It wasn't supposed to turn out like that at all. Not after almost four decades. All my wife and I wanted to do was to see if our family homes were still standing, visit some former neighbors, drive down the Rhine. We wanted to avoid digging up the past, talking about the Nazis, the persecutions. But they wouldn't let us.
The visit itself was an afterthought. We had planned to fly only to Israel for a two-week visit, but then we found out that there was no direct flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. We'd have to make a stopover in Europe. Why then not add a few days to our vacation and visit both hometowns? My wife is from Frankfurt; I lived in a small town near there. And since my hometown, an almost 2,000-year-old Catholic city, had always been known for its Mardi Gras festivities, why not time our visit to coincide with carnival time, early in spring? No fuss, only fun. But they wouldn't let us.
"Everybody wants to see you," my former neighbor said on the phone when he called to confirm our arrival dates. "Carl Braumer, and Herman Becker, and Joseph Blick." He mentioned other names that had long since faded out of my memory. "They all insist on seeing you. They all remember you."
Of course they would. Just as they had remembered me right after the war, when I was part of the American occupation forces and passed through on a few occasions. Not only did they remember, but also they so desperately wanted to be remembered by me in 1946: "Remember me? I was the last one to join the Nazis." "Remember me? My family always shopped at your father's store, even after it was forbidden to do business with Jews." "Remember me? I was a Communist to the very end."
With Occupation Forces
But that had been when I was there with the occupation forces, 10 years after my family had immigrated to New York when I was still in high school. The town, strongly conservative, had always supported the Catholic Centrist Party, and there had been few Nazis. I had been harassed a few times, and many of my former classmates would avoid me on the street after I'd been asked to transfer to a Jewish school. These were the first years of Hitler, the easy years for most Jews, and our family was lucky to get out so early.
So now, years after my first visit back, I was going to return once more, this time with my wife. We were invited to a gala reception in honor of the Carnival Committee, and of course there'd be a parade to see. I accepted, but turned down all the other invitations. Not enough time. After all, we had only three days. They insisted. In the end, we compromised. If my former classmates could all agree on one evening, I'd spend a few hours with them and renew acquaintances.
One of my classmates picked us up after dinner. The streets were full of masked revelers. Nine people I hadn't seen in almost 50 years had gathered in my classmate's house. Most of them I didn't remember at all, but some of the names sounded familiar.
Beer and Wine
There was beer and wine and cheese and crackers. Did I remember the town, they wanted to know. Had things changed much? How was my family? How was my older brother? He had a slight heart attack last year, I said, but he's fine now. Did I keep up with the other Jewish youngsters who had lived in town, somebody wanted to know. Not much, I said. Some live in New York, in Chicago, in Detroit. It was coming again, I realized. I should have known.
I tried to change the subject, asking about some of my old classmates who hadn't come. One had another obligation. Some had moved away. But one, who had died just a year or so ago, would have been delighted to attend. "He was the one who tried to stop the Nazis from destroying the synagogue. He would not have missed this evening."
I stopped talking. The past was grabbing at me again. "What was the name of the Jewish family that lived across the street from you?" "Whatever became of that fat Jewish butcher who had four children?" "What about that nice young family that went to Palestine?"
I looked around me. There they were, printers, bakers, businessmen, a war widow, civil servants, some retired, all decent, small-town people. None of them had been Nazis, though all had to join the Nazi youth organization. It was only a small town, and this was only a short visit, but it had suddenly turned into a confessional. They were dredging up their 50-year-old guilt feelings, and I had become their father confessor. Almost everyone there was desperately rummaging through his past, trying to remember something about a Jewish neighbor, a name, an anecdote, something, as if that memory could make up for the horror that had been all around them. My wife and I left earlier than we had planned. We couldn't wait to get away. Outside, the merry-making was in full swing.
Highlight of Carnival
Next afternoon came the highlight of the carnival, the parade. It took three hours to pass the spot from where we watched at the home of a friend of our host. Afterward, we made small talk. I did not know the lady of the house, who was many years younger than I, but I knew the name. Yes, she was related to our former tailor. Was I, she wanted to know, a student in her grandfather's class? She mentioned a familiar name. "No," I said. "I was in the class a year behind the one he taught." "But you knew my grandfather?" "Of course," I said. "A big, tall man with dark glasses. I even spoke with him for a few minutes in 1946, when I visited the school."
"My grandfather has been dead many years," she said, "and I remember very little about the Nazi period. But my grandfather talked about it, about how they persecuted the Jews. He thought it was terrible."
"He was a good man," I said. "My mother really wanted me to be in his class, but I was too young by a few months."
"The one thing I'll never forget," she continued, speaking softly now, "was when he told about the time the storm troopers looted the homes of the Jews. It was late afternoon, school was out, and he was standing at the window, looking across the street and watching the Nazis smash down the doors and drag out a Jewish family."
" 'I was absolutely enraged,' my grandfather said as he told the story, 'enraged that they would do this to these innocent, poor people. I was so angry that I made a fist. I made a fist,' he repeated, 'but . . . I kept it in my pocket.' "
She paused a second. Through the window, we could hear the carnival noise and see the masks and the costumes.
" 'All the time I kept the fist in my pocket,' my grandfather said. 'I was so ashamed of myself that I didn't say anything, and worse, that I didn't do anything. And that day I'm always going to have on my conscience.' Then he said, 'the knowledge of what we didn't do is going to have to follow us into our graves.' "
We said goodby to the granddaughter of that decent man. Their carnival was almost over. Their nightmare was not. Even 40 years after the Holocaust, death, to many Germans, is their own final solution.