Lost Worlds Found: Recovering Our Family History
Delivered at B’nai Jeshurun—Yom Kippur 2012
I am 8 years old and have a class assignment to report the birthplaces of my parents. The fact of my mother’s German birth is a surprise; this is new information, and she provides no further details. Sometime after, my family is watching a television program popular in the ‘60s called Hogan’s Heroes, set in a German POW camp during World War II. Trying to put this new information to use, I venture, “I know who mom wants to win; she wants Germany.” The swift and decisive response of my parents leaves no doubt that I am wrong, that there is no national pride but something else; something dark, terrible, and unknown.
Years later, home for a visit from graduate school in California, I am reading about the artist Charlotte Salomon, who had not survived the war but whose work is beginning to attract a global audience. My mother, reading over my shoulder, gasps. I turn to her and hear this: “Charlotte painted the pictures in the living room.” These works of art—mysterious objects, always the first to be hung whenever we moved—were given to my mother by the American woman who saved 10 orphaned Jewish children in the south of France and also provided shelter to Charlotte and her grandparents. Most of this I had yet to learn.
It is 1987 and I have begun a job at Maimonides Community Mental Health Center in Brooklyn’s Boro Park. Shortly after I start, my mother uncharacteristically offers up some information. “I want to tell you something,” she says. “My mother did not die in a concentration camp. She became depressed after Aunt Toni was born and had to go to a hospital.” I knew of the Nazi extermination of psychiatric patients but was hearing its relationship to my family for the first time. My grandmother, after whom I am named, is still officially listed as “Missing.”
I did not grow up surrounded by survivors, where talk and information was easily shared. My mother’s early life was traumatic and filled with drama. She grew up in an observant home in Essen, Germany, the oldest of three daughters, surrounded by a large extended family. After being separated from her parents, she never saw them again. She did not speak of it. With no context and no explanation of the fate of our maternal grandparents, we grew up in silence, afraid to ask questions.
As an adult, I had an overwhelming need to know our family’s past. One of my proudest achievements was convincing my mother to attend the 1991 Conference for Hidden Children. Unbeknownst to us, the Florida press had a list of local attendees and sought her out for an interview. Although immediately declining, with my sister’s encouragement she did speak and wound up on the front page of the Palm Beach Post. My mother became a local celebrity, in part because even her closest friends did not know her story. In the days after, I received the following:
I want to thank you again for taking such an interest in the conference. I am very grateful that you had sent me that article. I primarily went because of you and Debbie and it turned out to be a most wonderful experience “no more hiding.”
And two days later she wrote again, “I’m getting a lot of attention here—everyone apparently has read the article. It does make it somewhat difficult but I guess it will all blow over soon.”
My mother, Dora Sanders, died on October 6, 2009. With her passing, I thought all hope for recovering our family history was gone … although the years since the conference were marked by a somewhat greater openness, I continued to walk a fine line between the need to know and the fear that my questions would evoke added sorrow.
And then—through the miracle of the Internet, we were contacted by Alain Dressou from Brussels, a grandson of the Jewish family who hid my mother and aunt in Belgium until they themselves were forced to flee. We corresponded and met on two visits to New York. We were invited to visit and to go back to the home in Courtrai, where his family had taken in two Jewish orphans. And then, a second miracle: In the past year we connected with cousins who had been searching for my mother and her sisters since the war ended. (That is a separate story and beyond the scope of this talk today.) One cousin, Mirjam Weitzner, living in Haarlem, near Amsterdam, grew up with my mother in Essen, and I determined to make the trip this summer.
And so, we went, my sons Gabi, 17, and Daniel, nearly 15. I excitedly shared some of the planning with them, leading them to worry “Can this trip be fun too?” And there was the dilemma: how to make their first trip to Europe exciting and fun while also, to quote last year’s speaker Judy Roth, exposing them to this heartbreak.
We returned from our trip at the end of August. After my mother’s death, I found her passport from a trip taken back to Belgium in 1952, another surprise since she’d never told us of her return to Europe after the war. The Dressou home, 47 Ave St. Sebastian, Courtrai was listed as the contact address. We drove to this home, about an hour from Brussels. We took photos, made a video, and tried to absorb the meaning of our surroundings.
We spent roughly 30 minutes there; no one answered our knock on the door, and it was time to go. Gabi, in deep thought, said, “This is our March of the Living.” I wanted to leave something at the home but what? Stones were not right for this was not a cemetery; it was a place of life, where good people had saved lives. As I was pondering the appropriate tribute, Daniel spotted a tree across the street and picked some flowering branches. We scattered them on the front porch and left.
I asked Alain what he thought his family’s motivation was in taking in Jewish children. He said, “They had to do it. If they hadn’t, someone else would have.” I’m not so sure. The actions taken on my mother’s behalf are the reason that I am standing before you today.
That night, there was a dinner, including one sister who traveled from her home near the German border. Discussing our individual experiences I heard, “Alain did not tell us he was searching. He kept it a secret until he found you.” “I am very happy to meet you but I was not searching.” I understood, since there are those in my family who feel the same. I don’t know what accounts for the differences in our need to remember. Nonetheless, our festive toasting, exultant spirits, and another dinner two nights later attested to the strength of our collective history.
I overlapped in Brussels for one day with BJ member Myriam Abramowicz, whose film As If It Were Yesterday I’d seen many years ago, when I knew little of my mother’s time in Belgium. Her film about Belgians who had hidden Jewish children resonated to this day, as I introduced her to Alain, whose very Belgian family was instrumental to the survival of my own.
And we visited my mother’s cousin Mirjam Weitzner in Holland. Mirjam, so full of life, who speaks to Dutch school children about the Shoah, survived Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz. She remembered my mother as a child and knew my grandparents; the one person I could ask “What were they like?” I brought photos of my mother at all stages of her life, trying to re-introduce the person she had last seen as a child. In turn I was shown family photos, including one of her sister who had not survived. It was taken on her wedding day in 1942, and affixed to her clothing was the telltale Yellow Star. This picture broke my heart.
What did I hope to accomplish with this trip? Meeting the Dressou family, our cousin Mirjam, and other Fahn-Steuer family in the past year has fulfilled my lifelong, impossible wish to repair what had been destroyed. Although we were sadly unable to make these connections in my mother’s lifetime, I am overjoyed that for my sons, silence will be transcended by memory. Meeting these individuals was truly improbable and miraculous; the moments spent in their company an unexpected blessing. Shehekianu. It is my deepest hope that our trip and these new relationships will help Gabi and Daniel embrace the Jewish history that is theirs.
Finally, on our visit to the Anne Frank house, I read a letter written by Otto Frank to Eleanor Roosevelt, thanking her for writing the introduction to the English-language version of Anne’s diary. He wrote, “It is natural that I personally try to do everything to fulfill her testament, that I see a mission in publishing her ideas, as I feel that they help people to understand each other, that only love not hatred can build a better world.” At the end of the visit, our cousin Mirjam said to me, “Have a good life.”
And on the brink of a new year, I will end on that note of hope. With profound gratitude to the rabbis and to Myriam Abramowicz, I thank you for allowing me to speak. May love triumph over hatred, and may we all be inscribed in the book of life. G’mar hatima tova.