Saturday, June 13, 2015

Wunderbar!! My trip to Frankfurt, Germany – June 1-8, 2015

By invitation of the City of Frankfurt am Main
Visiting Program for former Jewish Citizens and their Descendents.

It is a bit difficult to put into words the amazing experience I had during this trip. A one word summary would be: Wunderbar! In this writing, I am mostly writing for myself and for my own memory of this time but will also include noteworthy items for my many friends and family who are interested in this trip and its details. There may be much more than you want to read. I am going to write with bullets as there were so many disconnected happenings during the trip and if possible, I will try to connect the dots at the end.
·         I went with my sister Nancy Ginsburg which even by itself would have been enough and that was just one of the wonderful experiences. To be able to share such personal and familial history with the person that I am the most closest to of my childhood made all the difference in the world. We have so much in common and had fun together and understand each other and our behaviors like sisters might. We also had the good fortune to share this experience with a cousin, Rolf Sturm from Switzerland and got to know him better and to have fun and share this time together. Interesting to note in our family is that two sisters (Edith and Heddi Gutenstein) married two brothers (Kurt and Ernst Vogel). Our grandparents on my father’s side were Edith & Kurt and Rolf’s were Heddi & Ernst. With Rolf we had many similarities because of these upbringings, though in different cultures as we grew up in the USA and he and his sisters in Switzerland. His mother Lotte, and our father Erwin, though cousins, were only one week apart in age and grew up more as siblings in the years before leaving Germany.
Erwin's street 
Kornerwiese #5
·         Discovering our roots was the focus that I connected to most. We saw Erwin’s house and neighborhood and could picture him as a young boy playing in the street in front of his house that had trees and greenery down the middle.  We saw the house of our mother Gabrielle and her neighborhood and could picture our grandmother and grandfather and their fine lifestyle in Weisbaden. We had drinks at a lovely restaurant outside the grand spa of Weisbaden and could imagine Granny walking the beautiful lawn in fine clothes, ready for a ball or other event. These were the stories we heard over and over from her – her dreams and thoughts were always on this former life.
with Dorothee in Wiesbaden
Now, years later, I have much more understanding of why she was so bitter all her life – she lost the thing that was very precious to her – her status. When she came to the USA with little of her possessions and money she began a new life, but not one of her choice. She treasured the few items that she brought (some furniture, silver, jewelry) but never got over this loss of her identity.
Mommy's house

Spa in Wiesbaden

Jewelry store was on first floor

·         There were 22 descendants on this trip with several who brought their spouses, children or cousins making a total of about 40 in the group. The breakdown of countries was: USA (10 including me coming from Mexico), Israel (7), and one each for Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Great Britain and Switzerland.

·         There were many amazing connections among this diverse group, similar by the German/Jewish connection of the 1930’s of Frankfurt. When we went one morning to a school and had a visit in the library – we all noticed one book on the shelf and with oohs and aahs we took it down and passed it around with fond memories. 

      The book was "Der Struwwelpeter" or "Slovenly Peter" in English. This book was read to most of us by our parents or grandparents – a book that today would not be politically correct and is for sure, a bit scary, yet the memory was very strong in all of us. Next was a display for 4711, an Eau de Cologne that was used by everyone. We knew it from both of our grandmothers, but it seems that the fathers and grandfathers used it as well. Then we came upon the memory of shoe bags used for travel in suitcases – not the ones we all use – plastic bags, but fine fabric bags with drawstrings that would keep each shoe separate from the other.
shoe bags

memories    4711

This connection made us realize how strong the German culture and lifestyle was in Frankfurt and made us all feel as one, even with our different countries and practices of religion. Also common to most of us was the fact that very little about this time in Germany was discussed. As in our family, we did not really know how anyone felt during this time and their new lives went on without mention of the past. We did not learn to speak German as our both parents wanted to quickly integrate into the American way of life. Also common was the lack of display of emotion – no touching or verbal demonstrations of love or endearment. Not sure if this was as a result of what they all went through or whether it was particularly German of the time. The young people told us that this is different in Germany today.

