The tearful secret of Themar

A grandmother's tale, untold until now, opens a path of understanding and forgiveness.

Published September 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

We left Weisenbronn by the same route over which my great-grandfather once drove his cattle. This part of Bavaria is not dramatic, just lovely rolling countryside. As we drove north, reflecting on the simple decency of what Frau Hoffman was doing, we found our feelings about Germany changing. We had met no skinheads, had heard no anti-Semitism. It was very difficult to equate our experience in Weisenbronn with our feelings about and knowledge of the past.

Themar, where my dad, Henry Levinstein, was born in 1919, probably isn't more than 100 miles from Weisenbronn as the crow flies. Although liberated by the Americans after World War II, Themar wound up in the Soviet zone. Somehow I expected, I wanted, Themar to be a teeny-tiny village locked in the 1920s and '30s so I could see where and how Dad had grown up.

We spent the night between Weisenbronn and Themar in Meiningen, a town I recalled Dad having mentioned. A few blocks from our hotel, Nina saw a Star of David on a small marker. The simple German writing on the marker led us to understand that it stood on the site of the Meiningen synagogue, burned in November 1938 during what was memorialized in bronze as a "pogrom." In the distance, across a large meadow, a huge gingerbread hotel was being renovated. The synagogue's location had been a fine one.

Just outside Themar and the crumbling remnants of its fortress wall, welcoming signs proclaimed "Themar. 1200 Jahr -- 796 -- 1996." Themar was celebrating its 1,200th year.

"What's your plan now?" Nina asked as we arrived. My plan hadn't changed. We would go to the cemetery and see what we might find. Unlike in Weisenbronn, I thought people who knew Dad or his parents might still be alive. We only had to find them.

As we drove into Themar, a UPS truck passed us. A billboard indicated that the nearest McDonald's was just six and a half miles away. Clearly this was no longer the Themar of Dad's youth.

We arrived around noon. Nina was hungry, so we stopped at a bakery. We waited until only one woman was left behind us in line before we ordered. Pointing and using our fingers to indicate "how many," we bought a few things.

"So are you going to ask?" Nina said. I felt uneasy about asking for the cemetery. We were in the former East Germany. We knew evil things had, in fact, happened in Themar. I didn't know how we might be received. Hesitantly, I began my 10-second inquiry about the J|discher Friedhof.

We were told that it was in a neighboring town, Marisfelt. The woman behind us, who spoke no English, seemed quite interested and followed us outside. At that moment, her English-speaking daughter walked up. We explained we'd like to find someone who might be able to speak to us about Themar before the war. She translated this and her mother responded, quite enthusiastically and with lots of head nodding, "Meine Mutter."

"I'm going to show her the picture," I said to Nina, meaning the photo of Dad and his mother from the early 1920s.

"Why?" she said, ever skeptical. "They're not going to be able to recognize anything."

I held out the sepia-toned childhood picture of Dad for the two women. To our complete amazement they instantly began nodding their heads. They knew the place. It was still there. In a town that's been around for 1,200 years, buildings tend to stay put. The older woman got in our car.

A few blocks away, she told us to stop and pointed to the detail that had made it so easy for her to identify the location: The top story of the building had three small, domed windows clearly visible in the picture. Our passenger, Ingrid Saam, lived right around the corner.

We thanked her, said goodbye and set out to find the exact spot where the picture had been taken. We could see through the hedges into backyards, but could find no way in. As we headed back to our car, a teenage boy wearing a "No Nazis" T-shirt walked toward us. I still felt uncomfortable asking strangers about things Jewish, but figured he would be sympathetic.

No, he told us in English, he didn't know anyone who knew the neighborhood history. He suggested we speak with the English teacher at the school around the corner. As he left, Frau Saam reappeared. We explained that we were going to get the English teacher from school to help us. But first we wanted to find the spot where the picture had been taken.

As we retraced our steps, Frau Saam pointed out the many homes that had once been Jewish. She didn't know the Levinstein family, but she knew which house had held the synagogue and school and thought that might be it. It was around the corner, on Ernst Thalman Strasse, named for the Communist leader who died in Buchenwald in 1944. Back then the street was known as Oberstadtstrasse.

