The past two days I’ve written about the enormously invigorating and stimulating sessions I’ve attended and conversations I’ve had at the Engaging the Other conference here in Bloemfontein.
Today I’m sharing about our presentation.
Dad, Dunreith and I presented about our family trip this past May to see Dad’s hometown of Duisburg, Germany. It was the first time he had set foot in the town since early 1939, when he left with a number around his neck as part of the Kindertransport program that gave sanctuary to 10,000 Jewish children from Central Europe.
Dunreith and I were in the auditorium sitting in front of an audience of about 25 people.
Thanks to the diligent and able work of Nico Bekker, Gavin Smit and the rest of the tech team and Dad’s willingness to get up at 5:00 a.m., Dad joined us via audioconference.
My brother Jon and Gabriele Thimm, the German teacher who played such a pivotal role in the project, were in the room in different ways.
Dunreith read Gabriele’s statements about her background and the trip’s impact. We also showed the audience a gallery of 32 of the photos Jon took during the week we were in Germany.
It was an eventful one.
We went to both of Dad’s former apartments.
At the first one, some of his very few dusky memories at all of being in Germany were stirred.
He looked out the window on the second floor, one floor below where he had lived, and remembered looking across the street into a park.
Dr. Heid, a local historian Gabriele had recruited to help us, informed us that the street had been the site of a Hitler youth camp.
Dad thought that might have been why he had nightmares for years about uniformed people marching.
The pain of the memory was etched in the lines on his forehead as and after he stood at the window.
We met Frau Winkelmann at the second apartment.
Unlike the vast majority of people we met during the week, who couldn’t have been more friendly and more gracious, she was cagey and defensive. She asked for identification and told us an alluring but ultimately implausible story about how her father-in-law had purchased the home from our family.
There were other hard moments.
Like when we went to the Jewish cemetery that was enclosed in a canopy of leafy green trees.
Dr. Uri Kaufmann, who heads the cultural center that used to be the old synagogue in Essen, showed us the five generations of Lowensteins who were buried in the graveyard.
Even though about half of the town’s Jews were killed, the gravestones were untouched, he said.
But there was also light along with the darkness.
We went to the home formerly owned by Papa Joseph Lowenstein, my great-grandfather and the ancestor for whom I am named.
Five Stolpersteine, or “stumble stones,” that named the five family members who had lived there and been killed during the Nazi era, stood outside the yellow, three-story house.
The last time Dad had been there had been to have his appendix removed.
His father, a disabled World War I veteran, had taken his four-year-old son from doctor to doctor in the town where Lowensteins had lived for a century and a half.
None would operate on a Jewish child.
Eventually, a Gentile doctor consented to remove the appendix. He performed the procedure on the kitchen table.
Several weeks later Dad was sent away to join his brother in England.
This time, though, the table was laid with a tablecloth and fine china and a series of cakes prepared with loving care.
This time, Dirk Fuchs, the owner of the first floor, a local bureaucrat, gave Dad the bill of sale and a floor plan and an actual piece of the house.
This time, a woman who lived on the second floor told us, “It’s the family’s house. We are just living here.”
The lightness included a surprise birthday party for Dad and a visit to meet the G.s, a non-Jewish family who had held our Jewish family bible with a family tree dating back to the 18th century for close to a quarter century.
Mrs. G., who married into the family, also showed us a notebook she had compiled that had more than 80 years of correspondence between the G.s and Lowensteins.
And the lightness also filled two ceremonies of life designed by Gabriele and carried out by students.
Each ceremony told the audience about the history of the Jewish people, the history of Jews in Essen, and the history of the Lowensteins before moving on to show the collision of those histories with the rise of the Nazi Party.
Students performed the whole ceremony, which had singing and reading and documents and photos and questions.
One young woman explained the place from which she and the other youth entered the conversation.
“This is neither because we feel like offenders nor because we feel like victims, but because it is our concern to remember those people who lived in Essen as respected citizens, as friends, as acquaintances, as sport comrades, as parents, as employers and employees, in fact as citizens of the city of Essen,” she read.
Dad answered questions in both ceremonies.
In the first, the audience asked him, “Why did you return? What do you think of Germany?”
Germany is one of the countries in the world that has seen some of the worst atrocities in human history, he said in slow, clear tones.
But it’s also a nation that has done more to atone for those actions than nearly any other country on the planet.
He also said that, rather than accept the honorarium the community had offered him, we had spoken as a family and decided to create an award that would honor young people whose actions indicated a belief in tolerance and justice.
In the second ceremony, the students placed the names and dates of birth and death for seven generations of Lowensteins on a green family tree.
We offered our thoughts about how the trip had impacted us.
I talked about how it helped me continue a transition from a linear approach to life to weaving a life out of experiences and relationships that integrates past and present.
The goal for me is not so much to have the past be silent, but rather to move to a place where the meaning of the present is heightened precisely because of what has occurred before, I said.
Our journey to Germany meant that much more to me precisely because of how long it had taken to bring together and how difficult it had been.
Dunreith spoke about her profound appreciation of, and gratitude to, Gabriele, while Gabriele said our presence and comments had made a mark on the students we met.
For his part, Dad said the trip had many benefits for him.
But it did not lead him to a place of forgiveness.
This comment sparked a number of questions, as audience members asked him to elaborate on his views.
Dad spoke about the difference between the Christian and Jewish understandings of forgiveness and, in a response to why there seems to be a proliferation of forgiveness activity, praised the work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Johannes Pfafflin, the session facilitator and a member of German-Jewish dialogue group PAKH, said that it was time to end.
The audience’s response was both gratifying and touching.
Audience members from South Africa to Germany, from Rwanda to Israel, all shared their gratitude for what we had shared.
I don’t yet know what the next steps will be in this journey that has already extended us far beyond where I ever thought we would go, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
We may go to Germany next year for the first award ceremony.
I will introduce Gabriele and the PAKH members to each other, and I’m optimistic that something positive will result from that connection.
We are planning to do some kind of project in Boston with the indefatigable Mary Harvey.
All that and more will become clear in time.
But I do know that I feel enormously grateful now to have had this opportunity to share our experience.
I also know that what we did here will continue both to strengthen my belief that we can live out of our most basic values and deepest dreams as well as to fortify my understanding about how what began as a private journey has had a public and healing impact for us and for the Germans whom we have had the good fortune to meet.