It was early March when the email came in.
“Dear Toby,” it read, “I’m wondering if you are the widow of an Ernest Rosenthal, and if so whether you might have information about his family.” Toby Rosenthal, my grandmother, lives in the sleepy southern-belle city of Richmond, Virginia. She was dubious of this email from a German graduate school student named Markus Streb, inquiring about family records for personal research. It felt odd, she told me, to get a message out of the blue from someone who found her on Facebook. She called my aunt, who revealed that she, too, had received an email from this sender about a year prior, and pushed my grandma to respond. When she did, Markus’ requests were simple. He was doing research on Holocaust remembrance in Germany and was contacting individual families to find documents that could add a personal dimension to his data. Specifically, Markus was investigating the histories of Jewish families in the town of Dauborn, where he himself grew up. His search led him to an interest in my great-grandmother, Joanna Strauss. My grandma filled him in on the history, informing Markus that Joanna had moved to a town called Limburg after marrying her husband Max Rosenthal. She scanned and sent him a few pictures that she had.
The photos were taken from a small collection of documents that my family has recording my late grandfather’s past life. There are also letters, written before and after my grandfather and his mother left Germany. The story of their fleeing Nazi Germany was majorly significant to my grandfather’s identity and has become an important history to the whole family.
“I don’t remember much from that trip,” he used to say, “but I do remember on the plane we took to America they served olives. That was the first time I ever tried an olive, and I hated it. I told my mother, ‘If this is what they eat in America, I want to go back.” The memories would then usually come back about life in Limburg, going to school there, going over to an aunt’s house every weekend for dinner. But I first heard the story of my great grandfather’s migration from my mom.
My grandpa and Joanna had left early on in the regime of the Third Reich, sensing that things would likely only get worse. Thanks to their foresight, leaving was relatively easy. My grandfather, however, was not so quick to part with his homeland. He had a sense of pride in his side job as a caretaker of the local synagogue, and he stayed to carry out his duty. As fate would have it, events took a tragic turn. He was living in the synagogue during Kristallnacht, and like so many others, bought tickets to leave Germany promptly after that night. He boarded a ship called the SS St. Louis in 1939, headed for Miami, with 936 other refugees. When the ship reached the US, Roosevelt had decided not to take any more refugees. The boat docked in Cuba while the captains argued with government officials back and forth for 40 days, but in the end the boat was forced to turn back to Europe. Max disembarked in France and briefly worked as a cook in the foreign legion, but when the Vichy government came to power he was deported. The last that Ernest and Joanna heard from him, he was in Auschwitz. I don’t know exactly why he did this or what his hopes were, but the story is always told in my family with an emphasis on his bravery. I’ve never entirely understood his decision to stay but I’ve come to respect it for what it was.
For my family, Max’s story is the sort of identity-defining story that many families have—stories that capture the essence of a different era and explain a foundational aspect of who they are. I’ve come to think of it as a story about bravery and fortitude in the face of adversity. It’s also about change, preserving traditions and upholding ideals. There is a powerful idealism and hope in his choice to stay and work at the synagogue. Yet the story is also about the cruel injustices of society, and the pain that it inflicts on the powerless. It wasn’t Max’s optimism that led him to doom. He found a boat ticket thanks to the goodwill of his neighbors and those personally invested in seeing him returned to safety. There were even passengers on the St. Louis who managed to leave since they already had US visas. In so many ways, it was a sheer twist of fate that stopped him from making his way to be rejoined with his wife and child.
This story left a paper trail through Max’s letters home. Eventually, my grandma’s correspondence with Markus developed into an exchange of information and stories, her sending him these records and him responding with interesting finds from his research. After about a year of being pen pals, the the idea was floated that my family ought to come to Germany for a tour with him.
We made a plan. We were going to travel back to Limburg, where my family started. Going back would be, in a sense, to displace the story as we knew it, to give it color and a new level of familiarity but also potentially to find the cracks and seams between oral history and reality. It would also mean, in some degree, finding a way to fit our family’s story into the shared history of so many other diasporic families around the world with German-Jewish immigrant roots and relatives who died in the Holocaust. In getting closer to the family’s story, we were also learning about what it meant not just for us, but for Germans like Markus who were trying to forge their own relationship with this troubled past.
