My mother, Sary Fox, had dreamed of returning to Leipzig, in Saxony, almost since she had left it at the age of four, in 1934. She was seventy when the mayor’s office surprised her with an invitation to visit as part of a group of Leipzig Jews who were forced to emigrate during Nazi rule. Sary flew from her home, in Hollywood, Florida, and I rendezvoused with her in Frankfurt.
Before the reunification of Germany, our English cousins, also formerly of Leipzig, had warned how broken down the city had become, along with the rest of what was then East Germany. The typical Leipziger did not own a telephone—and by that I mean one attached to a landline. Queues stretched outside shop doors for the chance to purchase exotic fruits and vegetables— such as bananas, oranges and tomatoes—during the handful of times they were available each year. The Communist Party leadership, of course, never lacked for such delicacies, as everyone knew at the time. Revolutions can indeed be ignited in part by resentment over access to citrus.
The first thing that struck us was how good the old mercantile town looked. The familiar broad avenues and crooked side streets of a substantial central-European city were here populated with matronly apartment houses reminiscent of pre-war Berlin. Restaurants and cafés of the kind that once gave Leipzig its charm had reappeared, post-communism, like aspens after a forest fire.
On virtually every block, renovated old buildings shimmered in the sunlight between crumbling hulks that had been their twins. We intruded upon one still under repair. Temporary steel girders kept the second floor from falling upon its subordinate. So many rotted-out boards had been stripped away from the first floor, a short, unwatchful stroll would send you plunging into the basement.
“It’s wartime damage?” asked my mother. “After all these years?”
“Not war,” I said. “Just neglect.”
In a nearby building that was farther along in the process, artists were at work on a ceiling painting. Leipzig was coming back, one address at a time.
What we were hunting for was a quite particular address: Humboldtstrasse 10. It was where Sary was born. “Mom, I think we found the street,” I said. We turned left. “There’s Number 10!”
We stopped at a handsomely renovated apartment house fronted by angular bay windows. “Oh, my God!” said my mother. “I’m really here.” She stood beside the entrance for a long moment, alone with her earliest memories of home and family.
A young man came out. We wanted to go inside, but the door locked behind him. “We’ll try tomorrow,” I promised my mother. “How difficult can it be?”
Through the local Jewish foundation, the Ephraim Carlebach Stiftung, my mother checked on whether she could get into Humboldtstrasse 10. They would look into it.
Leipzig had invited enough of its Jewish former citizens to fill a small banquet room at the local Marriott, where a reception was held that evening. The group later went as a delegation to City Hall, where the courtly mayor, Wolfgang Tiefensee, extended an official greeting. “The current generation is not guilty of the crimes of the past,” he told the group in German, “but it is accountable for them.” To make good on that accountability, members of the delegation were asked to visit schoolrooms, there to tell of their experiences under the Nazis.
Eighty-eight-year-old Josef Feldman of Los Angeles would take up the offer. Over dinner that night, he told Sary and me how, working in the lighting department of a large Leipzig store in October, 1938, he heard that Jews of Polish origin were being hunted. When Mr. Feldman saw two Gestapo agents in black leather get off the elevator on his floor, he slipped down the back way, borrowed a bicycle and peddled like hell, into hiding with his family.
In the Present
“I can’t say there is anti-Semitism in Germany today,” Howard Kroch told me that evening in the lobby of our hotel, where I’d met him by chance. “The younger German generation just doesn’t know what a Jew is.” Born in England, now living in Hamburg, Mr. Kroch, a well-spoken man in early middle age, was descended from a prominent Jewish merchant-banking family of Leipzig.
The former Kroch headquarters, a “skyscraper” by 1920s Leipzig standards (eleven stories) stands on the Augustusplatz, the main city square. The Gothic Paulinerkirche (“St. Paul’s Church”) nearby had had survived wartime bombing, only to get in the way of the officially atheistic Communist government’s plans for renewal of what was then Karl-Marx-Platz. It was not enough just to pull down the historic church; they had blown it up. An inverted triangle, denoting the outline of the building, stands in its place. Other structures, lost in the war, had been replaced by the kind of unwelcoming, rectilinear Socialist architecture that seems calculated to tell the masses that they got what they deserved.
“You should have seen it when we came here, in ’92,” said Dr. Peter Fritz, formerly of Stuttgart and Ontario, now in charge of a Leipzig-based environmental research center. We had been invited, via the Rotary Club, to dine on asparagus and fish with him, his gracious wife, Gisele, and another couple at their house in the nearby village of Machern. “The buildings were the same gray color,” said Dr. Fritz. “Some were yellow-gray, others were browngray, but they were all gray. The pollution was horrendous. There were just a couple of decent restaurants. The difference between then and now is impressive.”
“We saw the building where I was born,” my mother said. “It looks better than when I lived there.”
Since we had not managed to get inside, the next spot for memories was the great outdoors. Sary and I walked through the Rosental, the vast public park which, bordering on the former Jewish neighborhood, had been a family favorite for Sunday strolls. A taxi driver took us as near as he could to the spot he said had the best view, but we got lost and ended up on wide path bordered by
garden plots. Horst and Sigrid Moldenhauer, retirees, were tending theirs. Mr. Moldenhauer invited us in and, though he clearly took great pride in his garden, he pulled up three succulents, giving them to my mother. Mrs. Moldenhauer showed us into the diminutive weekend house behind the garden. “We used to have a bed in here for the children,” she said, standing in a room barely large enough to hold the cupboard and us.
