In honor of our infamous Illinois ex-governor, the topic for my memoir-writing students last Wednesday was “guilty.” Hanna, the matriarch of our class, came back with an essay that was, in a word, stunning.
You might remember Hanna from a previous blog post. Hanna grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish, and Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.
Hanna was only 20 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. The essay she brought to class Wednesday was about her first visit back to Europe in 1965, thirty years after she left.
This is our first trip back to the places where we had the first part of our lives, I to Germany, Eugene to visit his brother in Slovakia. I simply had to confront my past and verify that it really happened to me.
Before World War II, Hanna’s parents owned a butcher shop in Mannheim. After Hanna’s father died, her mother ran the shop. Then Adolf Hitler won the election, and things began to change.
Our delivery van was parked on the street and Heini was responsible for its upkeep. He had been with us for at least 25 to 30 years had started as a butcher apprentice and sausage maker. His wife Rosa had been with us for about 15 years, she arrived from the countryside the day I was born and worked as a sales lady.Rosa and Heini had met and got married in our house.
Hanna’s essay goes on to describe one memorable day at the butcher shop.
The atmosphere is tense. The problem is that Heini is sitting in our van every afternoon making a show of reading the Sturmer, the most anti-Semitic newspaper published in Germany. My mother and brother are very upset about this and my brother tries to talk about it and suggests that if he wants to read the paper in our van, he should read the local paper not the Sturmer. Heini is responding that the paper is an official publication and he can read it where ever. “It is not against you. It is about the other Jews. He keeps on reading it in front of our shop.
During their 1965 trip to Germany, Hanna discovers that Heini and Rosa survived the war and were running a Bierstube and restaurant.
I had to now confront them.
Eugene and I are sitting in a booth by a window .We are the only customers and we had ordered. Heini is waiting on us. He brings the beer.”Heini don’t you remember me? I am the Hannelore. Long silence. He calls Rosa to announce that I am there. He does not quite believe that it is the girl that he remembers. Rosa is crying.
They sit together to talk about their lives, then Rosa scurries out to prepare a special meal.
Rosa had made my favorite meal. Fresh asparagus and Schnitzel, a plum cake for dessert. I feel good, she remembered. We are talking and Heini tells me that he had been in the German army and how much they all suffered during the war. He tells that they had sent him to the Russian front which was brutal the worst. I am looking at him and heard him say. “The reason why I was sent to the Russian front is because I had worked for a Jew for 30 years. It was all your mother’s fault.”
Rosa started to cry again. Hanna remembers finishing the meal in silence.
All I could think of. It was your mother’s fault.
Hanna turned 90 this year. She lives alone, takes Para-transit or public transportation to get to class each week, and she affectionately refers to her walker as “Speedo.” I’ve had the privilege of meeting Hanna’s children, and they are smart, spunky and witty – just like their mom. The Chicago CBS station interviewed Hanna on her birthday this year, describing how she has embraced technology to write her memoirs. Hanna has macular degeneration – she makes regular treks over to the Chicago Lighthouse to use special software that enlarges the words on the screen.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Hanna’s escape from Germany to America. “I’ll tell you this, Beth,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.” Hanna makes the rest of us feel lucky, too. Especially on Wednesdays, when Speedo escorts her into our classroom so she can share stories with us.