The house was freshly painted a light sky blue. Geraniums spilled from the window planters. Any connection to the Jewish community or Levinstein family was long gone. "Hair & Beauty" occupied the first floor. The large picture windows were filled with photos of beautiful women styled with the latest mousses.

In the backyard, apples ripened on several small trees. Behind the orchard and the garden was a small grassy area and from there one could see the building in the photo. I held the cracked, yellowing snapshot up at arm's length. From the spot where Nina and I stood, the perspective was exactly the same as where my dad and his mother had stood more than 70 years earlier. We were in the right place.

We walked back to the school, hoping to find the English-speaking teacher.

"Can you believe this?" Nina said. I couldn't. In a place where there hasn't lived a Jew for 54 years, the school was named for Anne Frank.

Frau Saam scurried into the school and within minutes returned with Frau Kammbach, the English teacher. "My lunch," she said, referring to the peach in her hand. It turned out that she was a friend of Frau Saam's family.

Frau Saam led us around the block. In the entry hall of her home there was a folding wheelchair. The tightly turned staircase was made that much smaller by the curving, coiled metal guides of a handicap lift system.

On the third floor, she introduced us to her 73-year-old mother, Waltraud Wilhelm. Frau Wilhelm came in from the kitchen on crutches, turned around and dropped herself into a chair. Like her daughter Ingrid, she, too, was nearly a caricature: rosy cheeks, snowy hair, broad beautiful smile and bright, bright blue eyes. I began my talk. "Mein Vater, Mein Grossvater, Meine Grossmutter aus Themar. Namen Levinstein."

Frau Wilhelm nodded and began to talk, and Frau Kammbach translated.

Frau Wilhelm remembered the Levinstein family well, she told us. She had passed the house at 17 Oberstadtstrasse every day on her way to school. She hadn't been inside but thought the Levinsteins lived on the first floor (where "Hair & Beauty" was now), that the Jewish school was on the second floor and that the third floor was a community center.

She described Dad's father, Moritz, in detail. She remembered him as a man with thick glasses and a round face -- just as he appeared in photos. She remembered Nanette, Dad's mother, more clearly. She was "a beautiful lady, a fine lady," she said.

Soon the strudel, the one Frau Saam had bought in the bakery, came out, together with some cookies. Coffee and tea were poured and we sat around the doily-covered table. The apartment was compact, filled with overstuffed chairs, tchotchkes of every sort, pictures of the Alps, flowers and animals. Until we had been invited into a few German homes, I hadn't realized how foreign, and how German, my grandmother Nanette's home in America had been.

We explained to Frau Wilhelm that our purpose in coming to Themar was to see this small town that I had heard so little about. I explained that the family history in Germany had not been, as we understood, very happy, and as a result, it was talked about only rarely. I told her and another daughter, Frau Goldschmidt, who had joined us, that Dad had died 10 years ago and his mother five years later. There was really no one else left who knew much of the history. Would she mind telling us what she knew?

Frau Wilhelm began to tell us what she remembered. She was young at the time, only a teenager. Back then, she said, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm in Themar for the Nazis. Things had been bad and they seemed to be getting better. Like many of her friends, she was swept up in the excitement of something new. She paused often to shake her head, as though wondering how that young girl could be the same woman she is today.

She knew that Moritz had been arrested in Meiningen in November 1938 during Kristallnacht. She recalled that she and her family were surprised because he was well-liked in the community. She wasn't far into the story when she began to cry. Her eyes, so intensely blue, shimmered. Once she began to cry, we all began to cry. She said that not long after they heard that Moritz had been arrested, the news came to town that he had committed suicide. That he had jumped from the train into the river on his way back to Themar.

Frau Wilhelm, seeing Nina and me cry, explained that she wouldn't have told us this story if she had known it would be so disturbing. But she thought it was good for us to know what she knew and that's why she agreed to see us. She said that except for one neighbor who now lives in Florida she had never discussed what happened with anyone -- not even with her daughters, who sat and cried with us.

