Anne Frank

During a tour of Amsterdam’s “Grachten”, the narrow canals which transect this “Venice of the North”, our boat passed 263 Prinsengracht. The many adults and even more children lined up at this famous address had the same goal as I – to visit the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during World War II. Once back at the dock, I joined the queue of tourists snaking around several adjacent structures. The reverential multitudes, among whom my ear discerned a babel of languages, did not appear bothered by having to wait more than an hour before gaining admittance to what is now the Anne Frank House Museum.

Boat tour on Amsterdam’s Grachten

Queue for the Anne Frank House Museum

The narrow, four-story brown brick building once held the warehouse and offices of Mr. Frank’s company, which sold gelling agents for homemade jam and spice mixes for meat. The Frank family fled from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power. When German forces occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Jewish ownership was outlawed. Otto Frank transferred directorship to two of his employees, but remained involved in the management of his business. Once anti-Semitic excesses became more egregious, Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, and large numbers were deported, the Frank family left their home for the so-called “Secret Annex”, on the second and third floors of the warehouse. Here they remained from July 6, 1942 until their arrest on August 4, 1944. Anne, her older sister Margot, and their parents Edith and Otto were soon joined by the Van Pels couple, their son Peter, and a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer.

Anne Frank House Museum

263 Prinsengracht

I reached the secret rooms of the annex just as they did, by stepping through a door on the third floor which could be concealed behind a moveable bookcase. As the warehouse was still actively used while the group was in hiding, they could not afford to make noise until after the workers left at day’s end. Behind blackened windows, they could only let down their guard at night and on weekends. Employees Miep Gies, Johannes Keiman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, and two of their family members helped supply the captives with food, news from the outside world and other necessities, at the peril of their own lives.

Anne journaled about the cramped conditions in the tiny four rooms and one lone bathroom, plus the attendant conflicts. Despite dreading detection, deportation and death daily, this group of eight still had to deal with mundane concerns. They all suffered – from repetitive meals, spoiled food, limited space, annoying habits, and petty human traits. Anne and Mr. Pfeffer had frequent arguments about the use of a desk in a shared room. The families accused one another of hoarding food, dishes or clothes. When they finally dumped their assorted chamber pots down the toilet, it frequently clogged.

Anne’s diary entries were an outlet for her frustrations, teenage turmoil, and angst. They show her struggle with self-assertion, while trying to please others, and her frustration with the adults whom she did not consider good role models. At times, these are jolting, as she does not embellish what she perceives as other people’s faults, including her mother’s, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship.

But her writing also reflects her dreams of being free, of conducting a normal life after the war’s end. Her love of learning, books, history, royal lineages and movies is evident throughout her diary, as is her never-ending hope for a bright future. She yearned for nature, felt trapped inside the annex, and longed for the outdoors:

The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God. For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity. …I firmly believe that nature can bring comfort to all who suffer (February 23, 1944).

Anne also had a vision for her future:

I need something besides a husband and children to devote myself to. I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people (April 5, 1944).

You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer. We’ll have to wait and see if these grand illusions (or delusions!) will ever come true, but till now, I’ve had no lack of topics. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex (May 11, 1944).

Following the allies’ landing in France in June 1944, and their subsequent advances against German forces, hope for an end to the Nazi terror is tangible in many of her entries. The end of their confinement came on August 4, but it was not the ending anybody had longed for. German and Dutch forces raided their hiding place, arrested its inhabitants, and sent them to a transit camp at Westerbork in Holland, before deporting them to Auschwitz in early September. The formerly widespread assumption that they were betrayed has lately been questioned.

In spite of losing ground on many fronts, and despite the inevitability of their eventual defeat, the Nazis and their killing machine continued to devour millions of lives during the final year of the war. Anne and her close ones were victims of this cruelly efficient process. Of the group of eight, solely Otto Frank survived. After Russian forces liberated Auschwitz in May 1945, he returned to Amsterdam in June only to learn that his wife, Edith, had died in January. He still harbored hope to find his two daughters alive and initiated desperate inquiries to humanitarian organizations, newspapers, and other survivors. Two sisters freed from the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where Margot and Anne had been transferred, confirmed his worst fears. His fifteen and nineteen year-old daughters had succumbed to typhus in March of 1945. On April 15, their camp was liberated by British forces.

