One summer’s reading group: Postscript

This is the third part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group:  Preface
Click for the second — One summer’s reading group

The memories in part two of One Summer’s Reading Group came back to haunt me about a year ago while reading Letter from Germany — The Last Trial: A Great-grandmother, Auschwitz, and the Arc of Justice by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. It was very difficult to read, as were the articles researched for this post, and that dreadful feeling of not being able to pull myself away came over me.

Kolbert’s Letter begins with the trial of Oskar Groning, whose assignment in the S.S. was to collect, sort and count the money taken from people sent to Auschwitz. Groning lived freely but discreetly in Germany after the war. In 1985, nazi-oskar-groenin_3274160bhowever, he came forward with details of his work  and observations at Auschwitz in an effort to deflate the lies of Holocaust deniers.  In 2014 at the age of 93 and was convicted as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases.

Forty years after the war, Groning did not fear or anticipate arrest. There were many attempts to define crimes against humanity, murder and genocide, and  how far down the ladder of responsibility did guilt creep.  Kolbert leads us through three stages of trials in which the line between “guilty” and “innocent” was continualy moving.

She quotes a chilling statement of Germany’s first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer,

‘You don’t toss away dirty water when you don’t have any that’s clean.’

* * * * * * * * * *

In the attic of the home of Kolbert’s grandparents in New York state, were boxes of the papers of her great-grandmother, Franziska Maass.. Kolbert and her mother went through them in 2009 after both grandparents had died.  Among them were her great-grandmother’s letters written between March and October 1942 to her son who, like so many others, had moved to the Americas during the war.

‘With great longing I am thinking of you,’ one read, in part. ‘I pray to God that I will see you again.’

‘Beloved Children!  I think a lot about you. I am very lonely.’

08_its_impressions_3Franziska’s son had tried with out success to learn what had happened to his mother.  Kolbert and her mother were able to put together a sketchy picture of her life from these papers and from information found in the records kept by the Third Reich stored now in the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen.  On December 14, 1942

. . . she, along with eight hundred and ten others from Berlin and surrounding towns, was put on a transport train to Auschwitz. On the record of the transport, she was listed as arbeitsfähig, or able to work. She was sixty-two years old.

Several years ago friends of Kolbert who lived in Germany told her of the German artist Gunter Demnig, whose Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones,” are found embedded in the streets of Berlin where victims of the Nazi barbarity lived before they were sent to concentration camps.  Kolbert writes:

placing stoneIn contrast to most memorials, which aim to command attention, Stolpersteine are understated—literally underfoot. Each one consists of a block of concrete onto which a plain brass plaque has been affixed. The block, which is about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, is embedded in the sidewalk, or inserted among the cobblestones, so that the plaque’s surface lies flush with the ground. Every plaque is stamped by hand, as a gesture, according to Demnig, of opposition to the mechanized killing of the camps.

. . . The project has been called the ‘largest decentralized memorial in the world.’ Demnig installs most of the stones himself, and the project has more or less taken over his life. Demnig himself has placed most of the more than fifty thousand stones now in the streets of Europe. In Berlin, where there are over six thousand of them, “residents formed groups to find out who had been deported from their neighborhood.”

one line of stones

Kolbert contacted Demnig to place a plaque in memory of her great-grandmother. About a year after she filled out the forms a date was set. She and her parents and a few friends attended the “laying of the stone.”

Kolbert’s Letter holds out a light. It is not a beacon of hope for a more tolerant and peaceful future, or for understanding the horrors of that time so we will do better in the future. It is a small spotlight on a man and his quiet, solemn, dignified memorial to those who suffered and died, including those whose stories still have not been discovered and therefore have no stone.  These stones are a path for all who bemoan the senseless loss of loved ones and the unnamed.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is so much more to Kolbert’s Letter that I strongly suggest you click on the link at the beginning of my post and read it for yourself.  Some interesting additional material is available at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/world/europe/oskar-groning-auschwitz-birkenau-guard-trial.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Gr%C3%B6ning

http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolperstein

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One summer’s reading group

 

This is the second part of a three part post.
Click for the first — One summer’s reading group:  Preface
Click for the third — One summer’s reading group: Postscript

CCI15022016

Every summer a group of about twenty high school students, mostly Jewish, from Bayonne, Jersey City and Hoboken met every day on the beach at Tenth Avenue in Belmar. One year, 1966?, someone started reading holocaust stories out loud.  I took the photo above.  That’s not me front and center.

Dad (Grandpa), Uncles Eddie & Elliot 2I knew about the Holocaust. I had read Anne Frank and had seen the movie. My father, he’s on the left, and uncles had fought in the war, although none in Europe. Family of friends had numbers on their arms.

Tamara & Shulamith Minz, Tel Aviv 1954Distant cousins would write to us periodically telling us about their lives and asking us for financial support. They had escaped from Hitler — I do not know if they were in the camps or not — but they had made their way to Israel. There were two girls, Tamara and Shulamith, about my sister’s and my age. That is them to the right in Tel Aviv 1954.  My mother always got upset when these letters came, and there would be whispered conversations between my mom and dad.

My mother always made me feel as though it could happen again — Jews being rounded up and imprisoned or killed, anytime, anywhere. It is true that one morning we woke up to a swastika drawn with snow on the gate to our backyard. We believed but never were certain that the children who lived on the corner and who attended St. Andrew’s did it. After all, the nuns at St. Andrew’s used to walk their students to the corner after school to make sure they didn’t stop at “the Jew” Lennie’s candy store.

CCI15022016_2Mom distrusted anyone who was not a member of the tribe. She spoke of Jews not being served in restaurants, not getting jobs. We knew of families who had changed their names. I’d come home from school during the McCarthy era to find her glued to the television set, and many evenings I would hear her talking to my father, who was the token Jew in his department in the Civil Service Commission. She feared he and some of their friends would be called up before the committee. Who knew what to think? I was young.

I was sucked into the Holocaust readings with fascination and horror, and felt we were doing something that our parents — at least mine — would not approve. Even many years after that summer, my imagination was filled with images of blond, blue-eyed men and women with thick accents opening up my stomach to see if the monkey sperm with which they had tried to impregnate me had created a monster. Or they would take away my glasses and since I was minus 16 in one eye and minus 18 in the other I would be useless and they would send me to the showers.

CCI15022016As my life became more my own these nightmares disappeared. My mom relaxed too. She welcomed into the family a “very nice” Protestant son-in-law with parents who, she was surprised but relieved to discover, had similar values and life-style to hers. There she is with my husband’s mom at the our wedding.  She lived in senior communities with few Jewish neighbors and fewer if any Jewish staff on which she grew to depend. She sang the Jewish holiday songs and relished the holiday meals and lit the Sabbath candles. She sang Christmas carols and enjoyed the lights on the Christmas trees. I hope her heart softened and she was less afraid.

But now I think mother might have been right, and I was naive.

It would do us all good to spend a summer reading about the Holocaust and the millions killed in genocidal wars in Korea, Rwanda, India, the Ukraine, Algeria, the Congo, and, and, and. We might read about how self-righteous white men in our own country treated the Native Americans, and how they pulled Africans from their homes and made them slaves, and how they now, every day during this tedious primary season, spew hate and bigotry as a mainstay of America’s exceptionalism.

Oh dear, I’m ranting.  Forgive me.

Our world is diverse. Let us one day rejoice in these differences and recognize the infinite possibilities they offer. Let us one day work together for the benefit of all mankind and this remarkable, beautiful, rich world we live in.