We explained to her that, in fact, what she said was more or less the story I had heard at home, that no one could ever confirm. We explained that it was very unusual for a religious Jew such as Moritz to take his own life, which made it difficult for people at home to believe the story. Some thought perhaps he had been beaten and thrown from the train.

She thought about this for a long time. She told us that the Levinstein home, the school and the synagogue had been very badly vandalized. That the story told in Themar was that Herr Levinstein, hearing about the destruction of his temple on his way home, became so distraught that he took his life. She hadn't known that he had been sent to Buchenwald for a few weeks and then released. She stopped and thought again. She said that there were never any people who came forward as witnesses from the train. After a long time in which she paused and wiped away more tears, she said yes, it could have been as you say.

We knew that one of the objectives of Kristallnacht was to frighten Jews into leaving Germany. But Frau Wilhelm said that in Themar, Moritz's death was not used to that end. He was a well-liked man. She thought it wouldn't have done the Nazis any good to boast that he had been murdered. Perhaps the story of his jumping to his death had been told to keep the local people calm.

We talked of other things. I asked her if she had ever heard of a "Dixie," a car I recalled Dad saying his father owned. It was so small Dad said that it sometimes toppled over going around a turn. "Ja, ja, ja," she said, laughing, her father had owned one as well. It was a two-seater and a third person could sit in the trunk, she told us. It did sometimes tip over on a turn, she said, but it was light enough that you could simply pick it up and keep going.

We were onto happier topics and Frau Wilhelm began gesturing with her hands as though making a patty-cake. "Matzo," we heard her say. The teacher explained that Frau Wilhelm recalled Dad's father making special cakes, always around Easter time. Having translated the word, Frau Kammbach asked, "What is matzo?"

It felt a bit funny to recount Bible stories to people from a Christian country. We explained about the flight from Egypt, how Jews eat matzo during Passover and that the Last Supper had actually been a seder. I remembered how a cousin had once told me that Dad's father had been nervous over his matzo-making business. He had not reported the income and the Nazis had been pressuring him to pay up.

"What happened to the other Jews who stayed in Themar?" Nina asked. There had been 35 or so Jewish families in Themar before Hitler. Not all had been taken or frightened away. Frau Wilhelm's face instantly reflected her mood. Again she became somber.

She told us that in 1942 all the Jews were ordered to report to the train station at 8 a.m. She remembered it clearly. Frau Kammbach continued to translate but shortly into the story Frau Wilhelm began to cry and waved her hands across her face, unable to go on. Her daughters on either side tried to console her, but even so many years later, the vision was too difficult for her to look at.

"What did she say?" Nina asked.

"She said that they were marching the Jews to the station and it was very unpleasant," Frau Kammbach told us. "There was a Jewish woman, whose both legs had been broken and the Nazis were ... That is where she stopped."

One of us must have asked how Frau Wilhelm had come to see all this and that is when Frau Kammbach explained. Frau Wilhelm had childhood polio. Her window overlooked the street where this cattle herding of people took place. Paralyzed, unable to use her own legs, unable to leave the scene, she watched as the Nazis beat the Jewish woman with the broken legs who was also unable to move.

Frau Wilhelm continued to sob. The beating she had watched so many years earlier had not left her memory.

We spent three hours around the table at Frau Wilhelm's. While we were talking, her younger daughter had called the mayor in Marisfelt to arrange for a visit to the cemetery.

We asked if they had seen or heard of "Schindler's List." One of the daughters had seen it, but Frau Wilhelm hadn't. She didn't think she could sit through it. Her daughter had described it to her and that was enough, she said.

Before we left, we talked about the changes they had experienced since the reunification. They, too, had never believed it would happen. They also felt a tremendous joy when their country was put back together. Frau Wilhelm said that when she saw the Alps for the first time five years earlier, it was one of the most moving experiences of her life.

The Marisfelt mayor had said he would meet us the following morning. The light that afternoon was so lovely I suggested to Nina that we go to Marisfelt anyway, if only to take pictures.

