In a German town, a woman confronts her own past as she struggles to revive a destroyed Jewish community
Her mother, who is still alive, spent her happiest years in a Nazi women's organization. Her father served in the SS and spent time in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.
Neither of her parents ever said much about any of this to Christiane Walesch-Schneller. Born in 1950 in Hanover, Christiane grew up in an atmosphere of deep silence about the Nazi era in general, and its specific meaning to her parents.
"We knew we were not supposed to ask questions," says Walesch-Schneller today. "Of course, most kids did try to ask questions but then if you do not know things, you cannot come back with more questions. The conversation dies."
And the "black hole" is still there, she says sadly, for too much of today's Germany.
Over the past six years, Walesch-Schneller has labored to fill in at least parts of that void - for herself and for the Jewish survivors and their descendants in the German town of Breisach where she has lived and worked as a psychoanalyst for the past 18 years.
She formed The Society for the Promotion of the Former Jewish Community in Breisach in 1999. A year later, the organization purchased as its headquarters the former communal center of the Breisach Jewish community - known as the Blue House (for no reason other than its color).
Walesch-Schneller is part of a growing grass roots movement of Germans seeking to understand their past by reaching out to former Jewish citizens and their descendants, says Werner F. Frank of California, who fled Germany with his family in 1937 at the age of eight.
In the past decade, he has worked both with the Blue House project and residents of his native town of Eppingen, in the same Rhine region.
"She [Walesch-Schneller] represents a generation which is removed from the days of the Holocaust and is able to cope with things that her parents wouldn't talk about," says Frank.
In January of 2004, Walesch-Schneller was one of six non-Jewish Germans who received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award in the Berlin State Parliament for work done to revive Jewish history.
FRANK STILL has strong memories of the anti-Jewish feelings in the 1930s. In his public school, other students wouldn't play with him because he was Jewish. He couldn't participate in sports or activities.
As a businessman after the war, he traveled many times to Germany without identifying himself as a former refugee, without engaging in conversations. Since his retirement, his trips have been focussed almost solely on exploring the relationship between Jews and Germans.
In 2001, a 10th grade class in Eppingen asked for his help in better understanding what it was like to be Jewish there in the 1930s.
The dialogue he opened inspired them to create a Web site about their former Jewish neighbors and to bring some of those former Jews who had survived, including Frank, back to the town for a reconciliation week two years ago.
At one point, he recalls, a high school student asked him if he held her responsible for what happened. It was precisely because he didn't blame the new generation, he told her, that he had come back.
"It's a struggle every time to go back to Germany. On the other hand if one doesn't recognize, memorialize and honor the victims of the Shoah, who is going to do it?" says Frank.
He chooses his words carefully when he speaks of this new relationship with Germans, opting for "reconciliation" over "forgiveness" or "healing."
"There is no healing going on. No closure or healing can ever happen," he says. "The loss is too painful. The scars and the pain inflicted on me in my youth have never abated. They still trouble me daily.
He went into more detail in an essay he wrote a few years ago: "I need only contemplate my grandmother's suicide at the time of Kristallnacht, the empty burial spot at my grandfather's double-sized plot, the finality of life for my gentle Aunt Martha and Uncle Leopold in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and the disappearance of Aunt Betty in a transport to an unknown destination," he wrote.
"Such memories keep me enraged and unforgiving."
Nevertheless, he says, Germans and Jews can come together through dialogue and action in a way that helps inform future generations.
It is hard, he says, to make general statements about Germans. Walesch-Schneller, for example, he says, "is an exceptional human being.
She has never said, 'I'm sorry, please forgive me." Instead, he says, she is doing something to help people understand the loss of a community.
"That is tikun olam (repairing the world)," he adds.
FOR WALESCH-SCHNELLER, who is a psychoanalyst, her work with the Blue House came about as the result of relationships with Jewish friends.
The story of why she is devoting so much of her spare time to rescuing the memory of the Breisach Jews often starts with a six-year-old playmate named Doris, even though she can't explain why.
Doris was the Polish Jewish daughter of survivors. The two girls were fast friends until Doris moved with her family to America at the age of 12. They kept in touch, by mail or in person, until Doris died of cancer in 1994.
During their adult years, Walesch-Schneller tried many times to talk with Doris about the radical differences in their parents' history, but "she would not respond." Only toward the end did Doris acknowledge "that she knew as little as I did from her parents," says Walesch-Schneller.
