Earlier this week, Leslie Maitland wrote about choosing an epigraph, the artist Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteineproject, and reconnecting branches of her family separated by the Diaspora of the Nazi years. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I would not be writing this today but for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, nor could I have written my newly published book, Crossing the Borders of Time. Indeed, but for the dedicated mission of “the Joint” to save imperiled Jews from murder in the Holocaust, I would not be here at all. It was thanks to the Joint and cooperating agencies that my mother made an eleventh-hour escape from France in 1942 before the Nazis seized the country and sealed its ports. Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, she and her family fled to safety on ships chartered by the Joint from neutral Portugal. There were more than four hundred passengers with her on the Lipari, leaving from Marseille to Casablanca, where they transferred to a freighter, the San Thomé, for a voyage that lasted almost two months before the ship was cleared to land in Havana.
In this I was blessed by access to the remarkable archives of the Joint, which permitted me to study in detail the challenges it combated in securing visas, ships, and funds to rescue as many Jews as possible. In a seemingly indifferent world, even the United States had so sharply restricted entry that between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and war’s end in 1945, ninety percent of American visa quotas for would-be immigrants from Nazi-controlled countries in Europe went unfilled. Thus the Joint took on the mission of finding safe havens elsewhere for hunted people who were trapped in deadly situations.
In my mother’s case, through internal Joint reports, I would learn for the first time of dangers that threatened her family even after the agency had managed to get them out of France. They had been at sea for more than four weeks when Cuban president Fulgencio Batista abruptly revoked permission for the San Thomé passengers to land. Once again, it was the Joint that saved them. Rushing into action, the Joint provided sufficient international pressure and inducements to prevent the San Thomé from meeting the same cruel fate as the St. Louis, whose passengers—barred from landing in Cuba or the United States three years earlier—had been sent straight back to Europe to face the Nazis.
Now, just this spring, in a gift to the general public and all researchers, the Joint has started making this material available online through its archival website: http://archives.jdc.org. With funds donated by Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, the project has already digitized records dating from the agency’s founding up through 1932. In a telephone interview, Ms. Levi told me that the effort is continuing, and full archives covering the World War II period should be digitized by year’s end. Some of those Holocaust-era documents are expected to be online as early as this summer, she said, adding to what is already there.
Besides the professional researchers who will clearly benefit from the expanded website, Ms. Levi noted, members of the general public have consistently turned to the Joint seeking answers regarding family members, all too often dead or missing.
“Jews have questions about their pasts,” she said. “There is a hole somewhere they’re longing to fill. There is something intensely powerful about finding information about one’s family in a document in an archive. I’ve seen people burst out crying.”
Meanwhile, as the agency’s online archives grow, so too do its endeavors around the globe. Its work goes on today in more than seventy countries, where it strives to alleviate suffering, rescue endangered Jews, strengthen Jewish life, and provide relief for Jews and non-Jews who fall victim to disasters. It is my hope that through the online archives, the children and grandchildren of the people served and saved may one day learn their stories and join me in saying thank you to the Joint.
I have always been fascinated by epigraphs — those borrowed words that authors choose to introduce and encapsulate the message of their books. And so, almost as soon as I started writing my own book, Crossing the Borders of Time, I found my thoughts exploring several possibilities, words whose power had won them space in my catalogue of memory.
The book involves a search to find my mother’s long-lost love, the young and handsome Frenchman she’d left behind in 1942, when — fleeing the Nazis — she was forced to board the last refugee ship to escape France before the Germans sealed its ports. She was Jewish and 18; he was Catholic and 21. “Whatever the length of our separation, our love will survive it, because it depends on us alone,” Roland had written to Janine in a farewell note before she sailed. “I give you my vow that whatever the time we must wait, you will be my wife.” But war and disapproving family had intervened, and even as she tried to build a different life than the one she had imagined, Mom shared with me her longing for the love that had been stolen from her.
The story of their star-crossed romance, culminating in my efforts to reunite the pair, first called to mind Bob Dylan’s paean to a young love that endures:
The future for me is already a thing of the past.
You were my first love and you will be my last.
Yet even in my silent reading, the gnarly twang of Dylan’s unique delivery resounded as unreservedly American. It set the wrong mood as the opener for a love story that unfolded in Europe of the war years, and its tone seemed too lighthearted for the period and the harrowing experiences I was depicting. Besides, Dylan belonged to my youth. His rebellious ballads could be interpreted as a rejection of my parents’ generation. Indeed, the disdain that he expressed was not lost on my father, who actually forbade me to play Dylan’s albums on his phonograph, as if their scathing lyrics might damage the machinery.
Next in top contention for my epigraph were favorite verses from T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet had completely captured the spirit of my story, as he spoke to how a past, imagined yet never lived, nonetheless persists in memory. The words that echoed in my mind, entrancing and enthralling me since childhood, were all my mother’s words—her stories from a rose-garden, a lovers’ garden, an Eden from which she had been exiled. Perfect. Except for one disturbing thing. Eliot, whose philosophical poetry I adored, was a reputed anti-Semite, as exemplified most clearly in his early work.
Could I comfortably enshrine the verses of an anti-Semite on the opening pages of a volume that I had devoted in large measure to describing the plight of European Jewry in the Holocaust? I struggled with the question. To make Eliot’s voice my book’s first voice felt like treason. A betrayal of the millions who had suffered and died for no other reason than their Jewishness. And yet it grated, in banishing the artist, to have to sacrifice the art – a dilemma far from new to us. We are used to squirming as we read literary classics from times and places in which loathing for the Jewish people was a cultural prejudice quite shamelessly expressed. Surely, I argued with myself, we cannot be expected to reject all the works where Jews appear unfavorably or whose authors are anti-Semites. And what about music? Must we always close our ears to Richard Wagner?
