The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,
it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.
Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.
Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.
Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,
the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.
My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.
By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.
In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing. Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.” Following my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.
Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.
I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.
Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.
Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.
But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.
With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,
yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.
I wanted more time in Amsterdam, but time wouldn’t allow it. I still had to reckon with Germany, and Bergen-Belsen was my first test. Google Maps predicted a 4.5 hour drive time, but then again, Google never consulted me about driving on the Autobahn. I rented a SEAT Leon–a car I knew nothing about–but was assured by the agent that, “SEAT Leon is a useful car to get from point A to point B.” “Never heard of it before. What kind of car is it…compared to more popular carmakers?” I asked. “Think of it as a sportier Spanish version of a VW Golf,” he informed. OK, I thought. That ought to do, and it seemed so appropriate considering how close the concentration camp is to Wolfsburg, home of the VW factory and largest automobile plant in the world. For a third of the way, I had to watch my speed, before crossing the country border into Germany. But once A1 turned into A 30, I was off to the races.
Ordinarily, 130 kph (81 mph) is the top-posted speed limit on highways, but for many high performance vehicles, that’s akin to standing still. When clear of frequent road repairs, much of the Autobahn carries three lanes of traffic: trucks and turtles in the right lane; quasi-regulation speed in the middle lane; and Mach 1, bat-outta-hell speed in the left lane. I waited patiently until I reached De Poppe, where I overtook a BMW 3, and throttled the accelerator as I pushed the transmission into top gear. This was life in the fast lane. When the speedometer crossed 170, I set my sights on the next middle-lane creeper, a Fiat 500. My cruising speed topped 190 and flattened.
The Fiat was coming up fast on my right. I checked my mirrors, and suddenly discovered the front end of a Mercedes-AMG GT filling my rearview and flashing its headlights. Seriously?! Within seconds of passing the Fiat?! I stood my ground–I was committed to passing the Fiat–it was my right! Of course, my tailgater thought the same. The roadster was so close, I could have been towing him. And now its syncopated horn was blaring. In my fantasy, it probably resembled a Grand Prix pas de deux, but in reality, it was German intimidation. I sped past the Fiat and quickly crossed back to the middle. The Mercedes effortlessly blew by me doing no less than 240, and in a blink of an eye, my nemesis was beyond my driving horizon. Thereafter, I occasionally found my way back to the rocket lane, but I was content to run, where others were meant to fly. Nevertheless, I managed to shave a half-hour off my run time as I took my exit. The scenery turned verdant green as I shot down the lonely country lane. Trees were filling in, crops were sprouting, and accents of color from wild flowers popped against a cloudless sky. I was racing to Bergen-Belsen–not knowing what to expect–but once I sensed the immediacy of my arrival, I purposely down-shifted my anxiety to regain control of my emotions. I sat in the parking lot for a minute with the engine idling, thinking about the history of this place and its connection to my family, and the untold suffering and misery caused to so many others, that I wept. It wasn’t a long cry, but long enough to strengthen my resolve. I entered the facility, where I met Simone, who sat behind the desk of the documentation center… and I restated my purpose. She took my grandmother’s name and cross-checked it against the memorial registry. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 people died of starvation, disease, brutality and medical sadism while interned at Bergen-Belsen. When British Allies liberated the camp on April, 15, 1945, they discovered over 60,000 prisoners, most of them sick or dying. “You are very fortunate. Just before the Liberation, the Nazis destroyed most of their records to hide their crimes. We have records for only half the prisoners held here, but lucky for you, your grandmother’s name is on the list,” she said with excitement. And then she presented me with twin volumes… and flagged the most significant page in Volume Two, which caused my heart to race. Simone offered a map of the museum, and I got started on my quest.
My time was limited and I was feeling overwhelmed by the site of so many artifacts–laid out like a trail of evidence–to narrate a place in time when human beings behaved at their worst.
Standing there, I was seeing the truth stripped bare, and this sensation was getting in my way of collecting clues of my family. Square window boxes have been dropped into the cement floor, representing the found objects that archealogists have unearthed…
after the camp was incinerated by the Brits to control the spread of typhus. Walls of displays detail the story of the horrors within… Because of my correspondence with Bernd Horstmann, curator of the museum’s Register of Names, I learned that Grandma Rose arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Westerbork on January 12, 1944 with 1,024 other Jews, and was detained at the Star Camp, a subsection of the Exchange Camp… Because Grandma Rose had value to the Nazis as a seamstress, she was most likely deployed to the SS-owned Weaving Works, which forced women to produce items from scrap materials, in addition to repairing inmate uniforms. Although living conditions at the Star Camp were considered better than other blocks within Bergen-Belsen… the indignity and torture was more than enough to drive many of the prisoners mad. Nonetheless, a code of conduct ruled inside the huts, in sharp contrast to the chaos and barbarism that reigned on the outside. Having been relegated to Block 20, Grandma Rose was beholden to Jewish Elder, Joseph Weiss. In time, as surrounding concentration camps closed, Bergen-Belsen saw a dramatic increase in inmates. Originally intended as a Soviet POW camp for 20,000 prisoners, the camp population swelled beyond imagination and sustainability. By April, 1945, the Third Reich learned that the Allies had broken German defenses from the west and the south as the Soviets were advancing from the east. On April 7, 1945, Grandma Rose was among the first to be loaded onto a cattle car initially bound for Thereisenstadt, but destined for the gas chambers. Of course, none of the transportees knew where they were going or what to expect on the other side of their living hell, except continuing sickness and certain death. After six days of unimaginable terror on the rails, Grandma Rose’s train was liberated near the German village of Farsleben on April 15, 1945 by American soldiers from the 743rd Tank Battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.
Maj. Frank Towers, who also took part in the liberation, organized the transfer of Grandma Rose and the other 2,500 freed prisoners to a nearby town, Hillersleben, where they received medical treatment from Allied troops. Grandma Rose weighed 90 pounds when she admitted to the field hospital. I felt I had reached my capacity for absorbing the inhumanity justified by the Nazis in their quest for the “Final Solution”. I didn’t know if I could process any more of it, but there was one last exhibit inside the Film Tower that was impossible to ignore, no matter how difficult to endure. Eventually, the museum was cleared at 5pm. As many as 10 other patrons filed through the exit and into their cars, leaving me with another couple to roam the cemetery grounds on a beautiful Spring afternoon. There are no tombstones on the grounds, but there are government memorials… and government tributes… and personal markers. scattered among a cluster of memorial mounds… where the unknown remains of tens of thousands of victims share a mass grave beneath the berm.
(please be advised of extremely graphic content)
I found solace inside the House of Silence, an outlying metal and glass edifice on the edge of camp, in the midst of a grove of birch trees… where a soaring meditation room offers space for personal reflection, and an altar for hundreds of tokens of healing and prayer. Bergen-Belsen is a sad place that offers little redemption beyond the nagging reminder that people have the capacity for immeasurable cruelty toward each other–as if it’s in our DNA–and this is our scar for future reference.Surely, a solemn oath from each of us to “never forget,” brings us one step closer to “never again.” But this memorial also challenges us to check our speed. We need to slow down and be mindful of the world around us in order to listen closely for the pulse of hatred that still beats among us, lest we drive down this familiar road again, ignoring the vital signs of tolerance, freedom, and understanding. A “Search for Closure” concludes with Part 3.