Posts Tagged ‘German Jewish history’

When you suffer the consequences of war, its end brings emotional if not physical relief. You feel that better times are about to come; and even if they are not immediate, you at least have a moment of celebration that a period of fear has passed. So you would think.

At the end of World War II, Charlotte, her mother and her siblings were living in the Sudetenland. This became part of the Russian zone of occupation so the Red Army moved into their area. This only triggered a new round of atrocities, especially the first day they arrived. Women were raped. People were abused. The conquering victors had arrived. Margarethe had her daughters lay down on the top level of a bunk bed, curl themselves very small, and put their thumbs in their mouths to appear as childlike as possible. The Russian soldiers came into their room, shone their flashlights, saw the children lying there and left. It was a close call.

There was a song the family knew from the Karnival celebrations in Cologne. (Karnival is a winter festival celebration held every year in Cologne, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.) The lyrics said, “when you are homesick, you should travel on foot back to Cologne.” The family was homesick, so in early summer of 1945 they began a journey on foot back to Cologne. The Romberg family travelled with another young women and her two children. Age 13, Charlotte was the eldest of the children. Every day they walked. At night they slept in a different place; sometimes a barn, sometimes a school, sometimes the ground. They foraged the fields for food or depended on the kindness of strangers they met along the way.

One day they came upon a farm house and the farmer’s wife was outside churning butter. They asked if they could spend the night in the barn and the woman told them “no.” As they were leaving they met up with a Red Army officer, as the farmhouse had been commandeered to house a group of army officers. He spoke German and asked them what they wanted. They told him the just wanted to sleep in the barn for the night, but the farmer’s wife had told them no. He then forced the farmer’s wife to give them a bedroom in the farmhouse reserved for a Red Army officer. For the first time in weeks they slept in a real bed, were able to wash and to have real meals. They stayed there for several days.

Charlotte and her family were able to hitch a ride with a Red Army truck headed for Carlsbad. The driver let them off a bit before there and when he said goodbye gave them some tins of food for their journey. They made there way to the border of the American section near the Eger River, but the border was closed and they could not pass. They took shelter in a kind of makeshift refugee camp in the ball room of a guesthouse near the border. Every day brought the possibility of starvation unless they could successfully forage for food from the farmer’s fields in the area.

One day, Charlotte’s brother Norbert found a farmer’s cellar filled high with potatoes. They formed a plan to steal potatoes in which the brothers crept into the cellar with a bag and Charlotte kept watch. Back in the ballroom there was a small oven with a rough surface. They scratched the potatoes and put them onto the oven to make them more edible.

Finally there was a train organized to take refugees back to their homes in western Germany. After an overnight in Braunschweig, then another in Hanover, they finally arrived in Cologne in December of 1945. They were home at last in their beloved city – only to find it almost completely destroyed by allied bombing. They were placed in a bomb shelter near the Great Cathedral of Cologne. But in a devastated city there was no work or apartment for a widow with 4 children. They were evacuated to Pivitsheide where Charlotte stayed for the rest of her childhood.

When a war ends the soldiers look forward to a homecoming. The victorious side has parades to celebrate the heroics of the young soldiers. Families are reunited. Tears of joy are wept. Old romances are rekindled, new romances are found. An exciting new life begins for the returnees from the front. But for Charlotte and her family there was no homecoming. There was only a long journey, mostly on foot, the worry of starvation, and the sorrow of seeing the home that they loved in ruins.

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My grandfather, Walter Romberg has always been a man of mystery – someone shrouded by a curtain very hard to pull aside. My father knew very little about him. He has only one memory of meeting him – sometime in 1939 when he needed his father’s signature on the paperwork allowing him to leave Germany. The meeting was not unfriendly, but strange. He went to what he thought was Walter’s apartment in Cologne. His father was a bit apologetic for not being a father to him. Dad remembered seeing children inside the apartment, so he believed his father had children through another marriage. Those are his only first hand pieces of information. All of the rest came through his mother’s family, and they had nothing good to say about Walter.

For much of his life Dad was told how awful his father was. Certainly his mother, Martha, was bitter about her experience with Walter. His Uncle Richard had nothing good to say about him either. It was only when Dad was in his 50’s that one of his uncles (who had married into the Stern family so did not have the prejudice of other family members) told him that his father was really not such a bad person. But other than a name and these scant references, Walter Romberg has been a person concealed by the mists of a not easily recoverable history.

When cousin Bert Romberg made contact with me in August of 2011, bringing our part of the Romberg family into the fold with the rest of the surviving Rombergs, he could not add much detail other than Walter was one of 13 siblings. He only added that Walter seemed to be the “black sheep” of the family, as no one seemed to have much contact with him. He had the reputation of being a bit of a rogue, perhaps a gambler, someone who kept a little separate from his brothers. As I began to communicate with the rest of our newfound family, the only positive comment I received was from cousin Ralph Romberg, who remembered meeting Walter when Walter was visiting Ralph’s family in Essen. Ralph remembered that Walter was nice, funny and bought him a treat. Ralph of course could not have been more than 5 or 6 at the time.

