sind diese Menschen in gewisser Weise  auch ein Teil von Ihnen im Deutschland des einundzwanzigsten Jahrhunderts geworden, unabhängig von Ihren eigenen Erfahrungen und Ihrer Geschichte. Obwohl wir uns vor dem heutigen Tag nie getroffen haben, besteht so eine Verbindung zwischen uns über Zeit und Raum hinweg.

Was vor all diesen Jahren geschehen ist, können wir nicht mehr ändern. Aber wir können uns die Lehre, die wir aus diesen Zeiten ziehen, zu Herzen nehmen.

Denn die Arbeit des Gedenkens ist niemals abgeschlossen. Es liegt an uns, die Namen am Leben zu erhalten and zu sagen: Diese Menschen lebten hier und sie waren wichtig. Das wird in den Bürgersteig eingelassen, aber es findet auch seinen Platz in Büchern, Ausstellungen und den Herzen und Köpfen der Menschen.

Und ich würde gerne hinzufügen, dass es nicht nur die Deutschen sind, die sich an die Fehler in ihrer Vergangenheit erinnern müssen, es sind nicht nur die Juden, die gerettet werden müssen.

Wir können und dürfen unsere humanitären Regungen, unsere Empathie nicht auf Völker beschränken, die aussehen und reden wie wir, sondern auf alle Völker dieser Erde.

Und so müssen wir uns, an diesem Tag und an diesem Ort, der Freundlichkeit gegenüber öffnen, ohne eine Belohnung dafür zu erwarten; der Toleranz gegenüber den Unterschieden; und gegenüber dem Wert unsere gemeinsame Menschlichkeit zu erkennen, indem wir Menschen helfen, die es brauchen. So wie damals heroische Taten von mutigen und selbstlosen Männern und Frauen vollbracht wurden , so müssen wir heute unsere Augen und Ohren für die Herausforderungen unserer eigenen Zeit offen halten.

Obwohl ich die Geschichte meiner Familie und ihrer Zeit hier gut kenne, beschäftige ich mich doch nicht in jedem wachen Moment mit ihr. Ich bin es mir selbst, meiner Frau und meinen zwei Söhnen, die noch keine fünf sind, schuldig ein sinnvolles, produktives und, wie ich hoffe, glückliches Leben zu leben. Es gibt Menschen, die glauben, dass die Idee von der Brüderlichkeit unter den Menschen und von „Frieden, Liebe und Verständnis“ veraltete und irrelevante Klischees sind; Ich finde, dass es immer noch etwas ist, nach dem es sich zu streben lohnt – was ist schließlich die Alternative?

Ich wünsche Ihnen allen alles Gute.

(Aus dem englischen übersetzt von Emilia Ellsiepen/Translated from the English by Emilia Ellsiepen)

Live blogging the Holocaust

It seems to me that the Holocaust was made possible by a unique historical intersection. The politics of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis aside, it’s indisputable that the mass murders were facilitated by the technological advancements of the time, the Age of Machines, that made gas chambers and death camps possible — but also by the limited communications technology that frustrated the victims’ attempts to get out the word about the slaughter to the outside world. Even with television around, Hitler’s Germany might have gotten away with it as late as the early 1960s. But even taking into account the Nazis’ efficiency and prioritizing of secrecy, could Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and Sobibor have withstood the advent of live blogging, Twitter and social networking? Not likely. At least a few prisoners would have succeeded in sneaking in cell phones, BlackBerries and miniature transmitters. In the era of 24-hour cable news and broadband Internet access, the outside world would have found out about the death camps in weeks, not years, and well before the end of the war.

The question is, how much of the world would have cared?

Family tree

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.

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