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Friday, June 24, 2016

Autobahn Anxiety

After the book restitution ceremony in Rostock, we planned to rent a car and drive 5-6 hours southward to the area where Audrey’s mother’s family had lived for more than 125 years. The town was known as Konigshofen in Audrey’s mother‘s time, and is now known as Bad Konigshofen to highlight the thermal baths located nearby.

Audrey didn’t sleep much the night before we were to set out on our journey to her family’s past. Was she keyed up following the Rostock event and her “15 minutes of fame” on Rostock television and radio? Was she sleepless because she was excited about finally visiting her mother’s birthplace? No, what was keeping her awake was worry about driving on the Autobahn. Some of her fears were rational and concerned how far we planned to drive in a foreign country and how fast we might be going. After all, the Autobahn has a reputation for being a speedway.

Other worries were less rational, such as would there be gas stations along the route, would we be pumping the gas ourselves, and would we be able to use our American credit cards to pay for German gas? And what about bathrooms? People of our “advanced years” are rightly concerned about going anywhere for 5-6 hours without taking a bathroom break.

To allay her fears, Audrey had taken our host in Rostock, Dr. Strahl, aside during the reception following our book restitution ceremony to get advice for driving on the Autobahn. She passed that advice on to me, the main point of which was that I was to STAY OUT OF THE LEFT LANE. (Yes, Audrey delivered that advice in all caps.) Dr. Strahl had stressed that the left lane was the true speedway portion of the road. And I was to watch out for trucks, which would be in abundance along our route. Dr. Strahl also assured Audrey that there would be gas stations clearly marked on the road (we wouldn’t have to venture off the highway and into nearby towns), and that they would feature clean bathrooms and would readily accept our credit cards. You would think we were venturing into a foreign land! And, of course, we were.  
This person is driving in the left lane, so you know it isn't me
I just hoped that the rental car we had ordered would indeed have automatic transmission—we are Americans after all—and that the GPS we had requested would indeed feature an English-speaking guide who would be both accurate and patient as she directed us southward through the German countryside. Luckily, we knew that Amanda would be with us on the trip to serve both as backup navigator using her smart phone and as referee between her parents, who are known to get into spats while driving and riding together in a car.

We picked up our Volkswagen at the Europcar dealership located in a working class area of Rostock and luckily found the employee who spoke the best English to get us set up for the trip. We took on one extra expense, signing Audrey on as a second driver for 10 euros per day. As it turned out, we could have saved our money because I handled all of the driving on the way to Bad Konigshofen. When we arrived, however, Audrey said she was exhausted from serving as driving monitor for six hours. She couldn’t rest at all as cars whizzed by us (in the left lane) at far above the posted 130 kilometers per hour (78 mph) limit and as I stubbornly insisted on slipping into the left lane to pass all of those trucks. Did we get into a spat? Not really. Did we argue a little bit about my driving? Of course.
BTW, in case anyone is wondering, we had no trouble finding a gas station, which was surprisingly connected to a Burger King, though this one featured pastries, fresh fruit, a salad bar, and a wide variety of chips in addition to hamburgers and fries. It also had clean bathrooms that we had to pay to enter. The price was 70 cents (who can figure out the small coins that go along with paper euros?), but you got a 50-cent coupon back to use in the restaurant. We spent far more than that to get that most difficult of beverages to afford in Europe, the Coke Light.

Paying and passing through a turnstile
to get to the bathroom
Perhaps the most amusing part of the drive was our GPS. It worked great, and our guide spoke perfect English, though she did have a bit of a tone as she urged us to “prepare to turn right” and then “turn right now!”

The six hours went by quickly on a smooth, well maintained roadway that skirted most cities and towns and took us by wooded areas and fields filled with grain and flowers. What was surprising was the terrain that we encountered in the last few miles before we arrived in Bad Konigshofen. We traveled along narrow, winding roads and passed through several small rural towns. Having spent our first days in Germany in Berlin and Rostock, we were a little surprised to be “in the country.” We could have been traveling through parts of Vermont. Audrey commented that while she knew her grandparents had owned a grain distribution business, she hadn’t fully understood that they lived in a farming area.
Big type on this map but a small town
We made a final turn and entered Bad Konigshofen, the big city of the area with its population of nearly 6,000. We drove to the market square, which probably looked the same as it had 400 years before. Amanda had been there 12 years earlier and pointed out a few landmarks she remembered, including where the family business had been near the square.

