- The Washington Times - Monday, July 30, 2007

Corinna Lothar, a Washington lawyer and travel writer, is the restaurant critic for The Washington Times. This is her account of a trip back in time.

FRANKFURT, Germany — A Frankfurter is more than a sausage. Since the end of World War II, the city of Frankfurt has invited former Frankfurters who escaped the Nazis seven decades ago to return for a two-week visit to see how times have changed, and this summer I was one of them.

There were 50 of us — 29 actual ex-Frankfurters and the rest husbands, wives, a daughter and one granddaughter. One woman came from Israel, another from Denmark. The rest of us came from the United States. We had little in common except that we were Jews born in Frankfurt, forced as children to flee for our lives.

Most of the group had fled Germany in 1938. I was four years old when my father, mother and younger brother escaped just ahead of the Gestapo. Most of us went straight to the United States, leaving from Hamburg, from LeHavre in France, still others from ports in Holland or England. Mine was a circuitous route from Switzerland through occupied France, Spain, Portugal and England.

Werner D. was first put on the Kindertransport, a train for children, by his mother. He was 7 years old, and he never saw her again. He went to America via Spain and Portugal, alone and confused. In our visit to the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, he told us later with tears streaming down his weathered face, he had at last learned what had happened to his mother. Searching the museum’s archives, he found the record of her assignment to a death in one of Hitler’s concentration camps.

Trude B. and her brother survived the war in Belgium. She was hidden in a convent, he in a monastery. Both parents perished. After the war, they were sent to an aging relative in New Jersey, who had little idea of what to do with two teenagers she had never met before.

Ellen K.’s journey to freedom was hideously troubled. Together with her mother and brother, she was taken in 1942 to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. At 10, she was too young to work, but by the end of the war when she was 13, she had been put to work shoveling ashes. Miraculously, Ellen, her mother and brother survived. As we sat in a darkened theater at the Jewish Museum, watching a documentary on postwar Frankfurt, she suddenly leaped to her feet, pointed to the screen and cried out, “Look! Look! That’s me — there, in the front row of the crowd.”

On another evening, Ellen dined in one of Frankfurt’s fine restaurants, chatting with the young waiter. The waiter asked where she had lived as a child in Frankfurt. She named the street.

“That’s remarkable,” he said. “I once lived on that street. Do you remember your street number?”

When she told him, his jaw dropped. “That was my house. Do you remember which room was yours?”

A wondrous coincidence: The waiter and Ellen had lived in different decades on the same street, in the same house, in the same room.

My flight to America was one of drama and peril, but not tragedy. My brother was young enough that it was an adventure, but I was old enough to share my mother’s dread. In the summer of 1939, my mother took my brother and me from London, where we had settled, to visit grandparents who were temporarily in Switzerland. We had had whooping cough and remained in Villars beyond the beginning of the school year. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 — September 1, 1939, is to Europeans what December 7, 1941, is to Americans — my father instructed us to remain in the safety of Switzerland.

By the end of 1940, my father, who had been the publisher of the Frankfurter Zeitung, one of Germany’s most prestigious newspapers, was preparing to publish Die Zeitung, a German-language newspaper for German exiles in London, organized under auspices of the British Ministry of Information. Knowing that we would all be on the Gestapo’s “Most Wanted” list once his paper debuted, he arranged for us to go to America.

My mother, brother and I set out for America in January 1941. We left Geneva on a so-called “sealed” car, meaning the Gestapo had agreed not to disturb anyone on the car as it traveled through Vichy France to Port Bou on the Spanish border. Gestapo agents nevertheless went through the list of passengers at every stop, occasionally entering and taking an unfortunate passenger with them. When we stopped at Port Bou overnight, we were instructed to return at 6 the following morning for transportation from the border to Barcelona. My mother got us up at 3:30, and we stood waiting on the street, shivering and hungry, for the bus. We finally got aboard, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Several passengers from the train, as my mother suspected would happen, were left behind. We never knew what happened to them.

From Port Bou, a decrepit wood-burning bus took us to Barcelona, where we boarded a train to Madrid and finally to Lisbon, where after two weeks, we sailed aboard the SS Exeter with several hundred French children fleeing the Nazi occupation of their country. I never saw my father again; he died in London in 1943.