Anne’s diary, left behind in the annex, was found and safeguarded by Miep Gies. Once it was evident that Anne would not come back, she handed it to Otto Frank. Even though he struggled to learn about Anne’s inner life hitherto unknown to him, he realized that her writing might have a wider appeal, but took the liberty of applying his editor’s pen and eliminating passages that portrayed her criticism of her housemates, her awakening sexuality, and her teenage crush on Peter van Pels. After initial difficulty finding a publisher, an article about Anne’s diary was printed in the newspaper Het Parol, formerly the mouthpiece of the Dutch Resistance. On June 25, 1947, the first Dutch edition of Anne Frank’s Diary was published to an overwhelming reception. Since then, it has been translated into myriad languages and appeals to generation after generation of readers. Some sixty editions later, it has never been out of print.

More than one version of Anne’s diary exists. After an appeal on BBC radio by a Dutch minister exiled in England, who encouraged his fellow Dutch to collect diaries and letters for publication after the war, Anne began to revise her entries. Mr. Frank drew from the original and revised sources for the diary’s first edition. This was subsequently superseded by a definitive edition which includes all previously redacted passages. Anne also composed fiction and additional personal stories. They are available in combination with some of her own edited diary entries as Tales From The Secret Annexe, which honors the title she conceived herself.

In exploring the Anne Frank House Museum in 2013, I fulfilled a dream which started with my first encounter with Anne’s diary when a teenager myself, over 30 years earlier. I wanted to pay homage to her life and suffering, and experience the temporary dwelling she immortalized. Having grown up in Germany during a time when the Holocaust was still not discussed openly, learning about Anne was one way to take a critical look at my birth nation’s burdensome, horrendous past. Encountering visitors from the four corners of the Earth at Anne’s erstwhile refuge, all moved by her candid reflections and glimpses into her soul, gave me hope that, one day, we will respect one another for who we are, regardless of nationality, race or religion.

I have gained a new appreciation for Anne in all her humanity. I wish she could have known how famous a writer she would become, and how many lives she would touch to this day.

Berlin-Wannsee

While in Berlin last fall, I visited Wannsee, the town and lake on the western outskirts of the capital. The ditty, “Pack die Badehose ein, nimm dein kleines Schwesterlein, und dann nischt wie raus nach Wannsee” (“pack your bathing trunk, take your little sister, and let’s hurry to lake Wannsee”), a veritable earworm from 1951 was playing in my mind, and even though I had not heard it in decades, it might have had something to do with my decision. What was not at my mind’s forefront was the “Wannsee Conference”, the antithesis to this light, cheerful tune. The name jumped out at me when I studied the local town map upon my arrival at the S-Bahn (suburban train) station, and set the memory wheels in motion.

On an unseasonably mild early December day I made my way through the well-groomed streets of what has always been a wealthy resort town. When I reached the location of this infamous gathering I shivered, despite the warm sunshine. On January 20, 1942, fifteen high-ranking officials of Hitler’s administration convened here to make the eradication of all European Jews official policy. In this beautiful villa, built in 1915 by industrialist Ernst Marlier, and repurposed by the SS into a conference center and guest house between 1941 and 1945, these men resolved to kill millions of innocent people because of their ethnicity and religion – while they wined and dined in an opulent dining room with a view of the idyllic garden and lake.

I toured the exhibit of what became the “House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site” in 1992. I strolled through the sun-drenched grounds resounding with lovely birdsong. Directly across the lake from the property stretched the sandy beach of “Strandbad Wannsee” (public bathing beach Wannsee), the destination of the above-mentioned melody which might have brought me here – and also one of the sites of segregation in the early years of Hitler’s regime, when Jews were “merely” banned from public places, when Germany’s “philosophers” might have still prevented the worsening madness that was to engulf Europe and the world.

I kept stumbling over the same question: How could something like this ever happen in Germany – “Land der Dichter und Denker” (“nation of poets and philosophers”)? Because it was also the “Land der Richter und Henker” (“nation of judges and henchmen”). A German rhyme. How poetic. How absurd.

