German memories

Last winter, we took a quick family vacation to a small town in Bavaria. This was my first serious stay in Germany, although I’d been to Austria before. Specifically, we chose to visit a town in Franconia, a province famous for walled cities, vineyards on rolling hills, carved altarpieces by Tilman Riemenschneider, and the Nazi Gauleiter Julius Streicher.

Our hotel was built into the medieval walls. Its cultural atmosphere was, I suppose, a mix of the pre-modern and the contemporary. The food, the appliances, and the free computer terminals were all up-to-date, but the structure belonged to the old free Imperial city of traders and guilds. That city, incidentally, incorporated a large Jewish community with a famous scholarly tradition, until the Jews were expelled in 1520.

The family that owned the hotel could not possibly have been friendlier, warmer, or kinder to us. Near the end of our stay, we had to move–as previously arranged–to a suite in their private house. This turned out to be a spacious and comfortable home with all the modern conveniences, reminiscent (to me) of suburban houses in Surrey. It was, in fact, a newer building than any in which I have lived in the United States. A stone plaque over the main door identified the date of construction. I believe it said “1937.”

I do not pretend to know the details of life in a small Franconian town in 1937, but I suspect that no one built handsome houses right outside the city walls without being friendly to the totalitarian Nazi regime, which was deeply rooted in the region. Our host had grown up in the house and seemed old enough to remember its construction. You flipped on a light switch and thought to yourself that that very same switch had still been new on Kristallnacht in 1938. Evil felt close and recent.

And yet, the family’s private library included serious, scholarly books on the holocaust, anti-Nazi classics by Mann and Grass, and pacifist volumes by the likes of Tolstoy. How do I know that there was a medieval Jewish community in town? Because of the fine and prominent municipal monument to the expelled, which is inscribed with Hebrew poetry translated into German. I know from an equally excellent Holocaust memorial that the 17 Jews who resided in town in 1938 were driven away and lost to history.

It wasn’t our host’s fault that he was born in Franconia around 1930. Nor do I deserve one ounce of moral credit for having been born of Jewish heritage in America decades later. I don’t see what anyone in his position could do, beyond reading the books that he owns and contributing to the decent contemporary state that is the Federal Republic of Germany. There are countless citizens of guilty countries who have never stopped to think about such matters.

Our host’s wife was in the hospital. On the day we had to leave, he insisted on driving his little car all the way to the Autobahn so that we could follow him and get safely on our way to Frankfurt. I picture him waving goodbye to us and then driving back to his 1937 house to wait for news from the hospital. I only hope that the news was good.

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