Return to Germany PART 1/3.
by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
An Unnerving Invitation
In 1978, my husband Roberto and I began to plan a trip to Greece. Neither of us had ever been there, and we looked forward to exploring the country's historic ruins and taking a cruise around the Greek Isles.
I called Michael Bennett at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), for whom I had given talks on women's rights abroad in the past, to see if USIA needed anyone in Greece. "No," he said. "We don't. But we do have a request for a speaker in France and Germany. One week in France and two in Germany. Would you be willing to go?"
I was taken aback by Michael's request. Germany? The land I'd escaped over forty years ago? The country of Heil Hitler, marching boots, and swastikas? The country soaked in the blood of my people? Could I go there?
I told Michael I'd need time to think about it.
I consulted Roberto about USIA's request. "Up to you," he said.
For years I had felt a strong desire to return to my birthplace, to see where I would have spent my life if Hitler and his band of murderers hadn't come along. I had envisioned a quick trip into Berlin, followed by an immediate departure. USIA, however, was asking me to stay two weeks—something entirely different.
On past USIA trips, I had enjoyed sightseeing and exploring the local entertainment in my spare time. But how does one enjoy oneself on the site of a charnel house? I had always found it challenging, meaningful, and exciting to speak The Jewish problem had ended with the war in Germany in 1945, hadn't it? What would there be to report now—over thirty years later?
abroad about women's rights. But were women's rights relevant in a country where millions of Jews as well as non-Jews had been slaughtered?
I decided to consult local and national Jewish leaders. The first person I called was Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Temple Sinai, the reform temple to which I belonged in Stamford, Connecticut. The rabbi, a handsome young man in his early thirties, empathized with my reluctance to go, but he added, "It's not just their country. There's Jewish history in Germany, too." I hadn't thought of that. My family alone had lived there for twenty years. "If you do decide to go," Rabbi Pearce continued, "I hope you'll report to the congregation on your return." I agreed to do this but wondered what there would be to report. After all, the Jewish problem had ended with the war in Germany in 1945, hadn't it? What would there be to report now—over thirty years later?
I spoke with Jewish leaders at organizations such as B'nai B'rith. The consensus was that Germany was a new land with a new people. Israel had developed significant trade relations with Germany, so who was I to resist?
I decided to go. But because of Rabbi Pearce's request, I asked USIA to include meetings with Jewish leaders and a visit to a former concentration camp in my itinerary.
I called my brother Hermann and asked if he remembered any of the addresses of the places where our family had lived, where my parents had operated their stores, and where we had owned an apartment building. To my amazement, he reeled off all the addresses, some of which were now in East Berlin. I resolved to try to find them all.
That fall, I flew to Paris. Roberto was to join me later due to some work commitments. To my surprise, the Jewish question came up on the night of my arrival in France.
I was having cocktails with a small group of feminists at the home of the woman who was head of the American Cultural Center. A French reporter for the news magazine L'Express mentioned that she had recently interviewed Darquier De Pellepoix, the eighty-year-old Frenchman who had been the Vichy government's Commissioner for Jewish Affairs. De Pellepoix, a major French war criminal who had been convicted in absentia but was never punished, lived in Spain. He told the reporter that the genocide of the Jewish people had never happened; that the 75,000 French and stateless Jews he deported from France to death camps had been resettled in the East; and that only lice were gassed at Auschwitz. The following day, his statements were on the front page of L'Express.
The reporter also mentioned that the French had never come to terms with their collaboration with the Nazis. While the NBC TV film Holocaust had been shown all over Western Europe, it had not yet been shown on French TV (although a French woman had recently started a private fund-raising appeal so the film could be shown there).
Roberto joined me in Paris, and from there we flew to West Berlin, arriving on the night of November 8. The German assistant to the head of Amerika Haus met us at the airport and told us that by an odd coincidence we had arrived on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. Forty years earlier, Hershl Grynszpan, a 17-year old Jewish student, had shot and killed Ernst von Rath, an official in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the treatment his family had received at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the incident to incite Germans to wreak vengeance against the Jews.
As a result, mob violence began on the night of November 9 and continued into the next day as the regular
German police stood by and crowds of spectators watched. Nazi storm troopers, along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth, beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish women and children. All over Germany, Austria, and other Nazi-controlled areas, Jewish shops and department stores had their windows smashed, thus giving the terror its name: the Night of Broken Glass. Ninety-one Jews were killed; 267 synagogues burned (177 totally destroyed); 7,500 businesses destroyed; and 25,000 Jewish men rounded up and eventually sent to concentration camps.
We had missed the march commemorating that night but were in time to see the exhibition at the Jewish Community Center. The Center was a modern building in the heart of West Berlin. As we approached, we noticed what appeared to be the ruins of another building cemented onto the front of the Center. We wondered what these ruins could be.
The Center was thronged with people from the march. The exhibition consisted of pictures of Berlin's magnificent synagogues as they appeared before the Nazi desecration, the shambles that remained after they were bombed and ransacked, and some of the post-war reconstructions. One of the "before" pictures showed Kaiser Wilhelm visiting one of these synagogues in an earlier period. One of the "after" pictures showed the remains of the synagogue that had stood on the site of the Center. It was two pieces of those remains that were attached to the front of the building.
"Return to Germany" was first published earlier this year in iAgora, http://www.iagora.com.
This article is an excerpt from Ms. Fuentes' memoirs, Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist
Daughter, which will be published in paperback in December 1999 from XLibris at orders@XLibris.com, amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble and Borders book stores.
Ms. Fuentes, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and winters in Sarasota,
Florida, was born in Berlin, Germany, and came to the US as a child with
her family. She was the first woman attorney in the Office of the
General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a
founder of NOW. Ms. Fuentes, who gives talks on the women's movement
and does memoirs-readings for a fee plus expenses, may be reached at