While the past can’t be altered or whitewashed, try as we might, I wonder what it takes to prevent new demagogues anywhere from misleading people, from spreading new lies, from painting new enemy images. What does it take for us to focus on our common humanity, instead of dehumanizing, suppressing, or even killing certain groups, be it for political, for religious, or for ethnic reasons?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/berlin-wannsee/

Berlin

Who is silly enough to decide on a Tuesday in early December to journey to Berlin by train the following day, spend two nights in a hotel, and three days to sightsee? And to use a booklet from 1973 as one’s guide? At least it was the 8th improved version from 1983!

My youthful optimism and burning desire to re-visit Germany’s capital which I only knew from an organized tour some thirty-odd years ago made me choose this course of action. During all my previous sojourns in Europe, I did not have or make the time to plan such a trip, and, lacking the foresight again during this last one, I resorted to this whirlwind excursion. As I knew full-well before I left, three days (two and a half, to be exact) were not nearly enough, but only afforded a brief glimpse into a metropolis with a convoluted history. I am glad I had the opportunity to get this glimpse, but when a friend asked me afterward about my impressions, I responded that they were mixed. I am still in the process of digesting them.

I arrived at Berlin’s Main Train Station. The Reichstag Building can be seen behind the Christmas wreath.

Crossing the Spree River, looking east toward the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz

Reichstag building, former home of the equivalent of the German parliament

The new dome of the Reichstag (completed in 1999). The original dome burned down in the fire of 1933 which was used by Hitler as a pretext to suspend the Weimar Constitution.

Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1871, after Iron Chancellor Bismarck’s multi-pronged machinations united different German regions and interests. Immense growth at the turn of the 19th century was followed by intense bombardment in World War II, and the division of the city into four allied sectors after Germany’s capitulation. This separation culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the subsequent existence of two parallel universes that lasted for 27 years, until the Wall was torn down in 1989, Germany reunited, and Berlin resumed its original role as capital of a unified Germany. As I moved across the Atlantic from Europe in the mid-1990s, I followed subsequent events from a distance only, but was curious to see the changes since reunification for myself.

Brandenburg Gate

Quadriga atop Brandenburg Gate

I remembered vividly the concrete, steel, and barbed wire from my visit in the early 1980s that separated the city into two, and West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic, a bizarre reminder of a bizarre situation. If the Brandenburg Gate was previously the center of the divided city, today it embodies the new Berlin. This became evident when I was able to simply walk up to it, and through all of its five arches. Even though remnants of the Wall are scattered along streets and thoroughfares, and former checkpoints and museums continue to recall this chapter of German history, I had the impression that this is something the country has, largely, put behind.

What Germany has, and probably should not, put behind is its infamous role during WW I and WW II, especially its racist, elitist views that led to genocide and a bottomless pit of pain and death. While it is impossible to ever right the wrongs committed, Germany has tried to take responsibility for its past actions. Monuments have been erected to commemorate the murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as homosexuals during the Third Reich. Even though it took three generations to reach this juncture, persistent undercurrents in German society continue to laud Hitler’s “accomplishments” and espouse his evil racial views. I have always had trouble with my German heritage, on account of my birth country’s horrendous history: two catastrophic wars which led to the demise of at least 16 million in the first, 60 million in the second. Unlike a former chancellor, I can’t lighten my conscience by claiming “the mercy of late birth”.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Homosexuals

I grapple with the tension of how this nation can take responsibility for its past, and continue to celebrate its achievements, institutions, and elites, without belittling other states and claiming, once again, supremacy. Germany – and Berlin  still struggle to find answers to yesterday’s troublesome questions, while trying to heal internal divisions, and solve today’s challenges.

Neue Wache (New Guardhouse) on boulevard “Unter den Linden”, commemorates victims of war and dictatorship

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/berlin/

Another Amazing Einstein

My current hometown, Colorado Springs, once was home to a third degree cousin of Albert Einstein. Dr. Otto Einstein was born in Hechingen, Germany in 1876, graduated from high school in Ulm in 1895, and from medical school in Tübingen in 1900. He practiced pediatrics in Stuttgart for thirty-five years, before he escaped Hitler’s anti-Semitic genocide at the last minute, in April 1939. Most of his children left Germany in the early 1930s, but Dr. Einstein opted to stay, caring for his Jewish patients as long as possible. Like other Jewish physicians, he had volunteered during WWI, and as late as 1935 was awarded a Medal of Honor, which likely conferred a degree of protection, even though he was demoted to Krankenpfleger (male nurse) and expelled from the German Society of Pediatricians in 1938.

