Maddi’s Trunk: A family memoir

My great-aunt Maddi Bernstein at home in Hilden, Germany, March 1928.

Note: I wrote this in 1996, but for one reason or another, I haven’t published it until now. I sent copies of it within my family and to other people who were interested in this part of my family’s history, and in 2009 the late German writer and educator Karin Marquardt printed the story, in translation, in her 2009 book Stolpersteine für Rolf und Henry Bernstein (Verlag Stadtarchiv Hilden).

Perhaps writing this in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic has given me a certain urgency and realization that this is a tale that deserves to have some light thrown on it. To be honest, I’ve lived with this story for so long that I really have no idea whether or not it’s any good, or whether it will resonate with anyone else outside of my family. I also feel a bit uncomfortable to put out something so depressing in an already super-depressing time. But in the end, I know it needs to be out there. So here it is.

It was Saturday evening, November 25, 1995. My father and stepmother are up from Long Island, visiting me in Boston for the first time in over two years. My mother’s been dead for five and a half years; my dad’s been remarried for four.

We do the tourist thing and head downtown to Faneuil Hall, stopping briefly inside the hall itself before heading to the food courts and the Sharper Image in Marketplace Center. My stepmother ducks away from the cold in a store selling Irish woolens while my dad and I head around the corner to the New England Holocaust Memorial, dedicated the previous month.

There’s a decent crowd at the six transparent glass towers, as steam rises from vents below. We make a slow progress threading our way between the tall cylinders, reading the quotes etched on them, and on the ground, one by one. When we exit the last tower, my father’s eyes are moist. He points out the quote from the Russian man who led the revolt at Sobibor, the camp in Poland where his father, my grandfather Walter, had been murdered in July 1943.

“For 45 years, nobody said anything about it,” my father comments, with his familiar hangdog look and ironic bitterness of voice. My mother’s parents, who were of Eastern European Jewish immigrant stock, never discussed his Holocaust experiences with him; even my mother didn’t particularly like to listen to the stories. Now, in his mid-sixties, my father, a German Jewish one-time refugee, finds that what happened to him in his youth fascinates the nation. He talks about an acquaintance in the condo complex where he lives, a survivor of the camps, who programmed the security code on his automatic garage door to match the tattoo on his arm. My father was luckier; he and his mother had stayed hidden.

We rejoin my stepmother and retrace our steps, this time to the Union Oyster House, where we are seated by a window looking out on those same transparent towers. We speak of other matters. I show them photos from a recent trip; we chat about travel and food, exchange family gossip.

Earlier, as we had walked down the steps of Faneuil Hall, the flashing red lights of an ambulance parked in front of Quincy Market had added their glow to that of the newly hung Christmas lights. I fixate on the image. Death, tragedy and chaos are always with us. Try as we might to ignore them, eventually they poke their heads through and grin at us. Maybe that’s the only way to make sense of the Holocaust. At least, that’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

Throughout my twenties, I did my very best to lay aside the Holocaust from my life. To write about it would screw up, in ways I could only dimly imagine, my carefully constructed and very important — to me, if nobody else — identity as a writer, critic, sometime zine publisher and urban hipster-about-town. Indeed, I had more or less unconsciously come to regard the subject of the Holocaust as artistic Kryptonite; once I exposed myself to it, my chosen “identity” would crumble like frosted flakes, subordinated to the larger theme. I chose to retain my individuality.

Then, starting in the summer of 1988, the following things happened: my mother’s mother died, my mother died two years after that, then my father remarried, then my mother’s father died. A dispiriting inter-family lawsuit over my grandfather’s estate followed shortly afterwards. As the seven plague years progressed I felt the ground slipping from under me, as my once solid family lurched toward chaos, and felt I had to act — right then — to secure what past I had.

I grew up a little bit. Is that the best way to put it? At any rate, I felt the urgent necessity to reclaim as much of my family history as possible, through as direct encounters as I could manage, before it all slid silently into history’s unimproved basement. Thus my trip to Europe in 1994, the one to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. I went to Belgium to drink beer, eat mussels and fries and take canal-boat tours through lovely, well-preserved medieval towns, not a bad pursuit if you’ve got the time and can scrape up the bucks. As for those other places…well, where to begin.

