Thursday, February 16, 2017

Return to the Schilderwald -- A Jew Comes Home After Sixty-Eight Years

("Country Bumpkin" was a contributor to Kiko's House over the years.  That was the nom de plummage of a dear cousin, John Schnellenberg.  John died on February 14 in New Zealand, his adopted and deeply beloved homeland.  He was 81 and left his wife Sonia and a loving family.  John was a fabulous writer and observer of the passing scene.  Like so many greater writers, he had a spare and beautifully understated way with words, conveying a lot with a little.  This moving November 2007 guest post was my favorite of all his contributions.) 

Germans call their country the Schilderwald ("sign forest"), because there are so many road signs — the Allgemeine Deutsche Automobil Club estimates there are 20 million —there is hardly any time left to drive; there is simply too much to read.  There is growing acceptance
across the country that this absurd proliferation of signs is a traffic hazard, and one or two towns have been getting rid of them; to good effect, so it is said. 
We stopped one late summer morning in Bad Breisig, a small town on the Rhine not far from Remagen, where invading American troops had first crossed the river in March 1945 after finding the Ludendorff Bridge there undamaged (there is no bridge there now).  Bad Breisig was holding a zwiebelmarkt — an onion market — that day, and parking was hard to find because a couple of million citizens or so had turned out to be huckstered by men selling travelling wallets, and to eat zwiebelkuchen.  At last, we saw a space in the carpark used by clients of the Bad which gives the town its name.  On the gate there were no fewer than nine advisory signs for drivers—I counted them! 
Our reasons for being in Germany have a provenance which will help make sense of what follows. 
For many years, at least forty, a number of German cities have invited back people who had to leave because of Nazi persecution; and of course such people are almost all Jews, now living in a huge variety of countries because they had the good fortune to get out while it was still possible.  The object, naturally, is to demonstrate that things in Germany have changed for the better. 
I was born in Berlin and left for New Zealand with my parents in 1939 thanks to the intervention of Sir George Ogilvie Forbes, Counsellor at the British Embassy in Berlin, and his colleague the British Passport Control Officer, Captain Frank Foley, who obtained for us New Zealand visas.  These men, frequently bending visa rules, were instrumental in saving many lives including mine and those of my father and mother.  That is not to say the British government behaved badly over the German Jewish refugee problem, because they were in fact generous in taking people into Britain by the standards of the time.  But after Kristallnacht in November 1938 the demand for visas vastly exceeded the supply, and most countries were parsimonious, to say the least, in granting them.  (And New Zealand was one of these.) 
Yet more than half of Germany’s Jews were able to emigrate after 1933, with the enthusiastic support of the Nazis who wanted rid of them.  Britain and the USA admitted more than half of them. 
That part of our family history belongs in another place; suffice it for now to say that it qualified me, along with my wife, to be invited to join a party visiting Berlin in August 2007. 
As the British Airways Airbus A319 from Heathrow reduces power to descend into Berlin-Tegel, the views of the German countryside slowly grow bigger and you can begin to see some of the detail of the landscape. After an absence of 68 years, it makes for compelling viewing. 
Two things strike you straight away. First the sheer density of villages and towns which are built to roughly the same pattern, subject to the shape of the land, of course.  The inner town is usually more or less circular with a church spire or two dominating a platz, and then red-tiled houses in widening rings around.  Later expansion adds outer rings of newer houses and more often than not an industrial area helping to drive the local economy.  The city of Worms in the Palatinate, for instance, has a big Procter and Gamble plant on its outskirts. 
The second thing that strikes you is the huge number of electricity-generating windmills scattered across the land.  This impression is powerfully reinforced once you are on the ground and driving through the countryside.  They are everywhere, often but by no means always, grouped in wind farms — there are many single generators on hilltops, too. There are some 18,000 of them, more than any other country in Europe. 
There is much good environmental practice in Germany.  Hotel corridors have sensors which turn on the lights only when you pass through.  The same hotels invite you to use your towels for more than just one day, and throw them on the floor to show the maid when you want them changed.  Street bins are divided into receptacles for glass, paper, plastic and “other” rubbish.  A big proportion of cars — even BMW and Mercedes-Benz — are diesel powered. More rarely, one hotel conserved by switching off its lift power when it wasn’t being used to carry our luggage up and down. 
We talked to many people — young, old, middle aged; all kinds of people.  In hotels, on the street, in Laundromats, in restaurants; everywhere.  The pattern of those conversations was always the same, and went like this: 
