Ilka and Heiko live about 45 minutes out of
I dumped my stuff and experienced the glories of a real shower—the first since I left home (Joseph’s home had a hand shower, but it wasn’t like having hot water pouring down on my head—oh, the joy!). Then lots of good coffee and fresh bread of all kinds, along with various cheeses, meats, jams and more. And Ilka brought out the black bread that she couldn’t find in the
So—driving. In many ways it really reminded me of the
The scenery again was both familiar and different. Fields of corn, wheat, barley. Cows and a few sheep. Potatoes, which I’ve never seen in bloom, and asparagus. Fields separated by trees and bushes, not fences. Oak trees, lots of oak trees, and some evergreens. It was vaguely Midwestern in feel, with a touch of
The first thing we did was to buy me some shoes, which turned out to be more difficult than I would have imagined. The “best” shoes were all very expensive, even without the euro-dollar conversion. After looking in four or five stores ranging from discount to the equivalent of Macy’s, I found a pair of comfortable sneakers designed for walking for only three times what I would have paid in the US. They don’t leak and, after several days of actually walking and walking and walking on them, I can attest to their comfort.
The one thing I had mentioned being interesting in seeing was the Jewish community. This turned out to be very difficult and ultimately unsuccessful, at least in actually meeting Jews. We took trains to the area near the university, where a new Talmud Torah had just been built. The old one had been destroyed during Kristallnacht, but remained standing. There was an open space between old and new. Here had stood a synagogue and the bricks of the square outlined where its rooms had been.
The new school was beautiful—new red brick, fresh paint, and a nice locked metal fence. There was a little guard booth with two policemen in it. I asked why—there had not been trouble in
I am still thinking about this—the guards, the inaccessibility. In the
We had dinner at a pub, with very good dark German beer. Ilka recommended the matjes (herring) in cream sauce on a baked potato. I have only had herring from jars and found the texture rubbery and taste overly fishy, so I was a bit leery, but figured that a recommendation is a recommendation. What a difference fresh makes! The fish was tender and sweet and went extremely well with the beer, the potato, the sour cream and onions. Stuffed myself without shame!
Then the train to St. Michael’s church. It is a huge Lutheran church—I’ll try to find a picture link, because I can’t do it justice. Its belltower overlooks the whole of
From there we went to a prenuptial party—can’t remember the name of the party. The groom was a childhood friend of Heiko’s; the bride a German girl who had grown up in upstate
I went with Ilka to school in the morning. It was wonderful to see Ilka take charge of these six and seven year old children. Ilka begins the day with having them sit in a circle. They sing Frere Jacques in several languages: German, French, English, Spanish, Turkish. Then she introduces me, has them tell a bit about their weekend. They sit very quietly all through the end—as with any group of kids, some say a lot, some a little; some mumble and are unfocused, some look at the group with clear eyes and comfort.
When Ilka sends them off to work, they sit at desks set up in groups of four or six, similar to American school setup. The kids are remarkably similar and yet different from the kids in the
I watched the first and second grade combo, then went to give an English lesson to the four grade students. They were at the “my name is… I am ….years old. I have…brother” stage, so I gave them a geography lesson in English (well, the teacher translated most of it…) Then I got to watch PE with another group of first and second grade kids. They ran most of the time. But most fun was “pulling carrots.” Here the kids lie down on the ground, face-up, in a circle with feet pointing out and head in, tightly holding hands. One kid tries to “pull” a carrot (kid) out of the circle. When you get pulled, you help pull the others and it continues until everyone’s been pulled out of the “ground.”
Finally went to the last lesson, third grade, and a lesson on food, which is where I learned how to say fruit (obst) and vegetables (gemuse). Yes, indeed, keep me in elementary school and I might learn to speak German…
Speaking, by the way, is really interesting. I can’t. I simply have no idea. Sometimes I think I’ve figured out a word, but most of the time I’m wrong. So I rely on the Germans I’m with to speak English to me and mostly they do. The kindness of strangers…
In the afternoon, Heiko’s parents brought me to their home—it’s over a hundred years old. Heiko’s mother’s family has lived in Winsen for several hundred years. It’s a very different mindset—I simply can’t imagine being that attached to a place. Anyway, she very much wanted a chance to practice her English and I was happy to oblige. We sat in her kitchen and I did a little bit here and there to help. It felt so good to be in a kitchen and preparing food. I do so much of it at home and it’s so much a part of what makes me feel competent…And there’s the bonding that happens around small tasks—cooking, cleaning, painting, gardening, physical tasks that engage the body and free the mind.
We had new potatoes, white asparagus, scrambled eggs, and strawberries. Yes, the strawberries are good…and the potatoes are remarkable!
After lunch, we tramped all around Winsen. More beautiful old buildings, including the church where Heiko and Ilka were married. And then, right at the end, she remembered the Jewish cemetery. Somehow I hadn’t thought that any Jews lived in these towns. I just figured they were too small to support a Jewish community. Yet there they were…several sets of gravestones, some dating back several hundred years. The cemetery was overgrown with grass, but the gravestones were upright and in good conditions. The ones from the 1850s had English on one side and Hebrew on the other. There were a few recent ones—that is, from the Shoah—but only a few. Still, under this peaceful village—somehow Jews were taken away. Heiko’s mother said the Jews from Winsen had attended synagogue in Luneberg, some miles away.
Heiko, Ilka, and I had been to Luneberg the previous evening for dinner. It is an old medieval town with beautiful brickwork—kind of braided in texture—and the copper roofs that seem to be everywhere. But I would never have guessed that Jews had lived there. Was there a cemetery, a synagogue, a Jewish quarter? I don’t know.
The whole experience is a bit unsettling. What am I looking for here? I don’t think I came with any real agenda, simply to see the places from which people I cared for and care about live. I want to see what they want to show me. Yet, the Holocaust still underlies the trip. I didn’t want it to, didn’t expect it to. I don’t hear it in the German language anymore, nor see it in the people on the street (except when I see someone who is stereotypically German in features). But there is a question in my mind—where did my people fit into this place? What happened to them? What does it mean to have lived in a city for 400 years as opposed to Jews, who were not secure in
Being a Jew in