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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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You cannot be Jewish and not wrestle with the role of Germany in Jewish history. It is a place where Jews experienced tremendous success, spiritually, intellectually, financially and socially. Before there was an affluent and influential Jewish presence in America, it existed in Germany. The great reforms of Jewish modernity started in Germany. Germany gave us, or helped to give us, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Isaac Mayer Wise; to name a few. Germany nurtured Jewish artists, writers, musicians, the early Zionist movement and was, for many Jews, a promised land. Yet, Germany also perpetrated what is probably the greatest crime against a single ethnic group in human history. So we Jews wrestle with our relationship to Germany.

There is a parallel, I think, with the relationship the people of ancient Judah had with the land of Egypt. Egypt was the place of enslavement. Yet at the same time Egypt was held out as a hope for Judean survival in the face of pressure from the great empires of Assyria and Babylon. Egypt is at once seen as a source of dread, yet also a place of potential alliance. The prophet Isaiah warns against depending on Egypt, telling Hezekiah in the 8th century to have faith in God, not Egypt. Language in the Tanach describing Egypt condemns its moral depravity. To ‘yored Mitzraima,’ to “go down to Egypt,” is not just a matter of geographical direction, but of spiritual and moral descent as well. Yet, after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, a Temple was built in Elephantine, Egypt. One of the first great Jewish communities of the diaspora was formed in Egypt. Egypt was a conundrum. It was the place of enslavement and the place that nurtured the growth of a strong Jewish community post Babylonian conquest; and did so for centuries.

I am about to leave tomorrow for Germany. It is the birth place for all of my ancestry, i.e. my father’s and mother’s families. It all begins for us in Germany. Our family is a great example of how much Jews integrated into the fabric of German life and culture. As I wrote a few days ago, Alfred Romberg was a commissioned officer in the German army during WWI. My father’s uncle, Richard Stern, the man who raised him in the absence of his biological father; was a decorated German soldier in WWI. My great, great grandfather, Nathan Moses Romberg, was a successful merchant who helped organize a Jewish community in Lengerich, Germany. He was originally Nathan Moses, but changed his last name to Romberg in what can only be an expression of his integration into the German society of the early 19th century.

But just as our family is an illustration of Jewish involvement in German life, so to is it a symbol of the consequences of the Shoah on Jewish life. Of my grandfather Walter’s 13 siblings, we know of 3 that died in German concentration camps. Walter himself was placed into slave labor that eventually killed him. His brother Oskar avoided the Gestapo for much of the war, but was eventually caught, sent to Theresienstadt and survived – rejoining his family in Essen, Germany. Others made it to America by various routes. One went to Sweden, others went to South Africa.

Yet, in spite of this history of our family with Germany, almost every family member I meet has been back to Germany, or wishes to visit Germany. My father, who not only experienced a lot of Nazi oppression before he barely escaped in September 1939, but was an American GI fighting against Germany in WWII; visited Germany many times for business and for pleasure. My brothers have both been to Germany and my youngest brother lived and worked there for a year after college. This will be my 3rd visit to Germany – 2nd within a year.

I totally understand that a person who survived the concentration camps, and who was not born in Germany would cringe at the very thought of not only travelling there, but of having anything to do with German products. I do find it strange that American Jews who have no family connection to the Holocaust boycott German products or scrunch up their face in displeasure when I mention I am returning to Germany. Other than using their displeasure as a peculiar method of ethnic identification and solidarity, what do they really know about my feelings regarding Germany? Or the feelings of any Jew of German descent?

So now I will be honest. As an American there is no better place to travel in Europe. It is friendly, interesting, dynamic and easy to navigate. As a Jew, I do feel just a bit tentative. I find myself looking for (and usually finding) signs of German atonement for what was done to my family. I soak up every German museum, display, memorial, or sign of respect about Jews. As I leave for Germany, I wonder how my family that ended up staying there navigated the post war years. What did they feel about their country? Did they ever wish to leave?

Yes, Germany is our generations Egypt. For it is Germany, for better or for worse, that has shaped the unfolding of Jewish history in my time. It is Germany that embodies the nascent hope of Jews of the 19th into the early 29th centuries. It is Germany that influences the Jewish dynamic of my generation, and I feel sure, of many to come. We cannot escape it.

So I close with a thought, really a question. In a thousand or so years, what country will be that generation’s Germany? And will they know it when it happens?

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