I just returned from my annual teaching tour in Germany. Every time I go I learn something that heals my soul.
I’ve written about the seminal influence in my life that being the firstborn son of Holocaust survivors. My attitudes toward suffering, responsibility for others, power, privilege, and authority, have all been determined by that accident of birth.
I’ve spent my professional life as a physician/psychiatrist, because I felt a calling to relieve suffering; it turned out it was to heal myself from old wounds. Going to Germany yearly over the last 20 years has liberated me from the more dysfunctional manifestations of my judgmentalism, anger, cynicism, and mistrust.
This year I returned to my parent’s small hometown for the second time. I’d been here once before 32 years ago. I was on my way to Heidelberg, where I would address a meeting of 1,000 mental health professionals. I thought I’d make a brief visit to the cemetery, say prayers for my grandparents and then continue on for my spa date.
Thirty-two years ago, Felsberg had 2,500 people and two streets; it’s now three times the size, lots of streets and a manicured suburbia. The first two people I asked where the Jewish cemetery was were under 50 and had no idea. I stopped to ask an elderly woman who was outside in her garden, and she said, “it’s right behind my house, you can come through my garden, just leave your car right there.”
I said my prayers, walked around, and after 20 minutes was ready to leave. Walking back through the garden, the woman was still working. As I approached she asked who I was. I told her my name, which she immediately recognized but acknowledged she didn’t know my family personally. I told her the only person I remembered from my last visit was the brother of my father’s closest friend, who had guided us through the village when I was first there. She told me he’d died many years ago, and then I remembered he took us to the home of his niece Elsbeth, the daughter of my father’s best friend. I asked her if Elsbeth was still alive, and she looked stunned. She said “Elsbeth is my best friend and yesterday was her 75th birthday.” It gave me goose bumps.
The woman (who in typical German formality never told me her first name), said she’d call Elsbeth because she wouldn’t open the door for strangers. When Elsbeth answered the phone, her friend said there was someone from America here to see her by the name of Carl Hammerschlag.
Elsbeth welcomed me with tears and hugs, and of course I would sit down. She would bring bread, which in Germany means it’s accompanied by sausage, liverwurst, cheeses, coffee, and the remnants of yesterday’s birthday party pastries. Clearly my leisurely spa afternoon was history. It was an Epicurean return to my childhood, as we reveled in old family stories.
Her son Frank walked in unexpectedly and joined the conversation. I’d seen him last as an 18 year old when he accompanied his Uncle and me while showing and telling us the Jewish history of this town. There was lots of nostalgia, laughter and some tears. When I was ready to leave, Elsbeth brought out a letter that my father had written to her father in November 1936, shortly after his arrival in New York City. When I heard this letter 32 years ago, I remembered it saying that my father would never come back to Germany, but he hoped they might again sit around the family table as friends.
This time I heard the letter differently. I had forgotten that it was mostly a newsy letter to his friend that told about his journey; leaving his hometown, arriving in Paris, then to Cherbourg where he boarded the ship to cross the Atlantic. He wrote of his emotional sighting of the Statue of Liberty, and said if he worked as hard as he did in Germany he’d be a rich man by the time he was 50 because Americans spent a lot of time relaxing. It was at the end that he said he didn’t think it likely he’d ever come back to Germany, but hoped they would one day still gather around the table.
This visit I spent less time weeping at the remains of my ancestral roots, and most of it celebrating connections as extended family around that table of my father’s dream.
It reminds me again of how important it is to look again at my old certainties, because that’s the way we continue writing new endings to our old stories. Healing my unforgiving wounds here in Felsberg, I felt my father’s smile.