On Connecting People: Gabriele and Pumla Meet in Essen.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, left, with Marguerite Barankitse.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, left, with Marguerite Barankitse.


When I was in high school I used to get friends together for Chinese food.

A lot of them.

I’d call up 20 to 30 buddies and invite them all to join me for lunch at Shanghai Garden.

A series of elements about these meals appealed to me.

Of course there was the food.

I liked the role of being what we these days would call the convener.

But, perhaps above all, I enjoyed bringing people together who otherwise would not know each other and seeing what happened.

I liked having the jock meet the kids we called the freaks meet the geeks.

Today, more than 30 years later and thousands of miles away, something similar will be happening.

That’s because our friend Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is traveling to
Essen to meet Gabriele Thimm.

I first met Pumla more than a dozen years ago, when she was in Harvard on a Bunting fellowship.

She’s a psychologist, a former member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the author of a riveting, disturbing yet ultimately uplifting book, A Human Being Died That Night, her memoir about her conversations with Vlakplaas killer Eugene de Kok and his search for understanding and redemption.

She’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on issues of reconciliation and healing after mass violence.

Last year, Dunreith and I flew to South Africa to attend, present and facilitate at the third Engaging the Other conference that Pumla calls together and coordinates every three years.

While there, we, along with Dad via audiconference and Jon via his photos and Gabriele through a statement Dunreith read, talked about the trip we had taken in May 2012 to Dad’s hometown of Essen.

It was the first time he had been there in 73 years.

The experience would have been an extraordinary one in any way, and was made that much more so by the actions of a German teacher fiercely dedicated to her students’ learning the truth about her country.

Gabriele Thimm in red sweater with some of her students.

Gabriele Thimm in red sweater with some of her students.

This brings us to Gabriele.

She reached out to me a little more than two years ago after reading a story I had written in 2004 about searching for our family’s roots in Essen.

Gabriele explained that she was organizing a memorial event around the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom in the community. One of the stops would be at my great grandfather and namesake Joseph’s stately, three-story, yellow house.

Would we be able to attend? She asked.

I consulted with our family.

We were not able to make the event, but sent a statement and some family pictures.

We also shared in the note our intention to join the members of the community at some point in the not distant future.

Last May, Dunreith, Aidan and I boarded a plan and converted that aspiration into reality.

Dad and his partner Lee joined us shortly afterward from France, where they had been spending several weeks.

Thanks largely to Gabriele, the week was a time that surpassed any expectations we could have had in advance of the week.

We visited Dad’s former apartments.

We met the non-Jewish family who had held our Jewish family bible and with whom the Lowensteins had had an 80-year connection.

We also attended a pair of ceremonies that Gabriele organized with the students.

One took place at the former synagogue turned cultural center in Essen, while the other occurred at Gabriele’s school.

Both talked about the history of the Jewish people, the history of Jews in Essen, our family’s history and how all of these intersected with the Nazi regime.

Dad spoke at each event.

At the first one he announced the creation of the Lowenstein Family Award for Tolerance and Justice, which would be given out in subsequent years to worthy students.

This year, Dad, Lee and I returned to Essen to give out the first set of prizes.

We have written a chapter about the project for an anthology Pumla is editing.

We’ve begun conversations with Gabriele about how to expand the award to more schools.

And, a couple of weeks ago, Pumla contacted me here in Chile to say that she was going to Dusseldorf near Essen. She wanted to visit Dad’s hometown to learn more about our story and our project.

I put Pumla and Gabriele in touch with each other.

They’ve taken it from there.

Last night Gabriele wrote us to say that everything is lined up for Pumla to come to the town to see the school, meet the students, visit a family house and hear the rap that a group of students wrote about the Lowensteins as part of their participation in the project.

I don’t know what will result from this meeting, just as I didn’t know what would happen in the early 80s when I brought my friends together.

But I do have faith that something organic and positive will emerge.

I do believe that we will continue to work with each other and to help the project grow so that we can try to leave a better world for our children and unborn grandchildren.

And I do know that we’ll continue to weave the different strands of our life together, however disparate seeming, as I started to do more a continent and three decades ago.

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