Bad Konigshofen's Market Square
While in Rostock, we had made a little history. In Bad Konigshofen, we found ourselves transported back in time.  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sharing Family Secrets

When Audrey accepted the invitation from Dr. Antje Strahl at the University of Rostock to come to Germany, she agreed to cross a divide more than 75 years old that separated her family from its German origins. She knew she was going to receive a group of books that had been lost to her family when they escaped the Nazi regime in 1939. In return, she was going to tell an audience of contemporary Germans about her family’s history both in Germany and in the U.S. It wasn’t easy deciding what to share and how to make a connection with a room full of strangers across the Atlantic Ocean.
Audrey wrote out a first draft of her remarks a few weeks before we traveled to Germany and asked me to look them over. This is a dangerous request since editors are known to—well—edit. So I made some suggestions, most of which she accepted, and she sent the draft along to our kids. Brett’s response was more enthusiastic than we are used to receiving from him:

“This is really fantastic! Wow, great work. Who knew that you were such an impactful writer?! :-) XOXO”
Amanda was also enthusiastic, but we are more used to that from her.

You can watch and listen to Audrey’s remarks here:
https://youtu.be/o1-U3G-3TyU

But first a little commentary. Audrey begins by explaining her connection to several small towns in the southern German region known as Lower Franconia. (We thought the region was Bavaria but were given a quick geography lesson by Dr. Strahl to set us straight.) Then she tells about her childhood in Washington Heights, where so many German Jewish Holocaust survivors settled during and after World War II. You cannot hear the audience’s response when Audrey speaks about the German foods she ate as a child, but I can tell you that they smiled and nodded appreciatively. You can’t underestimate the power of food to touch memories and link people together!
Audrey shares family history and secrets in Rostock
Then Audrey lets this room of strangers in on one of our great family secrets, which we might call the “Mürbeteig Mystery.” Mürbeteig is a type of shortcrust pastry dough that is common in German and Austrian homes, Jewish or non-Jewish. Audrey’s mother often made desserts featuring mürbeteig with fruit layered on top.
 
Our favorite cake of all had rhubarb piled on the dough with a layer of chocolate melted and hardened on top. Invariably, she would ask Audrey why she never made mürbeteig herself, all the while explaining how easy it was to make. She might even get in a little zing by noting how much our children liked the dough. After a few years, Brett and Amanda got into the act during family dinners in which a mürbeteig was part of the dessert. To get her goat, they would ask Audrey when she was finally going to follow in the family baking tradition. “It’s really easy,” they would add. Their wheedling always got a laugh, especially when it would prompt my mother-in-law to question her daughter’s reluctance in a serious tone. In her remarks, Audrey tells about how at age 12 Brett gave up on his mom and decided to make a mürbeteig himself. (By the way, in reviewing Audrey’s speech, Amanda noted that while Brett may have been the first to make the dough on his own, she wanted it on the record that she had been the first child to bake one with her grandmother. To be honest, neither Audrey nor I can recall which child was first. We do agree, however, that both children created a mürbeteig before their mother.)  
 
There was one more family secret that Audrey chose not to reveal to the audience in Rostock: When I looked up recipes for mürbeteig online, none of them indicated the value of adding a little white vinegar in the dough mixture. “That’s what gives it the mürb,” my mother-in-law would say. I think that meant flakiness.

After sharing the mürbeteig story, Audrey gets back to her family’s history, discussing why and how they left Germany to escape Nazi persecution and how they established new lives in New York.  She notes with satisfaction that “they started a new life with limited resources but the hope and dreams of living a normal, peaceful, and full family life” and accomplished their goals.

It was at about this point in her speaking that emotions began to surface, and Audrey had to take a deep breath to fight back tears. My wife knows how to make a dramatic exit!

