I received an email a couple weeks ago from a German woman, Petra, whose family is from the same German village, Aldekerk, as my grandfather. She is a teacher who was researching Stolpersteines, translated as stumbling stones, in Aldekerk and the surrounding area.
Stolpersteines are small cobblestone memorials placed in front of the homes of Jews who were forcefully removed during WWII. While I was living in Germany, I visited Aldekerk with my mom. Our visit was noticed by local politicians, who were then motivated to start the process of obtaining Stolpersteines for the two Jewish families who lived there before WWII. The next year, my whole family returned to Aldekerk as the memorial was placed in front of the Mendel family house.
Petra expressed her surprise to find that there were Stolpersteines in Aldekerk because her family never mentioned anything about there being Jews in the town. She said her “father always pointed out that his family and neighbors, since they hardly ever left their villages, didn't know anything.” But she always found this hard to believe.
My heart is touched that this stranger took the time to email me. My eyes teared up as I read her apology. Here are her words:
It's strange: Two families who were living so close to each other, probably even met because of their jobs, and then for one of these families, their life in the village was just over, they were torn apart, had to flee, disappeared, were murdered... I am so sorry for that...
I am using these words in this context for the first time, instantly noticing that they are not enough, that there are no words, however, just saying nothing would also be inappropriate to my mind.
Her apology, although small in comparison to the loss my family experienced, means a great deal—truthfully, I am deeply touched. I finally found the time to write her, and would like to share my reply:
Thank you for reaching out to me, and for your empathy regarding my family's experience. A little bit of justice is served every time someone recognizes the enormous crime committed upon the Mendel family.
I agree that our families might have known each other, and that your family must have known what was occurring. I was told by an Aldekerk historian that my great-grandfather Ludwig was murdered in the town jail. It is shocking because he was a decorated WWI veteran—I know this because there is a photograph of him in uniform looking very proud. My grandpa always said, “the Mendel family were Germans first and Jews second," but it didn't matter.
I am not sure of the exact timing of Ludwig's murder. Two of his sons, Erich and Karl, fled with their families to Belgium; another son, Otto, was deported to the Oranienburg concentration camp near Berlin; and my grandpa Arthur, was deported to Dachau on the night of Kristallnacht. I am guessing that my great-grandmother, Adele, was left alone until she was deported and later murdered at Theresienstadt.
Only my grandpa and his brother Otto survived. I can't imagine how my grandpa lived knowing the gruesome details of what had happened to his father, mother, and brothers—my heart breaks for him even as I write this. What I do know is that he was an extraordinary individual, and I was so lucky to have been adored by him as a child. His love has been my guiding light.
Please feel free to reach out to me with more questions. Unfortunately I don't have too much information because my grandparents never talked about the war—it was too painful.
One of the main reasons that we are able to live in Greece is because I have German citizenship, which allows me to live anywhere in the European Union. I acquired my citizenship twelve years ago under a provision in the German constitution that restores citizenship to the descendants of victims of the Nazis. It is one of the many ways that the Germans are still trying to make amends for the sins of the past.
I sometimes feel strange about living a life that was stolen from my grandparents. Then I remember how my grandpa used to take me for walks around his neighborhood in Canoga Park, knocking on strangers’ doors in order to introduce his granddaughter. I think it was his way of announcing to the world: We survived.