|The Kristallnacht commemoration, witnessed, from left, by Rhonda Bollens Rozak, Judy Benjamin, Michelle Benvenisti, Helga Baum Bollens, Debra Benvenisti Broadman, and Doris Baum Benvenisti.|
The story begins in May 2008, when my aunt, Helga Baum Bollens, received a letter from a German charity called “Bundis fur Menschlichkeit und Zivilcourage” (Alliance for Humanity and Civil Courage), established and overseen by Dr. Yaghoub (Jacob) and Renate Khoschlessan. The Khoschlessans have vowed to dedicate themselves to educating Germans about the Holocaust.
The Alliance commissioned a well-known German artist to create paving stones, referred to as “stolpersteine” (tripping stones), in honor of Jews who were affected by the Nazi regime, either by death in the camps or by being unwillingly dispersed throughout the world. These paving stones are placed within the cobblestones in front of the family’s former home.
First PersonThe cost was covered by donations from schools, churches, communities and individual citizens. Each stolpersteine’s sponsor gave an accounting of the people who had lived at its site. This personal touch brought together strangers from different worlds.
The Alliance invited my aunt to commemorate the 70th anniversary, Nov. 9, 2008, of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), state-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots. She is the sole survivor of the 59 Jews from Bernkastel Kues, Germany. Our family originated from this area and had lived there since the 1600s.
My aunt had fled with my grandmother to meet my grandfather in Luxembourg, where he was working on his brother’s land. Two years into their stay in Luxembourg the Germans invaded. My grandmother recalled seeing objects falling from the sky – paratroopers. That evening they fled, with thousands of others, into the forests of Luxembourg. They walked through the forests into France, where they lived in hiding for several years. My mother was born in France while the family was in hiding. My grandfather was in and out of work camps and concentration camps in France.
Once the war was over, they made their way to New York where those who had fled before the war had made their homes.
My aunt dreaded returning to Germany, and so we went with her. Altogether we were seven: my aunt; her sister, my mother, Doris Baum Benvenisti; my father, Henry Benvenisti; my cousins, Judy Benjamin and Rhonda Bollens Kozak; my sister, Michelle Benvenisti; and myself.
On Nov. 7, 2008, as we boarded our jet, we wondered what this trip would teach us. How would we react to being in a country that was once a fierce enemy of the Jewish people? But we were accepted with kindness and generosity by everyone involved in the Alliance.
|Paving stones honoring dispossessed Jews are placed in front of their former homes.|
Our hosts drove us to Bernkastel-Kues, a 15th-century village on the Moselle River. Our temporary home was the 125-year-old Hotel Burglandshut, especially chosen for its history. It was here that the Nazis opted to establish headquarters; risking their lives, the owners refused the Nazis entry.
On the morning of Nov. 9, 2008, we awoke to the sound of light rain and church bells emanating from the medieval bell tower. We met our hosts, and we gathered in the rain, with many others, in front of a former synagogue. Under a canopy of umbrellas, we listened to speakers recounting stories of the rabbi and his family, who had been deported and later killed. The rain mirrored the sadness in our hearts. Prayers and song resounded in the rain-soaked air as we honored the Friedman family.
The stories of other Jewish families were woven between our footsteps as we made our way to Kues, our family’s former homestead. The house/butcher store was where my aunt and other relatives were born. My aunt told of walking with her father through the vineyards, to buy a cow in a town on the other side of the mountain.
At the doorstep of my grandfather’s home, Jacob Khoschlessan quietly repeated my aunt’s words: “First I was a German. I had a different religion. Why did I have to leave this beautiful place? Why did I have to leave my home?” Former neighbors huddled around my aunt as prayers were read. We all wept, imagining the family’s fear and desperation, and that of millions of others who had endured the same fate.
Roses were gently placed beside the stolpersteine as the names of my family were read: my grandfather, Karl Baum; my grandmother, Bertha Samuel Baum; my great-uncle, Wilhem Baum; and great-aunt, Jeanette Baum. A priest approached my aunt and offered solace.
As we walked back to Bernkastel, a man told me a story about his mother, Maria Coen. Maria was the Baums’ neighbor and risked her life for my great-aunt. Maria would secretly meet her at night on the path behind their homes. Maria would give her milk from her family cow, as Jeanette had nothing to eat. Someone discovered what was happening and denounced Maria and Jeanette. Luckily Maria was spared, but Jeanette was sent to a detention camp and then later killed in Auschwitz.