In Germany, where the enjoyment of nature has sometimes been practiced with cult-like fervor, great effort has been made to preserve and, where necessary, recreate, as much of the natural habitat as a high population density will allow. Although we were inside a major urban park, Sary and I quickly found ourselves in woodland so thick, only the politely spaced benches reminded us that the forest had not reclaimed Leipzig.
Some time later, in a classic coffeehouse restored to commercial and esthetic health, I asked a local woman why, under the East Germany regime, old buildings did not at least get a coat of paint now and then. She replied simply, “Paint was expensive.”
Both Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn had lived in Leipzig. Mendelssohn’s apartment is now a museum, configured as a residence of the late Biedermeier period, with exhibits about the composer. A local choral group, all Christian, entertained my mother’s group there one night with an improbable specialty: Jewish folk songs. A few days later, in the glistening-white Alte Handelsbörse (“Old Stock Exchange”), a salon orchestra called Cappuccino revived another tradition from the Leipzig days of the audience: an afternoon of light classics and pop tunes, with coffee and cake served at intermission.
Bach is buried in the Gothic Thomaskirche (“St. Thomas’s Church”), where he had been choirmaster. I climbed the church spire with an assortment of German tourists, passing the former quarters of the tower keeper (the churchbell ringer and city fire-alarm sounder), the affectingly homey rooms preserved much as they would have looked a century before. An affable older couple walking near me called out in German a warning that saved me from falling off a temporary plank.
Along with my mother’s group, I had the thrill of hearing the Gewandhaus Orchestra (one of the world’s best), play Mahler’s Third Symphony. Across the way on the Augustusplatz, the opera was performing The Magic Flute. In the broad market square, an Elvis impersonator was packing in whole families with “Don’t be Cruel.” Leipzig had shown us no pretense, few fashionable people and no fashion victims. In a hard-working city that has been there and back, Elvis probably hit the mark better than Mendelssohn or Bach.
The next morning, after breakfast, Sary was beaming. “The foundation called. We can get into Humboldtstrasse 10!”
The young man who had exited the building the day we had arrived turned out to be the superintendent. He let us into an apartment on the second floor. It had been renovated into an office, awaiting a tenant.
“This is the window I nearly fell out of,” said my mother after our guide had opened it. She stared onto the street for a contemplative interlude and then walked a few paces on. “This used to be the corridor I raced up and down on my brother’s scooter.” The apartment was familiar to her, and yet it was not; in the difference between what was remembered and what was seen lay the singular ambivalence that marks homecomings.
A prayer service was arranged at the synagogue, and it was mostly the Americans who prayed, but some students came in from Leipzig University to observe, respectfully, the rituals of a religion about which they knew little. The men knew to cover their heads and had brought baseball caps and whatever else was at hand.
For Leipzig and its former Jews, this trip was becoming part pilgrimage, part journey of reconciliation. Something remained unfulfilled, however, and it was not until a side visit to Dresden that I understood what that might be. Three months before the end of WWII, on the night of February 13-14, British bombers had reduced the historic center of Dresden to piles of rubble seeded with corpses. A firestorm had literally sucked out breathable air out. The Americans next bombed, by daylight. About 25,000 died, many by incineration or suffocation. Also lost were seventeen churches and chapels, thirty-eight hospitals and clinics and thirty-nine schools. There having been no military targets of significance in an architectural masterpiece known then as “Florence on the Elbe,” after some necessary research, I had concluded that they had bombed it simply because it was there—and because they could.
One of the lost houses of worship was the Baroque Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”). It was at last now under reconstruction. While Sary rested in the lobby of the Hilton, I donned a hard hat and entered what was then Europe’s greatest work-in-progress. Escorting me was Thomas Gottschlich, the young architect who was primarily responsible for figuring out where to fit each of the huge sandstone blocks remaining from the original masterpiece. It was nothing less than a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. “We have only five original plans for a building which we would make a thousand to complete,” said Mr. Gottschlich over the clang of artisans’ tools that made the nave sound as if the Niebelungen had clocked in to take a shift. “Fortunately, we have many photographs from the 1930s; seventy percent of the architectural details come from them.”
On display outside was the golden cross that a British trust had donated to put atop the dome when the church is completed. Americans were also contributing heavily to the rebuilding project, and I became a donor as well. Just as the Germans were trying to make amends with my mother and her group of émigrés, descendents of the generation that did wrong by this city were, by their generosity, seeking to reconcile.
“What did you learn in the church?” Sary asked me on the train ride back to Leipzig.
“Time heals,” I said. “For the most part.”
The next day, we knew, she would seek out the grave of her grandfather, who had died after being sent to Dachau. “Yes,” she said sympathetically. “I was thinking the same thing.”
When she found that grave, per Jewish custom, she left a stone upon it. She had nothing but gratitude for the people of Leipzig who made it possible for her to do so.