But the story of Walter’s life is much more complicated – and tragic. He was born on March 4, 1893. He served in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. He had an unusual view of the war in that to him, it was a grand adventure. His daughter Charlotte said it was strange that when he spoke of the war it was in jovial terms, as if he enjoyed his time in the army. What made this doubly strange is that Walter, politically, was a member of the KPD – the Communist Party of Germany.

I do not know how Walter met my grandmother, Martha Stern or when they married. I do know that my father was born on July 11, 1923. Now comes the big reason why the Stern family probably had nothing good to say about him. In 1922 Walter fathered a son with another woman. I remember that my father told me he had an older brother who died in a traffic accident. This was confirmed by Charlotte; who also confirmed that this son was not by Martha. We cannot know the details of this little sordid triangle of the early 1920’s. But no matter how you analyze the dates involved, Walter was a two-timer – either cheating on his wife or stringing two women along at the same time. This is not the only time that fatherhood did not necessarily coincide with marriage for Walter, as he married Charlotte’s mother Margaret about a month after Charlotte was born in 1932.

Another point of conflict between Walter and my father’s uncle, Richard Stern, was politics. Uncle Richard was a member of the Social Democratic party – socialist, but a mainstream party of the German Weimer Republic in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Walter was a Communist. He was very well read and loved literature. Charlotte remembers that he loved to read Heinrich Heine. Heine’s writings were forbidden by the Nazis so the books were hidden between stacks of linens. Walter also loved music and paradoxically, Charlotte remembers him playing his favorite composer, Wagner, on an old style wind up gramophone. Wagner, of course, was a Nazi favorite because of his anti-Semitic views.

But Walter was a person of contradictions. He had no relation with my father, whether by choice or prevented by the Sterns we cannot really know. But he deeply loved his 4 children with Margaret and they felt it. She demonstrated a game he played with them in which he would call each one in turn gathering them into his arms one by one until he was embracing all four. As the 1930’s progressed he was forbidden by the Nazis to continue to be a travelling salesman and was pressed into hard labor on road crews. This paid very little so the family moved into progressively worse apartments – from one with an inside toilette to one where the toilette was shared with other families. Food was scarce but Walter made a game of it. He would save some of his lunch that he took to work, bringing it home and made a festival of cutting it into little sections for each child and calling it “rabbit food.”

Regarding the Nazis he had a kind of black humor. He told this joke referencing Hermann Goering: Pointing to each shoulder he would say, “The more decoration, the more decoration the fatter he gets.” The gestures indicated the epulettes on the shoulders.

Walter scrounged to find things for his children to make them happy. Charlotte wanted a toy pram, but of course they could not afford one. Walter inquired of an acquaintance who found one for him, but it was so old and out of style that Charlotte was ashamed to wheel it home with her father. They stopped at a kiosk for a bite to eat leaving the pram outside and laughed together over what should be its fate – perhaps someone would walk off with it while they were eating.

Walter had no involvement in Judaism. The only time Charlotte remembers going with him to synagogue was to meet someone else. Yet he wore the yellow Star of David, like all Jews, and even though he was married to a Catholic woman, his children were kept out of certain schools and later, when the war was on, his family was forbidden from using the cellar bomb shelters with other German families.

In their last apartment building were some other Jewish families. Charlotte remembered that one family had two little girls who gave her a rose for her holy communion (her mother was Catholic and had the children baptized as Catholics). In 1941 the Jewish families of her building were told to evacuate Cologne and report to a gathering camp outside of the city. Walter had a small handcart and helped the families transport their belongings, not knowing it was a useless exercise. These families were all sent to concentration camps in the east. In Minsk they were place on trucks they were told would transport them to work camps, but the trucks were rolling gas chambers and all were slaughtered. Years later Charlotte saw a picture of a pile of shoes of the children who died in these camps and wondered tearfully if some of the shoes belonged to her friends.

Walter Romberg died on a warm, sunny Sunday in early August, 1942. He was home, sick in bed, probably the result of his latest assignment of slave labor – in a factory in which he handled poisonous chemicals. Walter came into the kitchen, gasped, clutched his chest and collapsed in front of his wife and daughter. The doctor who came could do nothing other than confirm he was dead. As his body was carried out for the funeral, a girl from a Nazi family in the building asked Charlotte why she was crying. It was, after all, only a Jew.

What can I conclude about my grandfather? He tried to live a life that was a non conventional path. He was politically radical and tried to be a person without religious ties. He wanted to travel life on his own terms. Perhaps his tragedy is summed up by the Nazi girl’s comment to my aunt. When he died, he was just another Jew.

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