She came to the Blue House via a colleague and friend, Josef Kornweitz. He was an Israeli-born son of survivors living in Germany, a fellow psychoanalyst, who she first met in Zurich.
"We discussed our family situations, how my side and his side dealt with the Holocaust. Being psychoanalysts, we decided something should happen. If we do not talk to our kids, then the Germans will not be able to talk to the Israelis," says Walesch-Schneller.
While they were still shaping vague ideas, she heard that the building in Breisach, a Jewish communal center for over a century prior to the Holocaust, was to be torn down.
By chance, she knew a relative of the owners, and asked to see the place. A sudden inspiration to buy led to the formation of her non-profit organization.
"We never knew how far we would get, but we figured it was worth the effort."
ACCORDING TO Dan Bar-On, who chairs the Behavioral Science Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Germany is actually further along in dealing with the Holocaust than Austria or France.
Still, only a minority are ready to deal with the past, he says. It is more common to hear young people say: "It has nothing to do with us. Leave us alone. We heard enough about it."
Still, that minority, in the first and second generation, that is willing to truly explore the dark part of their country's history, is helping to create a moral consciousness for Germany, he says.
Since 1992, Bar-On has been leading a joint discussion group for children whose parents were part of the Nazi regime and Jewish children of survivors from Germany, the United States and Israel.
"In the beginning, it was unusual," says Bar-On. "But it has become more accepted and welcome."
The two groups have some of the same symptoms. They both grew up in silence when it comes to this period in history. But, of course, "the content of the silence is different," says Bar-On.
Parents who are perpetrators are trying to hide their actions while the survivors are trying to hide their suffering, he elaborates. Children of survivors can identify with their parents and when they do hear the story, it can bring them closer. With children of perpetrators it can alienate them.
Walesch-Schneller says her past is filled with disconnected mosaics of memories and occurrences informing her of the fate of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
She is still trying to piece it all together into a narrative that helps her understand herself and her parents.
Even a porcelain cup she played with as a child is suspect. There were two cups, one broke. The second was packed away in a box. As an adult, glancing at it, she noted for the first time the Star of David at the bottom, as a manufacturers symbol.
"I knew what it meant. It was a Jewish cup. A precious coffee cup had been given to me, a little girl, to play with, at great risk of its breaking, where under normal circumstances, it should have been placed behind glass in a living room."
She did ask her mother about the cup, years later. Her mother said she didn't remember how she got it. Walesch-Schneller imagines it was left behind by deported Jews or given to her mother by an SS officer.
She has since given it away to her friend, Kornweitz.
THE FIRST event that brought the Holocaust home to her on a conscious level was an exhibition about the camps called The Yellow Star that she visited with her class at the age of 12.
"We went without being prepared and could see photos of enormous size taken at concentration camp sites. I do not remember any discussion or explanations," says Walesch-Schneller.
The lack of understanding, she says, alienates people from the topic. The next generation feels that even more so.
"We grew up in depression. We didn't know anything else," says Walesch-Schneller.
She didn't understand the constant sense of shame that she felt. The silence around it has turned into a lack of empathy between parents and children.
"It's an effort to try and reach beyond this lack of emotions," says Walesch-Schneller.
Breaking the silence is important, she says.
"Our parents' generation has so many difficulties in talking about what happened. The youngsters, our children cannot relate to the topic."
Knowledge empowered her to persist with her questions of her parents, but she has not always received answers.
While her parents have actually contributed money to her project, they are still reluctant to provide details of their lives under Hitler. It was from her aunt, for example, that she discovered her mother had a love affair with a high-ranking SS officer.
Just as she is shedding layers of her own story, so too is she collecting details of the Breisach Jews.
"In Breisach, 85 percent of the town was destroyed shortly before the end of the war, but 90% of the Jewish homes remained intact. So it was a totally reverse situation. The people were chased away, but the homes are still the same," says Walesch-Schneller.
In the 19th century, 500 Jews lived in Breisach. But their numbers had dropped to 250 by 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany.
Walesch-Schneller's organization is dedicated, in part, to discovering the fate of those 250 people. Their names hang on the walls of the small narrow hallway in the entryway to the Blue House.
"In a symbolic way, we put the community together," she says. "We want to give them back their dignity, their faces, their names, their identity. They again belong here. They don't have to wander about like ghosts, aimlessly."
