Her full head of bushy black hair bouncing as she skipped along the Essen train platform, her daughter Gloria at her side, Gabriele Thimm extended her arms toward me.
The embrace was eight months in the making.
I had first heard from Gabriele last September, when she reached out to me online after having read a story I wrote in 2004 about searching for family roots in Germany.
Gabriele had explained that she was a high school teacher who was planning to hold a memorial service for Essen’s Jewish community.
One of the houses at which they would be stopping during the memorial ceremony was Alte Zeilen 22, a tall and stately three-story yellow building that served as home and office for Joseph Lowenstein, my great-grandfather, my namesake and a family doctor.
After being moved to a pre-deportation house in Steele, Joseph was deported to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia and, from there, to Izbica and the east, where he was killed in one of Poland’s six death camps.
Gabriele had invited us to attend the ceremony.
At six weeks notice, we had been unable to pull everyone together.
But we did send family pictures of my great-grandfather, of Aidan and Dunreith before Cotillion and of Mike’s wedding in San Francisco.
We also sent the following statement:
Dear Ms. Thimm, parents, teachers, and members of the Essen-Steele community,
It is with gratitude and respect that we write this note to register our appreciation of the commitment you have shown to confront the dark chapter in Germany’s past and to commemorate the lives of residents in the community who were killed during the Nazi era.
Ms. Thimm, we honor the courage, character and persistence you have shown in undertaking this project, and we also want to acknowledge the support you have received from your supervisors and the other members of the community in making a public and permanent acknowledgment through these memorials of what happened here during the period when Adolf Hitler ruled the country.
This memorial and the ongoing teaching of the children about what occurred represents an important act of acknowledgment that has, in its process and substance, contributed to a healing process. It is also a critical, but not sufficient, element in allowing young people to emerge into adulthood with a full understanding of what has been part of their nation’s past, but what need not be again should they act with the same decency and humanity demonstrated by so many of the people who are gathered here today.
We regret that we are not able to join you on this momentous occasion, but want to be emphatically clear that our inablitly to attend in person does not in any way signal al lack of awareness, appreciation and respect for what you have done and what you will continue to do this in this area.
We look forward to the day, hopefully this spring, when we will be able to meet and express our gratitude to you in person. In the meantime, we hope the ceremony goes well today. Please know that it is deeply appreciated by us.
The Lowenstein Family
Gabriele sent us pictures from the event, I spoke with our family members in December, and together we decided that this was the year we would finally take the trip we had discussed and planned for so many years.
Over the following weeks and months Gabriele and I forged plans for the week through emails and Skype.
I sent everyone on our side the updates, minus the plans to hold a surprise birthday party for Dad, who would be turning 78 the week that we were there.
The days sprinted into weeks, and, at the end of a grueling May, I found myself on a Thursday night packing for our adventure.
The flight went smoothly – heavy on Godfather films, light on sleep – we breezed through admissions and waited a couple of hours for the train to take us to Essen, Dad’s hometown. We boarded it and transferred in Cologne, sleeping for most of the two-hour journey.
Then we saw Gabriele and Gloria, an 18-year-old with an easy laugh, animated spirit and the ability to express her well-developed thoughts in impeccable English.
They drove us to their house, where they had prepared a breakfast that really was a three-hour lunch. Sitting in a beautifully peaceful enclosed garden that Gabriele and Gloria tend with care, we ate on plates with red hearts.
The spread was tremendous. Exquisitely creamy cheese. Brotchen, or little pieces or bread. Nutella. Turkey salami. Hard-boiled eggs.
We sat and chatted and began the process of getting to know each other in person after having communicated for much of the past eight months about the trip’s logistics.
I had known about her tremendous commitment to students’ learning about Germany’s past- “The next generation needs to know,” she said, simply – but today got a better sense of her personal stake in the issue.
She explained that when she was four or five years old, around Easter, her father came home with some Matzo and told her the story of Passover.
Her father had relatives named David and Rebekah, names that could have been Jewish, she said. But when she asked them about it, she was met with a stony silence.
In other words, Gabriele like me, had a hunger to know about her family’s history.
In the early 70s, she started wearing a Magen David, or star of David, around her neck.
She’s been wearing it since.
After a couple of hours, Gawain, Gabriele’s 20-year old son, emerged after having stayed up all night at a friend’s birthday party. Sporting sunglasses, a leonine head of thick brown hair, and a goatee, he explained that while one should not have a beer before 4:00 p.m., he was not actually violating that edict because it was after 4:00 p.m. yesterday.
We all chuckled appreciatively.
Dunreith, Aidan and I started to fade as the food started to settle in our stomachs and combine with the jet lag to make our eyelids shut themselves.
Gabriele drove us back to the hotel where we staying.
We collapsed for about three hours, connected with Jon, who had arrived after us, and had some spargel, or white asparagus, at Pfefferkorn, a restaurant that served typical German fare.
I had had some success dusting off my rusty German-speaking skills, which now also had serious recall competition from Spanish since I work at Hoy, the Chicago Tribune company’s Spanish-language newspaper.
But I did make a mistake with Gabriele, erroneously thinking that “halb neun” meant 9:30, not 8:30.
This only meant that our indefatigable host tracked us down at the restaurant where we had agreed to meet. Her children and Jan, Gloria’s boyfriend, a blond haired, blue-eyed youg man with glasses and a passion for music festivals, accompanied her.
We all drank and sat and chatted some more before heading to the train station to meet Dad and his partner, Lee Kass.
He would be setting foot in his hometown for the first time in 73 years.