Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time to Tell My Story

In Honor of Our German Jewish Roots

For years, I have wanted to share our family’s German heritage in a story.

I was the only daughter of Dorothea, an only child of Meta Kaufmann, my grandmother, known as Omi. When I was a child, there was a circle of kind, caring and witty old and middle aged German aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers and great grandmothers we visited. I listened in on the conversations with Omi,Tante Anna, Eva, Meta (Cordy) and Dorothea, and identified with all of them. I wanted to learn the secrets they seemed to be telling, so I studied German for 9 years, starting at age 12.

Soon, it became my mission to return to Germany at 19, the same age my mother was forced to leave, due to the Nazis. I arrived at 19 and spent a year at Freiburg University, collecting more stories from Dorothea's friends, tracking down Omi's friend in her nursing home, and listening to the idyllic stories of Omi' and Dorothea's lives in Constantinople and Europe.

Dorothea had always told the story of her honeymoon with Gabriel, traveling by boat to Cologne to convince her parents they must leave Nazi Germany now. Otto could not believe the Nazis would put his family at risk. after decades of service to the government. They stayed well past Krystalnacht (when all Jewish businesses were vandalized and destroyed). Other members of the family were unable to get travel papers and were forced to hide out for years during the war. My mother's uncle's entire family perished in concentration camps..

But I digress. The fact is German Jews were quite different from other European Jews. Eastern European Jews continued to practice their religion and culture within strong Jewish communities. For survival, most German Jews chose to assimilate within the greater German culture, following centuries of anti-semitism. After centuries, my relatives felt more German than Jewish and participated in Christian holidays, many attending Christian schools or churches. Although everyone knew who the Jewish families were, people like Opa (my grandfather, Otto Kaufman) were able to rise within the aristocracy and gain leadership positions. Otto established the Deutsche Bank in Barcelona and Constantinople. Under his leadership, Otto oversaw the financing of the first railroad connecting Europe to the Middle East, known as the Orient Express.

So, as I asked questions of the German icons in our family, I discovered a generation gap. The elder generation refused to speak of the Nazi era, choosing to assimilate into America, while maintaining a very German lifestyle with family and friends. When I asked Meta if she ever felt Jewish, she bluntly said, "No", and that was a very emphatic no. Her son,Johnny, and others appeared to share her feelings. Late in life, a few grave stories emerged from the war years, family hiding out, unable to get travel papers and the terror of the Nazis.

Dorothea answered my questions with patience. She emerged from a strict victorian home, joining progressive youth groups before the Nazi era. She was warned by a cousin there was no future for Jewish youth in Germany. Dorothea had to leave her homeland if she wanted to survive, to have any future. She left everything she ever knew, the man who loved her, and at 19, arrived in New York.

Dorothea idolized her new aunt, Meta Lilienthal, her uncle Ernest's wife, where she and Meta first lived. Dorothea was taken in by the progressive, civil rights vigor of their Unitarian Church. Remember, she was joining the Unitarian civil rights movement in the mid 1930's, 20-30 years before the Martin Luther King era. The Unitarian Church took in many Jewish refugees, accepting people of all beliefs, developing leaders in civil rights, women’s' rights, anti-war movements and gay rights. I never faulted my mother for aligning herself with the Unitarians, instead of the Jews, a religion and customs foreign to her. In fact, I admired her constant community activism, inducting me early, too. I started stuffing envelopes by age 12, a political activism that I continue to pass on to my children.

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