In this house, on a small windy street, "they return from exile and from death to stay with us," she says.
AMONG THE faces that symbolize the loss of the Breisach Jewish community is that of a small, brown-haired, two-year-old girl named Susanne Hochherr, who died in Auschwitz.
Her parents, Heinz and Margot, were married a couple of days before Kristallnacht. She was born on September 1, the day the Germans invaded Poland.
Margot's father, Hermann Bahr, was the last parnass (communal leader) of the Jewish community.
Margot, who was a dentist and her sister, Ruth, who was a doctor, belonged to the first generation of their family to get professional degrees.
"They were this generation full of hope coming from this background of cattle dealers and merchants," says Walesch-Schneller.
But they obtained their degrees just as the Nazi law prohibited them from using them. Seeking a save haven from the Nazis, Margot and her husband fled to Amsterdam, where their daughter, Susanne, was born.
Unable to show Susanne to her parents in Breisach, Margot kept a journal with photos and notes so that she could share them with her mother when she next saw her.
She never got that opportunity. She, her husband and Susanne were all killed during the war, as was Margot's father. Her sister, Ruth, and her mother, Fanny, survived and went to America. A family in Holland saved the small journal about Susanne and gave it to Fanny after the war.
The Blue House is not a museum. People have sent Walesch-Schneller a few items: a napkin holder made in a concentration camp, prayer books with crumbling pages.
Between 1828 and 1876, the home was a Jewish school. In the 1930s, the hazan's family lived there. After the town's synagogue was destroyed during Kristallnacht, the Jews gathered there to pray.
The hazan himself, Michael Eisemann, was arrested and taken to Dachau on Kristallnacht. He died soon after his release. His wife and two sons survived.
One son, Ralph Eisemann, who now lives in New Jersey, has returned to the home several times and has even led a service in the former prayer room.
For the most part, the home's restored rooms with their wood floors are mostly empty. As one of its first events, the organization brought together 40 Breisach survivors in October 2000 to mark anniversary of the deportation of 6,500 Jews from 137 towns in southern Germany, including Breisach. Last summer, they held a similar gathering of descendants of Jews who had lived in the town.
The organization has also organized summer programs for German students and even sent a group to work with Jewish students in New York.
A small group of Russian Jews, who have recently moved to the town, use the space for Friday night services once a month in the same room that the Breisach Jews prayed in so many years ago. Walesch-Schneller says she is also considering holding language classes.
THE ORGANIZATION hopes to turn the Blue House into a full-scale teaching residence. The Blue House has already offered workshops for teachers on the Holocaust and hosted lectures and exhibitions, including a photographic display on two nights in October 2000 prepared by Josef Kornweitz. He superimposed the photographs of former Jewish residents of the town on the street walls of their homes, so that their faces lit up the dark street.
Frank found the Blue House while researching his book Legacy: The Saga of a German Jewish Family Across Time and Circumstance, which traces his family's 800-year history in Germany. His family was one of the older ones in Breisach. His great-grandmother lived there until her marriage. Many other relatives were deported from there to Auschwitz, he says.
"The story of the Jews of Breisach is no different than in any one of the towns [in the region]. Jews came to the entire area along the Rhine with the Romans."
He says they were pushed around from town to town in the region. They lived in Breisach from 1302-49, from 1376-1424, and from 1638-1940. They were expelled each time.
"Breisach was a popular place along the Rhine river," says Frank. The Jews who lived there were farmers and merchants. It was a religious community.
Initially, he says, Jews were restricted from owning homes or working in certain occupations.
By the end of the 19th century they were able to serve in the military and could also join clubs.
Frank wrote his book to show that Jews "were a vibrant part of the life and that country and that we still exist."
Walesch-Schneller says she knows from personal experience the importance of personal narrative.
"There was something in my story. My parents were low rank activists, not high rank activists. The idea developed that there is always something to discover from the place where you lived."
If it was true for her, it was true for the Jews of Breisach as well.
"If you ask yourself, where did my relatives stand during the Holocaust, that brings you into the history," says Walesch-Schneller. Once there, "its difficult to get out."
She quotes the sociologist, Zygmunt Baumann, who said, "the Holocaust is no painting on the wall, neatly separated from its surrounding - it is a window through which we can discover things we cannot discover otherwise."
"It's important that you go through this window," Walesch-Schneller says.