The three-mile drive was on a small two-lane road that turned 90 degrees every half mile as it cut through forests and across farmland. A handmade signpost stood at the last right-angle turn just before Marisfelt. One wooden arrow pointed up an overgrown dirt road to the J|discher Friedhof.

Like the cemetery in Rvdelsse, the one in Marisfelt also occupied a beautiful spot above the town. Cattle were grazing in a large pasture alongside the road.

It was the "golden hour," when the setting sun makes everything a deeper, redder shade of itself. Someone had put a wooden table and bench up just outside the picket fence and aspen trees that surrounded the small graveyard.

The cemetery was much smaller and better kept than the one in Rvdelsse. The grass was short and soft. One couldn't find a lovelier, more peaceful spot than the bench that overlooked the town.

The 50 or so graves were well organized from the oldest to the most recent. Going back several hundred years, they came to an abrupt halt a bit to the left of center in the first row. Without going in we could clearly see the name on the last grave, the one closest to the gate. "M. Lvwenstein" it read. That was Moritz's grave. Somewhere along the way to America the name had become Levinstein. "Born November 17, 1884. Died December 6, 1938," less than a month after Kristallnacht. "Die Liebe hvret nimmer auf" was inscribed on the plate. I'm told this is an old-fashioned form of German, but its meaning is eternal. "Love lasts forever" or "Love never dies," my grandmother had written. "It's like the beginning of the end," Nina said, remarking on the foreshortened series of graves that ended with Moritz's.

We took pictures, made some notes, wondered why the Jews had been given such a beautiful spot for their cemetery. Probably we could have searched out others who might have known more. We could have asked to see the local archives. But Frau Wilhelm's telling was enough. We had sensed the pain of this memory. We felt no need to go deeper.

We had come to Germany without a plan, without guidebooks or dictionaries and, to our amazement, had found out far more than we had imagined. Our subcutaneous anger at and fear of Germans had subsided. We had traced some of the steps of long-lost relatives.

But there was still one more stop I wanted to make. After his arrest, Dad's father had been taken to Buchenwald. Embarrassingly, we didn't know where it was. To our astonishment, several Germans we asked also didn't know. Their bewilderment made me wonder what had been remembered and what had been forgotten or never taught.

Buchenwald is a suburb of Weimar, which, like Themar, is also in East Germany. The drive there was the loveliest of all. At one point we found ourselves on a single-lane, dirt hunter's track for about 15 miles. We had no idea where we were. There were no signs, and just a few abandoned farms in the lush forest. As we bounced over deep ruts and jagged rocks, Nina commented repeatedly that she didn't think this was the right road for a woman five months pregnant.

Nina had not wanted to go to Buchenwald. "I'm not sure I can take it," she said. But I wanted to go. It seemed like the appropriate way to conclude our journey.

The road into Buchenwald itself crosses a long, empty forest. Paths abandoned many years ago disappear into the woods and make one wonder where they once led. An enormous, Soviet-style monument adorned only with the date "1945" is the first thing one sees.

"What's that?" Nina asked as we passed a structure near the visitor center. It was the railroad siding. It took no imagination at all to conjure the image of trains pulling up here and disgorging their cargo.

We arrived just as the hourly film presentation was about to begin. At 10 in the morning, the large auditorium was nearly empty. The film was in German, but even with no narration it would have been easy to understand. There were shots of Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton visiting the camp. Film clips of American soldiers turning their heads away from the stench, the rigid bodies stacked like cord wood.

Two German men in their early 20s sat behind us, their legs up on the back of our row. They were both grunge-rocker types: shredded clothes, fluorescent hair, pierced and tattooed bodies. Not long into the film, one of them fell asleep. For the first time since we had arrived in Germany, I felt a rage building inside me. For a few minutes I tried to ignore his snoring. I couldn't.

"Hey!" I yelled. "This isn't a place for sleeping. Wake up!" He shook himself awake, probably having understood nothing of what I said except my tone. They stayed for the rest of the film and left. We never made eye contact.

