Memories Lost and Found

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

The stamp of German Jewish culture left its imprint on me as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s. My nanas, papas, and tantes spoke German and Yiddish and served kuchen instead of cookies. They dressed up a lot more than ordinary Americans and seemed very refined. They were still immigrants in a new country whose dependence on each other deepened the bonds within our extended family.

Decades later as an adult living in California and Montana, there were only rare moments to connect with my cultural heritage. I often tried to reach back and touch the memories from my childhood, to bring them closer and feel their presence in my daily life. But how could I grasp these vague shapes from the past as they receded further into the distance? My memories were no longer solid or extensive enough to offer more than a footnote to my identity. I was floating through life in the vast ocean that is America without an anchor, without a strong enough sense of home.

Most of my relatives who were born in Germany are gone now, so the only way to reclaim my past was to come back to the land from which they fled. I took this step two years ago and have wandered since then without a map or plan into the rooms of a place that is both new and familiar. The events that my parents closed the door on are here for me to discover and the memories from my childhood seem closer at hand. I’ve picked up the thread of family history that was broken in 1938 and am stitching it back into the fabric of a changed Germany.

Like a time traveler, I have stepped into the past and present, trying to understand the extent to which Germany lays a claim on me. I’ve opened myself to the pain of a genocide that cannot be understood and the joys of finding my place in the vibrant landscape of Jewish life in Berlin. I came here to experience the culture that captivated my senses as a child, but I never expected to find anything that would shed light on my own family history. I never suspected that my family kept secrets.

When my father’s family closed the door on their homeland, they locked my great-aunt Meta into a past that would remain hidden from the next generation. Meta was the Holocaust victim who my family never spoke about. My father was eight when he left Germany so he would have remembered Meta. But he inherited the silence of his parents, and chose not to share the story of his aunt who was left behind.

My father only wanted his two daughters to hear about how the family escaped to America, struggled as poor immigrants, and successfully pursued the American dream. He protected us from having to grieve over a loss that he had no control over. But the descendants of those who escaped and survived should not be spared from knowledge or grief; we have a collective responsibility to learn our stories and remember them.

It would have been easier not to dig up the past, to put aside my determination to fill in the gap in my family history. I could have avoided the awkward discussions with my aunt, the charges of tainted motives from one of my cousins, and the countless hours spent searching for records that had been destroyed. But the injustice of a lost memory loomed so much larger than the tensions caused by confronting my family’s silence.

More than seven decades of silence about a forgotten Holocaust victim have now ended. On July 2, 2012 we placed a stolperstein for Meta in front of the former Adler residence in Altwiedermus. We restored Meta to her place in our family and her village. This small stone is tangible evidence of a lost life; like a gravestone it marks a place to honor the dead. Meta’s stone is a permanent link to the past for our family and a town that has had no Jewish population since 1938.

Meta’s memorial ceremony was the culmination of more than a year of effort to reconcile an omission in my family history. I did not come to Germany to be a family researcher or Holocaust historian. I never expected to experience the kind of pain and grief that I felt about Meta. But my need to account for the past placed me on the path of a single victim, and brought a depth of sorrow that I had been shielded from as the daughter of German Jewish parents.

As I stood on the steps of my father’s childhood home before the small crowd gathered on a rainy Monday morning for Meta’s memorial ceremony, I could barely retain the composure necessary to speak for Meta. But with the support of my sister and my son, who raised the money for Meta’s stolperstein as part of his bar mtizvah in Berlin, I gave voice to the life of a woman who was forgotten. This is one of the most powerful things I have ever done in my life.

I’ve made other discoveries about my family since coming to Germany, discoveries from the lost and found of a land that holds many fragments of a dark past. Each discovery strengthens my sense of self and helps me to find my footing as a Jewish woman in Germany today. I don’t want to lose myself in the past, but to touch and preserve a part of what was left behind, to carry the reclaimed memories with me into the future. I feel more free to live in the present now and ready to fill the pages of a new chapter in my family’s German Jewish history.

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. This piece first appeared on AVIVA-Berlin.de and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the publisher and author. To read Swarthout’s earlier piece about her great-aunt Meta, visit:  https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/metas-untold-story/

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Filed under American Jewry, German Jewry, Jewish identity

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