Coming Home to the Holocaust

My Mother Barely Escaped Nazi Germany. I Returned to Remember Those Who Didn't and to Reclaim Them as My Own

Coming Home to the Holocaust | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Anita (left) with her parents and her older brother Walter. Courtesy of Kim Fellner.

In the town hall of Fischach, a village in southern Germany with a population of 2,500, I am staring at a glass display case holding the detritus of the Jews who once lived here. It is July 2019, eight decades after my mother fled this place as a child. And right in front of me, neatly labeled, are the remains of my family: one of my Great Aunt Mina’s books on home economics and a section of curtain from the house on the village square.

The house from the old photograph. The house my mother once called home.

For a moment, the curtain seems to flutter and everything else stands still. I am not overcome with emotion or moved to tears; I simply feel this jolt, and a little voice inside shouting, “Give me back our stuff.”

The real “stuff,” of course, cannot be preserved under glass. Along with a few gold coins hidden in a jar of cold cream and a box of photographs, the beating heart of the family escaped with my mother in 1939, on Kindertransport #8.

While more than 1 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, my mother, Anita Heufeld, was one of 10,000 rescued by the Central British Fund for German Jewry (now World Jewish Relief). Just short of her 14th birthday, she became an unaccompanied minor, fleeing for safe haven in England. Her parents and most of her extended family remained behind and were killed. She never went back.

My trip to Fischach was instigated when the Jewish Museum of Augsburg launched an exhibition on what had happened to the Kindertransport children from the region after they escaped. The curators wanted to include my mother’s story, and I surprised myself by deciding to travel to the opening of the exhibition, accompanied by my husband and my nephew. I wanted to honor my bracingly intelligent mom, fondly called Ni, who had emerged from her disrupted childhood remarkably intact, running her dress-making business and our family with aplomb. I was also goaded by the resurgence of white supremacy in the U.S. and Europe, and by a president who gleefully incited hatred in a way that my immigrant parents would have recognized with horror, betraying the American ideals they had taught us to value.

While my mother did not hide the past, she also did not dwell on it. But in the mid-1980s, when she was about 60, Ni agreed to an oral history and told us about the close-knit family she had left behind. We learned that Aunt Mina loved growing strawberries; that my mother’s parents were very happy together, their twin beds were pushed together, “no space between”; that my grandmother Erna wrote skits and my grandfather Samuel grew red carnations. Samuel was the respected secular head of the Jewish community, who “was just as anxious that other people should be safe as that we should be safe,” Ni said. When her children grew up to became social justice activists, my mother claimed us as the inheritors of the values her father had embodied.

Standing in that graveyard, I recognized for the first time that my family had constituted the largest grouping of victims from that village, and that they had mostly been in their prime, living full and nuanced lives, and so much younger than I had imagined them.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Fischach had 853 inhabitants. That included 127 Jews. Today there are none. Yet in our absence, a curious phenomenon has emerged: Small committees, comprised largely of non-Jewish older women, have made themselves guardians of Jewish history and cultural memory in towns around southern Germany. In Fischach, the local history committee of the Historical Synagogue Locations Network is headed by retired schoolteacher Anne-Marie Fendt and a deputy to the mayor, Marianne Koos. “It was my mother who told me what she remembered about the Jewish families,” Anne-Marie recalled. “I think of her as an empathetic woman … She always called your grandparents’ home the ‘Heufeld Haus,’ When I started school, I passed the house every day.”

Marianne, who moved to Fischach as a young adult, grew up as part of a new generation that held their parents accountable for being “the perpetrator generation.” Her interest in history drew her to the committee. “When you hear the stories of the families who lived here, and you know the houses where they laughed and loved, had children, and thought they would live their whole lives there because they were Germans, like everyone else in Fischach—I think that changed my way of thinking a bit, it became more personal. It was no longer just German history; it also became my history.”

As the Fischach women showed us around the village, my mother’s memories took physical shape: the former Jewish school next to the building that had once housed the synagogue; the corner bakery where the Jewish families had taken their Sabbath challah to be baked, and where each child could recognize the family loaf by how it was braided. And the awareness, too, revealed in the census maps that Anne-Marie had constructed, that this community had not been ghettoized, that the Jews had lived side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors.

The incremental rise of Nazism put an end to that existence. In May of 1932, the Nazis came to Fischach, plastered the town with anti-Jewish propaganda, and beat up a young man for tearing a poster off the synagogue wall. In 1933, the Jews were tossed off the city council and the volunteer fire department.

Even if townspeople had better angels, most fell in line. Jews were ousted from the town chorus and the garden club. Children were banned from the soccer team, and then from attending school. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, when the Nazis incited open warfare on the Jewish population, destroying synagogues and businesses, the Jews of Fischach—stripped of most livelihoods and restricted from travel—could neither feed their families nor flee. And then, all the Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested and hauled off to KZ Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp. Among them were my mother’s father and her brother, Walter.

Through the intercession of the town mayor and my grandfather’s tenacity, or perhaps simply by happenstance, the men were released by December. But from that moment on, my mother’s mother made it her mission to get the children out. Walter left first, when relatives in Great Britain arranged for his emigration. When a neighbor told my grandmother about the planned Kindertransport, she wrote a letter requesting spaces for my mother and her cousin Rudi.

