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.
Dr. Abigail Green’s new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.
What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.
A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was
written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.
Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.
Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.
Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.
My fascination with New Mexico began in 2007, when I moved to Albuquerque sight unseen to write my first novel, The Fallback Plan. The state is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” and that’s one of the reasons I moved there, from the less exotic “Land of Lincoln.” In general, I found the people there to be very open to talking about unsolved mysteries—ghosts and disappearances, aliens and conspiracies. A neighbor told me that the Sandia Mountains were partly “fake,” built by the government to hide missiles near the air force base. Another said he’d seen la llorona in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.
So I don’t generally associate the American Southwest with the Jewish Diaspora, but I do associate it with ghosts. And last spring, I went back to the Southwest on a kind of working vacation, to soak in some sunshine and work on a new book project, which is partly set there. I took a tour in Santa Fe and learned about one of the city’s most famous ghosts, a German Jew named Julia Staab, who died in 1896 and now haunts La Posada Hotel.
This painting hangs in her room at the hotel. It is assumed to be Julia, but
could be one of her descendants, as it wasn’t painted until 1939.
Julia was the wife of Abraham Staab, who emigrated at age 15 to escape military conscription and life in the ghettos, later becoming a wealthy merchant who made his fortune as a contractor for the U.S. army. Because of the lack of eligible (Jewish) wives in the area, he returned to Germany and convinced Julia Schuster, age 16, to marry him. As the story goes, Julia was reluctant to agree to a life in the Wild West, but eventually consented.
At first, the couple lived on Burro Alley in Santa Fe. I took this picture there in 2008.
By most accounts, Julia was sickly, and suffered from depression. She was also famously beautiful. Abraham built her a mansion north of the Plaza, in the French Second Empire-style, which stood in stark contrast to the adobe homes surrounding it. The third floor was devoted to a ballroom, where they hosted the best parties in Santa Fe.
Staab mansion in the 1880s
Julia had seven children, some miscarriages and at least one stillborn, who is buried in the family plot. They say that after the death of her youngest, she was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and after two days of this she looked in the mirror and her hair had turned from black to white.
There were no more parties. Julia would not leave the house. In town, Abraham made excuses for his wife’s notable absence. Rumors circulated that she had gone mad.
No official mention is made of Julia until years later, when a brief notice of her death at age fifty-two appears in the local paper. No cause is stated.
The mansion is now a resort hotel: La Posada. Guests who have stayed in Julia’s suite have reported that the bathtub will fill with water on its own. (One rumor of her death is that she drowned there.) In the restrooms on the first floor, her face has appeared in the mirror. A hotel bartender has reported glasses flying off the shelves.
I am drawn to Julia’s story for a number of reasons. First, her history is in some ways a composite of my own ancestors’, half of whom are German Jews who became merchants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and half of whom are Scotch-Irish pioneers who became homesteaders on the Kansas plains. I sympathize with her displacement, imagining what it must have been like to arrive in arid New Mexico for the first time, an experience I also had as a young adult. If anything, Jewish history is one of exile, and the Staabs’ story is a fascinating tale of Jews carving a new life in the American Southwest. Finally, Julia’s story is so poignant to me because even now she is in exile, unable to return “home.”
But only if you believe in ghosts.
For more information on the Staab family, there is an interesting (and brief) memoir in the archives of the Center for Jewish history, accessible here.
Before I’d settled on acting or writing, my greatest aspiration was simply to “Be Anne Frank,” and when I was twelve, I auditioned for the title role in a community theater production of the Goodrich and Hackett play. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few, if not the only, Jew(s) to audition (in a town known for its Evangelical Christian college), and I thought I had it in the bag. All they had to do, I thought, was look at my last name and cast me immediately, to lend credibility to their production.
At callbacks, it was between me and one other Anne. I wore a plaid skirt and a pale sage cardigan with tiny rosebuds around the collar. I parted my dark hair on the side. While the other Anne smiled and laughed and generally behaved like she was at a food court in the mall, I delivered my lines with gravitas. I looked at the imaginary sky with longing. I was sarcastic, but never silly. I never let myself forget that Anne was a victim of the Holocaust, and it was my job on stage to honor that fact. More than anything, I felt I deserved to be Anne because I knew her so intimately after reading her diaries.
Shocker: the other Anne got cast. “But you look so much like her,” the director told me on the phone, as a consolation prize. “It was really tough.”
The only thing I could console myself with was the fantasy that after I died, God would rectify this injustice by allowing me to play the role in Heaven. (It’s funny that I imagined this and not, you know, actuallymeeting Anne there in the afterlife.)
One of the reasons I loved Francine Prose’s recent book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, is because it tells the fascinating and fraught history of the theatrical adaptation. Reading it fourteen years after that fateful audition was a revelation: it wasn’t my fault that I was wrong for the part of Anne. It was the play’s fault. The play reinvents Anne as some kind of Jewish Polyanna. Prose really hits the nail on the head when she compares the insightful diarist with her characterization:
On the page, she is brilliant; on the stage she’s a nitwit. In the book, she is the most gifted and sharp-sighted person in the annex; in the play, she’s the naïve baby whom the others indulge and protect. For all her talk about being treated like a child and not knowing who she was, Anne saw herself as an adult and the others as children. In the drama, those relations have been reversed.
Years after I first read her diary, Anne is still an inspiration to me. Prose’s book is an excellent account of her aspirations as a writer (Anne hoped her diaries would be published, and revised scrupulously), and I recommend it highly. I also can thank Prose for leading me to this twenty-one second video, the only video footage known to exist of Anne, in which we see the young diarist briefly from a window, flickering, alive.