Although our posts are typically newsy, lighthearted and (hopefully) interesting travelogues, on this trip, I feel compelled to write about the darker side of this particular journey for me. Bill and I have always co-authored and edited each other on these blogposts but I have written this one alone.
One of the reasons I was excited to travel to Central and Eastern Europe was because my ancestors came from that part of the world. While all four of my grandparents and even two of my paternal great-grandparents were born in the United States, the other six great-grandparents came from "the Old Country". I did research into my family tree before this trip in order to plan an itinerary that would include as many of the birthplaces of those foreign born six great-grandparents as possible. On my father's side, everyone came from Germany, primarily from Berlin and from the area in and around Dresden. On my mother's side, I had always been told that the families came from Russia and Austria. However, based upon the ever-changing borders in this part of the world, when looking at the borders as they exist today, my maternal great-grandparents came from Ukraine (Odessa), Lithuania (Vilnius), Poland (Krakow) and from somewhere in Austria. Here my research trail ran cold as to the specific birthplace of John "Harry" Scher, my maternal grandmother's father. We managed to visit all of these locations with the exception of Odessa.
I had hoped to feel some sort of connection to these cities where my family had come from but, unfortunately, I came away feeling a disconnection and a deep sadness. But, after visiting these countries, my feelings of alienation make sense to me. I must presume that those six great-grandparents who came to the USA as young adults (with or without their parents, who would have been my "great-greats") were either persecuted, or unhappy, or unsuccessful or perhaps a combination of all of those scenarios; otherwise, why would they have left their homeland?
It is impossible to travel through the countries of Central and Eastern Europe without being keenly aware of their tragic 20th century history. Everywhere are reminders of the two World Wars, the Holocaust and, especially in the Baltic countries, the subsequent Soviet occupation. Almost every city has a Holocaust museum and Jewish memorials, World War memorials, nearby concentration camps, detention centers, KGB Museums, etc. and, in Berlin, there is the Berlin Wall Memorial as well, all detailing the horrific torture and terror of the last century.
Walking through Berlin, in particular, one sees plaques and engravings on walls and on sidewalks noting where a Jewish family once lived, with their names and the date they were rounded up by the Gestapo memorialized.
On this trip, I find myself imaging the most awful scenarios, even in the (now) most beautiful and peaceful surroundings. In the Black Forest, we walk along quiet wooded trails with only the occasional hiker greeting us from the other direction with a nod and a smile. The sun's rays warm our backs, a gentle breeze rustles the leaves on the trees and birds chirp happily. But in my mind's eye, as I walk along, I am trying to imagine how some Holocaust survivors were able to hide from the Nazis for years in forests similar to these. I wonder how they strategized, how they lived and how they survived. I remember the incredible film, "Defiance", which I saw several years ago starring Liev Schreiber and Daniel Craig based on the true story of the Bielski brothers who managed to hide themselves along with several hundred other Jews for 4 years in the forests of Belarus evading the Nazis.
In the former Jewish ghettos we visit, I find myself replaying World War II newsreels in my head, wondering if some lucky few found hiding places in these old buildings when the Nazis ransacked homes and rounded up the residents at gunpoint.
Walking through the streets of Budapest and then again in Vienna, I sense a vague undercurrent of anti-semitism. There is nothing overt or specific that I can point to on this trip (except for one brief incident with an obnoxious street vendor in Prague), just an uncomfortable feeling I have. Is it real or imagined? Is it just because I am Jewish that I have this disturbing feeling? I grew up in and around New York City in the 1950s and 60s with sensitized parents and grandparents, friends and family who would "never buy German". Perhaps some of my discomfort and distrust stems from my upbringing?
As I walk down the streets of these cities, I look around at the locals here and can't help but wonder if their parents or their grandparents were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. What's the DNA trickle down when it comes to hatred and racism? All of these countries we have visited, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, were complicit with Nazi Germany and, in fact, raging anti-Semitism existed here long before the Nazi occupation. As the war progressed and Germany occupied or allied with these countries, the Nazis depended upon these governments at the national level and cities, towns, organizations and individuals at the local level to collaborate with them in the murder of over six million Jews as they relentlessly pursued their goal to eradicate European Jewry (known as "The Final Solution of the Jewish Question").
Although there was some Nazi resistance in these countries, it constituted a very small minority of the population and was rarely directed at specifically helping Jews. The disturbing bottom line is that, without widespread collaboration by the citizens of these countries, it would have been impossible for the Nazis to murder over six million Jews and millions of others in just four short years. And many of these mostly towheaded locals, with whom I wander through the streets and ride the trams, are their offspring.