Growing up in Queens, New York, and later in a smug, tidy suburb in Nassau County, Long Island, I listened to my father’s interesting tales around the dinner table. He spoke of how he and his mother had lived for thirteen months in a primitive hut in the woods, on the grounds of sympathetic farmers in southern Holland, through the end of the German occupation; of how his aunt Maddi had returned after the war from the “country-club camp,” Theresienstadt (Terezin) in Czechoslovakia; and how his own father had said goodbye to him at a train station one day in the late spring of 1943 and never returned. My grandmother had shown me the false passport she had obtained in Amsterdam in 1941: she had posed for the photo wearing a pair of unattractive round eyeglasses and assumed the identity of one Anna Pauline Snel, born in the Hague.

Until he was past 70 my father was a repairman of electric motors, a trade he learned after immigrating to the United States from Holland in 1947. He is a man of simple tastes, a lover of baseball, big bands, and coffee cake. The income from the motor shop afforded my sister and me a comfortable suburban existence and college educations. Upward mobility was the norm in our neighborhood, where we lived side by side with cardboard-box manufacturers, owners of mannequin factories, and “professional men” and their wives.

But there were always my father’s stories to make me aware that I was not, after all, living in the Anderson household. When I was growing up, my dad and I had too many arguments. He felt I was an unfocused dreamer (which I was); I thought he was an old-fashioned nose-to-the-grindstone worker drone with a very limited imagination. He rose before dawn; I stayed up late. He liked Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw; I gravitated to the Ramones. We could find little common ground. Eventually, and with some difficulty, we discovered that we were stuck with each other and learned how to get along, most of the time anyway, in an undeclared truce. In 1984 I moved to Boston, where I had gone to college, to make a new start a comfortable distance away from home.

In 1993 the American media focused on the Holocaust with a new intensity, with the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and, later, the Christmas of Schindler’s List, two events that proved, if nothing else, that Jews weren’t the only ones interested in the subject.

For me, it was, of course, personal. I couldn’t get away from those events then already 50 years in the past, stuff that went down well before my birth; nor, by that point, did I want to. 1993 was the year those events came in from the periphery; they had previously been visible, but had kept a certain distance. For years I had tried to push the topic away, store it in a box in a small, cobweb-crowded corner of my mind. I wrote for local magazines and newspapers in Boston about rock bands, restaurants and baby-boomer angst: the byproducts of a cold society obsessed with antisepsis, class division, consumer goods, and revenge.

In a corner of my house today sits a rectangular cardboard box filled with concrete evidence, courtesy of my late great-aunt Maddi, that the Holocaust undoubtedly occurred. They are souvenirs from my personal Holocaust Museum. During World War II, 24,000 Jews went into hiding in Holland; two-thirds of those, or 16,000, survived. Among them were my father, grandmother and great-aunt.


As we know, the Holocaust is a very marketable subject. Clear-cut good versus evil, oppressors and victims. Without Adolf Hitler, probably no Israel and no defining event of the 20th century. (At some point in my youth I realized that if Hitler had never existed, then neither would I; my father would have stayed in Germany and my mother in the Bronx, and both would have married others. A strange thing to think about.)

My father’s aunt, Martha (Maddi) Bernstein, died in a hospital in Yonkers, New York, on February 22, 1993. After 90 years, her mind, body and even her once-powerful will to live had worn thin as tissue. Late in 1992, in a dreary Yonkers nursing home, I had paid my last visit to the befogged old woman, deep in dementia and confined to a wheelchair since breaking a hip a few months before.

By any estimate, Aunt Maddi’s life was one you wouldn’t wish on a bitter enemy. She had lived a happy, privileged middle-class childhood as part of the tiny Jewish population of Benrath, a bourgeois suburb of Düsseldorf in western Germany, living over her family’s drygoods store in a building her father, Julius Heumann, had built just after the turn of the century. She was a middle child, two years younger than my grandmother, Therese, universally known as Thea, and two years older than Helene, called Lene.

Benrath was no shtetl, and no one spoke Yiddish: the Jews there were a lot closer to Holland than Poland and were as sophisticated and modern as anyone else in Düsseldorf. Maddi herself became a skilled and devoted amateur pianist who dreamed of playing professionally. (Later on, in the camps, the cultural differences worked against the vastly outnumbered German Jews, who, despite being the Nazis’ first victims, were seen by the other prisoners as being uppity snobs and more German than Jewish. 125,000 German Jews are estimated to have been killed in the Holocaust, versus over four and a half million in Poland, the Baltic states, and the western USSR.)

