by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)
The few stories that were passed down to my sister and I were about survival, escape, new beginnings in America. These stories always drew a clear line between the tragic background of the Holocaust and the fate of our family. We never knew. No one told us. My grandfather’s sister, my great aunt Meta Adler, was left behind. Five siblings escaped to the U.S., Israel, and South Africa. Meta vanished from sight and memory.
No one in our family kept Meta ’s memory alive. We have to look back and construct a memory of her life. So we can keep her with us. Some people discover a living relative who they never knew about, a sibling who was given up for adoption or a parent who was long absent. We discovered Meta, an unwed country woman who worked as a maid and failed to pass the U.S. immigration examination because she was too shy or scared to answer the questions.
The silence was broken last year on a sunny April afternoon in Altwiedermus, the village where Meta and the rest of my father’s family trace their roots. We had traveled to the rural enclave, forty-five kilometers northeast of Frankfurt, to see the old Adler house and meet with Gisele, the woman who had spent years researching the fate of the twenty-seven Jewish residents of the village in 1933. I had almost canceled the trip due to a sense of unease about what might lie ahead. Instead, we drove into the past and the vague contours of my German Jewish family history were abruptly reshaped in a darker hue.
It was Gisele, someone I had just met, who told us about Meta as we sat at her dining room table and thumbed through an enormous album of her historical notes, photos, and clippings. Meta stared at us from the past with a direct gaze that ended the decades of erasure from our family tree. As Gisele patiently related further details about the thirteen Jews who perished, I was too stunned to concentrate and can’t recall much of what she said.
How could I not have known about Meta ? Was I told about her as a child, but the story hadn’t lodged in my memory beside the other vignettes with the happy endings that were passed down to me? In the following months I queried key family members about our family history narrative. It was through these conversations that I slowly became aware of the collective family silence about Meta. This knowledge brought deep sorrow, but there would be ample time to grieve for Meta. I felt a much more urgent need to honor her memory and restore her to our family.
That fall I met a Jewish woman whose family had fled to the U.S. even later than mine. “It was because my grandfather would not leave until all family members had permission to emigrate,” she said. “Not my grandfather,” I had to tell her. The silence about Meta was a thin cover for the guilt that must have haunted my grandparents. Couldn’t they have done more to help her escape?
Reclaiming Meta ’s place in our family has not been easy. Only the faintest traces of her life have survived. Many people in Germany, from government archivists to self-designated Holocaust historians like Gisele, have shared clues about her fate. Months of research after our trip to Altwiedermus yielded little more than a set of financial records that the Nazis used to assess whether she could keep her meager Reichsmarks earnings. The trail runs cold on a bare sheet of paper dated May 9, 1942, four years after my father’s family fled to the U.S. The document notes that she was “evakuiert.”
Nine hundred and thirty-eight people were deported from Frankfurt on May 8, 1942. The records from this transport were destroyed, but Meta was likely among the deportees. We think they went east, possibly to the Izbica concentration camp in Poland. The date and location of her death are among many of the unknowns in her story.
The German government has placed Meta’s name among the Holocaust victims at two memorial sites in Frankfurt. Our family of survivors has so far done nothing. My father and his sister inherited the silence of their parents. They had a living memory of Meta, but could not reach back to embrace her. It is left to the “second generation” to look back from a greater distance and tell her story. My move to Germany in 2010 was the first step that made this possible.
My aunt has now broken her silence about Meta and supports our efforts to reclaim her memory. She remembers Meta as a woman in the shadows, perhaps someone who lacked a valued place in the family even before they left Germany. She also recalls that my grandfather, Meta’s brother, left the problem of what to do about Meta to my grandmother.
As a child I yearned to know more about my parents’ lives in Germany and the events surrounding their escape. Decades later I’ve uncovered a hidden truth about my family history: we closed the door on someone we lost. I will now pass down to my children a different Holocaust story than the one I heard as a child. Our efforts to confront the past, while living as Jews in Germany today, have become a new chapter in our family narrative.
This summer we will lay a stolperstein (brass stumbling stone) in the ground for Meta Adler. So she can be remembered, in the village of her birth and within our family. Meta’s stone will join the thousands of cobblestone memorials to individual Holocaust victims throughout Germany.
Donna Swarthout writes about being Jewish in Germany on her blog Full Circle http://dswartho.wordpress.com/. Her recent work has appeared on The Jewish Writing Project and in Tablet Magazine.