My 24-year-old granddaughter, Nira, born and raised on a moshav in southern Israel, and now studying genetics in Raleigh, N.C., has for some time been asking to accompany me and discover my “roots” in Germany. I know her well enough to appreciate that she didn’t just want a “fun” trip, and so she came with me in June on what has become my annual visit to Reinheim, my hometown in Germany south of Frankfurt, in the state of Hessen, where I am an honorary citizen.
My father, Jacob, was an obstetrician in Reinheim, much loved for his work, and some years ago the town dedicated a kindergarten in his memory.
I’ve been traveling to Europe every year for the last 15 years, and on 11 of those trips I went to Reinheim to give away a scholarship that the municipality awards every year in my name to researchers who engage themselves with questions of racism and human dignity in the context of German-Jewish relations. The 5,000-euro prize ($6,250) is awarded annually to a recipient of my choice.
Mayor Karl Hartmann of Reinheim initiated it, the city council approved, and some good work on the issue has been done both in historical research and by journalists on Germany’s leading newspaper.
Though she does not speak German, Nira was excited to take in the event, with more than 100 locals in attendance. It allowed her to see her grandfather recognized for contributing to knowledge important to Jews and Germans in the field of human relations. (The musical interludes in the program were performed by a Russian-Jewish immigrant.)
More sobering was Nira’s presence in Frankfurt at the site of the placement of a “Stolperstein” (a stone memorial on the sidewalk where a Jew became a victim of the Nazis). This memorial marked the spot where, in 1935, we found the body of my grandmother Hilda, who committed suicide in the wake of harassments our family had suffered in Reinheim. My father, the doctor who had delivered a whole generation of babies, was the target of the local Nazis, even before Hitler had seized power. As a result, Oma Hilda suffered a deep depression, which led her to jump from the fifth floor of the home we had moved to in hopes of fitting in to Frankfurt’s large Jewish community.
The custom of the Stolperstein has become a well-known one in Germany, sustained by citizen volunteers. The stones are placed in a hole dug for new stone — always on the sidewalk where Jews died. German friends of mine decided to honor my grandmother by placing a stone with her name, birth and death dates. The idea is that passers-by should, if not literally stumble (stolpern), at least become aware of one of the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis.
Nira and I visited the house at Darmstaedter Strasse 16 where my mother had also been born and my father practiced from 1912 until 1933 (with the exception of the four years he served his country on the western front in World War I). Built by my great-grandfather in 1876, the house had recently been renovated by the family who bought it from the previous owner. Moreover, it has been given landmark status, and a plaque naming three generations of our family was placed on the front of the building.
Nira now was indeed discovering my roots. The new owners, conscious of the past of their Reinheim home, had found a folder in which documents of my grandfather’s grain business of the year 1914 were neatly kept. She eagerly climbed the stairs to the top floor to inspect by boyhood bedroom.
This was as much an experience for me as for her, and if possible I’d like to repeat this adventure with Nira’s twin sister and our three other grandchildren. Is there time? Is there enough interest? We’ll see.
So often I hear from fellow refugees, “Germany? No, I won’t set foot there.”
I worked in Europe for two years in the 1980s, stationed in Paris for the Anti-Defamation League. And the truth is that nowhere could I accomplish more than in Germany, not despite but because of what began there seven decades ago.
Robert B. Goldmann specializes in European-Jewish relations, and worked for the Ford Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League