Julius Heumann had come to Benrath from Friesheim, also in Westphalia, soon after marrying, in 1899, a young woman named Selma Friedsam who had grown up in a small village to the southeast called Bodendorf. In 1910 a 14-year-old boy named Henry Bernstein came down from near Hamburg to apprentice in the Heumann store. Except for a tour of duty in World War I, and a time when he ran his own textile business, Henry remained there for over a quarter century.

When Julius Heumann died in 1923 at the young age of 50, his widow Selma took over ownership of the business, assisted chiefly by her daughters and Henry Bernstein. And in 1927, after a long courtship, Henry married Maddi, seven years his junior. The Bernsteins moved into a house in Hilden, a town a few miles away. Maddi participated in piano recitals and in 1929 gave birth to a son, Rolf.

Then came the nightmare decade culminating in Kristallnacht, war, relocation and dislocation, the familiar litany of Germany in the ’30s. By early 1940, Maddi, Lene and Thea and their families — all thirtyish couples with one child apiece — had resettled in various towns in Holland. In 1943, Maddi, Henry and Rolf, who were living in Soestdijk, about 20 miles from Amsterdam, went into hiding in the house of Benjamin Blankenstein, a young man who had been Rolf’s schoolteacher, and Benjamin’s wife Marie (called Rie). After being discovered in hiding in 1944, Maddi, Henry, and 15-year-old Rolf were sent to Theresienstadt. Henry and Rolf went on to die at Auschwitz; Maddi alone survived to liberation after nine months in Theresienstadt.

Amsterdam, February 1947: (L-R) Maddi, Rie de Hartog, Thea. In four months they would all sail together to the USA to begin new lives.

After the war, in America, Maddi spent her life in the company of women, first working as a masseuse in a health spa for women in upstate New York, then living in the small town of Waupun, Wisconsin, with her best friend, a Dutch Christian woman named Rie de Hartog, who had worked for the Resistance in Holland; Rie had brought supplies to Anne Frank’s family in Amsterdam, among others, and saved hundreds of people during the war years. Then, from 1978 until her death, having had enough of the brutal Waupun winters, Maddi moved into the same building as my grandmother in Yonkers.

All along, Tante Maddi conducted an obsessive correspondence with myriad friends and acquaintances in Europe and America. She was a world-class pack rat. After her death, my father and I were astonished at the accumulated piles of letters, postcards, unopened junk mail and blank greeting cards, all bound together with rubber bands and stuffed into every drawer in her bedroom. Unfathomably, we also found 50 or 60 pounds’ worth of Passover matzos in sealed boxes, likely of several years’ vintage.

As the years scrolled by, Maddi, like so many of the elderly, became more and more like herself. She suffered from diabetes, underwent double mastectomies. She spent the last 15 or 20 years of her life hobbled by arthritis, unable, or unwilling, to play the prized circa-1920 baby grand piano that she had bought in Wisconsin and brought to Yonkers with her. The piano sat silent and out of tune in a dark apartment filled with unpacked boxes, while Maddi spent most of her time downstairs at my grandmother’s cozy flat, the two of them delightedly watching, among other things, televised wrestling matches.

Growing up, I had an occasional shadowy feeling that my family was…incomplete. It — or at least I — was haunted by the ghosts of my father’s family: his father, his first cousin Rolf, all the lost uncles and aunts. My father would occasionally tell those stories, with his odd, slightly euphemistic turns of phrase: “got picked up by the Germans,” and so on. My grandmother talked very little about it to me, Maddi spoke of it not at all. If they didn’t want to, how could I presume to get them to speak of the horrors? How could I know what it was like, anyway?

I couldn’t, and I still don’t.

Unlike my cheerful Nana, who had gone through experiences that were bad, but not nearly as bad — she had never been in a camp; her son, my father, was alive — Maddi walked through life wearing tragedy’s mask. My sister and I were warned by our father and grandmother never to bring up the Holocaust in front of this wraithlike, nervous elderly woman who wore too much makeup and complained nearly constantly about her failing health, implying that everything was simply hopeless.

But when I visited her that final time, Tante Maddi’s mask of tragedy was gone, and not just because of the vanished eyebrow pencil and rouge. From her wheelchair, her white hair flat against her inclined head, she muttered nonsensical sentences, lapsed into German, and, from her purse, pulled out letters sent to her and read the addresses aloud in a slow, deliberate voice. She asked my stepmother her name, over and over. My father couldn’t hide his tears.