·         Now to a bit of the differences – this was a bit difficult for me, and also difficult to explain. Yes, we are all Jewish – by birth and many by practice. I think of Jewish as a religion, but it seems that others think of it as a race, nationality and for sure, identity. I did not get a strong message from my parents of any of these ideas as they were foremost Germans and we did not practice religion in our family, nor did we have the Jewish culture on either side of our family. So here I was with a large group ranging from those with little or no practice to orthodox people whose identity was clearly Jewish – and who know the laws and practices in areas that I do not. Nancy has a bit of a different feeling and knowledge on this subject and I shall let her speak for herself on this. I encountered, what I felt was a bit of intolerance to me – I hope that I am wrong, but I do not think so. One person questioned my tattoo. Who knew that this is against the Jewish laws – I did not. I have now done a little research to find out that it is somewhat controversial, but nevertheless….it never occurred to me. To be judged for this was a very uncomfortable feeling. Secondly, I was questioned several times as to whether I would visit Israel and made to feel that again, there was something wrong with me that I have not gone yet, nor have plans to go. What I realized from these events was that I am clearly an “outsider” in a culture that I am supposedly a part of. It did help me, however, to realize that my identity is not really Jewish, but more German.
·         The trip was VERY well organized by the city and thanks go to Constanza Wagner and Lea Manger, two young German ladies that were with us day and night keeping us on time and organized. It is not easy herding around such a large group of people. We were provided with a very comprehensive program including the following events:
·         Tuesday – after 24 hours of travel for most of us, a get together to meet the 40 members of our group and the various organizations that would be with us all week.
in the Palmengarden
·         Wednesday - Welcome reception in the famous Palmengarten which is a beautiful big garden and event venue in the center of Frankfurt along with a tour of the garden. Later we went to the school called Philanthropin which is a Jewish school where we talked with some students and visited the library and other rooms.  In the evening we had a guided tour of the Jewish Museum and an information meeting by the “Project Jewish Life in Frankfurt” the people that would help us in whatever way we wanted to connect us to the details of our family past – providing research and tours to places of importance for us. The director of this project is Angelika Rieber – now a new friend for sure.
with Angelika at
Ginko restaurant
·         Thursday began with a bus tour of the city followed by the Historic Museum and a visit to the exhibition “East End – a glance at the Jewish quarter” and then a visit to the “Hochbunker” – a bunker during the war. The evening had the opportunity for the Opera – Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss – a 4 hour modern version of this opera (in German with German subtitles). I am sorry to admit either my lack of culture, or my fatigue from the long travel days but I had a nice nap for the first act of over 1 hour and we left for the second two acts.
The Opera Houe
Jew's alley
·         Friday we went to the Fritz-Bauer Institute and the Educational Institution of Anne Frank followed by a guided tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery, a Memorial garden and the Museum of “Jew’s Alley”. Later in the day we went with Regina Wolfart, one of the volunteers, to see the former home of our father.
with Regina and Gabrielle
outside the Jewish cemetery

·         Saturday had Shabbat services at the West End Synagogue but Nancy and I chose to have a day walking and shopping around Frankfurt.
·         Sunday we went to Wiesbaden on an individual search for the traces of our mother’s history. We found the house that she lived in with her parents and the building that had the Jewelry store that they owned – a very elegant store in a very elegant city. We visited here with Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler who is another volunteer and we connected with her through one of our relatives in NYC, Ann Lewyn who had met her years ago.
·         Monday was a big day. In the morning we went to the MusterSchule, the school where our dad was a student until he was told not to return in 1933. There is a wall with names of all of the children who were forced to leave, including Erwin's.
The wall with Erwin Vogel's
 name - visible for all to see
Nancy and I gave a talk at one class – about 25 students, and Rolf talked to another. Many of our group spoke at different schools. Later we went to the business Elsen + Hemer which was the former business of the Vogel Brothers. and finally at night we attended the formal reception and Kosher dinner in the Imperial Hall of the city of Frankfurt.
·         Both our parents and all our great grandparents and more were all from the same area of Germany – most were from Frankfurt and some from Wiesbaden which is only 30 minutes by train from Frankfurt. Our parents met on a blind date in New York City on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. The date was set up by the two jewelry families that knew each other in Germany before the war.
·         The large group of volunteers who helped us trace our family roots was amazing. Early on we made the assumption that they were Jewish but came to find out that this was not the case. We were lucky to have three people helping us: Regina, Dorothee and Angelika.
·         One of the most amazing moments for me (and I think I can speak for Nancy here as well) was when we walked up to the MusterShule, the school that my father attended from 1931-1933. 

