My grandfather, my Opa, and I just returned from a trip to Frankenwinheim, a small farming village in Bavaria where he lived with his family until 1937. The home my Opa grew up in is no longer there, instead there is a plaque that reads “Here lived Mr. Max Gottlieb [my great-grandfather] until he was driven out of house and home.” The synagogue is now a private home, but if you walk around the back, you can see where the women used to watch the men in prayer, the side room, the cheder, in which young boys used to congregate and study Jewish texts.
I traced the footsteps of my grandfather 75 years ago to the well where he used to draw drinking water for his family, marveling that a ten-year-old boy could manage the wooden jugs up the steep dirt road. I said Kaddish with Opa at my great-great-grandparents’ grave, by the gravestone that was only erected years after my great- great-grandmother’s death at Theresienstadt.
We often reflect on Holocaust Remembrance Day on how to best commemorate those who were killed and honor those who survived. We grapple with a tragedy that today seems unfathomable, yet took place under the world’s nose - the self-righteously humane international community. We have repented, we have learned, we have said “never again.” But the people of Frankenwinheim, they have repaired.
My Opa and I stayed at the home of a woman named Maria Helbig. Her husband, Josef Helbig, was in my grandfather’s elementary school class, a room that is now part of the town’s City Hall. In 1989, Josef reached out to my grandfather, asking him to return to the town he left more than 50 years earlier. Opa had wanted nothing to do with Germany or its people, but was touched by his childhood friend’s offer, and returned to the small Bavarian town.
Since that initial visit, more than twenty years ago, my Opa has been back an additional four times. Each time he stayed with the Helbig family, whose hospitality is astounding. Josef passed away in 1991, but Maria has continued to open her home to our family, with her six children coming together each time to welcome us with open arms.
Maria does not speak English, but she would beam as I greeted her with a heavily accented (evidently an Israeli accent does not do German well) “guten morgen” and delighted when I would point to my fifth piece of “kuchen” telling her “das is gut.” My vocabulary was limited to food and greetings, but the warmth and kindness that she extended to me and my Opa transcended words.
Frankenwinheim decided to extend its “Honored Citizen” award to my Opa, only the fifth of its kind in the past hundred years. The room at City Hall was packed with Frankenwinheimers as the Bürgermeister (mayor) addressed the room in my grandfather’s honor.
“They say that time heals all wounds,” the Bürgermeister said, “but I don’t think that is true. It is only through true reconciliation that we can heal and change.”
On a day when we pause to reflect and remember the six million who perished, I would like to pay tribute to the people of Frankenwinheim who are testimony that a people can repent, reconcile and change.
Elka Looks is an Israel Research Fellow, and works at Headline Media a Tel Aviv based international communications firm.
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