In Germany, especially, they own up to their collective guilt by using the word, "murdered" instead of "killed" or "died" when speaking about those who perished in the Holocaust. Instead of saying six million Jews were "killed" or "died" in the Holocaust, the German guides say six million Jews were murdered. While it may seem like semantics, the difference in effect on one's viscera is profound. People are killed in a plane crash or in combat, people have died in a fire or a flood. Victims of the Holocaust were murdered.
In Berlin, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a football field-sized site, built on a very large square city block, covered in concrete with 2,711 grey sarcophagus-like slabs of varying heights arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field, and resembling a desolate graveyard. As you walk along the sloping landscape surrounded by these massive blocks of concrete, the rest of Berlin disappears from view, barricading visitors from street life and street noise and from each other and, for me, evoking feelings of loneliness, isolation and despair. Below, a subterranean "place of information" is dedicated to very personal aspects of the tragedy that leave no heart untouched. Illuminated on the floors and walls of the underground rooms are notes and letters from victims that had been thrown from the trains transporting them to the death camps. One of the main exhibits focuses on the fates of 15 specific Jewish families, making the experience especially personal, sobering and tragic.
Near the exit, visitors can access a computer bank that holds the names of approximately 4-1/2 million murdered Jews, obtained from the Israeli museum Yad Vashem, which maintains a database of Jewish Holocaust victims. Although I am not aware of any specific relatives of mine who went to the death camps, I can't help but look at one of the computer screens. I decide to skip a search for the last names, "Mayer" and "Eisig". Since those two paternal great-grandmothers were born in the United States, I know that those branches of the family came over to America early. Slowly, I type in "Reiffel", my mother's maiden name, and wait. After what seems like a very long couple of minutes, the screen flashes, "No Match". I am surprised by how overwhelming my sense of relief is when I read those two words. Since the Reiffel family was from Ukraine and also because the spelling of my mother's family name is unusual (more typically spelled "Rafael" or "Raphael"), I am not surprised that there is no match but still my viscera is definitely churning. "Federgreen" is the next name I type. Phew, again the computer screen flashes "No Match". However, I do notice that there are plenty of "Federgrins" and "Federgruns" on the list which makes me wonder if that branch of my family changed their surname at some point. I type away, "Leventhal", "Scher", "Speyer". The spinning ball slowly churns away. Finally, the screen displays hundreds of names. I start to feel that sinking feeling coming on in my gut but I quickly reason away that these three surnames are fairly common Jewish names and, therefore, all these matches do not necessarily indicate that any close family members are on this long list. Finally, I type in my own surname, "Bry". It is a very rare and unusual name, actually an acronym for "Ben Rabbi Yisrael" (meaning "Son of the Rabbis of Israel").
Growing up, whenever my father, my grandparents, or my Bry great-aunts and great-uncles would talk about our family tree with me, my two brothers and our first cousins, they would always tell us very emphatically, "All Brys are related to each other". I remember those conversations now as I wait for the screen to display its findings, hoping again to see "No Match". And then, in stark black and white, the screen displays 55 victims with my last name, "Bry", and most of them are from Berlin. Seeing all these names of my relatives that I never knew nor even knew about is horrifying. I go numb as I slowly read through the pages of "Brys" that also list their first names, birthdates, places of residence in orderly columns and, in the last column with the heading, "Fate based..." is the word "murdered" repeated in row after row 55 times.
This is the last leg of our trip before joining our tour of the Baltic countries. Our rental car has been turned in and we no longer need to worry about the day-to-day logistics of traveling. Instead we have more time to read the alerts that pop up from the New York Times on our iPads reminding us that in a few weeks we will be back home.
We pull out our passports at Tegel airport in Berlin: citizens of the United States of America. Before the mass murders began, there were two kinds of passports issued in many of the Nazi countries: one for full-fledged citizens, and one for those who were eventually exterminated.
It probably seemed like a small nuance of governmental bureaucracy to a lot of people, this passport difference, and from what we read at the memorials, the growing anti-Jewish sentiment during the ascent of the Nazis raised no alarms among the majority of the non-Jewish population. Now, in the 21st century, we see many of the citizens of the current Germany having to grapple with the realization that the everyday actions and nonactions of a country’s people can lead to the devastation of others: others who are real people with real lives and real families, not just names on lists from an agency of the government.