One of the largest cities in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial stronghold, Essen wears its history with pride.
On an early morning stroll, in addition to observing the inevitable American corporate influence – Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in the train station, McDonald’s here, there and everywhere; avoiding cracked beer bottles; and getting a whiff of fresh vomit on the sidewalk, Dunreith and I saw green statutes of iconic figures like a triumphant Wilhem I sitting atop a horse and legendary industrialist Alfred Krupp striking a jaunty pose, a hand on his left hip.
A banner on one of the town’s central buildings proclaims Essen’s being named a European Cultural Capital in 2010.
But in our hotel lobby an orange notebook with a white laminated cover sheet containing an orange flower spoke to an earlier, darker time.
Dunreith pointed it out to me this morning,
Amidst the history of the city that began in the eighth century and continues until today, before a listing of the city’s restaurants and sights, and just above the line describing how 90 percent of Essen’s being destroyed during World War II, were five lines about what happened in Essen during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9 and 10.
The lines talked about houses, synagogues and business being destroyed in Essen.
They said that 300 of Essen’s 5,000 Jewish residents were sent to the Dachau concentration camp.
I visited Dachau as a young man.
It was at the end of a train line and a reasonable walk from a station.
Across the street boys played soccer on a green field.
I struggled then and now to reconcile the physical beauty of the town and the children’s innocence of it with the horrible things that happened there.
The notebook entry also contained language about Jewish people being “mishandled.”
One was in our family.
One of the few childhood memories that Dad retained from his years in his homeland was of the Gestapo coming for his father Max, a World War I veteran and the descendant of a family that had lived in the area for close to 150 years.
He returned weeks later bruised and badly beaten. Dad often wondered if the physical abuse contributed to his father’s later deafness.
His incarceration and public abuse convinced my grandfather that the country he had served was no longer his.
It also allowed him to listen to his wife and to take the seemingly impossible step of sending his children away to save them.
The pogrom led within a month to the formation of the Kindertransport program in England that brought about 10,000 Jewish children ages 4 to 17 years old from Germany, Poland, Austria and the then-Czechoslovakia to England.
Dad and his brother Ralph were two of them.
Kristallnacht had also been a seminal childhood moment for Hansfried W., the widow of a man I had visited eight years earlier in the apartment Dad had lived in for the first three years of his life.
The widow, who like Dad was born in 1934, explained that she had been walking home hand-in-hand from shopping with her mother the first day of Kristallnacht.
The image of the synagogue burning, just around the corner from where she spent her adult life, bore and raised her two children and buried her husband, never left her.
Woven into the fabric of the town’s history, the lines in the notebook raised questions about what constitutes a sufficient confrontation with the past, of how much remembering we have to do, and whether making something normal and part of a larger whole somehow diminishes its importance.
They are also a reminder that the past was not always so; instead, it was the present for some living in terror and, one can only imagine, others living in gleeful vitriol by a least some of the perpetrators.
We, or at least I, have come to Germany as part of a journey of return, of completing a circle with Dad and our family.
In so doing, I am hoping that we find some kind of healing for Dad, for our family and for the community here.
The orange notebook in the lobby is part of that quest.
I’m glad Dunreith found it.