I shook Paul Coen’s hand and we wept. His mother’s bravery and kindness might have cost her her life, yet she did what she could to save a neighbor. He proudly gave away a picture of his mother. But he could not part with a yellow star of David imprinted with the word “Jude” imprinted on it – the only remaining item of Jeanette’s.
My Aunt Helga walked with me and recounted stories of former friends taunting her, calling her a “dirty Jew.” Some children and parents would throw rocks at her. She didn’t understand why this was happening; these children had been her friends.
Later in the day, we were invited to the mayor’s office for a cocktail party in our honor. As they thanked us for returning to Germany for this event, I noticed a strange fact: Portraits of mayors who had held off during the Nazi regime were conspicuously missing. Only subsequent mayors’ portraits were displayed, as if the town had been reborn after the Holocaust. We toasted to a new Germany, a new beginning for everyone.
At dusk, we gathered in the town square for another event. Seventy years earlier, rampaging Nazis had burned, desecrated, and destroyed Jewish property. On this night, the town square overflowed with people. As somber violin music echoed off the walls, we surrounded a brightly lit six-pointed star; a candle of remembrance was placed on each point. Children sang songs and read poetry. Speakers told stories of sadness and healing. Stories abounded of Christians helping Jews at the risk of their own lives. The surviving families were thanked for attending this emotionally difficult ceremony. As each story was told, we were hopeful that the younger generation had learned from history.
|A candle of remembrance was placed on each point of this star of David.|
We heard about some Jewish families who created a makeshift classroom in secret because Jewish children were not permitted to study with Christians. It was a dangerous time for non-Jews, as Nazis recruited children to spy on their own families. People were secretly induced by the Nazis to denounce anyone who made eye contact with Jews or acknowledged them in any way. Children turned against their parents as well as neighbor against neighbor. My grandfather Karl had a friend who was a policeman. One day he visited my grandfather’s butcher store and warned him of impending arrests. He apologized that this was the only deed he could do to help and took a huge risk to protect his friend.
Among the speakers that evening was my father, Henry Benvenisti. He spoke on behalf of my aunt, whose words of gratitude and honor were too emotionally difficult for her to say.
He then shared a story about my grandfather that for 70 years had circulated around the community as legend. On Kristallnacht, my grandfather, Karl Baum, put on his World War I uniform and placed the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest honor for bravery, on his chest. He and his brother, Isadore, had served in the German army. Isadore had been killed and posthumously received the Iron Cross as well. As the Germans approached on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, burning and destroying Jewish property, my grandfather stood tall and proud, his Iron Cross emblazoned on his chest. They neared the butcher store, my grandfather saluted them, and miraculously they walked past, without harming him or his property. Eventually my family did lose everything, and their home was taken from them.
My father thanked our hosts for their kindness. He said this is a new Germany, a new generation. They should not feel guilty for the sins of their forefathers. They should move forward without shame and teach that such horror must never happen again. The crowd applauded.
My mother and aunt held one another and cried. We sobbed openly in the square, a spotlight shining on our grief. I hugged and whispered to my aunt, “I’m so sorry you experienced so much pain in your childhood.”
After a period of silence, the church bells rang, as if to free our hearts of the burden of pain, bringing lightness to the future. I looked into the night sky, lit with the stars and moon, as if the millions lost were watching us honor them.
In the aftermath of the ceremony, many people approached my aunt, saying they remembered her “wearing a red dress.” She said “I don’t remember having a red dress, but I tried to forget a lot.”
Others told my father that they had heard the “legend” about the Jewish man who had saluted the German soldiers as they marched past his store. They were happy to know of its truth. Many said they felt released from their guilt and were more comfortable admitting they were German.
Story after story was shared of a time that was dark, confusing, and fearful. The trip put to rest the horror, answered questions, and lay to rest some of the grief and pain that many people have carried for most of their lives.
The kindness, generosity, warmth and welcoming after 70 years was the most phenomenal experience of our lives. We thank everyone who made this ceremony possible.
My family and I wish to thank Dr. and Mrs. Khoschlessan, Ruth Maria Kohl, Elizabeth-Jung Herges, Christine, Karin, and Gertrude and all others behind the scenes who made this trip possible for our family. They are exceptional people who gave of themselves to make our visit unforgettable.