After fleeing from the dinner table with his wife Jenny, the Einsteins’ first refuge was Nicaragua. Dr. Einstein worked at a missionary hospital of the Moravian church for nine months, while awaiting a visa to enter the United States. Albert Einstein pleaded with the authorities in a handwritten note for permission for his cousin to enter the country. Once granted, the Einsteins arrived in New Orleans by steamship in 1940. They lived in Denver for two years, where Dr. Einstein’s eldest son was a doctor. Otto found employment as a resident physician at National Jewish Hospital, a center for the treatment of tuberculosis. Colorado was among the premiere destinations for consumptives, on account of its purported beneficial climate, and Dr. Einstein started a new career as a tuberculosis specialist at sixty-four – an age when most individuals at least ponder retirement.

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Memorial Plaque at the site of the former Modern Woodmen of America Sanatorium

In 1942, Dr. Einstein moved to Colorado Springs and was hired by the Modern Woodmen of America Sanatorium, the city’s largest. After 1947, he dedicated the remaining years of his life to the care of patients at Cragmor Sanatorium. This establishment for well-heeled patients opened in 1905/06. In 1952, it was leased by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as a treatment center for Navajo (Diné) women from Arizona, with the goal to cure their disease with newly discovered antibiotics. Patients and staff described him as a caring, gentle individual who tried to ease his charges’ physical and emotional pain. Despite communication barriers created by his heavily accented English, he and his American Indian patients were able to comprehend one another.

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The former Cragmor Sanatorium, now Main Hall of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS)

A principled man, Dr. Einstein insisted on paying for medications taken from the pharmacy for personal use, and on tearing up uncanceled stamps. A lifelong scholar, he studied subjects as diverse as medicine and comparative religion. He worshiped at Temple Beth El, the Reform Jewish congregation in Colorado Springs. It was there that he eulogized Albert’s life after the Nobel Laureate’s death in 1955. Five years earlier, the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph had printed an interview in which he reminisced about their childhood friendship in Germany and several stays at Princeton with the famous physicist and his wife Elsa, who also happened to be a cousin of Jenny. After Dr. Einstein’s death of myocardial infarction in 1959, a few days shy of his 83rd birthday, he was buried at the Sons of Israel Cemetery, adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery.

Dr. Einstein was survived by his wife Jenny, their two sons, Robert and Georg, two daughters, Lisa and Eva, and a son, Hans, from Jenny’s first marriage. While all have passed in the interim, numerous grandchildren and their offspring are alive today.

I first learned about Dr. Einstein in a book about Cragmor Sanatorium, Asylum of the Gilded Pill, by retired UCCS Professor Douglas R. McKay. During an exploration of our local cemeteries, I stumbled across Dr. Einstein’s distinctive gravestone which heightened my curiosity. When I found the eulogy given by his rabbi, I called several synagogues to find more information about him. One obliging secretary put me in touch with Dr. Perry Bach who is working on the completion of a series of books, Jewish Colorado Springs. He was most gracious, shared his knowledge, and put me in touch with a family member of Dr. Einstein, architect Alan Gass of Denver, the designer of the tombstone, who filled in additional gaps. While visiting Stuttgart last fall, I discovered more archival sources about Dr. Einstein’s life in Germany.

This short biographical sketch is my attempt to shed a little more light on a remarkable person whose extraordinary life is too little known.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/noch-ein-besonderer-einstein/

A Day in Speyer

For the first time in decades, while in Germany a month ago, I spend a day in Speyer, an easy one hour train ride from my father’s house. Only vague recollections of a former visit persisted in my memory, but as soon as I arrive at the Main City Gate (Altpörtel in German, literally: old portal), they are refreshed.

Altpörtel

Altpörtel

The prospect before my eyes must be one of Rhineland-Palatinate’s, if not of Germany’s, most iconic. This medieval gate with foundations reaching back to the 13th century, opens onto an ample avenue, named Maximilianstraße, the main west-east artery.