"Are you from England?" 
"No, we're from New Zealand." 
"New Zealand! Das ist aber sehr weit wegg!!! ("That's a long way away!") 
"How is it that a New Zealander speaks such good German?” 
"I was born in Berlin." 
"Ahhh! Berlin!  When did you leave to go to New Zealand?" 
"In 1939." 
Whereupon a switch in the person's head would flick to "on," and the conversation moved on to the big questions engrossing Germans in 2007.  First, the Nazi past; second, where Muslim immigration and the burden of integrating the former DDR into a reunited Germany would lead. 
Neither of these are trivial issues, either for Germany or for the rest of Europe and the world. 
It is beyond dispute that Germany and its people have faced their past and are prepared to remember it as a warning to future generations. "We must never forget our history," was a sentence we heard over and over again.  This is more than one can say for the Japanese, and recognition of the Turkish genocide of Armenians from 1915 onwards is to this day the topic of furious diplomacy. 
Memorials to the Holocaust appear everywhere. 
Museums, stolpersteine ("stumbling stones") embedded in city sidewalks, plaques on old synagogue walls -- no town or city we visited was without them.  Police guard the growing tally of new and rebuilt synagogues 24 hours a day.
My mother was born in 1904 in a little village called Steinheim, which lies off the main route about three quarters of an hour east of Paderborn.  The address on her birth certificate reads Hausnummer 345 ("House number 345") — no street names in those days; that's how small it was.  We drove into what is now a reasonably substantial town on a dull afternoon in September, and arriving in the Zentrum, the town centre, found no-one about.  No cars, no customers in the shops, and the only people in the square two Muslim women in hijab wheeling a child in a pushchair. 
There was symbolism in this, because Muslim immigration and its consequences make up Part 1 of the worries Germans expressed to us about the future. In every town we visited, there was a Muslim presence.   
Approximately 3.3 million Muslims live in Germany, 70 percent of them of Turkish origin of whom many have lived in Germany for 30 years or more.  Many Muslims lead secular lifestyles but some make strong, even extreme, efforts to preserve conservative values. 
Part 2 is the problem of absorbing the former East Germany into the modern West German economy and political system. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Wall dividing Communist Germany from the west, east Germany is a mess. Covered in graffiti, dirty, infrastructure still not restored to modern standards. 
Worst of all, from the West German point of view, is that east German workers (along with those from eastern bloc countries who have recently been admitted to the EU and therefore have the right to move freely around Europe) are flooding westwards, prepared to take jobs at lower rates of pay than westerners will accept.  Meanwhile westerners are levied taxes which pay for the modernisation of the former DDR, and support their unemployed. They hate it! 
More than one person said to us, "They can put the Wall back up tomorrow, as far as I’m concerned!" 
There's no future in forecasting, but my own feeling is that there is trouble ahead. Worse, the people we talked to seemed also to think that trouble is looming. 
That's where Germany's history comes in to the equation.
In Steinheim, where my mother was born, there is to this day a Jewish cemetery.  There are, of course, no more Jews to be buried there, though the most recent interment took place in 1979. 
My wife and I are the first members of our family to return to Steinheim, as far as we know, which added mightily to the poignancy of this visit.  These are matters of great weight, and this day and the ones which followed were perhaps the most wrenching in our German visit. 
We asked at the Rathaus for directions to the cemetery and were told to knock on Frau Henning's door — she looks after the key.  On the opposite street corner is the gate, and a plaque informing passers by that the cemetery was first used in 1607.  The oldest visible grave stone is dated in the mid-18th century and this is because the early community ran out of space and heaped a mound of earth over the oldest graves so that people were buried one above another, and not until later in a single layer as the cemetery was expanded. 
There in front of us were the gravestones carrying the names I heard from my mother when I was a child. 
They have lain undisturbed for centuries, and unlike so many others in Germany were neither desecrated by the Nazis nor damaged by war. We failed to find my mother's father, a cattle dealer of Steinheim, who died before she was born and might be presumed to be in that graveyard. 
As we walked back to the car, a flight of fighter jets roared overhead. 
Having based ourselves in a delightful town called Bad Lippspringe near Paderborn, which lies roughly halfway between my parents' hometowns, we drove west next day to Neheim. Neheim lies below the M√∂hne Dam which was busted by the Dambusters in May 1943.  The ensuing flood killed around 900 people in the town, of whom most were Ukrainian POWs working as slave labourers.  Much of the Jewish cemetery was washed away, though the headstone of my uncle remains. 
