Where are the Descendents?
9.5 million—a statistic I found with a Google search, referring to the Jewish population of Europe before the Nazis took power. Certainly, there are far fewer Jews in Europe today. Recently, I traveled to Germany to participate in two Holocaust remembrance programs, my second trip for this purpose.
In Frankfurt, my sister and I presented our great grandmother’s story with the Denk Mal Am Ort program, run by Marie Rolshoven of Berlin. The program runs in the spring—when the allies took control of various German cities in 1945. Currently, there are remembrance programs in Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, and Berlin. Ms. Rolshoven and her colleagues search for the descendants of victims of Nazi persecution and match them with current residents.
For example, in 2019, my sister and I shared our mother’s story with the present occupants of the flat she lived in with her family in the 1930’s. All the participants benefit from the program which I have experienced and observed. Ms. Rolshoven works all year to find volunteers and coordinate the events. Marie is positive yet serious about remembrance. She is the daughter of Jani Pietsch who was a writer, artist, and activist for refugees. Both women started the program in Berlin.
They are not Jewish. Therein lies the miracle of Denk Mal Am Ort and the Stolperstein programs in Germany. Non-Jews are sincerely committed to responsibility and reconciliation of their nation’s horrible past. In the last ten years, I have met sincere men, women, and young people who are not afraid to be truthful, stunned, and incredulous—but not naïve—those unbelievable atrocities occurred in the name of Germany. In Konstanz, Germany we had the privilege of meeting Petra Quintini and her amazing group of college and high school students and teachers who researched and funded the Stolpersteine we had placed for our father and his family who escaped to the U.S.A. in 1938.
For those who do not know, the Stolperstein project was developed by Günther Demnig who strives to remember the millions of victims of the Nazis. Small, flat, brass stones are placed in the sidewalk in front of the last voluntary residence of a person who was murdered, victimized, and/or escaped the oppression. The program runs in various western European countries.
I am the daughter of refugees who survived and escaped the Nazis. Some of my relatives were not lucky. To honor them and all victims, I have chosen to come face-to-face with Germans and speak honestly. I discover common concerns and feelings with the brave Germans. Reconciliation heals. Germany now and prior to World War II contributed scientific, literary, and artistic knowledge to the world. A cursory review of history reveals that numerous countries have oppressed and murdered those they deemed unfit or alien over the centuries. Germany does not stand alone; it is true that the Nazis sank to a nadir of human behavior.
Some simple math—There were approximately 9.5 million Jews before the second world war; 6 million were killed, so approximately 3 million survivors remained. This calculation is very general. Another way to view my point: nearly every house in a two-block area in Frankfurt was occupied by Jewish families, and about half survived by leaving Germany. Therefore, there should be numerous descendants of these survivors. I use sweeping, imprecise numbers; however, my point is there should be more Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) in the countries where the program has been established. Marie should not have problems finding more relatives of survivors or victims for her programs.
But where are these people? Why do I have to constantly repeat an explanation of these programs to well informed Jewish people? Of course, not everyone has access to information about memorial programs or the Jewish community. But given the amount of content regarding Holocaust remembrance in the public domain—including emails, movies, books, Jewish publications, articles, webinars—how is it Jews still do not know?
Why are they in the dark? The dark is scary, but less so than finding out the horrific truth. My great grandmother’s story is an example. Elise Hofmann was not my biological great grandmother but one through a second marriage. I did not know her. My beloved grandmother seems to have had a troubled relationship with her. Nonetheless, my grandmother Trude grieved the loss of her mother and probably felt guilt. So, I decided to do the research. What I found is compelling. Elise seems to have been a strict mother yet embraced modern ideas throughout her life. She prepared my grandmother for life in a changing world. The more I talk about her, the more I learn. The truth of how she died—not simply, “she was in a camp,” as my family used to whisper—continues to make me shaky. I feel a hush when I tell the story, as I did in Frankfurt. It is in the truth that we can make changes. Before genocide can be eradicated, understanding its maintenance, which is with the cooperation of the population, government, industry, and other nations around the globe, is necessary.
I beseech my peers—the so-called second-generation survivors. Now is the time to search your history and document it for the future. Far easier for us than our children. We remember what our parents and grandparents may have uttered sporadically or whispered. One often finds evidence of the truth when searching through old pictures and documents. Open the closet, the tin box, and the manilla file folders.
From the King James translation of Matthew 7:7: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
©Karen Levi 2023