NOTE: The ceremony I’m writing about took place in late June.
The tenth birthday party at Realschule Uberruhr at which Dad handed out the first set of Lowenstein Family Awards for Tolerance and Justice had many memorable moments.
The dozen or so, largely blond students who sang a rap they had written about our family’s history.
The spirited rendition of Waka Waka.
Our initial sighting of the multi-colored, three-sided yellow mural with the words “Tolerance and Justice” in which each letter looked like a puzzle piece being lifted and put into place by stick figures.
Dad reading a statement in German in which he thanked the people for their support of the project.
Yet perhaps most moving of all was a student-made video that ran right before the award presentation.
It opened with black and white image after image of young German Jewish children standing next to suitcases, waiting for the Kindertransport, the trains that would take them out of the country, and, they hoped, to safety.
Numbers hung around their necks.
Mournful music played in the background.
Dad and Uncle Ralph were two of those children.
Their mother and my grandmother Hilde had worked to secure two of the 10,000 places on the program established in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogrom , a two-day rampage in November 1938 that devastated Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues and families.
It was during Kristallnacht that my grandfather Max, a World War I veteran who had lost much of his hearing and the unfettered use of his right arm in the German trenches, was taken away by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.
He was returned to their home weeks later, badly beaten and bruised.
In addition to terrorizing his two boys, the incident convinced my grandfather that the country for which he had risked his life and in which our family had lived for centuries, was no longer his.
Based on that new and painful understanding, he and my grandmother took the agonizing steps of sending away their two boys to save them, unsure if they would ever see them again.
In his interview by the Shoah Foundation, a non-profit filmmaker and son of a survivor Steven Spielberg established after making Schindler’s List, Ralph talked about just how wrenching the departure was for his father.
Grandpa Max literally could not bring himself to get off the train and leave his eldest son, staying stop after stop beyond the required departure.
He only left when the police them him off the train.
Dad followed a couple of weeks later.
He didn’t go with his older brother because he needed an emergency appendectomy to save his life.
Grandpa Max took his four year old boy from doctor to doctor throughout Essen, the town where our family had lived for generations.
None would operate on a Jewish boy.
Eventually, my great-grandfather and namesake Joseph, the family patriarch and a respected physician, found a non-Jewish doctor willing to perform the surgery.
He did it on the kitchen table in the stately, yellow, three-story building where Papa Joseph lived and worked.
Dad departed on his train several weeks later.
Although the pictures that opened the video were not of Dad and Ralph, they depicted that moment of wrenching uncertainty their parents all but certainly experienced in a sober and somber reminder of the era’s ruptures, unhealed wounds and unanswered questions.
The video followed with some text explaining that they were part of the program and that Dad had not set foot in his hometown for 73 years.
Six of us went last May on what proved to be an extraordinary visit.
We went to Dad’s former apartments.
We met the non-Jewish family who had held our family bible for years and with whom we had maintained an 80-year correspondence.
The community threw Dad a surprise birthday party during which our host took us to see a home that had belonged to our family until the early twentieth century.
We also attended and participated in a pair of Ceremonies of Life.
Organized by the indefatigable Gabriele Thimm, a remarkable teacher dedicated to her students’ learning the truth about their nation’s history, the ceremonies took place at the former synagogue that was destroyed in Kristallnacht and that now serves as a cultural center and at the school.
Gabriele’s students showed documents, read text and sang in an event that discussed the history of the Jewish people, the history of the Jewish community in Essen, our family’s history in Essen, and the collision of these elements with the rise of the Nazi party.
The video showed color photographs from the ceremony.
An overhead shot from the second floor of the cultural center showing the hundreds of people who had assembled for the first event.
A picture of our family sitting in the front row during the presentation.
Dad standing next to his partner Lee and receiving a gift of honey.
And Dad standing to speak.
In the preparation for the event, Gabriele had asked if we were willing to answer questions from the audience.
We said we were.
What do you think of Germany, the children asked him. Why did you return?
Speaking in clear, measured tones, Dad said he thought Germany was one of the countries where some of the worst actions in human history had taken place.
But it was also, he said, a country that had done more, perhaps than any other in the world, to make things right.
Before he answered the questions, though, Dad read a statement.
In it he explained that he would not be accepting the honorarium he had been offered, but rather that we would be creating the Lowenstein Family Award for Tolerance and Justice that would honor young people who acted according to those values.
The video showed that moment, too, a side shot of Dad standing in front of the crowd and delivering the message that was met with enthusiastic applause.
The video’s power came not just from images and the music, but in their proportion.
There were far more pictures of young children preparing to leave their parents, many of whom they never saw again, than of the return.
But the return showed what was possible, that Hitler’s efforts to kill all European Jews not only did not succeed, but that it was possible for one of the children to, through dint of will and ceaseless work and parental and communal support, reach the highest levels of professional accomplishment, contribute to the world and, toward the end of his life, return to the place from which he had fled.
And, in that place, it was also possible to return with family, an open heart and a willingness to give to the young people his honest assessment of what had happened and the encouragement through the award that they act in a different way.
The award presentation followed.
Surprised and excited students, upon hearing their name, came forward to the gymnasium floor, where Dad handed them their certificates.
The video’s power lingered in the air.