Soon afterward, I remarked to my brother-in-law that considering the memories Maddi had had to live with, losing them wasn’t such a bad fate. “King of Hearts,” he said, referring to the college cult movie in which the insane are the only ones of sound mind.

So, I have no stories directly from Maddi. All the tales that I know of her Holocaust are second- or third-hand: stories that she told to Rie Blankenstein, or to my grandmother. That she hated Theresienstadt. That the other prisoners treated her badly. And there was the story Nana told to my sister on the day of Maddi’s funeral. In the camp, Maddi had seen an aunt of hers. And some time later, one day someone had given her a box which contained the aunt’s bones. (Some years later, I visited Theresienstadt/Terezin and mentioned this story to the tour guide, who dismissed it, as prisoners there weren’t gassed or shot, but many died of more ‘natural’ causes; perhaps Maddi had been given a box of cremated ashes?)

She had a right to her silence, at least toward her nephew’s American children. Besides, most people who were adults during the Holocaust, like my grandmother and Maddi, wanted to forget it, as if they could. But their children, my father’s generation, grown to adulthood, then to late middle age and into old age, were drawn again and still again to the nightmare scenario of their youth, just as those of us brought up in less awful circumstances tend to think of the environs of our early years as a sort of lost Eden. For those, like my father, who were children and teenagers during the war, the Holocaust was a formative experience, likely the most important one of their lives, and still exerts a powerful grip.

And I suppose she wanted to spare me the horrors.

Several weeks after Maddi’s death and sparsely attended funeral during one of the snowiest, grayest New York Februaries in recent memory, I stopped by her apartment to help my father clear out her effects. The piano, as always, was making no music. In a few weeks it would be sold to someone for 50 dollars and carted off in pieces to Colorado.

In the back of the hall closet was a heavy old black trunk that had lain there undisturbed for so long it literally stuck to the floor. I managed to wrench it away with a violent tug, then undid the leather straps and metal clasps and opened the thing.

Inside were photo albums I had never seen before, from the World War I era through the 1950s, but mostly from the period between the wars in Germany. Almost all the photos were neatly mounted in pages between thick cardboard covers, with the date and a brief identification written in beside, or occasionally on the photographs themselves, in white ink. There was one album bound in black velveteen, stamped in gold leaf with the dates of Maddi’s engagement and marriage to Henry Bernstein in 1926 and ’27. This contained a collection of telegrams and hand-written congratulations to the bride and groom by family and friends. There was an autograph book with inscriptions dating back to 1914, when Maddi was eleven years old.

The photos depicted people at play in a vanished world. Here, Tante Maddi was not the emaciated, elderly woman I had known, but a plumpish, smiling brunette who played the piano and romped with family and friends indoors and out. The family seemed to have been addicted to photography, recording momentous and mundane events with equal enthusiasm. There were Thea and Maddi costumed in flapper outfits for the Carnival of 1926; there were the three sisters in various comical poses. One bizarre snapshot showed Maddi, Lene and boyfriends pretending to attack a stuffed wild boar in a park. There were many photos of Maddi and Henry attesting to their domestic happiness as newlyweds. In one picture of my grandmother, posing with her own grandfather at his 91st birthday party in 1929, she actually looked glamorous.

Most poignant were the multiple albums and larger, framed photos meticulously chronicling the birth and childhood of Rolf, a curly-haired, sharp-featured boy, her lost son: everything that Maddi couldn’t bear to look at, but had to keep. She had also saved much of Rolf’s artwork: pencil drawings, carefully lettered mottos in Dutch, and a couple of nicely done paintings on wooden panels: one of a horse, cart and driver crossing a bridge, and one of the house in the attic of which he was hiding.

There was more: a worn brown envelope that some man in Portugal, of all places, had sent to Maddi in Theresienstadt held all manner of documents from that camp. There were also a few letters that Henry Bernstein, while detained at the Westerbork transit camp in Holland, had either sent or received from the Blankenstein family in Soestdijk. The Bernsteins had been discovered in the attic and arrested by the Germans on June 5, 1944, the day before D-day. Benjamin Blankenstein was also deported, leaving behind his pregnant wife and two children; he died of dysentery in Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, four days after his 31st birthday (and just weeks before the death of Anne Frank in that same place). There were also letters, passports and other papers of Maddi’s as well as of Lene, a diabetic who had died in hiding in Holland from lack of insulin in October 1944 — likely the same month that Henry and Rolf had been murdered in Auschwitz. I remembered a story my father had told me: in the first years after the war, on the anniversary of Rolf’s birth, March 16, Maddi would lock herself in her room and spend the entire day screaming.

