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.
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.


  1. Wow! What a special time for your family. Cousin Jill

  2. This is amazing. Thanks for sharing and for you excellent writing. I am really impressed.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing the story Michael, and so well written. Also, it was very interesting to listen to the audio of Audrey's speech....a truly memorable and unusual experience for Audrey and your whole family. .... and to think it was generated by your blog!