Most homes in Germany are handed down from one generation to the next. My mother’s family, the Westerfelds, had built their house in Stockstadt am Rhein in 1721, and they lived in it for 200 years. In 1939, when my grandparents were desperate for money, one of the town’s prominent Nazis pressured the family into selling the Westerfeld home for next to nothing. Eventually, the home was handed down to the son of the Nazi.
After the Holocaust, many “Jewish houses” in Germany were abandoned and sat vacant for years. Some became unintentional monuments to the families who once lived in them. In Stockstadt, many said they lived uneasily with the “Westerfeld home.” Whenever residents walked by the house, they remembered the two little girls — my mother and aunt — who once played there.
In the town of Büttelborn, one family who have rented a former Jewish home since 1978 became uncomfortable when they learned about the original owners. “We began to wonder what happened to them,” the tenant told me.
The man who grew up in the home returned for a visit when he was 79 years old. He told the current residents that the Nazis had murdered his parents, however, he had escaped to Palestine in1936.
“It was strange when he was here because this was his house, his birthplace, the place of his youth,” the tenant said. “He stood for a moment on the last step of the stairs. It was emotional for him.”
As the tenant watched this man as he was flooded with memories, she said she felt terribly guilty. “I know that there is no reason to think it,” she said, “but I felt like a thief.”
When my mother’s cousin returned to his home in Worfelden, he wanted to get a photograph of his childhood home. “As I held up my camera,” he said, “a man stepped in front of me and asked, ‘Why are you photographing my home?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it used to be my home.’”
The former Erfelden home of the Jewish dry goods merchant has been sold many times. “It keeps turning over,” said a life-long resident of the town. “Nobody wants to live in it.”
Even though Germans are dedicated to preserving old buildings, Stockstadt’s Town Council granted a rare variance allowing the current owners to tear down the Westerfeld home. The new owners built a building – for a shop and residence — where the Westerfeld home once stood.
When I spoke to the new owner, I explained that the Westerfelds once owned the property. “My father never told us anything,” he claimed. “We only found out about your family when we read your book, Motherland. We were shocked to learn about the house and its history.”