Burden of memory on both sides of the ocean

  • November 11, 2009
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In 1938, when my mother fled Stockstadt am Rhein — the small German town her family had helped settle in 1721 — it had 2,000 people and two Jewish families totaling eight people. That means the Jewish population in Stockstadt was about one half of one percent, a statistic that mirrored Germany at large. In 1939, 350,000 Jews lived in a country of 50,000,000 people.

By 1945, the German Jewish population was so decimated by emigration and mass murder that it was possible for a German youth to never meet a Jew. The Jewish cemetery in Darmstadt, where some of my ancestors are buried, poignantly illustrates this point.

On my 1991 trip to Germany, I found the most recent headstone in the cemetery’s old section dated back to 1945. The cemetery’s new section had a smattering of headstones dating back to the 1970s that marked the deaths of Jews from the former Soviet Union who had emigrated to Germany. No Jews died in Darmstadt between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s…because very few Jews lived there at that time.

Today, Germany’s Jewish population is more than 200,000, but none live in Stockstadt. In fact, the synagogue my mother attended in nearby Erfelden has been converted into an arts center. “We’re trying to bring back what Jews once contributed to our culture,” one Erfelden resident explained.

On that 1991 trip, before the huge influx of former Soviet Union immigrants which now constitutes most of the 200,000 Jews in Germany, several young people told me they had never met a Jewish person. Some even claimed they had never heard of the Holocaust, but that’s another blog.

A 30-year-old man who worked in a nursing home in Crumstadt, Germany said he had only “encountered” Jews through the intrusive memories of his patients. Some had served in the SS. Sometimes, when disturbing memories flooded, they blurted out what they had done at that time. The caregiver said, “They are haunted.”

Interestingly, some concentration camps survivors living in American nursing homes also are plagued by persistent, painful memories. Uniquely challenging to the nursing home staff, survivors often refuse to do anything that triggers the memory of their traumas, like take a shower.

A strange irony playing out on both sides of the ocean!

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