Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’


I have seen many movies that have drawn their stories out of the Holocaust. I am the child of two German/Jewish immigrants, one of whom is classified, at least by Spielberg, as a survivor. I have grown up living and reliving, telling and retelling the stories. It is deep in my DNA. Often, I no longer want to go to Holocaust inspired movies. When I do go, I can appreciate them intellectually, I can appreciate good story telling. But other than “Schindler’s List” I cannot remember the last time I had an emotional reaction to a Holocaust related film. Often I feel detached. Often I am numb to yet one more rehashing of Jewish tragedy. I always say the best way to counter the Nazi attempt to destroy us is to build vibrant Jewish life – whenever and wherever we can.

I just saw “Woman in Gold.” Fifteen minutes into the movie I knew something was different. I felt a different reaction to this film than to almost any other film drawn from the legacy of the Holocaust. I can identify the minute the movie changed for me – when Maria Altmann engaged Randol Schoenberg to be her lawyer. She knew his family. She remembered him as a little boy. His family was part of her family’s extended circle. She even made him a strudel. At the scene when Schoenberg and Altmann were about to leave Vienna and stopped and the Holocaust memorial, I knew the movie was touching a deep emotional chord in me. When the decision was announced that the paintings were hers, I began to feel myself breaking down. In the last scenes, as she walks through her old home, now converted into offices, she sees scenes of her childhood, her family gathered in these rooms – I was sobbing like a baby.

Why? It does not seem logical. The depictions of Nazi oppression were very mild compared to so many other Holocaust movies. This was a story about recovered art, not saved lives. It was a story about an elite Jewish family in Vienna many of whom escaped. They had their own SS officer, a man in black, assigned to them to prevent their escape. As stories of Holocaust suffering go, theirs was much less tragic than many I have seen. Yet I felt this movie so deeply.

In my office is a photograph of a stairway in Brooklyn leading to a store of Jewish sacred books and ritual objects. The title given the photograph is “Stairway to Heaven?” The photographer is Teddy Tobar, who was my father’s close friend, dating to their childhood in Cologne, Germany. Teddy, like a good number of dad’s Jewish community in Cologne, found a way to make it to America. I remember him as a funny, engaging man who everyone in the German Jewish community in New York seemed to know. His apartment, in the late 1940’s, was a center of social gatherings for German Jews. In fact, at one party, my dad almost ran into a cousin he did not even know existed. She and I put this fact together when I first met her years after dad died.

I used to spend a lot of time with my mom’s parents in the Bronx, my Oma and Opa. They were also part of a German Jewish community that was deeply interconnected. People knew each other, often from their years in Germany. If they did not know each other in Germany, they had common friends or even cousins that formed a connection. We often kid about Jewish geography, but German Jewish geography was intimate in a way not found in most of the Jewish world. As a child I went to Chanukah parties – gatherings of the German Jewish cohort. I knew the grandchildren of Oma’s and Opa’s friends. Some of their friends had children in America after the war. They were my sitters during the stretches I lived with my grandparents. In a few weeks we will gather to celebrate my mom’s 85th birthday. My parent’s longest and closest friends will be there. The husband was my dad’s friend in Cologne as children. Their daughter has been my friend since I was 4 years old. If I were to meet someone whose parents or grandparents were German Jews, we would quickly be able to find family connections. We would be tied together as no other Jews are tied together.

All of this sense of community – and community lost by the way – I felt in the movie the moment Maria served Randol a piece of strudel. It all came flooding back. I imagine the survivors of the Viennese Jewish community had the same kinds of connections as my family’s German Jewish community did. As Randol discovered why this case was about so much more than money, as he felt the deep connection to his own family’s history, I relived my own journey with my family history. When Maria looked at the portrait of her aunt for the first time since before the war, but in a museum in Vienna; I relived the moment I found the photograph of my Uncle Richard, standing in the doorway of his bedding store, defying the Nazis, hanging in the Jewish museum in Berlin. It is a moment filled with the flooding of memories – of love, of celebrations and even of sickness and death.

Finally, as she won the arbitration case, wiping the smarmy, smug smiles off the faces of the Austrian officials, I felt the same pride in triumph that I felt when I remember Uncle Richard’s war heroics against the Nazis in World War II. Then, as she visits her old home, reliving her last moment with her father, who asks of her one thing – to remember him – my memory leaps not just to Uncle Richard, but to my Oma and Opa, and all of their friends, to Teddy Tobar and all of Dad’s friends from Cologne. I become connected to a chain of moments reaching all the way to the 1930’s, well before I was born. Because just like I was at Sinai with all Jews, I was also at that doorway in Cologne, protesting with Uncle Richard. So I wept.

From our parashah, Leviticus, 23:15, “You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete.” The Hebrew is profound, usfartem lachem, “you will count for yourselves.” This is the period of the Omer, which we are counting right now. It runs from Pesach to Shavuot. It connects the holiday of liberation to the holiday of covenant. The Omer is a reminder that all of time is connected. We tend to see each holiday in its own moment, distinct and unique. But we are wrong. Every moment on our calendar is deeply connected to what has come before it as well as to what comes after it. We live in a Jewish cycle of time that spirals back into ancient times. We often forget our place in the chain. We often forget our connection to all that was before and will be after.

And why are the words “you shall count for yourselves” so important? Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that the beginning of the Omer marks the time that the creation of independent, thinking beings, who could serve God, was complete. Pesach, the moment of liberation, humans who would eventually learn teshuvah, who could work to improve the world, began their journey. Their instruction manual for doing that would be received on Shavuot. The command to count for themselves was a demonstration of their ability to be thinking, reasoning beings. The accounting for life was no longer in God’s hands, it was in theirs. Now it is in ours.

