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No Simple Apology

How a family's trip to Germany became a journey in reconciliation.

Courtesy Robert L. Strauss

LOOKING BACK: Stolpersteine in memory of the author's grandfather, father and grandmother in front of their former home.

By Robert L. Strauss

I HAD NO REAL DESIRE to go back. Seventeen years earlier, my wife, Nina, and I had followed country roads from Themar, the village where my father had grown up, to Buchenwald, the concentration camp where his father had died. Along the way, stranger-than-fiction coincidences led us to extraordinary Germans whose common decency and unheralded commitment to documenting the fate of German Jews extinguished the smoldering, ill-directed anger we had long felt toward the country. Not every German—and certainly not every German alive today—was responsible for what had happened decades earlier.

Over the long weekend of November 9 to 11, 2013, the world would mark the 95th anniversary of the ending of the "war to end all wars," in which my grandfather Moritz Levinstein had fought for the Kaiser, and Themar would commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in which he had died. The mayor had invited us to attend the ceremony.

During our first trip in 1996, Nina was five months pregnant and Themar was a forgotten village, as colorless as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Reunification had since transformed it from a depressing monochrome of Soviet gray to a pastel-splattered caricature of a German town. In school, our 17-year-old daughter, Allegra, was at last studying 20th-century history. This would be history up close and personal.

Allegra at memorial
Courtesy Robert L. Strauss
Daughter Allegra at a memorial to the Jews imprisoned at Buchenwald between November 1938 and February 1939.

As we walked to the community hall where historian Sharon Meen would give her talk, Was geschah am 09 Nov. 1938 am Themar ("What Happened on November 9, 1938, in Themar"), the bright colors did nothing to temper the bitter cold, freezing rain and biting wind. It was standing room only when we arrived, two minutes late. With every eye upon us, we were led to seats in the front row. Two young musicians began a melancholy piece of klezmer music. Bürgermeister Hubert Böse rose to speak.

With chiseled features, thin lips, arctic-blue eyes and a full head of steel-gray, bristle-brush hair, he resembled no one so closely as the Wehrmacht officers I had seen in countless war movies. Reading his remarks, he began to perspire profusely. Sweat poured over his forehead, into his eyes, down his face and off his chin. It was like nothing I had ever seen outside Albert Brooks's performance in Broadcast News. We had spent the entire day with the mayor. His warmth, his sincerity, his remorse over the past were deeply palpable. How ironic that Böse, this modest and charming man's last name, means "evil" in German.

In unstinting detail, Sharon described the decline of Jewish life in Themar. In late 1938, when the men were rounded up and sent to Buchenwald as part of Hitler's efforts to terrorize Jews into leaving Germany, all but my grandfather returned alive a few weeks later. By 1943, the Jews in Themar who had not yet fled were either transported east or murdered outright.

Before going to the Jewish cemetery Sunday morning, we stopped at the Christian cemetery, where I had been asked to recite the Jewish mourner's prayer over the memorial tombstone that every visitor must pass before entering the cemetery itself.

Young Heinrich with family
Courtesy Robert L. Strauss
Young Heinrich (aka Henry) with his parents and grandparents in 1922.

We remember the Jewish families of Themar and honor all victims of dictatorships. Human dignity is inviolable. These are the words that retired carpenter Fritz Stubenrauch had had etched in black granite. Fritz spent his first pension check from reunified Germany on the memorial; when that wasn't enough, he used his second check to finish it. I asked why.

Like most boys of his generation, Fritz was in the Deutsches Jungvolk. On a march through town, his commander, a 15-year-old member of the Hitlerjugend, asked why he wasn't singing. Fritz, 11 years old at the time, said he would not sing that song's lyrics, "When the Jewish blood is spreading from the knife." An instant later, Fritz's adolescent superior hit him with such force that he was hospitalized for three weeks and nearly lost an eye. Since that moment, Fritz has never sung, and he cannot bear to listen to music.

In March of this year, we returned to Themar for the third time in 17 years. Four months earlier, during the Kristallnacht commemoration, we had been told that the town would lay stolpersteine, engraved brass cobblestones, in honor of my father and his parents. The kids at the local school, where my grandfather had taught before being dismissed as a result of Hitler's Nuremberg laws, were raising the money for them through bake sales. When I was a junior high school student, we held bake sales to raise money not for memorials to the fallen or the persecuted or the dead, but for class trips to Niagara Falls and Cooperstown. I knew then that we would have to go back—as much to honor the town's efforts as to remember my family.

Heinrich - Six Years Old
Courtesy Robert L. Strauss
Henry, dressed for his first day of school and holding a cone filled with flowers for his teacher.

When we gathered in March—with the mayor and 50 others—in front of the house where my father had been born and raised, it was another cold, rainy day. At exactly 9 a.m., a group of kids from the school began singing, in Hebrew, "Shalom Aleichem," a traditional song of welcome. Who could believe it?

Back in November, the choked words, the silent handshakes, the sad nods of remorse and the warm embraces of welcome made it possible for me to thank the audience at Sharon's talk for keeping the memories of Themar's Jewish families alive. With complete sincerity, I had told them in closing, "Ich bin ein Themaran." And I meant it.

But, months later, as I listened to the kids singing beneath gray skies and a freezing drizzle, I thought that what I had said in November had been perhaps too clever. Too glib. Unlike Fritz, I hadn't spent decades under authoritarian rule. When I later asked our daughter what had made the biggest impression on her, she told me, "When Fritz said that he could never sing or listen to music. That is the saddest thing I've ever heard."

I hope that our return to Themar will be an enduring lesson in loss and reconciliation that no history class could ever teach Allegra. As for Fritz, he and the man who robbed his life of music more than 70 years ago still share the same small town.


Robert L. Strauss, MA '84, MBA '84, last wrote for Stanford about former ambassador Michael McFaul. To read about the author's first trip to Germany, visit robertlstrauss.blogspot.com.

Comments (1)


  • Ms. Catherine Kavanaugh

    Dear Mr. Strauss,

    Thank you for your moving story and especially for the valuable message in your opening paragraph. Like you, though I did not lose family members,  I had to cross into living in Germany to overcome misdirected anger and find understanding. The draw to Germany for me was what I recognized as a salve on the wounds it caused the world - providing fertile ground for Art and Culture.  This, I learned later, was a decree of the Marshall Plan.

    Germany is particularly supportive of Dance and Cinema, even more specialized in Cinema for children. Berlin has been mecca for me for twenty years and solidly for the last four as I looked at the influence of the memory of childhood movies, a fellowship from Stanford and Freie Uni.  Your photo of Henry on his first day of school, and the many photos like it that I've collected over the years, show the "schultute."   Henry may have been a rare child with flowers for the teacher, but most kids get school supplies, small gifts and a nearly life-time supply of sweets "to have when days are hard."  The "schultute" is something very unique to German culture and is a topic of a short documentary.

    Your article, like my documentary, is in no way an attempt to rinse away memory but to shed light on how a nation's people with such a hard history choose to go forward.

    Very best regards,

    Catherine  (Katy) Kavanaugh, MEd 2010

    Posted by Ms. Catherine Kavanaugh on Nov 11, 2014 2:48 PM

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