The Changing Lessons of the Germany Project

Principal Elvira Bluemel stands in front of the mural at Realschule Uberruhr.

Principal Elvira Bluemel stands in front of the mural at Realschule Uberruhr.

The lessons keep on changing.

In May 2012 we returned with Dad to his hometown of Essen, Germany.

Although he had been on a train that stopped there in the summer of 1965, when Mom was pregnant with me, he had not set foot in the community for 73 years.

Thanks to the tireless work and dedication of Gabriele Thimm, a remarkable educator fiercely dedicated to her students’ learning their nation’s history, the week we spent in the community was drenched in meaningful moments.

We visited Dad’s former apartments where he had lived for the nearly five years before his parents sent him away to safety on the Kindertransport program-an action they took without knowing if they would ever see him again.

We met the non-Jewish family who had, at great personal risk, held our family Bible for years and with whom we had maintained an eight decade correspondence.

We attended a surprise birthday party for Dad during which our host Norbert Mering took us to another property our family had owned until the early part of the twentieth century.

Courtesy of Cultural Center Director Uri Kaufmann, we entered the Jewish cemetery where generations of our ancestors were buried. The increasingly modest graves were symbolic of the declining fortunes of the Jewish community.

We were treated as honored guests by Dirk and Susan Fuchs, who owned the first of three floors of a stately, yellow building that served as home and workspace for Joseph Lowenstein, my great-grandfather, the family patriarch and my namesake who was deported to Theresienstadt before being killed.

Dad spoke little about his experience when my brothers and I were growing up in Brookline. When we asked him, he said he didn’t remember. Yet when we watched the first episode of the mini-series Holocaust, he shut the television off quickly.

That silence, that blend of the absence of information and clear emotional distress left me with a hunger to know Dad and that time.

I took many actions to fill that void.

I visited and interviewed elderly relatives who had fled the Nazi regime as adults, and thus had more and clearer memories of Germany than my father. I read voraciously about what many Germans called “the period of National Socialism.” And I worked for years for Facing History and Ourselves, an educational non-profit organization that has students study the choices people confronted before and during the Holocaust to understand their own lives.
Yet something stayed locked.

No matter how many times I visited my great aunt Ilse Goldberg in her one-bedroom apartment in Queens, where she lived for the last 25 of her 103 years, no matter how many explanations I read of the Nazi’s rise to power, no matter how many survivors’ stories I listened to, a visceral understanding of my family’s history remained elusive.

By going to the community where Dad had lived, I hoped, I would learn about who my ancestors had been and how they had shaped me.

We talked about it for years, and even gotten to the point of choosing dates.

But somehow something within him held him back and didn’t allow him to go.

Yet after my stepmother Diane died in July 2010, something changed.

When I raised the topic a couple of Decembers ago, Dad responded positively.

Each aspect of the trip layered onto the wonder of it happening it all to embody the fulfillment of long-held dreams and an affirmation that it is possible, when one works hard and persistently, to build a life out of one deepest dreams and most basic values.

The trip also had a pair of Ceremonies of Life.

One was at the Cultural Center, while the other was at Realschule Uberruhr, the middle school where Gabriele teaches.

Gabriele Thimm in red sweater with some of her students.

Gabriele Thimm in red sweater with some of her students.

The ceremonies began with a family picture from the 1920s.

Papa Joseph was there with his four boys-Max, Rudi, Albert and Ernie. So, too, were my great-grandmother Clara and Rudi’s wife Margarete. The men all wore suits.

They were a typical looking German family.

The program put the picture in the context of the family’s history, talking about our ancestors Abraham and Moses Lowenstein and showing their arrival in Steele through documents and pictures.

The text went back into the past of the Jewish people up to the destruction of the Jewish temple, moved to the Jews in Germany and Essen, and then back again to our family.

A student named Melina explained why she and other students had participated in the ceremony.

“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.

The program took us through the rise of the Nazi Party, the Kristallnacht pogrom, the creation of the Kindertransport program on which Dad and Uncle Ralph escaped, and his departure from the country.

The ceremonies showed that it is possible to face the darkest chapter of a nation’s history, to acknowledge what happened, and, in so doing, to work to prevent an inoculation of future such events.

That a community can confront what happened in part to release the shame and demons and to insist that it will not happen again.

And that a teacher of courage and conviction and commitment can help a family convert a long-held dream into a forum for public healing for both sides.

At the ceremony Dad announced that we would be forming an award in the family’s name that honors young people who act toward Tolerance and Justice.

This June, he, Lee and I returned for the award presentation.

Gabriele and Lee embrace at the Ibis Hotel in Essen, Germany.

Gabriele and Lee embrace at the Ibis Hotel in Essen, Germany.

It was another extraordinary experience.

We saw the multi-colored mural made by human shaped figures with puzzle pieces that spelled the German words for tolerance and justice.

We heard a rap sung by a dozen or so male students that recounted the history of our family.

We watched a haunting, but ultimately uplifting video that started with black and white photographs of children on the Kindetransport standing with suitcases in their hands and numbers around their necks.

The film explained that Dad and his brother Ralph were two of the 10,000 children in the program and that Dad had returned last year for the first time in many years.

Black and white changed to color.

We also saw people we had met the year before. The pace was more relaxed than last year, the feel more of a reunion than a highly charged and emotional journey.

Whereas last year’s event what healing can come when someone who fled as a child returns after many years to that community with an open hand, this year’s presentation demonstrated the role that members on each side can play in bringing healing where there have been great wounds.

The dignitaries who signaled its importance.

The children who gave up time they could have spent with their friends.

The adults who attended and supported the effort to understand and to learn.

The principal who endorsed the project.

The project will unfold in as yet unknown directions.

More students are participating in the contest at Gabriele’s school, and we are talking about creating an association to involve more schools in the project.

Former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela visited the school and the community earlier this month to learn about what is happening and how we are doing what we are doing.

Like a kaleidoscope, the lessons I derive from it will continue to shift and evolve, too.

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