Our reception in Neheim was overwhelming. Werner Saure had arranged a meeting with the mayor, where we signed the town's Golden Book in a caucus room dedicated to the memory of my great-uncle; were photographed for the local newspaper stories; and presented with books as a souvenir of our visit. 
In many ways, this was the climax of our visit to Germany.  Most of what followed was more relaxing and less emotionally fraught and the slowing of our adrenalin had its inevitable consequence in growing fatigue. 
But this account cannot be complete without recording our visits to the sites of my grandfather’s persecution. 
Some 35km north of Berlin lies a pretty little town called Oranienburg, about three-quarters of an hour from the city on the S-bahn. About twenty minutes walk from the town centre are the remains of the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp, scene of many terrible acts both under Nazi rule, but also after liberation by the Soviets who continued its ghastly use with different political ends in mind. 
Today it is another Holocaust memorial, still being improved and refined, and there my grandfather was interned for two weeks after Kristallnacht.  He was accommodated in Block 17, marked now by a concrete block along with the locations of the other prisoner blocks of which a single one remains intact, and is a sample of what internees experienced. 
On our drive from Prague to Dresden, the road passes the old barracks town of Theresienstadt, of notorious memory. "Star of David" featured harrowing scenes shot there, and in the intervening 20 years or so things have changed.  Life is returning to this formerly deserted and ugly place, and museums have sprung up which admit to the persecution of Jews there which had remained unacknowledged during the period of communist rule. 
Today the town even has a beggar.  My grandfather and grandmother were sent there in 1942, and died within a few months of each other in 1943.  Mercifully, they were not transported to Auschwitz as so many others were. 
We stopped for about an hour in one of the museums, and took no photographs. 
Our tour of Europe of did not entirely consist of tragedy recalled, the emotions engendered by family memories, suspicion of old men, nor even youngish men with Hitler hairdos.  Oh, no . . . 
Both of us celebrate our birthdays in September. 
Mine, on the 14th, was spent in an 800-year old fortress turned hotel. It overlooks the town of Attendorn, and hour or so east of Cologne and staying there was my wife’s gift to me. 
On her birthday, on the 23rd, we drove from our hotel in Wiesbaden across the glorious Taunus mountain range to Wetzlar.  Wetzlar is the home town of our daughter-in-law and she, our son and our two young grandsons were there on the way to Israel to visit their eldest son.  So, there was a family reunion for us all, and it was lovely. 
Then there was the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.  We spent a couple of nights in Cologne.  We took some of our spare time in Berlin to visit 27 Thomasiusstrasse, where my parents and I lived before we emigrated.  We took a cruise on the Rhine one afternoon.  From our hotel room window we watched the barge traffic up and down the river, in endless procession all through the daylight hours.  To this day, barges are major freight movers in the region, and they carry flags from France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and more. Italy? 
Don't ask; I have no idea. 
Prague was memorable for its beauty, and the best pizza I have ever eaten. But it was freezing cold and wet, and the pension in which we stayed a relic from the communist past.  The Czech Republic is an uncomfortable place, and we were warned against pickpockets and petty crime.  The infrastructure deficit there and in Slovakia, to which we took a quick return trip from Vienna, is still being made up almost 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Empire and it shows. 
Can we let this report pass without mentioning Mozart?  Surely not.  In Salzburg, and the following day in Vienna, we visited the Mozart museums ho 
What could be more uplifting than that? 
A long flight home, with no stopovers.  Four changes of aircraft, arrival in Wellington in mid-afternoon on the 27th, and with our baggage all present and correct. 
Once home I discovered that my computer printer had died. And a sewer drain was blocked. 
A new Hewlett-Packard printer later, and a man with a long scraper thing to scour out the drains, and we were pretty much ready to have a little sleep.  Upon which we both kept waking, ready to roll, at 3 in the morning.  Then we fell into bed at 7 in the evening. 
They say that for every hour of time shift it takes a day to recover from jetlag. How the airline crews manage it I do not know.   
But finally our body clocks returned to normal, and so did we.  Masterton and New Zealand are pretty much the same as they were when we left.   
We, on the other hand, are not. 


Anonymous said...

i love your family

dr.e said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Schnellenberg said...

Thank you Shaun for reblogging that story. The fortress hotel to which he refers is called Burg Schnellenberg and is not far from Neheim. As fa as we know there is no connection to our family.

We miss our father terribly.

goldwein said...

Amazing story!