Maximilianstraße with Cathedral

Maximilianstraße with Cathedral

It is bordered by an amalgamation of age-old and modern buildings and culminates in the heart of this city, which is also one of Central Europe’s most awe-inspiring edifices: The Imperial Cathedral of Speyer. This exemplifies one of three sacred structures in the state built in the Romanesque style, alongside Worms and Mainz. Among those it is the tallest, most spacious, and, in my humble opinion, most beautifully colored. Its polychrome sandstone hues offer a warm welcome, even when it’s raining cats and dogs, as is the case when I am there.

Imperial Cathedral

Imperial Cathedral

Romanesque architecture reached its acme in the 11th century and is characterized by semi-circular arches, as opposed to the pointed equivalents of the Gothic design which followed it. To me, the former appear more massive and create a down-to-earth feeling, compared with the soaring sensation engendered by the latter. Indeed, upon entering through the heavy bronze door of this colossus nearly a thousand years old, I feel dwarfed and awe-struck, an effect most likely intended by the builders.

Choir and apse of Cathedral

Choir and Apse of Cathedral

After my steps and gaze travel through the towering central nave, choir and apse, I descend the stone stairs into the crypt whose geometry and dimensions wow me no less. The sheer size of this subterranean space also sets it apart from the cathedrals of Worms and Mainz. What all three have in common are hefty stone tombs in which the remains of former secular and spiritual rulers rest for eternity.

Crypta

Crypta

One of the chapels is dedicated to relics, body parts of saints, a custom as alien to my understanding as it is intriguing.

Relic of Saint Paul Josef Nardini

Relic of Saint Paul Josef Nardini (1821-1862)

I would linger longer at this church if the Emperor’s Hall with its famous frescoes, and the observation platform in one of the towers were not closed for the winter season. I am not alone in my admiration: In 1981, the cathedral was added to the illustrious list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Sites.

In close proximity to the main thoroughfare, additional destinations abound. I direct my steps past churches from more recent centuries, as well as memorials to prominent citizens. One of them, hitherto unknown to me, was Sophie la Roche (1730-1807), a woman writer who achieved fame in the 1700s. Her novel, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim, catapulted her out of oblivion, and into the limelight of the German literary stage. She founded the first German women’s magazine, Pomona: For Germany’s Daughters, and had significant interactions with and influence on the likes of Wieland, Klopstock, Goethe and Schiller. How I had never heard of her I do not know, but I am currently remedying my ignorance by reading her biography.

Sophie La Roche's Former Residence and Museum

Sophie La Roche’s Former Residence and Museum

Speyer, Worms, and Mainz represented major centers of Jewish learning and culture in the Middle Ages. They were known as ShUM cities, an acronym derived from the initial Hebrew letters of their medieval names, Shpira, Warmaisa, and Magenza. All three suffered similarly in the wake of the Anti-Semitism that ebbed and surged throughout the ages, which resulted in the repeated destruction of residences and places of worship.

Mosaic of Medieval Speyer at the Museum

Mosaic of Medieval Speyer at the Jewish Museum

The Judenhof (Jewish Courtyard) commemorates the horrendous history of the local Jewish residents with a museum, the ruins of the erstwhile synagogue, and the oldest ritual bath north of the Alps. The synagogue was completed in 1104 and served the Jewish community for nearly 400 years, until one of many waves of banishment.

Ruins of Synagogue

Ruins of Medieval Synagogue

The structure was then repurposed by the town fathers. Except for surviving portions of the walls, it was destroyed in the Palatinate War of Succession in 1689 which wreaked havoc on vast expanses of this state. The ritual bath (mikvah in Hebrew) dates to 1120. Its second use as municipal arsenal after 1500 protected it from hostile interventions, and its underground position from the conflagration of 1689.

Mikvah

Mikvah

Successors to the medieval synagogue were destroyed by the pogroms of November 1938, known as the Night of the Broken Glass. Since 2012, Speyer has a new Jewish religious home, a hopeful symbol of acceptance and peaceful coexistence. Because of their legacy, the three sister cities are being considered for world heritage status by UNESCO, and a decision is expected in 2021.

New Synagogue

New Synagogue

I regret that the fading hours of the day put an end to my exploration. The verdant park surrounding the cathedral which links it to the promenade along the nearby Rhine River, the Historic Museum of the Palatinate, and further alluring sites will have to wait for a future trip.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/ein-tag-in-speyer/