Category Archives: German Jewry

The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

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Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

 

 

 

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Release from Dachau

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

“I had a dream last night,” my father tells me.
He dreamed the kapos woke him up at four o’clock
in the morning, on Friday, December 23, 1938,
made him strip out of his uniform, made him
wait in line for an SS doctor to examine him

for bruises and frostbite, made him listen to speeches
by the SS warning him to get out of Germany and never
return. They warned him if he didn’t, he’d be sent back to Dachau
and never leave. He dreamed he was assigned a place
in another line, waited to return his uniform and get his own clothes,
shoes and coat, and that the SS drove him to an area about four miles
from the Munich train station, then made him march the rest of the way.

The sky was so black, he couldn’t see the man who gave him a ticket.
It took twelve hours, and he changed trains twice. He had no money,
no food.
The train arrived on Shabbos morning, and he didn’t want to see
another person’s face and took the back way home through the fields,
crossing eight railroad tracks, careful not to get caught

in the track switches. His father was the first person to see him
as he opened the shutters he closed each night so no one could throw
rocks into the house. He went through the front gate into the house,
saw his mother had baked challahs, and ate an entire one. He went to sleep
at eleven o’clock in the morning and slept until the next day.

“That’s exactly how it happened,” my father tells me. “That’s how I
got home.
Can you believe I still dream about it sixty years later?”

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poets Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

 

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I Changed My Mind

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

I hated you.

I didn’t hate you at the beginning.

When I was a little girl … I guess you were pretty. I didn’t notice. I took you for granted.

Every Friday night, from the time I was old enough to sit with my family at the dinner table, which looked the same each week—white linen, matching china, glistening silverware and sparkling glasses—there you were in all your splendor, the two and a half foot silver candelabra in the center of the table. With your graceful four ornate sculptured arms and the eagle at your center reaching to the heavens, you looked ready to soar. That was you. I was too young to appreciate you or your age.

You were conceived, hand crafted, circa 1860, in Austria-Hungry. My father, the youngest of five children, inherited you. He brought you into his marriage and treasured you, his only family memento. You were old the first time I saw you but what did I know?

Before sunset each Friday, my Papa came home with a bouquet of flowers. My older brother and I washed our hands and sat at the Shabbat table. Mutti lit the candles, said a prayer; Papa followed, cutting the chalah and chanting the appropriate blessing. After the amen, we ate the customary meal: gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup and of course … the roasted chicken. The vegetables varied from week to week and so did the dessert; usually it was stewed fruit compote, apple cake, cookies and tea. Cold seltzer in a spritzer bottle (it was fun to pump) and wine for the adults was always on the table.

I didn’t hate you when I was little. You were just there … like a piece of furniture or a painting on our dining room wall. I had no personal relationship with you then. That changed when I became a teenager.

The chore my mother gave me, from the time I was thirteen, was to polish you every Thursday afternoon so that you would shine on Friday night when the four candles on your winged arms were lit. By then I was old enough to see how grand you were. But polishing you was another story.

It was not fun. Did you realize that the candles dripped on you and hardened? Your body had over a dozen pieces that fit into each other. Polishing you took over an hour. I wanted to do other things … even homework. But my job was not negotiable. I had to keep you shining for the Shabbat. And I did; until I got married, left my childhood home and you. One of my wedding presents was a beautiful, contemporary candelabra.

Of course I saw you whenever I visited my parents. By then I was an adult and admired your beauty. You were and still are stunning. Who polished you after I left? It was no longer my concern. I was free.

But nothing is forever. Many years later, after my mother died and my father remarried, he presented me with his family heirloom. Papa wanted you to remain in our family. I was overcome by the gift. At that time I was in my fifties and lived in an apartment in Miami, facing Biscayne Bay. The view was breathtaking. I displayed you in my living room on a beautiful oak cabinet that my son, Jeffrey, had built for me. You stood out like a prized possession, which you still are. People took notice of you the moment they stepped into my home. You were gorgeous.

My freedom didn’t last. I was back to polishing you. However, the feeling was different; I was older, smarter and loved you. But … there is a big “but.” After two years, the salt air from Biscayne Bay damaged your silver. It pitted you like a skin rash. You looked sad. I wasn’t going to ignore your condition. I was your caretaker. Through research and recommendation I found an expert who came to my aid. In 1975, I paid $400 to have you re-silvered and treated. The maven promised that I would never have to polish you again. That sounded like beautiful music.

Decades passed. I became irreligious and didn’t light your candles weekly. But you retained the place of honor in my home. I always loved Jewish traditions and on each holiday you glowed. My favorite simcha is the Passover Seder when I invite eighteen people to dinner. (The number signifies life in Hebrew.)

When my daughter, Susie, realized your monetary worth, she recommended that I store you in the attic in case of theft. I wouldn’t hear of it. What is the point of having something so beautiful and not being able to enjoy it?