After the book ceremony, Audrey was asked to retell parts of her story on TV and radio for Rostock audiences. Here she is on camera. The woman standing near her is her personal interpreter. It is nice to be a celebrity, if only for one day.
Audrey would have another tearful moment two days later when we visited her mother’s childhood home and looked out the same windows that a young Franzi Malzer had looked out 75 or even 85 years before. But that’s a story for another posting.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Heiress

Several weeks ago, our family made a trip to Germany.
That is not a sentence that I thought I would ever write. Nor was Germany a place Audrey or I ever thought we would go as a family—until around nine months ago. That was when we were contacted by Dr. Antje Strahl, a historian and archivist at the University of Rostock in northern Germany, who wanted to restore property taken from Audrey’s family in 1939. The property, nine religious books written in Hebrew and formal German type, were often referred to as “Nazi loot” before and during our time in Germany. Imagine that! We were going to be part of a small victory over the Nazis.

I plan on writing several different blogposts about our trip to describe what we saw, felt, and learned about the plight of Germany’s Jews under the Nazis and about one Jewish family in particular—Audrey’s immediate and distant ancestors, the Malzers. Most of Audrey’s living relatives left Germany for good in 1939 and 1940 and were lucky to get out. But there were echoes, properties, and graves left behind for us to encounter. And at least nine century-old Malzer family books, which took on a new life in Rostock on May 18, 2016.
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Audrey, Amanda, and I made family history and perhaps a little bit more on that May day in Rostock. To our surprise, a large crowd of people in an auditorium at the University of Rostock made a big deal of the fact that we were. Television and radio crews buzzed, and so did paparazzi! We were given front row seats and our own interpreter to make sure we understood just what was happening. But just what was happening?

Our first hint that the ceremony was going to be special was contained in the poster placed outside the auditorium at the university. You can see it here:
If you look down about two-thirds of the way, you can spot Audrey’s name (“Frau Audrey Goodman”), preceded by the word “Erbin,” which I discovered is the German word for “heiress.” I’m not sure Audrey has ever been called an heiress before, but part of her family’s legacy was being restored to her on this day, so maybe the word was appropriate. And we had paparazzi and television cameras on hand to prove the point. We also had a mostly-packed auditorium that included university staff, German government officials, townspeople, and at least one high school class. Were they really here to see members of a small American Jewish family with German roots on one side accept the return of some old Jewish texts, or something more?

A crowd builds to see and hear "the Heiress"
Before he rose to speak, Dr. Wolfgang Schareck, the Rektor (President) of the university turned to Audrey and asked if she understood German. When she said, “Not very much,” Dr. Schareck said that he would deliver his remarks in English instead, which he did directly from his German notes. He spoke of the task being carried out this day, restoring the books “as an act of respect and responsibility” and helping to rectify actions done by the Nazis during “the period of our great shame” —those 12 horrific years between 1933 when Hitler rose to power in Germany and 1945 when the war came to a jarring end. We heard the term “our great shame” or something similar spoken to us many times during our trip to help explain why our presence in Germany was meaningful. I’m not sure we expected to hear those words, but I am glad that they were said.

Several other people at the university spoke at the ceremony, including library director Robert Zepf and Dr. Strahl who explained just how the books came to be in Rostock and how she and colleague Lisa Adam had undertaken a task a la  “Sherlock Holmes” (in her words) to match them with Audrey. One important clue was a post I put onto my blog in November 2013, on the 75th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, mentioning the family name Malzer and the town Bad Konigshofen in southern Germany. As it turned out, most of the books we were being presented had the name Malzer or the town name written inside. Dr. Strahl put this all together and proceeded to find us and make a match! This might sound simple, but the task was quite challenging and took tremendous effort on the part of Rostock’s archivists. We really appreciate their dedication and their caring to make things right.
Library Director Robert Zepf 
presents one of the books to Audrey
Audrey also spoke, and I’ll focus on her remarks and our thoughts in my next blogpost. I will note that she got a nice round of applause, some smiles and laughs as she described the German traditions that were part of her childhood in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and heiress-worthy coverage in a press release sent out just moments after the ceremony. Plus, a makeup artist rushed forward after the ceremony to prepare her for an on-camera interview for the Rostock television viewing public.
Audrey gets made up before going on camera
I’m not sure how Audrey’s parents or grandparents would have responded to the hoopla. They seldom talked about their German childhood experiences or about the difficulties they faced before and after leaving Germany. But I think they would treasure the books that were returned (as will we) and be happy that an ugly chapter in their lives was closed peacefully.