“Herzlich Willkommen Familie Lowenstein,” the sign with mutli-colored indivdual letters exclaimed as we entered the middle school gym at the Realschule Uberruhre.
This was the second day we were to have the Ceremony of Life, designed and carried out by the intrepid and indefatigable Gabriele Thimm.
But if yesterday’s event was cloaked in ceremony and pomp and greetings from luminaries ranging form the director of the Old Synagogue to Essen’s Vice-Mayor, who proudly sported a Zollverein tie courtesy of his wife, today’s was pure middle school.
You could see it in the basketball hoop in front of the sign, in the wiggling and occasional smiles of the students as the program moved forward, and in their fresh and innocent faces as they came forward to place brown roots or light green leaves on the dark green stammbaum, or family tree, Gabriele had created. It would eventually show seven generations of Lowensteins, culminating in Aidan as the most recent descendent of the line.
The tree was one of many ways Gabriele tweaked the program to make it more interactive and accessible to the younger students.
She regularly inserted questions for the 10th grade students to ask the younger ones and to comment on their responses. She put in a surprise version of Hava Nagila in which the students danced round and round, then came over to us in the front row and pulled us into the circle, which turned into a line that eventually snaked around the entire gym.
Elvira Bluemel, the soft-spoken principal, showed that her three decades as an educator had been well-spent when she issued a statement with an unmistkable desired outcome as the energy level started to rise precipitiously.
“Das ist genug,” she said.
That is enough.
The other addition to this second Ceremony of Life was about Dad.
After talking with Jon and Dunreith, I had mentioned to Gabriele that yesterday’s program had not talked much about Dad’s life after the war, about how he had absorbed this traumatic and devastating experience and embarced the educational and career opportunities afforded him. Ultimately, he would make his mark on the world as a cardiac anethetist, professor, teacher and mentor who eventually became known as the father of cardiac anesthesia.
He did so without forgetting where he had come from, all the while reaching out to refugees, sticking up for people who had suffered injustice, and continuing the tradition of accomplishment and excellence he had inherited before the family tree had been ruptured.
To her credit, Gabriele inserted the information into the meat of the second program.
As opposed to the more formal program yesterday, when the request for questions for Dad took an ominously long time to generate a response, today they came easily and freely.
“Did you ever see your parents again?”
“Does your family like soccer?”
“What do you think of Germany today?”
“What was it like when you saw your parents again?”
Dad answered in his haltling but ever improving German, switching to English and then back to his native tongue again, talking slowly.
From all over the room the students’ questions came, and, while they were cut off after 15 minutes, they clearly could have gone for much, much longer.
The school wished Dad a collective Happy Birthday and us a safe trip home.
The ceremony was over and we had to run to catch the train, but not before a line of kids approached Dad to shake his hand and ask him some more questions and before we all took pictures near the Stammbaum.
Just as they had when we arrived, Gabriele and Gloria dropped us at the station.
The train was a quarter hour late, so we sat around and talked about how much we had done and what we would do next after we all recovered from our fatigue.
Gabriele looked at once radiant and exhausted in her fire-red shoes and lipstick.
It seemed almost impossible to believe that just eight months ago we had never written or spoken to each other.
The train came on the other track. The door closed on Lee as she tried to enter it, so we had to sprint and chuck our bags form the platform onto the train lobby.
This made our hugs with Gabriele and Gloria more rushed, but no less heartfelt.
Seventy three years ago, Dad had boarded a train from the nearby town.
His departure into exile to save his life caused a wound that is still healing and occurred during a time when damage happened that can never be undone.
But this time, he came as a free man toward the end of a highly contributory and accomplished life, with large chunks of his family and a woman he had first known as a young man.
This time he was honored and celebrated and treasured beyond anything we had imagined.
Our visit did not, could not, undo what had happened.
But perhaps it provided some measure of healing and a weaving of new possibilities for Dad, for our family and for the town where he once lived and to which he had so many years later returned.