Eric Mayer of Wayne does not want to talk about himself.
A courtly, modest, even self-effacing man, all he wants to talk about, from the conference room of his Manhattan office overlooking Central Park, is Bill and Hillary Clinton’s visit to Worms, Germany, 20 years ago.
But the reason the Clintons visited Worms is inextricably connected to Eric Mayer, who began life as Eric Mayer not of Wayne but of Worms.
Here, then, is the story.
Mr. Mayer was born in 1928. His birth city is one of the oldest Jewish communities in Germany. It is a city drenched with history, and with blood; by legend, the descendants of the tribes of Benjamin found their way there, and there were Jews there during the Roman era. History picks up Jewish traces there in about 1034, when the great commentator Rashi is said to have studied in the yeshiva there; by 1086 the Crusaders murdered all the Jews who hadn’t killed themselves first. After that, Jews moved back and were slaughtered, moved back and were slaughtered, except for the period when the Black Death killed almost everyone, and then the remaining townspeople killed the few surviving Jews.
(To be fair, not only were the Dark Ages a bad time to be a Jew in Europe, they were a bad time to be a human being in Europe. Life was nasty, brutish, and short for everyone then, although arguable even nastier, more brutish, and shorter if you were Jewish.)
Until he was 11, Mr. Mayer grew up safe and happy in Worms, ensconced in a family of formidable accomplishments. His mother, Irma, came from a family with deep and traceable roots in Western Europe. His grandmother’s name was Marie Weil, but that family name once, generations earlier, had been Valle; the family had been expelled from Spain. For centuries, the family lived and flourished in Italy, gaining wealth and power; Mr. Mayer’s own branch, in Germany, was an offshoot from the Italian trunk of his maternal family tree. Another branch was established in France. His grandmother’s “brothers were the founders of Italy’s largest bank, Banca Commerciale Italiano,” Mr. Mayer said.
His father, Moritz, was the son of a German-Jewish family that was as impressive as his mother’s. “My father had ten brothers and sisters,” Mr. Mayer said. “Six of them settled in Italy, two of them were married in France to the same man, serially.” Modeling themselves after Rashi, who by legend was a vintner, and by local legend was a vintner in Worms, “my father ran my grandfather’s winery,” he added.
The family, like all Jewish families in Worms, in Germany, and in Europe as a whole, was damaged and partially destroyed by the Holocaust and World War II.
His father had fought bravely for Germany in World War I, his son said. “Moritz Mayer refused to be denied his identity as a German, putting on his World War I uniform with an Iron Cross pinned to it, daring the Nazis to arrest him,” according to an account of Holocaust-era Worms, “The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Worms 1933-1945” by Henry R. Huttenbach. “On that occasion, they retreated.”
According to documentation in Dr. Huttenbach’s book, Lieutenant Moritz Meyer, who volunteered for duty, was in the Germany army for four years, served on the western front, and won four medals, including the Iron Cross. But that faithfully executed act of patriotism bought him nothing but a little bit of time. He was shipped to a Polish ghetto and was murdered in Sobibor in 1943.
As Mr. Mayer put it, “My father was semi-crazy. In 1937, he donned his World War I uniform, with all his medals, and went to a meeting of German World War I veterans. He actually told the people there that Hitler was a clown, and asked why they followed him. They didn’t do anything to him — then.”
“He was brave, but what did him in was his belief that the German military would topple Hitler,” Mr. Mayer said.
“He was arrested a month after Hitler came to power, in 1933, because he was a Social Democrat.” He was released; in 1938, he went abroad to go to a family funeral, and then “he came back,” Mr. Mayer said. “We begged him not to, but he said ‘I have a family to take care of.’ He was rearrested on July 8, 1938, to blackmail my Italian uncle into giving up a company that he owned to Germany. He went to Buchenwald in Kristallnacht,” but again he was released.
“Sometimes you have to wonder if that kind of courage really is an asset,” Mr. Mayer said.
“At the end of March 1941 he was deported to Poland.”
Somehow, amazingly, Moritz Mayer was able to send his children two postcards from the ghetto. “We hope and pray with unswerving faith in God that, in time, the Almighty will rectify all things,” he wrote.
Mr. Meyer’s older relatives were active in fighting the Nazis. “My father’s cousin probably would have been the first prime minister of Israel if he hadn’t parachuted into enemy territory,” he said. “He was with the same group as Hannah Senesh.” His name was Enzo Sereni; like Hannah Senesh he landed in Germany. He masqueraded as a British officer, was captured, imprisoned in Dachau, and murdered there. Mr. Sereni’s wife, Ada Ascarelli Sereni, “was in charge of illegal immigration for the Palmach,” Mr. Meyer said. “My uncle, Sally Meyer, who had an estate outside Milan, vacated it from 1945 to 1949 and gave it as a home to 400 displaced persons who eventually went mainly to Israel, Australia, and the United States.”