The paper was caustic and irritated my hands. I forgot the time as I combed through these things; how long had they stayed hidden in that trunk? I resented Maddi for hiding such treasures from my eyes for her entire life, even though I understood perfectly well why she had.

I decided to write to the Blankensteins to let them know of Maddi’s death. Maddi had kept in touch with Rie Blankenstein, Benjamin’s widow, until the latter died in 1989 at age 80, and had regularly corresponded with Rie’s three daughters until Maddi’s mind had begun to fail a couple of years before.

In January 1994 I received a letter from Holland from Thea Blankenstein, the youngest daughter. Thea’s mother Rie had become pregnant with her one month before Benjamin and the Bernsteins were arrested; Thea had been born nine days before her father’s death in Bergen-Belsen. Thea, with her husband, Steph Dieleman, was still living in the same house that her parents had bought after their marriage in 1939, and in which they had sheltered Maddi, Henry and Rolf.

Thea was grateful to receive my letter, since, she wrote, she had been trying to get in touch with Maddi since the previous year. As it turned out, 1993 wasn’t only my year to uncover the past. That September, Thea and Steph had knocked out a wall in their attic during a renovation and had discovered some of Henry Bernstein’s papers and effects. Besides an address book, a pencil drawing of the Heumann store in Benrath, and three carved wooden lizards in a matchbox, they found a 38-page typed manuscript, in German, written by Henry describing his tour of duty as a soldier on the Russian and French fronts in World War I.

“Thirty years thereafter the same German (nation) brought him and his young son Rolf to the concentration camps and let them die, because they were Jewish!,” Thea wrote to me. “I will never understand this big mistake.”

Thea Blankenstein and I seemed to be operating on parallel wavelengths. Within months of each other, we had independently discovered old material, long hidden and forgotten, on both sides of the Atlantic. Once, a letter from Thea arrived for me just hours after I had mailed one to her announcing my upcoming trip to the Netherlands.

That July I headed to the European continent for the first time. After the pleasant diversions of Belgium I hopped a train for Amsterdam, and upon my arrival phoned Thea Blankenstein in Soestdijk, about 20 miles away. She and Steph met me at my hotel, and we talked over beer at a terrace cafe set in the idyllic gardens of the nearby Vondelpark.

Thea, a tall, gregarious woman of 49, was a hospital laboratory technician. Steph, whom she married in 1991, was a pipe-smoking professorial sort who taught at an area college and spoke flawless English; he struck me as characteristically Dutch.

Why, I asked Thea, had her father, a young schoolteacher with children of his own, decided to hide a Jewish family, a decision that cost him his own life?

“He felt that he had to do it as a Christian man,” said Thea. The heroes of the resistance, she explained, thought of themselves not as heroes, but as people who did what they had to do because they saw it as morally right. (Fifty years later, the Dutch remained, to put it mildly, not fond of their neighbors the Germans, remembering the hardships of the war and the immediate postwar period. They didn’t even like to have German spoken to them, though they generally understood it quite well.)

And Thea told me a remarkable story: in the spring of 1943, in the days after her father was asked to hide the Bernsteins, he spent long moments pondering the question of moral duty versus his family’s safety.

One day, out walking, he saw a man riding a bicycle guiding another, riderless bicycle with one hand. Benjamin Blankenstein took this as a sign that he had to extend his own helping hand to the Jews.

My father had told me that the Bernsteins had been discovered because Benjamin had spoken to others of hiding them. This was incorrect, said Thea: they were turned in by a neighbor lady in the resistance, whom, she added, her father never trusted. The Germans told this woman that she would make things easier for herself by informing on others, and although she was not sure that Benjamin Blankenstein was hiding Jews in his house, she named him.

Later, said Thea, when this woman saw the Bernsteins and Benjamin Blankenstein brought into the courtroom, she hid her face in her hands.

On October 23, 1944, Henry and Rolf were separated from Maddi in Theresienstadt and sent on to Auschwitz. Thea Blankenstein heard from her mother — who must have heard it from Maddi — that Rolf was given a choice to stay with his mother or go with his father, and, since he considered himself a man at 15, chose the latter path. (However, my father doubts that the Germans would have given the boy a choice.)