Even now, after months of debate with myself and with others whose opinions I respect, my answers to these questions feel muddled. Before my book went to print, however, and not without regret, I relinquished T. S. Eliot and wondered whether, had I written something different—a physics text on the nature of time, for example—I might have felt more free to honor his creative voice by quoting him in my epigraph.
As it was, in place of Eliot’s verses, I finally chose a cherished line from Thomas Wolfe:
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
It had the virtue of calling to mind for me the loss not only of Roland, but also of my father, who had died before the lovers reunited, and of Hitler’s countless victims. Beyond that, when my son asked me whether Wolfe, as well, might have been a secret anti-Semite, I was happy to assure him that while the great novelist had visited Germany repeatedly in the 1930s, he had publicly denounced the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Retaliating, the Nazis had banned his books in Germany. Wolfe’s longtime lover, I suddenly remembered then, had been a Jewess named Aline Bernstein. To her, “A.B.,” he dedicated his masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel, from which I drew my epigraph with the sense I had arrived at the right place.
German artist Gunter Demnig created these two Stolpersteine in memory of Samuel Sigmar and Alice Berta Gunzburger in 2005. He embedded them in the sidewalk in front of Poststrasse 6, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, the couple’s home until they fled the country with their children in 1938. These “stumbling stones” number among more than 30,000 that Demnig has embedded in countries throughout Europe to memorialize Hitler’s victims — each one individually at the site where he or she had lived before the Holocaust.
In 1989 I accompanied my parents and brother on my mother’s first visit back to her birthplace of Freiburg im Breisgau – a charming medieval city in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. My mother’s family had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the terrors of Kristallnacht, and her return trip, more than a half-century later, was sparked by news that the city was reaching out to Jewish former citizens. Hosting a series of annual reunions, Freiburg invited Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meetings and events aimed at reconciliation and remembrance. At the time I was a correspondent for The New York Times and, in writing about our visit for the paper, forged what would become a lasting friendship with the city’s press secretary, Walter Preker.
About fifteen years later, Walter informed me that a German artist,Gunter Demnig, had launched a remarkable nationwide project in which he was embedding memorial markers into the sidewalks of city streets. Demnig was placing so-called Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” outside the homes where Jews had lived before the Holocaust so that current residents and passersby would be confronted on a daily basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s victims. Each metal-covered “stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the former inhabitants of the locations where the stones were set, and Walter wondered whether I would be interested in arranging for Stolpersteine to be placed in front of my grandparents’ Freiburg home at Poststrasse 6. He suggested it might be necessary to obtain permission from the current owners, still the same family, my grandparents’ former neighbors, who had “purchased” it from them at a grossly undervalued price in 1938.
Through work on my book – Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed – I had developed a good relationship with their grandson, Michael Stock. His family had divided the handsome building into five apartments, such that he continued to live there with his mother, along with several tenants. When I called him to broach the issue of the Stolpersteine, Michael raised no objection, and so in 2005, Gunter Demnig memorialized my grandparents, Samuel Sigmar Günzburger and Alice Berta Günzburger, in the sidewalk before the home from which they’d fled.
The following year, the Stolpersteine proved useful in an entirely unexpected way. A French businessman from Lyon, on an extended stay in Freiburg, stopped in surprise when he noticed a familiar name inscribed on two Stolpersteine on the sidewalk where he was strolling. An avid genealogist, he had dedicated a great deal of time and energy to tracing family history, and he immediately recognized Sigmar Günzburger as a relation. Indeed Sigmar’s father had been the brother of his own great-grandfather, which meant that we were cousins. Thanks to the artist’s representative in Freiburg, my enterprising cousin promptly got in contact with me – reconnecting branches of the family separated in the Diaspora of the Nazi years.
In 2007 he hosted a family reunion in Paris, and he graciously insisted that my son go to visit him in Lyon while studying in France in his senior year of college. Meanwhile, my cousin proved indefatigable in his continuing research. He discovered and financed the publication of Hebrew sermons written by a common ancestor, an esteemed eighteenth-century Alsatian rabbi. He organized a family expedition to Freiburg and its environs. And made a pilgrimage of sorts to Gurs, the French detention camp near the Pyrenees to which the Nazis in 1940 deported all the Jews who still remained in Freiburg and other regions near the Rhine. Supportive of my book research, he generously sent me photographs and documents and details of familial roots and shoots on an almost weekly basis.
Shockingly, I would learn that as children in France, his mother and aunt had been turned over to the Nazis by their own school principal. Both girls had been deported to a camp, my cousin told me, and his aunt had perished. Then came a revelation that, after all our previous discourse, somehow proved more shocking still: as a very young man, he had converted to Christianity. His wife was Christian, as were his sons.
He made this known to us one day when, visiting with my mother in her suburban Washington, D.C. apartment, he asked her for a copy of the Bible and read aloud the verses that predicted the coming of the Messiah. If the Jewish sacred text anticipated His arrival, our cousin challenged us, how was it that we failed to recognize that He had already come?
The moment proved awkward, as I struggled for an answer, and my mother gaped in disbelief. What had led this Holocaust survivor’s son, so devoted to Jewish family history, to spurn the faith of the forebears he revered? Was my newfound cousin, grappling with a painful past as I myself was doing, rejecting an identity that had spelled danger for many centuries? While tracing the branches of our tree, it seemed he was denying our common ground. His question lay between us like another sort of stumbling stone, but because I’d come to love him, I chose to step around it.