My Grossmutter Rosie is standing on the balcony of Beethovenstrasse 72 in Amsterdam watching German paratroopers land on Dutch soil. The year is 1940 and it’s the middle of the night. With her is Mrs. Lichtenstein from whom she has rented rooms for her family after fleeing Berlin the year before. My grandparents had been imprisoned by the Nazis for a number of weeks in Berlin, for the “crime” of being Jewish and belonging to a wealthy family. Like in a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie, my grandmother turns to her landlady.
“I will not stay here another minute. They won’t get me a second time.” she says.
This direct quote from my grandmother in one of her finest hours is one I haven’t heard before. I am reading this tale sixty-seven years later in a memoir dictated by Mrs. Lichtenstein in 1976, and sent to me by her daughter. It was in response to an essay I wrote entitled “Signs” for Aktuell magazine last June that I received the memoir and many other letters from ex-Berliners.
As I wrote, my father was the grandchild of the founder of Berlin’s famous shoe stores, called “Leiser.” In 1997 he won a contest through “Aktuell” whose prize was a free trip to Berlin for a child of survivors. He sent me there to explore his past. Until his death in 2002, he often spoke of his family history. I knew by heart the tale of a sudden flight from Berlin, through Holland, England and Canada to New York, a father and three sons, broken and traumatized, with a wife and mother who had saved them but was dying of cancer. As a child growing up in New York and learning about the Holocaust, I often wondered how my father continued to have such a lingering affection for a city from which he’d escaped a certain death. At the end of the trip I concluded that in his memories life was clearly divided into the “before” and “after.” I accepted that there had been happiness before the horror, and that he could both love and hate the place he’d been
The mail I received about the essay came from all over the globe. Many survivors recalled the store. A Mr. H. wrote: “I’m remembering how many Leiser shoes my family bought through the years and what a great feeling it was to be able to buy them again when we make our yearly trip to Berlin.” Mr. E. sent me a pair of shoe trees with the name “Leiser” still imprinted on them. It was very emotional to receive mail from Mrs. G., who believed she had played with my father as a child. Out of a family of about one hundred members living in Berlin before the war, most had perished or were dispersed. Since my father passed away, we only remained in touch with one cousin in Argentina. Therefore, I was happy to receive a letter which began, “Hello, we must be related,” from Mr. T., who lives not far from us, and he was right. We found some new family members and reestablished contact with others.
I always wanted to know more about my “Grossmutter Rosi,” who died soon after arriving in N.Y. Was she really as heroic as my father described? When the memoir from Mrs. Lichtenstein’s daughter arrived, it was like discovering a buried treasure. She wrote: “I have known the energetic and helpful Frau Leiser only via the written and spoken word of my late mother, but she could not be praised highly enough and will always be remembered by my family. Was Frau Leiser really your grandmother Rosi? Three cheers!”
After the scene on the balcony, Rosi went into full action mode. The story continued:
“Thousands of Jews ran to the harbor in the morning to try and find passage across the English Channel to England. Most were either arrested or returned to Amsterdam. Frau Leiser was smarter than all the others and had a brilliant idea. She decided to leave at night and ordered taxis to take us to the harbor. We left most of our things behind. We got there and tried to find a boat. The people were desperate, screaming, throwing things in the water, husbands leaving their wives behind. Frau Leiser didn’t give up…we were ready to go back to Amsterdam… Frau Leiser came running and told us she had found a “ship,” which was really a little fishing boat. Her parents were let down by rope into the boat. It was a stormy night and there were mines in the water; Frau Leiser was terribly seasick and we were in great danger. As we approached the English coast they sent out a boat to rescue us.”
Before Aktuell published “Signs,” I thought I understood my father’s life well. A year later I’ve come to believe that there is never really closure about historical events – only ever widening circles. Perhaps my father sent me the memoir from heaven to bear witness to the bravery of his mother, just in case she seemed too good to be true. It’s hard to imagine how my grandmother persevered and made these life-altering decisions for her family. When she passed away at only age fortysix, Rabbi Prince eulogized her by saying “Rosi Leiser gave her life on the battlefield of immigration.”
I take strength from her courage. And from all the ex-Berliners as well, many of whom described their own harrowing escapes. They also gave me insight into the fact that my father was not alone in his fondness for the Berlin of his childhood. As Mr. H. wrote, “I left Berlin in 1939 at age 18 and have never stopped being a ‘Berliner.’ I guess it’s in my soul….”
Most of all I felt that the letters were a kind of request to my generation, the last to be born to those who survived the war. “You must remember, or soon we will all be only footnotes in Jewish history,” wrote Mr. F. I agree – it’s up to us to carry on a legacy of honor and remembrance.