“If anyone was supposed to live, it was him,” said my father of Rolf, his childhood playmate and honorary brother (both were only children), the cute, smart, talented kid who so resembled his father, the sensitive, kind Henry Bernstein. My father, who’s always suffered survivor’s guilt, considered Rolf a smarter, better person than himself.

In January 1994 I received a letter from Holland from Thea Blankenstein, the youngest daughter. Thea’s mother Rie had become pregnant with her one month before Benjamin and the Bernsteins were arrested; Thea had been born nine days before her father’s death in Bergen-Belsen. Thea, with her husband, Steph Dieleman, was still living in the same house that her parents had bought after their marriage in 1939, and in which they had sheltered Maddi, Henry and Rolf.

In July of 1945, Maddi, fresh from Theresienstadt — her head shaven, sick with typhoid fever, nowhere else to go — showed up on Rie Blankenstein’s doorstep. She was reunited with her surviving relatives: my grandmother, my father, and Lene’s orphaned nine-year-old daughter, Gaby, who had remained hidden with another family near the Blankensteins until liberation.

After emigrating to New York, neither my grandmother nor Maddi ever set foot in Europe again. In the mid-1950s, Gaby returned for a visit. In 1982, my parents visited Holland; my father showed my mother the farm where he had waited out the war, and they drove through Soestdijk, past the Blankensteins’ house. But Maddi had told my father not to contact the Blankensteins — who knows why — and so he didn’t knock on the door.

After a few days sampling Amsterdam, naturally trooping through the Anne Frank house (despite the crowds, the museum retains an eloquent plainness), I took a local train to the suburbs, where Thea met me at the station.

The house on van Straelenlaan, built in 1928, was an attractive brick-faced dwelling with the sort of steeply peaked thatched roof commonly associated by Americans with the English countryside, but also typical of Holland. It was still in the midst of extensive renovations, and the garden was little more than a gaping hole. I was to stay for two nights; too perfectly, I was to sleep in the attic where Maddi, Henry and Rolf had lain hidden exactly 50 years before.

So, here I was at last, in the Achterhuis of my father’s family, my personal Anne Frank museum. I looked out one of the small windows from which the Bernsteins themselves must have peered.

I had expected my emotions to be roiling. But for all I tried to feel, it was just an attic. Whitewashed wooden walls sloping up to a narrow, flat ceiling; a window perhaps 18 inches long by 12 wide, overlooking other houses’ windows; a radiator; a single narrow bed; a gray metal desk; a folding chair; a wastebasket; a large plant; a bookshelf holding a collection of beer glasses; a couple of posters. The attic had been divided into two rooms in the recent renovation; it had been bigger in the Bernsteins’ time.

I know that to me, this couldn’t be just another room. But it was and it wasn’t. Was I still trying to deny that it had any relevance to my own life?

What was I thinking?

Soestdijk is a civilized, comfortable, attractive suburb — an older but vital town that takes continual pride in the fact that the Netherlands’ royal family maintains its primary residence there, in a large but unostentatious building you wouldn’t know was a palace unless you were told. The houses tend to be tidy brick cottages with elaborately landscaped gardens in the Dutch tradition. Thea, who had lived there her entire life, of course knew nearly everyone in town and whenever we walked anywhere, spent long minutes chatting with acquaintances she happened on in the street. She had never wanted to sell the house after her mother died. She had spent so many happy times there, she explained, that it only seemed natural to want to continue living there.

During my brief time in Soestdijk I felt as if I was on a one-person Eichenwald and Bernstein History Tour. Thea and Steph, who couldn’t have been more considerate hosts, took me to dinner at an attractive restaurant in the very building where the Bernsteins had lived when they first came to Holland in 1940. And Thea and I bicycled to a cottage, sitting by itself near the end of a road, where my father, grandmother, Maddi, and Gaby had lived for a couple of years after the war, receiving welfare from the Dutch government, until they emigrated to New York. The elderly woman who lived there (the only person I met in Holland who spoke no English) hadn’t known my family, but graciously gave us a tour of the gardens and the interior.

I left Holland for Germany grateful for Thea and Steph’s hospitality, with a good sense of the warmth and directness of the Dutch — a people who generally said what they meant — and with an idea of why so many Jews found a home for a while in Holland. Today so few Jews remain — perhaps 25,000 — that they are considered a rarity.

