- Kim Fellner ’66
Returning to her mother’s German birthplace in 2019, Kim found that non-Jewish older women have made themselves the guardians of Jewish history.
In the town hall of Fishback, a village in southern Germany with a population of 2,500, I am staring at a glass display case holding the detritus of the Jews who once lived here. It is July 2019, eight decades after my mother fled this place as a child. And right in front of me, neatly labelled, are the remains of my family: one of my Great Aunt Mina’s books on home economics and a section of curtain from the house on the village square: The house from the old photograph. The house my mother once called home.
For a moment, the curtain seems to flutter and everything else stands still. I am not overcome with emotion or moved to tears; I simply feel the jolt and a little voice inside shouting, “Give me back our stuff.”
The real “stuff,” of course, cannot be preserved under glass. Along with a few gold coins hidden in a jar of cold cream and a box of photographs, he beating heart of the family escaped with my mother, Anita Heufeld, in 1939 on Kindertransport #8 to England.
While more than one million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, my mother was one of 10,000 rescued by the Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief). Just short of her 10th birthday, she became an unaccompanied minor fleeing to the safe haven of England. Her parents and most of her extended family remained behind and were killed. She never went back.
My trip to Fischbach was instigated when the Jewish Museum of Augsburg launched an exhibition on what had happened to the Kindertransport children from the region after they escaped. The curators wanted to include my mother’s story and I surprised myself by deciding to travel to the opening of the exhibition, accompanied by my husband and my nephew. I wanted to honor my bracingly intelligent mom, fondly called Ni, who had emerged from her disrupted childhood remarkably intact, running her dress-making business and our family with aplomb.
While my mother did not hide her past, she also did not dwell on it. But in the mid-1980s, when she was about 60, Ni agreed to an oral history and told us about the close-knit family she had left behind. We learned that Aunt Mina loved growing strawberries; that my mother’s parents were happy together; their twin beds were pushed together, “no space between; that my grandmother Erna wrote skits and my grandfather Samuel grew red carnations. Samuel was the respected head of the Jewish community who “was just as anxious that other people should be safe as that we should be safe,” Ni said. When her children grew up to be social activists, my mother claimed us as the inheritors of the values her father had embodied.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Fischbach had 853 inhabitants. That included 127 Jews. Today there are none. Standing in the graveyard there, I recognized for the first time that my family had constituted the largest grouping of victims from that village, and that they had mostly been in their prime, living full and nuanced lives, and were so much younger than I had imagined them.
Yet in our absence, a curious phenomenon has emerged. Small committees, comprised largely of non-Jewish older women, have made themselves guardians of Jewish history and cultural memory in towns around southern Germany. In Fischbach the local history committee of the Historical Synagogue Locations Network is headed by retired schoolteacher Anne-Marie Fendt and a deputy to the mayor, Marianne Koos. “It was my mother who told me what she remembered about the Jewish families,” Anne-Marie recalled. “I think of her as an empathetic woman….She always called your grandparents’ home the ‘Heufeld Haus.’ When I started school, I passed the house every day.”
Marianne, who moved to Fischbach as a young adult, grew up as part of a new generation that held their parents accountable for being “the perpetrator generation.” Her interest in history drew her to the committee. “When you hear stories of the families who lived here, and you knew the houses where they laughed and loved, had children and thought they would live their whole lives here because they were Germans like everyone else in Fischbach, I think that changed my way of thinking a bit; it became more personal. It was no longer just German history; it also became my history.”
But Marianne and Anne Marie, thoughtful and wiling to engage, gave me hope. They reminded me that history does not always evolve as the tormentors of the moment might wish, and that the children of the perpetrator generation and the children of the victims can find themselves on the same side of the struggle a generation or two later.
“I learned a lot, and like you, had a lot to think about,” Marianne wrote me after our visit. “What would I have done if I had lived at those times? I know for sure that I never would have been one of those Nazis! But what about being a coward? Saying noting, doing nothing…Maybe our generation isn’t responsible for the past, but we are responsible for the future.”
Like them, I know which side I’m on. And taking a stand is not someone else’s responsibility. It’s our own.
Kim Felner is a labor/community organizer in Washington, D.C. “I was startled at our 50th reunion by how many of my classmates were children of survivors,” she recalled, “and we were all taken aback by how little we had discussed it back then.”
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