On Sept. 13, my husband, Ernest Haas, and I boarded a plane for a trip he had vowed never to take. We were returning to his birthplace, Neumarkt in the state of Bavaria, Germany. While he had some fond memories of an all-too-brief childhood, for the most part the memories were dark and bitter. He was born there in 19’5. In 1933, the Nazis came to power. There began oppression, taunts, and beatings by fellow students, encouraged by teachers. By 1938, he could no longer attend school there and his parents moved to a larger town, Fuerth, where their children, Ilse, Ernest, and Walter, could attend a Jewish school (the only type of school allowed to them). But the situation became more and more oppressive. They tried futilely to emigrate, but the doors to other countries were closed. Only the youngest, Walter, was able to go to America on a Kindertransport, in August 1941. Children over the age of 16 were not allowed out of Germany, since it was felt that they would fight against Germany.
Ernest Haas, left, and Helmut Enzenberger enjoy a quiet moment during the Haases’ trip to Germany in September.
Finally, the ultimate devastation. On Nov. ‘7, 1941, Ernest, his parents, and sister were deported to concentration camps. What ensued was four years of hell. Ernest knew that his parents were murdered, but he did not know Ilse’s fate. When he was liberated by the Russians in March of 1945, he was at death’s door with typhus and the aftermath of bouts of pneumonia. At the age of ‘0, he weighed 80 pounds.
When he regained some strength, he made his way back to Neumarkt, in the hope of finding Ilse. This was not to be. He returned to Fuerth and waited a year till he could join his brother in America. He wanted only to leave and never return. He quickly learned English, almost without an accent, and would cringe whenever he heard people speaking German.
Over the years, he heard that a number of towns and cities in Germany were inviting Jewish survivors and their families and even Jews who were lucky enough to get out before the war. They wanted to show their remorse. However, not a word from Neumarkt to its only Jewish concentration camp survivor.
And then a surprise! Two years ago, a letter arrived from three high school girls. They said that their religion teacher, Helmut Enzenberger, had found that Ilse had gone to a predecessor of their school and he wanted to know all about her. The girls, Sabine, Carolin, and Verena, volunteered for this project and set about finding Ernest. Even though the town records listed him as "Verschollen" (missing), they persisted until they came across a woman in Fuerth who had met him in America. While not everyone was willing to recall the past, they were able to write their report with the help of e-mails and other correspondence from Ernest.
Their teacher was so impressed and moved by their report that he felt that the story of Ilse and the Jews of Neumarkt should be memorialized. Since their school, the Ostendorfer Gymnasium, has a performing arts component and they put on an original play every two years, he felt that the story of Ilse should be the next play. And so "Der Letzte Brief"("The Last Letter") was born. The title is based on an actual postcard that Ernest’s parents, Frieda and Semi Haas, along with Ernest and Ilse, wrote to Walter in America on the eve of their deportation.
While there was some resistance to this project, the religion teacher persisted, since he felt that this history had been swept under the rug too long. While the play is fictionalized in order to symbolize all the Jews of Neumarkt, the main character is called Ilse. Helmut spent many hours researching the history of Ernest’s family and all the Jews of Neumarkt.
In April, Ernest and I were enjoying a trip to Lake Como, Italy, to celebrate my birthday. Helmut drove nine hours from Germany to show us the research he had done and to corroborate all the facts with Ernest. As a result of that meeting and all the correspondence, a very close and warm bond developed between these two men, one an 80-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor and the other a 40-year-old Catholic religion teacher from Germany who was born in Austria and who is a true tzaddik.
The show opened in May to great acclaim. Many extra performances had to be scheduled. We felt that Helmut deserved a vacation, and so we invited him and his son, David, to be our guests in New Jersey. They arrived on Aug. 13 and spent an eventful week with us, which included being honored at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. While here, Helmut said that three more performances were scheduled, the last one on Sept. 17. He said that it would be an honor if we attended.
We discussed this for a couple of weeks after Helmut and David left. We weighed the honor being bestowed upon Ilse with the trauma of returning to the land of such bitter memories. With some misgivings, we decided to go. And that is why we were boarding a plane to Germany
The week we spent there is almost indescribable. The highlight, of course, was seeing the play. It was an emotional rollercoaster. The last scene ends with a photo of Ilse taking up the entire stage. There was not a dry eye in the audience. The cast insisted that Ernest join them on stage to share in the acclaim and they, too, were crying uncontrollably.
The next day we met with the entire student body 1,500 students. They stood in rapt silence as Ernest thanked them for their efforts. He addressed them in perfect German, even having the local accent. I addressed them in English, saying that in them I see a new Germany. They then presented Ernest with gifts for which each student had chipped in.
That night we were honored at a reception at the city hall.
During our visit, Helmut drove us to several Jewish cemeteries, where Ernest could find the graves of his family members who had died before the Shoah.
In July, a street will be named after Ilse: Ilse Haas Weg, Ilse Haas Way.
Ernest returned to New Jersey with some of the heaviness gone from his heart. He knows now that Ilse, his family, and the other Jews of Neumarkt who perished will not be forgotten.