In Düsseldorf, I learned two things. The first was that I am not German; the second, that I am glad I don’t live in Germany. The old truism that you never feel so much a part of your homeland until you leave it held true for me. Although I don’t consider myself a typical American, I was exponentially less German. Aside from the old town and its good copper-colored local beer, I didn’t care too much for Düsseldorf. It seemed a tightly wound, anal burg full of pretension and grime. This trade-fair-happy city on the Rhine was Germany’s fashion capital, and the business district was packed with multinational corporations. On the Konigsallee, the city’s version of Park Avenue, German yuppies preened in sidewalk cafes and drove vintage Cadillacs down the wide Parisian-style boulevard. As for most Düsseldorfers, I found them, by and large, to be like most Westernized urban dwellers anywhere.

Benrath, my father’s home town, six miles south, seemed almost like a Disney World version of the way I had imagined it: clean, attractively landscaped, great parts of it restored less than a decade before. The pride of the town was and is Schloss Benrath, a perfectly preserved pink-and-white 18th-century Baroque palace set amidst formal gardens. My grandmother had gone to school in the main building. I walked through its elegantly decorated halls and chandeliered ballrooms as the only non-German in the tour group; we wore brown felt overshoes to protect the shiny parquet floors against scuffing.

Walking down Benrath’s Hauptstrasse, the pedestrian-only, cobblestoned main shopping street, I felt as if I was walking into all the old photographs I had gazed at from childhood. There was the tobacconist on the corner; the pharmacy with the thermometer, barometer and hygrometer dials outside; the Catholic church with its narrow, high spire. There was a shoe store bearing the family name of a friend of Maddi’s, which I recognized from the albums in the black trunk.

And, at last, I stood in front of the house at number 46 where my grandmother had grown up, and where my father had lived the first nine years of his life. It was an elegant four-story building near the end of a cul-de-sac, with a facing of orange bricks. Directly opposite were benches, young trees and bicycle racks. On the ground floor, where the store had been, was a branch of Citibank, complete with ATM. I belonged there and I didn’t; the last traces of my family’s habitation had long since been expunged.

I preferred Cologne to Düsseldorf. Cologne seemed more wide-open and had great museums, as well as a famous, magnificent medieval cathedral that was the only building left standing after the Allied bombing of the central city.

But I didn’t go to Cologne for the cathedral. One afternoon I rode the local train to an area in the northwest corner of the city called Bocklemünd. I passed a large Christian cemetery, and, at the very end of the line, came to a much smaller Jewish cemetery.

Not knowing where to find what I was looking for, I entered the cemetery through a side entrance. I walked through a newer area — apparently, the cemetery was still in use by whatever Jews remained — and into the older section. There, and this is truth, the first grave I found belonged to Selma Heumann, my great-grandmother.

She had died in January 1940, brokenhearted and alone, at the Jewish Asylum in Cologne, her business taken from her and family dispersed. She was buried here, miles from her husband’s grave near Benrath, or from any other family. I am not at all sure that her daughters and sons-in-law, all living in Holland at the time, had dared to attend the funeral.

What was certain was that I was the first member of my family in 54 years to visit this grave. At least she had one, and the stone, though weathered, was intact and still readable.

It was a rectangular gray concrete slab fronting a black granite border, within which grass grew wild. HERE LIES OUR MOTHER, BELOVED ABOVE ALL, read the inscription (translated, of course). Below this were cut the dates of birth and death, and the names of Selma’s three daughters:




Here was my family name on a gravestone in Europe: tangible evidence, in a way nothing before it was — not even my father’s birth certificate, which I had obtained at the registry office in Düsseldorf — of their previous existence here, of their link to the land. Other buildings stood, other rooms existed, but they had different uses now. The grave remained a grave.

Shocked at the ease at which I had found the plot — as if guided by an unseen hand — as well as by the inscription of the names, I became emotionally overcome for the first time on my trip. I fell to my knees and babbled in bad German to my great-grandmother, bringing greetings from myself and my family. It was ridiculous. I knew it. Still, I was trying to make up for 54 years of absence; for her death, alone, among strangers; for the Holocaust itself.

I told her, in English now, that I was honored to be there. I pulled out a yarmulke, and a little booklet from a funeral home that I had brought from America for this purpose, and, perhaps for the first time in that spot, said kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

According to Jewish custom, I placed a stone on the grave to mark my visit. I then placed one apiece for my father, my sister, my grandmother, and — in what I was sure was a breach of tradition, but I didn’t care — one for the deceased Maddi, who never went back to Europe.