The Hebrew word for counting is the same root as for story, and telling a story. How profound. The beginning of accounting for our responsibilities in life, for understanding who we are and how we fit into the flow of the world begins with the accounting of our stories. Our memories, our stories, can inspire deeds of bravery, deeds of intelligence, deeds of caring, deeds of holiness. Each of us tries to retrieve our “Woman in Gold” while defying the “man in black.” May we recover our treasures of the past. May our counting and our story telling be filled with holiness, for now, for always. Amen.

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            Oskar Romberg was the second youngest of the 13 children of Julius and Fredericka Romberg.  He was, by his own admission, a bit of a wild child.  But the traits that his 3 remaining daughters remember most about him was his kindness, and the easy way he befriended people of all kinds.  Julius died before Oskar was ten and not too long afterwards his mother suffered a stroke that meant she could no longer care for her children – those left at home had to care for her.  Oskar provided a lot of this care.

His first marriage was to a Jewish woman, Doris Williner.  With her he had a son, Julius, but while she was pregnant with their second child had a tooth  pulled, which resolved in an infection.  The infection was never properly treated and killed her in childbirth.  She bore a child Oskar named Ilse, who died 4 weeks later – as baby had contracted the untreated infection from her mother.

A few years later Oskar met another woman, Margarethe.  She worked as a cashier in her parent’s butcher shop, which was also a kind of deli as there were tables where customers could sit and eat lunches they bought there.  Margarethe’s family was Catholic, but this presented no problems for Oskar he already had many non-Jewish friends.  By this time Oskar had established himself as a travelling salesman for furniture.  Most of his customers were not Jewish yet he had many strong relationships.  He married Margarethe in 1932.  They had two daughters; Doris, who he named in honor of his deceased first wife, and then Ilse, which was the name of his baby girl who died.  He kept a close contact with his first wife’s parents and his young girls came to look at them as relatives of their own.

This should have been an idyllic life for Oskar.  He was a successful salesman, with a wonderful new wife and two young children.  He had many friends of all sorts and even kept a close contact with his first in-laws.  But it all fell apart in just a few short years.

By1936 he was forced to quit his profession and do street labor with heavy equipment.  More and more apartment buildings did not want to rent to Jewish families.  His wife, Margarethe, was regularly called to the local Gestapo headquarters and badgered to divorce her Jewish husband.  Over he next few years the family had to move over 20 times, each time into worse conditions.

During the events of Kristalnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, Oskar disappeared and his children did not know where he was.  Doris believes now that he was most likely hidden by a priest, Father Vorspel.  Just a short time earlier, as Oskar was no longer able to find employment that would support the family, Father Vorspel hired Margarethe to work in the priest’s quarters for the parish.  She cleaned, carried buckets of water, anything to support the family.

By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Gestapo was actively trying to round up Jews.  One time a Nazi sympathizing neighbor saw Oskar on the street and called to the policeman on the beat that there was a Jew walking around and he better take him in.  The policeman had no desire to arrest Oskar, but did so and once he got to police headquarters, set him free.  By 1940 the family was hearing of Jews being deported.  In fact, the Williners, Oskar’s first in-laws, were deported.  Father Vorspel often hid Oskar when the Gestapo came around.  He would put him in the priest’s quarters or hide him in the recesses of the church library.

But that was not the end of the priest’s caring.  By 1943 he told the family that the young girls, Doris and Ilse, needed to be hidden, and he had the right place for them in a nunnery in south Germany.  Margarethe responded that they did not have the money for either the trip or the costs of boarding them.  Father Vorspel’s response was to not worry about the expense.  He took care of everything.  The girls were told not to tell anyone about their Jewish father and they lived with the nuns from March 1943 until November 0f 1944.  They would have stayed longer but someone from Essen came through and recognized them.  So their mother came to pick them up.  On the way home, Doris got sick with appendicitis and that delayed their trip home by two weeks – the time of the hospital stay.

Upon arriving home, Oskar was gone.  No one had seen who had taken Oskar.  Finally they got a postcard from him, sent from Holzmindin, an interim transfer camp.  After that they heard nothing.  Every few weeks Margarethe went to what remnant was left of the Jewish community to see if they had any word, but there was none.  At the end of March 1945 the Americans arrived in Essen.  The entire atmosphere of the city changed, as the Americans were extremely sympathetic.   But still there was no word about Oskar until they arrived home after yet one more trip to the Jewish community.  Someone had left a note at their apartment, written on a rag.  It read, “my dear wife and dear children, I will soon be with you but I am still very weak.  My friend and me went on foot, but it takes more than two weeks until I will be home again.  I am yearning for my family.  I send you many kisses.”

Oskar had been sent to Theresienstadt.  He was liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945, just two days before he was scheduled to be gassed.  He was only 75 pounds the day he was liberated.

Oskar lived to have two more daughters, Anne and Beatte.  He rebuilt his furniture business, with many of his old customers giving placing large orders with him.  It was a time everything was being rebuilt and everyone needed furniture.  But Oskar’s customers made sure Oskar Romberg did very well.  They had always liked him and wanted him to prosper once again.

In Doris’s photo album of the family in the war years is a picture of the priest, Father Vorspel.  Without him, Oskar might well have been caught by the Gestapo years earlier and would not have survived.  If Father Vorspel has not been honored as one of the righteous gentiles, it needs to be rectified.  This righteous man was a priest who got it right.

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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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