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How to remember, how to atone, how to forgive

Are there sins so grievous that atonement is unattainable? Are there wounds so deep that forgiveness is impossible?

Given the realities of the Holocaust, I would have answered “yes” to both questions. That changed after I recently accompanied 91-year-old Henny Simon to Hannover, Germany.

The occasion was the 75th anniversary of the roundup and expulsion of the Jews of Hannover to a ghetto in Riga. The Nazis would later take many of them into the forest, line them up, shoot them and bury them in the pit they fell into, dug for that purpose.

Ludwig and Jenny Rosenbaum were Henny’s parents. Ludwig had fought for Germany in World War I and received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, for his meritorious service. After the war, he returned to Hannover, went to school and became a master painter, qualified to train apprentices.

In 1933, the Nazis came to power. In 1935, Ludwig and Jenny’s only daughter, Henny, an athlete and scholar, was excluded from public school. On March 12, 1940, after refusing for years to believe that Germany would turn on its Jewish citizens, Ludwig received a passport and visa for Shanghai, China. On April 8, 1940, he left by way of Italy.

On Dec. 4, 1941, Jenny Rosenbaum and Henny received passports and visas to join him in Shanghai. On Dec. 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. German officials cancelled all exit visas, trapping the mother and daughter.

On Dec. 15, they were among the thousand and one Jews who the Nazis rounded up, took to the small train station of Fischerhof, and transported to the ghetto in Riga. Among those murdered in the forest outside of Riga was Henny’s mother. Henny, by wits, luck, and help from friends Ursala Tasse and Margie “Putti” Israel, survived the war.

She returned to a Hannover destroyed by Allied bombing. Learning her father had reached America, she decided, after first considering Palestine, to come to America with her husband and new son and reunite with her father.

Ruin of war

In time, Germany rebuilt Hannover. On May 27, 1983 it became a sister city to Hiroshima. A bell from Hiroshima sits in Hanover's Aegidienkirche, a church ruin preserved as a memorial to the victims of war and violence. Every Aug. 6, the bell is struck, marking the anniversary of the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is an expression of solidarity, and commonality, between cities once incinerated by war.

Yet the twinning of Hannover and Hiroshima did not address the sins of Hannover against their Jewish citizens who were murdered and incinerated. That required recognition of the citizens’ complicity in the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The steps the city and citizens of Hannover took to atone and ask forgiveness were sincere and remarkable. They invited survivors to return to the city. They documented the history of the Jews of Hannover, and their suffering under the Nazis. They built a museum in Ahlem, once the site of a Jewish landscaping school, a school whose interior Ludwig Rosenbaum painted.

During the war the school had become a Gestapo headquarters and the location of a concentration camp, liberated by U.S. soldiers in 1945. The translator for the American liberating unit was Henry Kissinger. The museum tells the story of the Jewish school, the Gestapo headquarters, and the concentration camp. Some of the graduates of the former landscaping school managed to survive and reached Palestine, where they created parks and landscapes in Israel that are still there today.

Most importantly, in reaching out to the survivors, by using their input in publishing books, designing museum exhibits, and developing school curricula to preserve and honor the memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis, the people of Hannover re-established a Jewish community in the city.

In 1933, about 4,800 Jews lived in Hannover, a community dating to 1292. Sixty-nine survived the war.

As the city, its elected officials and employees struggled to confront the legacy of the Nazi regime and murderous political culture that overtook Germany and their city, these survivors were located, invited back, interviewed, and their testimonies documented. Hannover used this information to place Stolpersteine, “Tripping Stones,” in the sidewalks marking where Jewish families had lived, noting the name, the date of capture, and the camps were they were taken and murdered.

Today, there are more than 6,000 Jews in Hannover with three active congregations.

Welcome home 

As commemorations marked 50, 60, and 75 years since the roundup, the survivors came to participate and give testimony both to the horror of the history and to the city’s atonement for its complicity.

This was Henny’s third official visit. She had returned once on a private visit to Hannover, Riga, and then to the mass graves in the Bikierniki Forest where her mother’s remains are part of the 24,000 Latvian Jews and 1,000 German Jews slaughtered there. Each visit brought her closer to the local people who were dedicated to remembering and honoring the memory of the Jews of Hannover, particularly the journalists Hans-Juergen and Cecily Hermel and their son, Shaun Hermel, who is a curator at the museum in Ahlen, and Dr. Anke Sawahn, a historian and educator.

Henny was among six survivors invited back to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the roundup and expulsion. Only Henny Simon of Colchester, Conn. could make it. Shaun and Anke arranged for Henny to speak to students at a school in Ahlem. All the students were refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. They also arranged for Henny to give an open talk to any adults who wished to hear the story of a 91-year-old Jew from Hannover who had survived the war. Hundreds, spanning all generations, came.

Several TV stations interviewed Henny.

The Oberburgermeister, (High Mayor) of Hannover, Stefan Schostok, greeted her in an elaborate welcome in the City Hall, and again, together with Hauke Jagau, the President of the Region of Hannover, in a farewell ceremony in the synagogue of the Jewish Retirement Home. Liturgical, choral and instrumental music permeated the ceremonies. These ceremonies, exhibits, and programs were the result of the dedicated work of Dr. Karljosef Kreter, a municipal employee who is in charge of these commemorations.

On Dec. 15, as we gathered at the memorial monument in the Opera Plaza, over a hundred students from a local high school marched through the city carrying 1,001 roses, each tagged with the name of a Jew expelled from Hannover 75 years earlier. They placed them on the grounds in front of the memorial, creating the shape of a Jewish star.

That night, in the Jewish Retirement Home, as I presented silver pins from Yad V’Shem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, in appreciation to the organizers of the 75th commemoration, I recalled the words spoken by German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1988. “My real success was in having contributed to the fact that in the world in which we live the name of our country and the concept of peace can again be mentioned in the same breath,” said Brandt.

With tears in my eyes I thanked the assembled guests for their unflinching confrontation of the Holocaust. I thanked them for demonstrating to us that kindness, friendship, and sincere and rigorous remembrance of history can help atone for even the most grievous sins. With these efforts Henny, though experiencing all the agonizing emotions of her personal history, again felt at home in Hannover.

Jerome E. Fischer is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut.

 

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