'The tea set belongs in your family'

  • December 4, 2009
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The tea set: What remains of my mother's childhood home

On my first trip to Germany in 1991, I wondered whether there would be any physical evidence of my mother’s past. I wrote in Motherland, “What can remain of a family destroyed fifty-two years ago?” But the past has strange ways of inserting itself into the present.

When we visited my mother’s dear childhood friend Mina in Germany’s Oldenwald Mountains, she told my mother and me a chilling story about a child’s tea set.

“The tiny china pieces had blue and gold trim and came your wealthy relatives from Cologne,” said Mina, who had lived with my mother’s family as a child. “The relatives had sent the set to us around Christmas one year. We begged your mother (my grandmother) to let us play with it. She said no; the tea set was too fancy and fragile.

“But in 1938, when it became clear she had to send you to America, she gave in. Just before you left for America, she allowed us to play with the tea set all the time.”

Then Mina reached into a paper bag and pulled out wads of newspaper. She carefully unrolled the paper, revealing small china pieces with a yellow finish and faded, hand-painted gold flowers painted on a royal blue border. Mina explained that after my mother had left for America, “I went to visit Frau Westerfeld, (my grandmother) who, by then, was living in a ‘Jew-house,’ in Darmstadt.” The Nazis had forced all Jews in the area to live in one building. Local companies would come to the house and force Jews to work as slave laborers.

“The last time I saw your grandmother, she was hungry and frail. She said she must sell her children’s old toys for money to buy food. But when she came upon the tea set and remembered how we played, she looked at me, held up the teapot and said, ‘Maybe you would like these? Willst du sie haben?‘”

“The tea set belongs in your family,” Mina said to me fifty-two years after her visit with Frau Westerfeld. Then she held up the teapot and asked, “Willst du sie haben?

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