Before leaving on our trip, Markus sent us an itinerary of his plans. It began:
Monday, 20 August
10:30 Stadtarchiv (city archive) Limburg, close to the cathedral with archivist, maybe the mayor
Mühlberg 2, Limburg
Tuesday, 21 August
10:30 Peter-Paul-Cahensly School Limburg/Blumenrod, gathering with pupils who visited the Auschwitz memorial this year, respectively last year. They held a minute in silence for Max Rosenthal during their visit at the Auschwitz memorial.
I was in Oberlin for the summer when I got the email. Things were slow and I was spending a lot of time enjoying solitude. I hadn’t been home all summer and the prospect of the chaos and foot-stepping of intimate family vacation was daunting. My anxiety was balanced by my enthusiasm for experiencing a new place and interest in the family history, but upon hearing about these details, my first reaction of excitement was followed by what felt like an almost obligatory ambivalence. I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular to share with German high schoolers about their country’s past. Up to that point, I had almost no relationship at all to my German heritage. With no common ground besides the violent relationship of our elder ancestors, what kind of conversation could really take place? I knew that Markus was studying the ways in which Holocaust memory was honored and upheld in German society from a critical lens, and while I appreciated his arrangements, I had never felt the pressure of representation that this event seemed to entail. It felt like a challenge, and it infused our trip with a sense of purpose and meaning that was quite daunting to me.
The rest of my family did not share my feelings exactly. When I spoke to my parents, they seemed to relish the opportunity. I didn’t understand why at the time, but in retrospect I think that for them, it was a way to carry out an important interaction of a societal occurrence that has affected their lives, or at least their parents lives, in some ways. My mom mentioned to me recently that she has never really seen herself as one to fill these shoes due to the privileged American life that she has led.
No one in my family went through concentration camps and survived to tell the story. In many United States Jewish communities, these survivors are the ones whose stories are most told and given priority. In the setting of small-town Germany, survivor stories are much more rare, giving the opportunity for my great-grandfather’s story to take on the importance that it truly does hold. My grandfather and great-grandmother escaped, yes, but they grew up in an entirely new country with little money and no father or husband, respectively. This was the holocaust for them, and they survived it. My parents were excited by the packed schedule and focused on the uniqueness of the opportunity that we were being afforded. Encouraged by their attitude, I halfway came around, dwelling for the anticipatory period in the overlapping spaces of submissive dread and nervous enthusiasm.
The fact that none of my family properly slept during the seven-hour flight made me question my parents’ outward appearance of confident enthusiasm. When we disembarked in the Frankfurt airport and made our way to the rental car station, there was some palpable tension. I fell back on old habits of horsing around with my brother and my Mom and Grandmother hung close together while my Dad arranged for the car. The hour-long drive from Frankfurt to Limburg took us past pleasant views of the German countryside. We arrived at our hotel, which was a new building on the outskirts of town. The rooms had a sort of prefabricated feel to them, complete with built-in furniture and bright color-themed rooms with full-wall, photo-printed wallpaper that collaged local landmarks with local maps. After an hour of settling and resting, I went downstairs to meet Markus with the rest of my family. We sat outside in the driveway of the hotel while we waited.
“There he is,” said my Grandma, as a 30-something man approached us. He was tall and rather gangly, with thin blond hair and an outdoorsy look. He took off his sunglasses and smiled as he approached us. We all said hellos and he bent to shake each of our hands, then gave my grandmother a hug.
“So what’s the plan?” my mom inquired, recalling our strict schedule.
“If you are feeling ready, we will go now to see the archivist. He has prepared some things that I think you will like to see.” I looked around to see if anyone else was not feeling ready.
“Sounds great!” my dad proclaimed, and we started walking into town. We crossed the highway that separated our hotel from the town center and began walking. We went past a salon, chain drug store, movie theater and another hotel with an open-air ground floor restaurant. The street began to slope up and we started seeing older buildings. They were built with exposed timber beams, usually with one on each corner. In the upper portion of theses buildings, the exposed beams were used decoratively, criss-crossed over the white plaster facade to form triangular sections. The streets became cobblestone and the stores gave way to small restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. We had reached the old town center. As Markus led us, he asked about when my family had last been there.
