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|Figure 1 |
There is a place that existed before you came to it, closed with the secrets and complexities of history; and there is the place you experience in the present.—Eavan Boland
He stands in front of the Hertz sign at the train station in Stuttgart, Germany, as we had arranged, and I recognize him right away from the picture he sent me. A boyish twenty-five, with blond hair and well scrubbed cheeks, he is what I imagine as the perfect German poster boy of sixty years ago. Then, he would have been dressed in uniform for the Fatherland. Today he is in jeans and sneakers, carrying a knapsack and a pink print umbrella.Rolf is my translator. He is a graduate student in Holocaust Studies at the University of [End Page 147] Mannheim, doing research about how such a thing could have happened in his country. Together we are going to Benheim, where no one speaks English. It's too small, too isolated, so my crash course from Berlitz won't get me through interviews with Herr Adolf Stolle—and whomever else he's arranged for me to meet. Herr Stolle is the retired villager who does research on the Jewish cemetery, the one who sent photos of family gravestones to Jews from my father's village now living in New York. "A nice Gentile, a good contact!" they all agreed.
Rolf and I are expected this afternoon at two if my phone call last night from Zurich was understood. I had written out pages of possible dialogue before calling and had gotten through my arrival time and that I was bringing a friend (Rolf). I was on a roll, I thought, until Herr Stolle said Erinnerung and kept repeating it as I shuffled through my yellow pad of prepared script, clueless. Erinnerung, Erinnerung. Again and again.
"Ich verstehen nicht, entschuldigen," I said. I'm sorry, I don't understand.
"Ich verstehe nicht," Herr Stolle corrected me in a neutral voice and then dropped the unknown Erinnerung, thank God. He said he looked forward to meeting me, his low, even voice soothing my sense of error. Verstehe. The singular verb form, not plural. I should know that.
After I hung up, I looked up Erinnerung in my dictionary: memory. Of all the words not to understand. For memory is why I have come—to find out if what the Jews of Benheim remember is true: that life was wonderful before Hitler, and that even under the Nazis, before they left, "it was better than most places." I want to meet whoever is left and decide for myself. Of course I'm biased, having grown up in 1940s New York, where all Germans were called Nazis, not to be trusted, not one. And the old fears linger. But I would be happy to be wrong. In fact, I would love it. Decent people, even in one overlooked Schwarzwald village of twelve hundred, would be very comforting.
"How about you drive?" I say to Rolf, holding out the keys to my rental car. I don't feel like tackling the Mercedes Benzes and BMWs doing a hundred miles an hour on the Autobahn, and he's used to [End Page 148] that, I figure. He takes the car keys with a big grin, locates our red Volkswagen Beetle, and opens the door for me. What? I hear my father saying from his grave. A German car you are renting? I climb inside anyway.
Three tries to start the engine. "I must tell you I don't drive so much," Rolf says as we pull out of the parking lot into Stuttgart traffic. "Only when my grandfather lends me his car." Hopefully he's as cautious as he looks, but I know nothing about him. His name came from someone I met at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, a young man working at the Oral History desk. When I mentioned...