Mr. Mayer’s family was prominent in the postwar world too. “For 21 years, my cousin Astorre Mayer was the unofficial liaison between Israel and the Vatican,” he said. “He was a close friend of Cardinal Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII, and of Cardinal Tisserand and of Pope Paul II.”
Meanwhile, back in prewar Germany, Moritz and Irma Mayer worried about their children, and decided to get them out. “My brother, Fred, my sister, Ruth, and I ended up in a village in Alsace, with much older cousins, and later, still with the cousins, in a town in Burgundy, then in Vichy for a year and a half. We were expelled from Vichy in July 1941 because we were foreign Jews and ended up in southern France,” Mr. Mayer said. His mother, who stayed in Worms, was deported to Belzec and was gassed there in 1942. (His brother died 10 years ago, and his sister, whose last name was Rothschild, died about a year and a half ago, he added.) “We were complete strangers to everyone in this village, Biars sur Cere, which then had about 800 people; it’s the village where Bonne Maman preserves come from.
“I was a courier for the French Resistance in November 1942 until August 1944, at the liberation of southern France.”
“You have to understand what it was like then,” Mr. Mayer said. “There were posters on the walls, from the Nazis and from the collaborators, and they said that if you are found to help a Jew, a freemason, a communist, a socialist, or a pervert, you will be shot on sight.” Despite the great danger in which helping the Mayers and other Jewish children put the villagers, still they kept the children safe. “I have an inordinate feeling of indebtedness to them that I can never repay, even if I live to be the age of Moses,” Mr. Mayer added.
To pay back that debt, Mr. Mayer devotes himself to activism, advocacy for the remaining heroes and victims of the Holocaust and their descendants, and education about its horrors and the truths of human nature — including the good ones — that it revealed.
The Jewish community in Worms, despite its proud history and deep roots, was systematically destroyed during the war, its members humiliated, tortured, and killed, its artifacts, correctly seen as its core, devastated as well. As Mr. Mayer put it, “We had 48 Torahs. Only one survived.”
According to a history, “The Destruction of the Jewish Community of Worms 1933-1945” by native son Dr. Henry R. Huttenbach, who escaped as a small child in 1936 and went on to be a historian at New York’s City College, the 450 Jews who did not leave when they had the chance all were killed. That “process of expulsion and extermination,” he said, “was a visible a known sequence of events,” for which the non-Jewish survivors are guilty.
Now, Mr. Mayer said, there is a small Jewish community in Worms once again, “mainly Russians and Romanians. There are no German Jews there.”
Mr. Mayer and his wife, Edith — “who I met on a blind date, and it wasn’t until our third date that I learned that her background was exactly like mine, and she was born about 30 miles from where I was born in Germany and she was in a children’s home in France about 100 kilometers from where I was in France — have lived in Wayne since 1966. Mr. Mayer always has been driven by the need to fight injustice — “I went to jail in Wayne protesting the Vietnam War; I was the only person out of 100 who was arrested,” he said.
That brings us back to Worms. Mr. Mayer has returned often; he has participated in ceremonies to honor non-Jews who saved Jews and later who helped reconstruct the Jewish parts of the city. He is touched by those people.
In 1987, Bill and Hillary Clinton went to Worms as part of a European visit. “Bill Clinton was a governor then, and he was interested enough in history to spend an entire day at the Rashi museum, at the synagogue, and with the city archivist, talking about Jewish history,” Mr. Mayer said. “They also visited the cathedral and other places, but most of the day was spent at Jewish sites.”
He is not talking about the Clintons’ visit to Worms as a way to campaign for Hillary, he stressed. “It’s that I want to give credit to them. After all, he was governor of Arkansas then, and you don’t get votes in Arkansas by visiting Worms.
“He is a super intelligent person, he is interested in history, he was charmed by Fritz Reuter, the city archivist, and he was really interested. Herr Reuter said to me that he had never had a better listener. The man is a literal history book, and there isn’t anything that escapes him.”
In fact, Mr. Mayer said, the then-obscure Arkansan had made such a strong impression in Worms that in 1987 the local newspaper, the Rhein Main Presse, predicted, in a headline, that he’d be U.S. president in five years. In 1992, the newspaper reprinted its story.