Of all the details in Ni’s story, I always linger on her departure. Her tough and smart mother prepared her for the trip: hiding pieces of jewelry in her belongings so she would have something to sell if she was hungry; trying to fill her with all the information a growing girl might need; making meringues with whipped cream for her last dinner at home—the dessert my mother would love for the rest of her life.

But in the end, it was her beloved father who saw her onto the train full of fleeing Jewish girls.

My mother didn’t come to the train station with us, she stayed outside the house and waved goodbye. I had a little navy coat and a hat with red ribbons down the back, and a navy-blue dress I had made myself, with red buttons. And on the platform in Munich my father checked me in with the leader of the transport. And he put his hands on my head gently, blessing me, and he cried, and he kissed me goodbye, and he put me on the train. And that was the last time I ever saw him. And there was a train full of children. And there was a platform full of parents, all weeping.

The End of the Road

As one of the final stops on my Fischach journey, the Fischach committee women led me up a little gravel road to the old Jewish cemetery, resting behind a locked iron gate on a tree-shaded hill above the village. The committee played a key role in restoring the cemetery and lovingly oversees its maintenance.

My great-grandfather Max Heufeld, who died in 1936, is buried here, but my great-grandmother Amalie isn’t resting beside him in the space reserved for her. Instead, at age 79, she was among the village’s last 10 Jewish elders who were rounded up in August 1942 and carted off to their deaths at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Coming Home to the Holocaust | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Kim at the cemetery where her great-grandfather Max Heufeld, who died in 1936, was buried. Courtesy of Kim Fellner.

Fifty-six younger people from the village, including my grandparents, had been deported earlier that year, sent to Piaski, a prison town near Lublin, Poland. As best we know, they were all taken out to Piaski’s Jewish cemetery and shot—except for my grandfather, who was sent to nearby Trawniki as part of a work detail. By winter, he too would be dead, shot in another mass murder, dumped in another unmarked grave.

Decades later, my mother’s brother would return to Fischach and, on Amalie’s side of the gravestone, carve the names of those in the family who had been killed: Amalie. Samuel and Erna. Samuel’s two brothers and their wives. His sister Mina, only 36 when she was deported, well-remembered as the proprietor of the family kiosk, from whom many villagers had purchased their spirits, cigars, chocolate, tea and coffee. And my mother’s little cousin Rolf, deported from Munich to Theresienstadt along with his parents in June 1942 and killed at Auschwitz. My mother, her brother, and their cousin Rudi, who escaped on another Kindertransport for boys, were the only immediate family to survive.

Truths and Reconciliations

My mother recalled going to the movies in England in 1945 and seeing the ghastly first newsreel footage of the concentration camps, with their mass graves and skeletal survivors. She never looked at the footage again. “I never let myself specifically think about the people I knew going through that,” Ni told us. “I always include them in with all the other people. What happened to my parents is never far removed from my consciousness. But I have never allowed myself to individualize them in the event. That would have been intolerable.”

No wonder that I too insulated myself by seeing the murder of my family as part of a grim collective. But as I returned to the place of their existence, I was able to fully reclaim them as my own, and to confront the difficult knowledge of my grandparents’ final months on earth. Standing in that graveyard, I recognized for the first time that my family had constituted the largest grouping of victims from that village, and that they had mostly been in their prime, living full and nuanced lives, and so much younger than I had imagined them.

Sifting through that past with Anne-Marie and Marianne, we acknowledged that our current moment has discomfiting echoes of the history that had brought us together. As in Nazi Germany, the bluster about national greatness, comingled with a narrative of racial supremacy, is like a magician’s sleight of hand; what we are ostensibly seeing and hearing about current emergencies distract us from the concurrent erosion of civil rights and democracy. We are always warned not to make these comparisons, that doing so always undervalues the unique evil of the Holocaust and Hitler, while overstating the evil of the event or person to which they are compared. But real parallels reside in the sneaky accretion of particulars—from propaganda and dehumanization to inciting people with fear and hatred, to bullying and punitive legal action, to the stripping of rights and freedom, to acts of brutality and murder. We can only hope that we have more success than those thinkers and journalists who opposed the onset of Nazism if we want to save our democratic values, our neighbors, the people we love, and ourselves.

But Marianne and Anne-Marie, thoughtful and willing to engage, gave me hope. They reminded me that history does not always evolve as the tormentors of the moment might wish—and that the children of the perpetrator generation and the children of the victims can find themselves on the same side of the struggle a generation or two later.

“I learned a lot, and like you, had a lot to think about,” Marianne wrote me after our visit. “What would I have done if I had lived at those times? I know for sure that I never would have been one of those Nazis! But what about being a coward? Saying nothing, doing nothing…. Maybe our generation isn’t responsible for the past, but we are responsible for the future.”

Like them, I know which side I’m on. And taking a stand is not someone else’s responsibility; it’s our own.

Kim Fellner is a labor/community organizer and writer in Washington, D.C. She is the daughter of Anita Fellner née Heufeld (1925-2011) of Fischach, Germany, and Rudolph Fellner (1913-2011) of Vienna, Austria.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Minal Hajratwala | SECONDARY EDITOR: Thea Petchler

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