“It was in the early ’80s, maybe ’82,” my mom said.
“Yes, with the group project to bring back survivors,” my grandma filled in. “How did you get in touch with the archivist? What should we expect?” asked my dad.
“He has been going through the things they have there and has pulled out all of the things—what would you call them? Sorry, my English is a little not so good,” Markus laughed.
“Files? Artifacts?” my Dad offered.
“Yes. He has found everything that you might want to see. I think there are some newspapers, and marriage documents. But you will see soon.”
We stopped at a towering church, made of the same half-timbered red beams and white plaster as the other buildings. It has slightly more decoration and the paint looked brand new. Many of the red beams were carved with yellow-painted ornamentation and the facade was dictated by rows of gothic-looking pointed arches in interspersed rows at various scales. The spires of the building towered above the stout structures around it. Past the church, we came to a lookout point that showed off the vista from the top of the hill. We took in our surroundings briefly, and Markus talked a bit about the town’s buildings and history. We followed Markus through a stone gateway to a small courtyard where the government building was, and then entered the archives.
Inside, we were welcomed by two middle-aged German men. Markus introduced us the the archivist, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man with white hair who wore a short sleeved button-down shirt. The mayor of Limburg stood beside him, wearing a dark suit and squared-off glasses. He gave each of us a firm handshake and with a tone of hospi-tality and seriousness, the two then asked us into the archive room. Inside, two younger men sat around a rectangular arrangement of tables with papers and books opened and spread out neatly across their surface.
As the archivist, his students, and Markus seemed to buzz around solemnly stating the significance of each piece of historical evidence, I began to feel even more of my exhaustion. I tried meagerly to keep my attention on what the man and his students were explaining to me. My attention was waning with my energy despite my knowledge of the significance of what stood in front of me. I stared at the yellowed paper in front of me, hoping for a wave of historical connection to rise off of the page. As I settled down, I slowly became more focused, and it actually began to happen.
I felt as if I was in a state of meditation as the archivists spoke in a monotone German accent about each of the documents in front of me. This one here was a birth record, kept since the early 1800s in Limburg and Dauborn, of my great-grandmother. “It took me quite some time to find this, because we had to contact the archive of Dauborn to get it brought here,” said the archivist quietly. This book, the one in front of me, was a marriage announcement.
“There you will see, it says ‘Maks Ro-sen-tal and Yohanna Strauss’ in, em, 1886.” Everyone looked toward the newspapers lying in a bound book in front of me. The bold, elongated sans-serif font of the word “Karla” jumped out at me. It was their second daughter, said Carol, who died from influenza as a child. She was my mother’s namesake. Around the faux-plaque design of the announcement were ads for furniture stores, typewriters, and pharmacies.
When the archivist and his assistant had finished presenting us with their findings, we all lingered in the small but well-kempt library, taking time to look at the documents ourselves. I was the designated photographer for the day, and spent a great deal of time taking photos. One of the most striking documents was a record of residence that listed, on a 4” by 5” card, the place of birth, known addresses, and place of death for each citizen. At the end of the list for Max was a line written in bright red script that marked his emigration to Cuba on the St. Louis. After that was a lines in pencil that I couldn’t make out. I turned to Markus to confirm my suspicions, which he did.
“Yeah. That says ‘Later taken to Auschwitz,’” he told me. Confusion washed over me. Should I be upset by this? It was material evidence of extreme cruelty and persecution, documented casually and without affect. I scrutinized the piece of paper. Why was it written in pencil? Did someone want to leave open the possibility of literal erasure? Or was it scrawled as an afterthought as it appeared to be?
Try as I might, my scrutiny brought nothing to the surface. My fascination with the historical fact of the document gave way to a satisfaction in its conformation of the narrative that I knew. I also felt some long-lost desire to be angry or feel disdain at the dispossession of my history. But there was nothing. I felt no anger, no simulated pain or disgust—none of the things that I remember being invoked in me when I was a child learning for the first time what had happened to the Jewish people in Germany whom I was connected to.