I was at journey’s end.

On the morning of December 31, 1994 I phoned my father in Florida. I was upset about shootings at two abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., the day before, which had happened on a street I knew well, not too far from my own doctor’s office. I talked to him about the need for people to care about other people beyond their own family members. Growing up, I had observed in my family — especially in my mother’s family — an attitude that it was right to care only about one’s own, and screw the rest of the world. I hated that attitude and remarked to my father that if people had felt that way in Holland during the war, he wouldn’t be alive today.

Yes, he replied, but that was a long time ago.

It was, I thought, and it wasn’t.

Around that same time I received a holiday card from Soestdijk, with a letter from Thea Blankenstein.

I wrote back, enclosing my grandmother’s obituary from the Yonkers newspaper. That past September, during the Jewish New Year, I had visited Nana Thea in her elderly housing complex on Long Island, where she had moved a few months after Maddi’s death. I showed her the photographs of Benrath, of Thea Blankenstein in Holland, of her old house in Soestdijk, and her mother’s grave in Cologne. Three weeks later, after visiting the hairdresser one Wednesday morning, Nana sat down in a chair in the common area, closed her eyes, and died. She was 94. I never thought of her as a victim; she never thought of herself as one.

Back home, I had Henry Bernstein’s war memoir translated. While it’s not exactly All Quiet on the Western Front, it’s a well-written, vividly detailed description of the senseless hell he and his pals went through, common soldiers slogging through mud and dodging bullets on two fronts. The ironies of the chosen subject matter and the circumstances of its composition are obvious; a reader can’t help but reflect on the final reward to the good soldier Bernstein after his service to his country. Hell, I’m sure Henry did, typing away in that Soestdijk attic, setting down exactly what it was that he did for Deutschland. I was particularly moved by his account of the chaos and army revolts that surrounded Germany’s defeat in November 1918.

The changes in the country made a republic out of our empire [Henry wrote]. Worker and soldier committees had the ruling power. It was no longer an honor to be a soldier.

On January 21st, 1919, my 23rd birthday, I was finally discharged. The last and only thanks I received from the Fatherland for the services I provided were a new army coat, a new suit and 50 marks in salary.

Time blurs and mutes all joys and tragedies. The lives of the Holocaust survivors in America today bear no resemblance to those they led during the war and immediately afterward. The Holocaust, at least for me, and maybe for them, is like wallpaper, in the background but ignored most of the time. The pattern only emerges when teased out by the occasional newspaper article about this or that elderly war criminal facing extradition; or by some TV movie, or anniversary, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Today is ever-present and all around us, and it’s easy to forget that there ever was, or ever could be, anything else. Every day, the ads in the newspaper scream of endless one-day sales on recliners, bracelets, camcorders and plasma TVs. And every day more witnesses to the past die, and more witnesses to as yet unnamed future events are born.

The endless present continually streams in and surrounds us with its white noise. But if we stop for a minute and listen, we may pick up the thunder of the silenced. The Holocaust speaks to the heartbreaking unimprovability of human nature, against which our only defense is memory. Here, in the endless present, memory must be endlessly practiced.

It is too much to ask of me, and others my age, that we know what the Holocaust was like, even if we would like to. We are Americans born and bred. We can only compare things to what we know firsthand. It will have to be enough. If you live long enough, you will experience your own personal holocausts: the deaths of your family members and friends. Live long enough and you’ll appreciate that time makes survivors of us all, until our own time ends.

Many “real” survivors, I know, would object to this turn of phrase. After all, the Holocaust cut short so many lives before their time. But all I know is hemmed in by what I have felt. My father’s mother was 94 when she died; my mother was 56. Were both their times up when they both died quietly, suddenly?

I cannot know. And yet I want to remember beyond the desire for lessons, for no other sake than for its own sake; memory serving no other purpose but its own.

The quotation from Henry Bernstein’s manuscript was translated from the original German by Ruth Bergida.

In memory of:

Maddi Heumann Bernstein

Dec. 20, 1902 — Feb. 22, 1993

Henry Bernstein

Jan. 21, 1896 — Oct. 23, 1944

Rolf Bernstein

March 16, 1929 — Oct. 23, 1944

Journalist/writer; ex-expat; vaudeville, punk & cabaret aficionado; father of 2; remarried widower. I ask questions, tell stories, rinse & repeat.

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