Buchenwald was not one of the main killing camps. It was a processing facility, an industrial zone for slave labor and a holding pen. By the end of the war, 51,000 people had been killed there: many, perhaps the majority, non-Jews. In late 1938, 10,000 Jewish men arrested on Kristallnacht were sent to Buchenwald, among them Dad's father. Most were let go shortly after. Systemized extermination wouldn't begin for a few more years. It was on his way home that Moritz's life ended.

As we left the film presentation, buses and cars began to fill the large parking lot. I wasn't sure that either of us really wanted to tour the camp. How could we equate this place, high on a hill, surrounded by thick, quiet forests, overlooking a town famed as one of the great centers of German learning, with the past? How could we equate the wonderful experiences we had had with what had taken place here? Why were we even here, I wondered. We had not traveled to Germany to continue to hate the place but to try to understand it. So what was our actual purpose in coming to Buchenwald? We had seen the films, read the books, been to the museum in Washington. It was not our souls that required cleansing.

We saw the two German punks get into their car and leave. They didn't pass through the gates of the camp where the words "Jedem das Seine" ("Each to his own") are written in steel. They didn't note the hands on the clock tower that are permanently stopped at 3:15 in the afternoon, the time American forces liberated the camp. They didn't look out over the 40 or so rectangular gravel pads that mark the spots where the prison buildings once stood. Where Gypsies, criminals, Jews, homosexuals and other flotsam to be exploited and "cleansed" were housed. They didn't pass through either of the two buildings of any note that remained in the area.

One was the museum, which presented an excellent chronology of the Third Reich -- one that made clear how it happened; how all the different players who could have stopped it allowed it to happen. Maybe those two wouldn't have gotten anything from the museum, or would have chosen not to believe what was documented there in great detail.

But it was the other, smaller building, the one that stood to the right of the parade ground, where they really needed to go. One learned the history of Buchenwald from the feel of this building, not from the few signs that were posted on it. At the entrance a small plaque, in the languages of the great postwar powers, advised visitors that, in lieu of graves, the building should be considered the final resting place for the thousands who passed through the door we were about to enter. It asked that visitors respect it as a memorial. It was the incineration house.

The first rooms were unremarkable and the path led back outside. The doors were thick and closed with a heavy, smooth action. There were no directional signs. There was only a single route to follow.

Nina stayed outside while I went to the basement. It was a hot summer day, but as I went down the one short flight, the penetrating chill of thick concrete quickly drove away the heat. Hooks lined the walls. At the far end of the room, a large freight elevator stood ready for cargo. I called Nina to come down. We were alone. The cold was something neither of us could shake. It was the type of cold that comes up through the soles of the feet and races through the bones. Perhaps to those who passed through this spot it no longer mattered. I wondered if it could have felt any colder in winter.

Upstairs there were no descriptions or plaques at all. There were no historical photos. The four ovens, their metal doors open, ready to receive just as the elevator remained ready to disgorge, needed no description. In between the ovens were a few bunches of wilted flowers. There were strings of tiny origami paper cranes. Nina and I had seen these draped by the tens of thousands at the Hiroshima memorial in Japan. Here there were many fewer. Today, Hiroshima is a huge, industrial city. Buchenwald remains a small place, in many ways still hidden in the woods.

We stood in the room alone. We said nothing. It was a solid, well-built building and what noise there might have been outside did not come in. Nina began to sob, deep choking sobs, the tears running down the inside of her throat catching and rippling upon themselves.

Outside, we passed by the memorial to the Jewish victims of Buchenwald that was written in German, English and Hebrew. "To the children yet to be born," it said.

We left Germany that afternoon. We had gone there perhaps expecting to find justification for our years of smoldering anger. What we found was far different from what we had imagined. The people we met -- thoughtful, concerned, compassionate -- made us reflect upon our own prejudices. The unfocused bitterness we instinctively felt toward all Germans and all things German had dissipated. We left no longer thinking of Germany as the personification of evil, now and forever, but wondering how long one holds the anguish of the past in one's heart. We still don't know the answer. We only know that for us it's shorter than we once thought.

By Robert L. Strauss

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