For me, the journey was one of constant fear — fear of the crowds on the train, the Nazi soldiers on every platform, the arrival in the dark in Port Bou, the burly porters whose excited Spanish sounded so threatening (although all they wanted was a tip), the lack of food in Spain, the Spanish soldiers eating raw onions on the train from Barcelona to Madrid, the tension of waiting for passage in Lisbon, the dread of running into a wayward torpedo in the Atlantic (as the ship just ahead of us did) and finally the anxiety when the American immigration authorities at first refused to permit us to land because we were entering the U.S. on visitors’ visas when the State Department was no longer issuing visitors’ visas to German nationals, Jews fleeing for their lives or not. My mother, with an understanding of the bureaucratic mind, insisted that since the visas had been issued by American officials in an embassy abroad, they must be honored. And so they were.

Our hosts in Frankfurt invited several of us to tell our stories to high school classes. The children listened attentively, but it was clear that World War II, in Germany as elsewhere, is as far removed from teenage consciousness as the Punic Wars. Their questions were respectful and polite. The first one was about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The others were more to the point: “Did you ever visit your father’s grave in London?” “What were your thoughts about the Nazi Party at the time?” “Did you consider returning to Germany to live after the war?”

Frankfurt, bombed mercilessly during World War II and rebuilt afterward, was once a beautiful medieval city with a strong cultural heritage. It was a Roman garrison 2,000 years ago, later the home of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Ten Holy Roman emperors were crowned in Frankfurt cathedral, and the city had had a strong Jewish tradition since the 12th century. After the destruction of the city by the air raid of March 1944, it was rebuilt as a postwar high-rise banking and commercial center. Germans call it “Mainhattan.” Several of the half-timbered houses around the cathedral have been reconstructed; some residential areas remain intact.

As we drove through the city, Ellen G. remarked that “the cobwebs are clearing up,” and cried out with delight as our bus passed the house where she lived as a little girl.

Several of us remembered attending the old synagogue. The Nazis turned the basement into a bomb shelter after burning everything else from the ground up. The Jewish school is still standing, and several of my companions professed mixed emotions at the sight of the place where they started school. The bits and pieces of the past became a changing mosaic of nostalgia, sorrow and joy.

Nothing, alas, was left for me to see. The house where I was born, across the river Main in the Sachsenhausen district, is no more. There’s a shopping center on the site. My grandparents’ house, the scene of my earliest memories, was heavily damaged in 1944 by the direct hit of an American bomb. It’s now an office building. Around the corner, the home of my great-grandparents is an office building as well. The grand house of my other great-grandparents, pictured on a German postage stamp after it was confiscated by the Nazis, still stands in the wooded hills near the city. Yet, as we drove down the leafy avenues where several graceful 19th-century villas of my earliest memories survive, I felt a stab of recognition, not for anything specific, but for something unknown, yet vaguely familiar. Perhaps my own cobwebs were being swept away.

I felt more a stranger in the city of my birth than I ever felt as a child growing up in California. I shuddered at the thought that my name might have been inscribed on one of the 11,200 bricks adorning the wall of the new Jewish cemetery, each bearing the name of a Frankfurt Jew who did not survive the Holocaust.

The childhood exodus from Frankfurt left all of us with a feeling of insecurity and anxiety, never quite dissolved even by comfortable lives in the wonderful and generous land we now call home. I could never escape the feeling that I was “different,” with curly pigtails instead of a smooth pageboy, a tweed coat with a velvet collar instead of something hip and casual, or that I took sardine sandwiches on pumpernickel to Saturday basketball practice instead of bologna on Wonder bread, as my friends did. The insecurities haunt me to this day.

Germany has changed. Frankfurt is a modern city not altogether different from the San Francisco I grew up in. The burghers are open and friendly, yet remain essentially German. We were crossing a street empty of traffic, but against the traffic light on a quiet Sunday afternoon when a Frankfurter rushed up to berate us for setting “a bad example” for children. Order and obeisance to the rules, no matter who makes those rules, remains instinctive. But there is progress. I took several trains during my two weeks in modern Germany. Not one of them ran on time.


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