April 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part 35 (written 2014)

(Continued from previous week)

Dedicated in memory of the approximately 12,500 Jews, among them a number of my close relatives, who were deported from Frankfurt by the Nazis and murdered in the concentration camps.

Frankfurt 2003 and 2005

For many years prior to 2003, I had been hearing from friends and neighbors that, as former residents of the city of Frankfurt on Main in Germany, they had been receiving invitations from the city government (Stadt) for an all-expense-paid, two-week trip to Frankfurt. The invitation was for the former resident as well as a spouse, child or another companion. Others in my age group had received the invitation, but, although for years I had been corresponding with a teacher in Frankfurt, I had not heard from the city.

I had also been on the city’s mailing list for many years, receiving from them books about Frankfurt, as well as about the history of the Jews in Frankfurt. How the city originally got my name, I do not know.

In one of the city mailings there was a letter from Benjamin Ortmeyer, the above-mentioned teacher, asking former Jewish students of Frankfurt, who had stories to tell about their experiences under the Nazis, to respond since he was publishing a book in which those stories, if accepted, would be printed. He already had my story on file. He had formed an organization to publicize the fight against anti-Semitism. He published several books on the subject, some with extracts, and others with my complete Holocaust story.

All those years prior to early 2003, I had been hoping that I would receive an invitation from the city, so that I could write back to them and turn down the invitation and tell the city why I was doing so. I had always felt very deeply about the Holocaust and its consequences as they related to the Jewish people, particularly the loss of two million children’s lives.

I ignored what others, who had been there, were telling me, namely that it was worthwhile to accept the invitation and to speak to students and teachers there, and to observe how Germany had changed from what it had been. Some even stated that it was the obligation of anyone who had a story to tell, to go and tell it. I simply did not have to take any action at that point and confront the question, since I had not yet received an invitation.

In early 2003 I received a letter from the city asking me whether we would be interested in receiving an invitation from the city for a two-week, all-expense-paid stay in May of that year. With the letter also came a form for me to fill out with a request for background information. I assumed that the requested information was in order to establish my qualifications as a former resident of Frankfurt.

Well, I had my wish. I had received the pre-invitation letter, and all I now had to do was to tell the city, in no uncertain terms, that I was declining the invitation and why.

But I chickened out.

Instead of just replying, as I had planned to for several years, I started to wonder about what others had told me about their visits. I had always taken seriously life’s obligations toward others. Maybe I should not decide on my own so quickly but take other opinions into consideration. I started talking to others who had confronted the same problem and they invariably resolved it by accepting the invitation, and they never regretted it afterwards.

Finally, I spoke to Rabbi Menachem Genack, who had been my rabbi and friend for many years, and whose opinion I valued highly. Rabbi Genack told me that if I had a story to tell to the German students and teachers, about my experience under the Nazis, not only should I go, not only must I go, but it is my obligation to go. His words could not have been clearer and more emphatic. The only condition Rabbi Genack attached to his advice was that I must make sure that arrangements are made for me to speak as often as possible.

My decision was made. I filled out the form and replied that I was interested in receiving an invitation.

A few weeks later the invitation arrived with all instructions and itinerary. The city would pay the airfare, hotel, all travel covered by the itinerary, several snacks and dinners (but not all), plus an amount in cash to cover miscellaneous expenses. I certainly was not happy accepting the invitation, but I did promptly, feeling that it I was my duty to do so.

With the invitation also came a letter from an organization by the name of Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit (Organization for Christian-Jewish Cooperation). Christian-Jewish cooperation is always a very sensitive area in Jewish life, running the gamut from strongly for, to strongly against. This is an organization, formed in 1949, that is now run by four ladies living in and around Frankfurt who volunteer their time. As the enclosed material described, the goal of the organization is to make the German people own up to their history, take responsibility for it and thereby hopefully avoid a repetition of the Nazi era. Originally their main objective was the fight against anti-Semitism, but in today’s Germany their work has been broadened by the inclusion of all ethnic and religious minorities.

It is a coincidence that two of the four women live just a few houses from where we used to live on Lersnerstrasse in Frankfurt. But the one lady with whom I had the original correspondence, with whom I would remain in close contact for several years, was Ms. Angelika Rieber living in Oberursel, a small town not far from the birthplace of my father—Schmitten im Taunus.

The letter from the Gesellschaft asked for a lot of history and inquired whether I would be interested in speaking to “a” class of students and teachers about my experiences. I gave a positive response to this inquiry, since, after all, that was the main reason if not the only reason why I was going in the first place. I only qualified the “a” by telling the ladies that I wanted to speak not only once, but as often as possible.

(To be continued next week)

By Norbert Strauss

Norbert Strauss is a Teaneck resident and Englewood Hospital volunteer. He retired in 1985 and frequently speaks to groups to relay his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in 1941.

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