Reunion in Bavaria: German-born Jews Tell Tales of Suffering and Success

Ruth Almog
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Ruth Almog

ELMAU, Germany - From my window I looked out at the non-horizon that enclosed the forest landscape and treeless expanse surrounding the castle, a meadow of short yellow grass trying hard to turn green. It was May in Bavaria, so a few scattered spring flowers were attempting to bloom: bluebells and small white chamomiles.

But the non-horizon, the tremendous gray mountain ridge, its broken face paved with shelves of slate-like rock and crevices of white snow, made me feel suffocated. It was the second time I was at Schloss Elmau, and as on the previous occasion - a gathering to mark Israel's 60th birthday - I felt imprisoned in a cage. I found no beauty in the slate gray threatening from the slopes, though I listened with pleasure to the perfect silence.

On the ground floor, logs were burning in the fireplace and someone was playing the piano. Soon dinner would be served and the Bulgarian waitress would snatch away every emptied plate.

I knew some of the guests by name from before; others were total strangers. It was strange that the Yekkes - Jews with origins in the German-speaking countries - preferred to tell jokes in Yiddish.

The meeting was the brainchild of Dr. Rachel Salamander, who had initiated the 60th Independence Day celebrations and other cultural events. This time, too, she had the help of Prof. Anat Feinberg, of Heidelberg University, in choosing the participants and moderating the interviews. The hospitality was provided by the castle's owner, Dietmar Muller-Elmau, who sees his efforts as a mission of atonement.

Salamander is a cultural heroine in the Munich area, and perhaps in all Germany. She wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her major project: the establishment of a book emporium in Munich specializing in Jewish literature. The store holds one of Germany's largest collections of books about Judaism and it hosts cultural events, discussions and readings.

A composer from Israel

Salamander has written about the displaced persons camps in Germany after World War II. She was born in one of them, Deggendorf. She also edits the literary pages of the daily Die Welt and the magazine Berliner Welt. She decided to invite some of the last witnesses of German-Jewish yesteryear to tell their stories on Bavarian television. As she put it: You're the last; we want to ask you questions. Salamander and Feinberg chose German-speakers born in Germany or Austria who have written memoirs or have outstanding intellectual or material achievements to their credit.

I was there by chance. Another guest from Israel was award-winning composer Tzvi Avni (born Hermann Jakob Steinke, in Saarbrucken in 1927 ). His works include a piece for soprano and orchestra entitled "If This is a Man," to a text by Primo Levi. He also wrote "The Ship of Hours," inspired by paintings by Mordechai Ardon.

Avni came to Haifa with his parents in 1935. His father, a truck driver, was abducted in the 1938 violence and his fate is unknown.

At 14 Avni left school and worked as an apprentice in a workshop that repaired water meters. In an interview with Feinberg, he said he was attracted to music in early adolescence and taught himself to play the recorder, mandolin and harmonica, which he received for his bar mitzvah. He composed his first pieces on these instruments, but since he didn't know how to write music, he recorded his ideas using symbols he invented himself.

Only at 16 did he begin studying piano in an organized way. Later he studied with Frank Peleg, Abel Ehrlich and Paul Ben-Haim, and eventually joined the staff of Jerusalem's Rubin Academy of Music as a teacher of theory and composition. He also ran the electronic music studio.

The "practical" Israeli who came to Elmau was industrialist Stef Wertheimer, who also founded the German Speaking Jewry Heritage Museum, in Tefen. The man of the soul at Elmau was Dr. Yecheskiel (Chezzi ) Cohen, a psychoanalyst whom I think of as the Israeli Janusz Korczak - the man who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto before the children and Korczak were sent to Treblinka. For many years, Cohen headed the B'nai Brith Residential Treatment Center for at-risk children and youths.

Cohen made a vital contribution to both theory and practice in the treatment of children suffering from behavioral and psychiatric disorders. The tool that guides him is empathy, about which he has written widely.

In his interview, Cohen explained his methods and won over his listeners with his pleasant manner. Born in 1932, he, together with his parents and siblings, immigrated to pre-state Israel from the small town of Bernburg in 1938; he grew up in Bat Yam.

From America came Ruth Kluger, a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Irvine, whose powerful English-language autobiography "Landscapes of Memory" describes her and her mother's journey to life: Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt in Germany and New York. In her interview, she said she had the tattoo removed from her arm.

Berlin's representation

Two guests came from Berlin. One was Michael Degen, an actor famous in Germany for his role in the thriller series "Donna Leon" and his theater work in the Berliner Ensemble. He has worked with directors like Peter Zadek, Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol and George Tabori, and has acted in the series "Buddenbrooks" and other films. His German-language autobiography is entitled "Not Everyone Was a Murderer: A Childhood in Berlin."

Degen's father was sent to Sachsenhausen in 1939 and died shortly after the liberation. In his interview, Degen said he and his mother remained in Berlin during the war, and were hidden by Germans. After the war he went to Israel to search for his missing brother. He found him in Netanya, but the brother soon died of leukemia. Degen returned to Berlin and joined the Berliner Ensemble, which had been founded by Bertolt Brecht.

Also from Berlin came violinist Helmut Stern, who in his interview spoke about his flight from Berlin in 1938 to Harbin, China, and from there to pre-state Israel. Stern also told that story in his autobiography. In Mandatory Palestine he played in places like Jerusalem's Cafe Tiferet and with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; he later performed in New York and returned to Berlin and the orchestra there.

The two oldest members of the group were born in 1921. One was historian Walter Laqueur, who was born in Breslau, went to pre-state Israel in 1938 and served as a journalist in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. He lived in Israel until 1953, moved to London and then on to the United States. There he was a history professor at Brandeis, Harvard, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins.

From Paris came Georg Stefan Troller, a native of Vienna who fled to the United States via France and North Africa. He joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Europe as a prisoner interrogator. He studied English literature at the University of California - English being the language he says he loves most. But as a bohemian, he has preferred to live in Paris, from which he broadcasts regularly from Paris for German television and has filmed scores of documentaries.

In his book "Poets and Bohemians in Paris," Troller looks at 500 years of history in the Latin Quarter, which is where idealism, materialism, realism, nihilism, symbolism and surrealism were born, and where so many important discussions on modern art and literature took place. It's also the quarter whose denizens wrote poetry and composed music in small garrets where the light barely penetrated. They argued in cafes and met up in dusty bookstores. Sometimes, as in 1968, they fomented a revolt.

If you ask for the definition of a bohemian, Troller replies with a quotation from 19th-century poet Louis-Henri Murger: "Someone whose job is to be without a job."

On the morning of my departure from Schloss Elmau, the color of slate had disappeared from the mountainside. Everything - the short grass, the mountains, the trees - was covered in white.

Schloss Elmau in Bavaria.