This week I polished you. On Saturday I will again have eighteen people at my Seder table. All the food and desserts are homemade … with love.

I took a serious look at you while I was sprucing you up. I, almost half your age, am of advanced age. You’re an antique and I, an octogenarian. We have a common bond … we’ve aged. Your arms are shaky and my legs wobbly. You, newly polished and shiny, and I, with makeup and extra mascara, are still good looking.

I love you.

Helga Harris was born in Berlin, Germany, and moved with her family to New York City in 1938. She attended Brooklyn College and graduated from Pratt Institute and worked as fashion designer for forty years.

A writer as well as an artist and designer, Helga has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune and The Tampa Tribune. She has also contributed stories to anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways and various magazines. The most recent collection, We Were There, was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever.

She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy (offered at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota campus).

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Remembering The Shoah Through Words and Action

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Germany, I grew up with stories of the Shoah. I was recently asked if I recalled the exact moment I learned about what happened to my family. I answered no, there was no exact moment. It was always there. The knowledge seemed to have come through my mother’s milk.

I was that curious kid who asked about the kinds of foods my parents ate in Germany, what school was like, what clothing they wore, what life was like before Hitler came to power. I also began to ask questions about what happened to our family. As I got older, the questions became more serious. I asked my father to tell me about how he and his family hid in the basement of their home during the rioting of Kristallnacht in 1938, of what it felt like to be sixteen years old and be ordered to report to Town Hall the next morning and to be arrested and sent to Dachau.

There was the night my mother and I sat at the kitchen table and she told me about the kids in her kindergarten class who backed her up against a wall at school and threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” She told me how her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage, The Israelitisch Meijesweishaus, in Amsterdam. We talked about her father’s nine brothers and sisters, of how only he and one brother and sister survived. My father and I spoke about his family, those who survived and those who did not. His mother, father, older sister who was twenty-two and his younger brother who was eleven. They got out of Germany to Maastricht, Holland and in August 1942 were deported to Westerbork and in November 1942 to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival.

I had so many stories inside of me and poetry became the way to tell them. After writing and writing for almost fifteen years, in 2007 my book “How to Spot One of Us” was published.

Since publication, I have been speaking in public and private schools and for various organizations. I have told my family’s stories of life before the Holocaust, of trying to escape, of failing, of succeeding, of coming to America and learning a new language, becoming American citizens and of beginning, again. In my poetry, it is my goal to give voice to the dead. In my teaching, my goal is to encourage students to remember and study about the Holocaust and our world today, a world that is still rife with genocide.

Over the last two years I have become involved in other ways to remember the Shoah. I’m working with Emmy Award-winning director Richard Kroehling on BE•HOLD, a cinematic documentary that explores poetry, written by Jews and non-Jews, about the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the present. Poems are showcased by poets, survivors and their descendents. I am also part of a multi-media exhibit about children of survivors with photographer Aliza Augustine showing at The Kean University Human Rights Institute Gallery, consisting of my poetry and film and her portraits and photography.

I believe that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future. Seventy years ago, WWII ended. The last survivors of the Holocaust are aging and passing away. I feel it is my responsibility to remember and continue to tell the stories of my family before, during and after the Shoah in the hopes it will never happen again to anyone.

Jewish wisdom teaches that remembrance must include action. As a child, I was taught by my parents that every human being is created in God’s image and that is the way I should treat each person I meet. Our actions, small or large can help change the world. Whether it is treating the stranger with dignity or being active in causes to stop genocide, we each can remember the Shoah in our own way thus honoring the murdered and the survivors.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

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The Language of Poetry and Cinema Meets the Language of Grant Writing

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Writer and child survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.” I am producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic performance film that explores poetry written about the Holocaust, with director Richard Kroehling. The film showcases poetry written by survivors, their descendants and modern poets, both Jews and non-Jews, grappling with the Shoah and its aftereffects. The poems are presented by poets, survivors, actors and people from all walks of life, along with music and interviews, to create a deep well of voices responding to evil.

My parents were born in Germany. In 1936, my mother was six years old when she was backed up against a wall at school, and kids threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijesweishaus. There were one hundred and four girls. Four survived. My mother came to America with her parents and an older sister. When my father was sixteen, he was arrested on Kristallnacht (two days of rioting sanctioned by the Nazi government on November 9 and 10, 1938) and sent to Dachau. My father’s parents, his older sister and younger brother were murdered in Auschwitz. My parents lost over ninety-five percent of their extended families in concentration camps. I want to make BE•HOLD to honor my family, those who survived and those who did not, and to honor all the murdered, all the survivors, their descendants and those who fought against the Nazis.