Some change had taken place within me since then. When I was in the fifth grade, I learned about this history for the first time, and I was moved by the stories that I was told to anger and pain and disgust. I felt connected to my relatives and to the Jewish people as a whole. I felt connected to my friends who had similar family stories to mine. But not as much anymore. It wasn’t gone entirely, but it was not at the forefront of my feeling, and seemed like an impression that was formed in my mind but was not registering emotionally anymore. I did not confront that consciously in the moment, but I think that in my nearly-conscious attempt to push back against it, I had acknowledged, maybe for the first time, that it was true—I was not in mourning. There was no more grief to be felt, no stages to go through. I was past acceptance even or maybe trailing out of it slowly.
In the corner of the room stood a banner about six feet tall. “Max Rosenthal” was printed in large letters across the top, and it featured a short biography as well as reprinted images of old photographs. This, more than any of the artifacts, was moving to my family, especially to my mother and grandmother. Both of them had travelled to Germany before. It was in ’86 on a trip that was organized specially by the German government for the families of holocaust survivors. They had toured Limburg with my grandfather before he died, met residents and learned about life there through his and the other survivors’ memories. I think that coming back for a second time to see this person whose memories they had been entertaining and whose footsteps they had been walking in, honored by the town, was powerful. It meant something to all of us that there had evidently been effort put into memorializing this figure who was already a subject of my family stories.
We all felt welcomed by our experience at the archives. It was a new level of attention to personal experience for my mother and grandmother, and an entirely new and rewarding experience for the rest of my family. After the rush of that day, we took some time to settle in and explore Limburg a little, meeting with Markus and one of his professors for lunch. On our way to the restaurant, Markus stopped us at a house in order to point out a new monument.
“Ah, here it is,” he stopped on one side of the cobblestone street next to a house and we crowded around him. Squatting, he pointed to a small golden square, about the size of half a chocolate bar. Max’s name was engraved in it, along with a few sentences in German. We paused and then kept walking as Markus explained that these small monuments were called ‘stumbling stones’ and could be found all across Germany.
That afternoon, as we drove with Markus to the edge of the town limits, I asked what we might expect.
“There will be a translator,” was Markus’ reply, “And the students have prepared some things to show you and talk to you about, I think, and then you can maybe speak to them a little about Max.”
I was getting nervous. I haven’t set foot in a high school classroom since graduating from mine, and wasn’t eager to be in that setting. On top of that, I had no idea what to expect in a conversation about the holocaust with German high schoolers.
The school was a modern building made of brick, glass, and green-painted steel. Inside, we were led by the principal and teacher through the communal center to a classroom. About 30 students sat in a circle, and a translator stood next to the principal at a podium. A few other adults were present, and we stood around mingling briefly before the principal asked if we were ready to begin. He gave a brief speech about the school’s recent visit to concentration camps before turning things over to the students.
In a clumsy mobilization, we all arose from out seats and went outside to a nearby courtyard to see a series of posters that students had made in groups. Each poster showed images from their trips—many were of concentration camps and featured recognizable images of Auschwitz. The students told us solemnly how incomprehensible the experience had been. A boy with a swash of black hair wearing a graphic T-shirt and athletic shorts was explaining the trip to us.
“We all knew of this before, but when we actually saw it…” he trailed off.
“It makes it much more of a reality to see something like this,” his classmate, a slightly taller, blond boy wearing square glasses, finished his thought.
“Yes, when you learn about it in class, you know that it is terrible, but then, to see it, you begin to really understand how terrible it was,” the first finished.
The planned activity had us make rounds of the courtyard, stopping in front of groups of students who stood in front of the posters they had created after the trip. Each told us about a different part of their experience, with background research before the trip and thought exercises after. As I watched, my unease and feeling of being out of place grew. I felt unprepared.
I couldn’t bring myself to stand and listen alongside my Mom and Grandmother. As they nodded and interjected occasionally to clarify things, I started feeling impossibly distant. I knew what the kid in front of me was feeling, to a degree. I could easily remember what it was like to be in his shoes—confronted with a historical atrocity that you have only just begun to be able to comprehend, trying to express and develop that notion of what it means.