Friday, February 23, 2018

A head (and heart!) exploding day

Let me just begin by saying that I’m at a loss for words to describe our first full day in Chemnitz. Jetlag and sheer overwhelm prevent me from being as eloquent as I would like, so a brain dump will have to do.

After our wonderful dinner with the Dr Moessinger, the director of the Kunnstsammlung Chemnitz, we all fell into our very comfortable beds at the Chemnitzer Hof, exhausted from our very full day(s!) of travel, but excited for what was to come.

A very full day was scheduled for us on Friday:


Rico, my new best friend, with whom I had been communicating and coordinating over the past few months greeted us after breakfast, full of enthusiasm, telling us that we would be boarding our own little bus for a tour of places that were meaningful in the lives of my father and grandfather and their family. Joining us was Dr. Juergen Nitsche, historian and THE expert on Jews in Chemnitz and Saxony. My father had been in frequent touch with Dr. Nitsche when he was writing his books about his life, and they had developed a friendship as Dr. Nitsche helped my father with research, but unfortunately they never met in person. Since dad’s death last year, Dr. Nitsche and I have developed our own cordial friendship, so it was wonderful to finally meet him in person. My dad would have liked him very much! 


Our fist stop was to Adelsberg, a neighborhood of Chemnitz where Ulli lived with her aunt, uncle, and cousin after her mother died of a brain tumor in January, 1944. Ulli was just barely 12 years old. Carl had just lost his beloved wife, whom he adored and respected and who, by her sheer existence, had protected him and his children from deportation, as she was the non-Jewish partner in what was considered a “privileged mixed marriage.” Irmgard, like many wives and mothers, was the force that kept the family together and moving forward, and now, not only was she gone, but the chaos of war and the very real possibility of deportation prevented Carl from providing Ulli what she needed, so she began living with her cousin’s family. As a Jew, Carl was no longer allowed on public transportation, so he walked to Adelberg, a trip of about an hour each way, to visit Ulli. If we have time today, we hope to make the same walk in remembrance of Carl.

We knew what street in Adelsberg Ulli lived on in 1944 and 1945, but unfortunately, we didn’t know the specific house number (we have since found out!), so we very slowly drove up and down the street asking poor 86-year-old Ulli whether any houses looked familiar. Unfortunately, none did, but now that we have the house number (thanks to Dr. Nitsche!), we can go back today and find the house that will hopefully feel familiar to Ulli, even though it has surely changed.

After Adelsberg, we went to the school that my father and his brother attended (Ulli was younger and went to a different school), which still exists and is celebrating its one hundred and fiftieth year. Although they are currently on vacation, the headmistress showed us around.


(During renovations after the war, the original frescoed ceiling was discovered and exposed!) 

The best part of this visit was discovering Uncle Rainer and Dad’s names in the old attendance books!


Dr. Nitsche points out for Ulli the records of her brothers as the headmistress looks on.


We discovered two things: Rainer was a mediocre student (though he went on to become a very successful literary agent in Switzerland) and Thomas, my dad, was a dedicated student with good grades in everything except PE, which he almost flunked! He never was athlete, but he turned out to be a great engineer!

After visiting the school, we drove to the location of the house where Carl and Irmgard lived with their three children.


(Thomas, my father, Irmgard, Carl, Ulli, and Rainer.)

It was a beautiful house.


On March 5, 1945, the house was destroyed by a bomb. Carl was in the cellar of the house where he went to retrieve a suitcase containing some of his beloved art, and was killed instantly.


My father discovered his father’s body days later and, in the throes of the last chaotic days of WWII, at the young age of 16, he dug a grave and buried his father.

This is what that corner looks like today:


Across the street one way is the post office that Irmgard referred to in her many letters to her mother. “I’ll close this now and walk to the post office to send it…”


And across the street the other way is an apartment building where the beautiful old synagogue once stood. It was destroyed on Kristallnacht, 1938. As it burned brightly, Carl and Irmgard told their frightened children that it was probably an electrical fire. My father wondered, though, why efforts were made to save the surrounding buildings but no one made an effort to extinguish the fire engulfing the synagogue.

The next day in school, one of my father’s classmates bragged that his older brother was one of the people who set the synagogue on fire…


Today, only a memorial plaque marks the site of the once-beautiful synagogue.


After this very emotional visit to the homesite, we were treated to the most wonderful lunch at the old town Ratskeller.




Mmmmm! Schweinehaxe! Leckar!

After lunch, we were honored to meet the mayor of Chemnitz, Barbara Ludwig, who spent over an hour with us, showing us the Rathaus and often referring to Carl and what his experience in Chemnitz was probably like. I’m embarrassed to say that, although I have video of Frau Ludwig (especially as we exchanged gifts – she gave our family a beautiful book of Chemnitz and we gave her a unique hand blown glass vase from Seattle), I don’t yet have any photos of her! I’ll have to ask my cousins for theirs!


Then we walked through town to the Kunnstsammlung (art museum) where the exhibit honoring my grandfather and father was ready to open to the public.


(Photo: Kristin Schmidt)


First, though, a press conference. First Dr. Moessinger gave a moving talk about the exhibit and how it came to be. She choked up at the end, as she apologized on behalf of the museum and of the city for the fate of Carl.


Then Dr. Nitsche described the lives of my grandfather and father in another moving speech.


What happened next was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, but unfortunately I have no really good photos of it, because all the cameras were aimed at US! Many reporters attended, asking us to pose for photographs that will appear in the city papers today! Can I just say that I am very happy not to be a celebrity?! What an odd feeling being asked to pose as hundreds of shutters open and close to a symphony of clicking and whirring and “smile!” One reporter even interviewed me (in German – ack!)  about my experiences and memories around my grandfather’s and father’s art! It will be broadcast on a radio show today! I’m scared to listen to that mp3 when it arrives in my email!


The exhibit is four rooms big – much larger than I had expected! The three pieces behind us are the ones that my father donated back to the museum in his will. I’ll get more photos of the actual art and the exhibit opening tomorrow. I was too overwhelmed yesterday!

In the evening, we were treated to a performance of “ABBA Now!” It’s hard to describe it! Let’s just say musical/comedy renditions of ABBA’s songs. It was marvelous! I took no photos, but check out their website:

Today is another busy day! I’ll do my best to blog again this evening!

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Tonya said...

What an amazing day for all of you! I can totally understand how overwhelming it was, but in a wonderful way! Holy moly. I also noticed in the photo of your dad and his parents and siblings around that table, the resemblance between Peter and your father, and also Rainier! Maybe Rainier even more so.

Margaret said...

This is such a life changing experience! Your memories of this trip will be very precious.

Michael Carl Heumann said...

Thanks for this window into our Opa’s world! A note on the art itself- The art that Carl collected was not really “ quinissential” or “classic” German art, but the art of the German romanticists who have left an indelible mark on the American imagination ..... the art of Ludwig Von Richter and others inspired the original Dinney fantasy worlds that have shaped the imagination of young American children for generations. This is why I am so anxious to see the original colors of the many pieces that passed 5hrouhj his living hands, and of which we only have black and while pictures in the auction catalogs that survive Thomas and Rainer today. This romanticism era provides us with a view of where the German sentiments about life were going before the wars destroyed the happy, idyllic culture that we find reflected in those wonderful paintings and woodcuts...

Renate said...

What an unforgettable experience! My father was from Lower Saxony and my maiden name was Nitzsche (spelling is slightly different. I wonder how common that name is in the region.

Renate said...

I meant to say my dad grew up in Sachsen (Saxony), not Lower Saxony, where I grrew up.

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