Erwin is with us!

speaking to the History class
the students of the History class

There on the side of the building was the school name with the M representing an owl. For those who know Nancy and I, you know that we are sure that we have had various communications with our mother, grandmother and now our father as the owl has represented him to us for decades. It was a comforting feeling knowing that he was with us on this trip, and especially on this day to talk with students at his school. The chance to speak with students today about Erwin, our lives with German/Jewish parents in the USA and a dialogue with them about prejudice today was encouraging for the future as their school is made up of people from many countries and backgrounds and they felt that all were equally accepted. It was also good to note that this subject is right out in the open in this and the many other schools attended by our group.
·         Another important event – on the same last day was our visit with Elsen+Hemer. This business was started by our great grandfather Heinrich and later run by both Vogel brothers, Ernst and Kurt until 1933 when they were forced to leave. Because there were branches in Switzerland, Belgium and Sweden, my grandfather and family went to Belgium and later Rolf’s family went to Switzerland. Mr. Elsen worked for the company at the time and so was moved into a position to take over the company. Some money did change hands with our grandfathers so we are not interested in money. We discovered, in 2013, that their website has misinformation stating that the business was started in 1914 by their family. We requested that they change this but had no response. So because we were all together in Frankfurt, we decided to go to their place of business, along with a reporter, Armin Flesch, to try and meet with them. We met with Michael Elsen who is the grandson of the original Elsen for a short meeting. At the end, with a handshake, he agreed to change their website to include the Vogel names and with this, we felt a great success and honor to the Vogel brothers and their father.
Today's logo of Elsen + Hemer
with Michael Elsen

·         Germany does not feel like a place that is hiding its past. Right in the center of town, all along the beautiful Main River is an art installation of bands representing those that were deported with their numbers. The fact that the city provides this program is another example of this. The hope, of course, is that it never happens again.
art installation on all
trees along the river
the beautiful river Main that our family loved

·         Lighthearded and fun activities:  I loved shopping with Nancy, especially for jewelry which felt like a connection to our mother and grandmothers.  I bought a watch & bracelet and Nancy bought a bracelet. As I said before, we have felt very strong connections to our mother through various bracelets and anyone who wants more details on this – ask either of us for our bracelet stories. We also enjoyed shopping in the grocery store and seeing the different food items and also the many vegan items.  We felt successful learning the metro and underground systems and figuring out directions to many places without understanding the language. People were all very nice and helpful when we asked questions. We enjoyed the breakfasts at the hotel and the chance to get to know a few from our group. We were together for a few meals out and walks about with a few of these new friends as well.
Rolf in the City Hall
·         The last night we had a reception to honor our group and Rolf was chosen as the speaker to represent us. The night before we spent several fun hours with him translating his speech from German to English as it was the more common language among all of us. Because he was the speaker, he chose us to give the small token gifts to Constanza, Lea and Angelika and we sat at the special guest table for dinner (which I will add, included a special kosher vegan dish for Rolf and I).

Now, I shall go back to the questions I asked myself before my trip and summarize a bit of my thoughts. I suppose that some of these will change over time, but I have had this week to talk about my trip and think about it. The italics represent my questions before the trip.

What is my identity – will I feel my Jewish identity or will I only feel my connections to the German identity? I think I can summarize and say that I feel strong connections to my German roots and was happy to see a beautiful modern city with seemingly open and kind people. I can embrace the “German” things that are part of me – on time, orderly, neat and clean, disciplined, focused, and somewhat rigid on some things that are important to me. I saw that many had versions of these types of behavior. I do not, however, feel a Jewish identity. I will not deny my Jewish roots and do not feel the need to hide it from myself or others, but as I do not know much about the culture, or the religion and found this out on numerous occasions, I see that in order to fit into that culture, I would have to live in it and learn much. I just do not see this happening in this life of mine. I actually feel more understanding of the Mexican culture – though a far extreme from the German culture. I understand why there are such difficulties in accommodating to these different cultures when one’s identity is strong in another culture. I would like to go back to remembering the big lesson learned from my father. When asked what was his nationality or race on a form, or in person – his answer was “human”. So, I hope to take this with me forever and instead of thinking about what is different about all of us, I would like to remember what is the same – that we are all human. This was one of the summary points I made at the MusterShule with the students this week.

Another question I had was: How and why did they learn to hate? I do not have an answer to how the Nazis learned to hate in the way that they did. We discovered that there were many people who were not Nazis but who were also just victims as they were not able to help Jews for if they did, they too would have been deported. They were in fear and just doing the best for themselves and their families. As I mentioned earlier, I did experience through conversation several moments of discomfort related to differences of people and realize that we still have the same problems in different parts of the world as there was in Germany – people putting one group of people against another and willing to kill, in the name of God. I guess the only thing I can do is to be a good person and try my best, never to be intolerant, prejudiced or discriminatory.

Richard and I will continue to travel as for me, it is one of the best ways to experience other cultures, people, ideas and see our similarities rather than differences.

So my friends, if you have reached this point, you know about this trip and how it has influenced my life. I am grateful for your love and support in my life and for my travels and thank you for reading this.
A toast to you!