“I think that’s your Dad’s head,” Dunreith said as we climbed up the stairs to the train in Gate 4 at Essen’s Hauptbahnhof station.
As is often the case with my wife, she was right.
We made it up the remaining few steps. I had to call Dad’s name a few times before he heard me and turned around to greet us.
It was actually happening.
We were all together in Essen.
The last time Dad had set foot in this part of the country was more than 73 years before.
He had left on a train with a number around his neck signifying his participation on the Kindertransport, a program the British government created in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht rampage that saw Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and lives destroyed and burned to the ground on November 9 and 10, 1938.
During our childhood, Dad would tell my brothers Mike, Jon and me that he remembered almost nothing from his close to five years in Germany.
But one of the things he did remember was the Gestapo coming after Kristallnacht for his father Max.
His father was taken for weeks and returned bruised and badly beaten. Dad always wondered if the physical abuse he had endured contributed to his later deafness.
As a child, Mom told me how my grandmother Hilde had forced herself to dress up and put on lipstick to appeal to the police to release her husband.
The pogrom and his subsequent incarceration finally convinced Dad’s father Max, a World War I veteran who lost the unhindered use of his right arm and at least part of his hearing in that conflict, that the Hitler government would never, as he had hoped, eventually come to its senses and stop the ceaseless advances to eliminate Jews from German civic life.
Hilde had a cousin in England who helped find a place for him and Ralph, his elder brother, in the country near Southampton, about an hour south from London.
Ralph left first.
The departure had not been easy.
Dad learned decades later that his father could not bring himself to leave the train that held his eldest son when he was supposed to do so on the first stop.
Instead he spoke to the train officials and got permission to get off after the next one.
But he couldn’t do it there, either.
This went on for several stops, and ended when my grandfather was forcibly thrown from the train.
Dad followed a couple of weeks later.
He and Ralph lived for close to 18 months with Ruth Stern, a university-educated classics scholar and primary school principal. An eccentric British Jew, she ended up retiring in Israel, “the land of the Bible,” near the Golan Heights.
She treated the boys with utmost consideration and kindness. Dad also remembered spending nights in the house’s bomb shelter during the early stages of the The Battle of Britain as a great adventure.
So when he and Ralph departed again in late 1940, it was the second such emotional rupture in their young lives.
After reuniting with his parents in New York, Dad and Ralph eventually moved with them to Cincinnati. There, Max and Hilda set up the task of rebuilding a life in a country where they knew few people, spoke little English and had no profession that could transfer from Germany, where my grandfather had been a lawyer.
They gradually formed a community with other German Jewish refugees. Grandpa Max shifted from being a lawyer to an accountant. Through dint of will and grit and hard work, they made their way in the new and unexpected country of residence.
They didn’t look back.
They definitely didn’t talk about what they had experienced.
And they never returned to their homeland.
When we were young, Dad also didn’t talk about what he had been through.
As a seventh grader, I remember watching the first installation of the mini-series Holocaust.
Dad stiffened and shut the television off, but insisted that he was fine and that nothing was wrong when we asked him.
He also did not go back to Duisburg, the community next to Essen where he was born.
This was not because he lacked opportunity to do so.
In 1965, with my pregnant mother in tow, and me in utero, Dad rode a train that stopped in Duisburg.
But, in a different way than his father a generation earlier, he was not ready to get off.
So he didn’t.
This time, though, he did.
Along with his life-long friend, Lee Kass, Dad stepped off the train and into a fuller confrontation with his past.
Looking cheerful and relaxed after two weeks in Paris and Normandy, he smiled and greeted Gabriele Thimm, the remarkable German teacher who had reached out to me and helped organize our visit, and her family as we rejoined them in the VaBene café a short walk from the station.
We got some drinks and coffee and desserts and sat around two long wooden tables outside the cafe, the Germans and Dunreith on one side, the three generations of Lowensteins and Lee on the other.
We talked about the German school system and the cost of education in our respective countries and our thoughts about the prospects for Obama’s re-election.
The sky was marvelously clear; and, after we finished, we walked by the old Lichtburg Theater in town, which Gabriele said used to have a Jewish owner.
She also told us about Ernest Blom, a Jew in Essen who helped fed hundreds of people each day before being taken away and killed by the Nazi government. The man who took over his store continued to send money to Blom’s children, she said.
We saw the bustle of Muslim and Turkish and black African and Chinese workers and all gathered in a circle near the hotel.
“It’s unbelievable you’re all here,” Gabriele said.
Like my wife just a couple of hours earlier, she was right.
Our adventure had begun.