The team making BE•HOLD is Richard Kroehling, a two-time Emmy Award winning director who filmed “A. Einstein: How I See the World” with William Hurt for PBS, and Lisa Rinzler, a multi-award winning cinematographer who has worked with Wim Wenders and Martin Scorcese. I met Richard at a conference less than three months after my father died, and we discussed our mutual love of poetry. Two weeks later, we decided to make a film. We talked for almost a year about BE•HOLD, discussing our vision for it, poems and poets we wished to film and ways to raise funds. I was observing the traditional Jewish year of mourning for my father, and many times this film felt as if it were a gift from him. It gave me a goal, something to focus on.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans.” Richard and I are driven by the possibilities of expanding the limits of what is purely literary and purely visual, and we believe that the language of poetry and the language of cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results. We watched them collide and were there to capture on film what happened. During each filming, a poetic moment took over and the results were different than what we had planned for and always more than we expected.

Grant writing is new for me, and I am trying to wrap my head around the idea of quantifying art. I’m still not sure I know what funders are asking for after writing grant proposals this past year. I understand that funders need to know where their money is going and that a project they fund will be a success. It’s different than creative writing. In a poem, if I know where I’m going, know everything I want to say, there’s nothing left to discover or surprise me in my writing. This is what I’d like to do: meet with a potential funder and say, “I can’t give you a pitch. I’m not a fundraiser. I’m a poet, teacher and filmmaker, and here’s why I’m passionate about BE•HOLD and why the film matters.”

On grant applications, I complete sections such as: log line, short and long description of the film, summary of content and objectives, narrative treatment, timeline, director’s vision, then upload a producer, director and cinematographer bio and filmography, upload the progress reel, fill out the budget form, list monies raised, funding sources and describe marketing and distribution plans. The next question asks what kind of metrics will be used to show that the film is a success. I understand why most of my artist friends don’t apply for grants.

Trying to make a film that is doing something new is difficult. There are so many people applying for grants from the few organizations that give them to filmmakers. But, I continue to fill out proposals and raise funds. Richard and I believe in BE•HOLD and that it offers a new approach to Holocaust remembrance. We also believe that the film imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us (2007).  She is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry performance filmhttps://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilm.  Her work has appeared in journals and on line in such publications as Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com.  She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. 

This essay is reprinted here with the kind permission of  The Best American Poetry Blog http://thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry/ where it first appeared.  

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Kristallnacht

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. Translated as the “Night of Crystal,” Kristallnacht is often referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass.” It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938, throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia occupied by German troops. Instigated primarily by Nazi Party officials and members of the SA (Sturmabteilungen: commonly known as Storm Troopers) and Hitler Youth, the name Kristallnacht reflects the broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses plundered and destroyed during the violence. Numbers vary, but over 1,000 synagogues and businesses were destroyed, at least 100 people were killed and over 30,000 men were taken to concentration camps. On November 10, 1938, my father was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp Dachau. He was 16 years old. 

Town Hall

“What for?” my father asked. “What
did I do? I’m only sixteen,” and
the gendarme told him if he didn’t

like it, if he asked any more questions, he could go home,
they’d arrest his father instead. And he saw his father
paying his tax bill in the next room,

and he didn’t call out, afraid they’d arrest him too, afraid
his father would want to take his place, and
the gendarme said he had a job to do, a quota of ten men,

and he didn’t care how he filled it. And my father
knew the gendarme, went to school with his daughter.
He was told to empty his pockets, turn

in any money and weapons, and he turned in
his pocketknife, and told the gendarme he had to go
to the bathroom, and another gendarme, Wilhelm,

took him, and he knew Wilhelm too. He told Wilhelm
not to worry, he wasn’t going to run away, and
Wilhelm said he knew, but he was doing his job.

As my father and nine men were loaded on a truck
that said “Trink Coca-Cola” he turned and saw
Wilhelm crying like a child.

Breaking Laws

Kristallnacht
broken glass
Nazis arrest him
a boy sixteen years old

Dachau
November 1938
a striped cotton uniform
it’s almost winter

he shares a bunk
with a man in his fifties
who freezes to death one night

the next morning a kapo tells him
take off the man’s long underwear
do it quickly
before the SS come for the body
you will freeze at night too
if you don’t

it is the custom of some Jews
not to wear clothes from a dead body
and to save one’s life the rabbis teach
one must break custom

he washes the underwear that night
places it over a chair
next to the woodstove to dry
sleeps on it
still damp
to make sure
no one will steal it

Janet R. Kirchheimer, the author of How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007), is currently producing BE•HOLD, a cinematic poetry film https://www.facebook.com/BeholdAPerformanceFilmHer work has appeared in many journals and on line including Atlanta Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on beliefnet.com and Drafthorse http://www.lmunet.edu/drafthorse/main.shtml She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received Honorable Mention in the String Poet Prize 2014. Janet teaches poetry, creative writing and memoir classes in New York City. You can contact her at janetksivan11@aol.com.

These two poems, “Town Hall” and “Breaking Laws,” are from How to Spot One of Us (Clal, 2007) and reprinted with the kind permission of the author and Clal.

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