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Before tourism was taboo, I had my own closed border. Nothing to do with government restrictions, it was more a family understanding. Germany killed my grandparents, damaged my parents, and scarred me. Reason enough to keep my distance.
Maybe it’s my 70th birthday. Maybe it’s Hillel’s rhetorical question “If not now, when?” I choose a bike and barge trip along the Moselle River with pre and post excursions in Munich and Berlin. I bike. Arthur barges. All good. All I have to do is break it to my 98-year-old mother. I’m counting on Rose’s failing short-term memory disappearing my transgression as soon as I perpetrate it.
I take her out to her favorite deli, The Essen Room. Their creamed herring transports her weekly to her family dinner table in Czechoslovakia, where seven share one herring, a Sabbath treat. Next is the story of when she had a few extra pennies that she’d spend at the bookseller’s cart instead of buying food. Emile Zola was her favorite. Which she had to hide from her mother. Then I remind her how we learned English together, reading fairy tales to each other in the children’s section of the library in Rochester. We both developed a taste for happy endings. She was on her fifth language, I on my second. And she counters that I used to go missing on laundry day because I was hiding with a book. I learned from a master. We have our routine.
Between bites of cucumber salad and rye bread slathered in sour cream, I tell her the plan. She stops chewing, looks at me and says, “Did you know your father and I lived outside of Munich in Farenvalt and Feldaphing after the war? Are you going to be near there?”
All I know about their displaced persons camp days is the story my father told of how he met my mother. She and her sister were instructed by the commander of the camp to knock on doors to find an empty bed the night they arrived because all the rooms were taken. Two women whose brothers were away for the night let them use their beds. When the brothers returned the next morning, there were my mother and her sister. Like one of her fairy tales, the two brothers married the two sisters. And forever after when asked where they met, my father always said, “in bed.”
“I don’t know, “ I say, stunned at her calm. I can’t even spell the names phonetically to Google them. “I’ll ask the guide when we get there.” She happily returns to her herring. By the time we leave the restaurant, the only reminder of her dinner or our conversation is the sour cream stain on her blouse.
Plans are made. My brother will take her out for the next two Sundays. Arthur and I discuss how to be guests in a country whose failed extermination of my parents is the reason I have tourist dollars to spend.
We decide to take all Holocaust-related museum tours in Munich and Berlin and spend our money in their gift shops. The smallest memorials, the stumbling stones, trip me to tears. We stoop to honor every embedded brass plate we find commemorating a victim’s last freely chosen residence. We read the inscription on each stone, “Here lived” (victim’s name, date of birth and fate: internment, suicide, exile, deportation and murder). I look up at the ordinary buildings once again full of ordinary lives. I watch bicyclists balancing grocery bags and children, politely sharing the road with vehicles and pedestrians. I could almost live here now.
On the last free day in Munich before the bike tour starts, we choose Dachau over The English Garden. Only one other couple joins us. I know why I’m there: because my father was. The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the entrance paralyzes me. I force myself to cross the threshold and spend the next four hours seeing what I’ve successfully avoided my entire life. I weave around youth groups led by docents discussing the horror of each exhibit’s evidence of the Final Solution. There are no adolescent hijinks. I am both ripped open and hopeful.
The modest gift shop in the Jewish Museum of Munich is where I make my only purchase of the trip. It is a small black and white paperback with a self-published, vanity press aspect that gives the ultimate lie to judging a book by its cover. The title is in German. I see two words that look familiar. I break down the syllables and say them out loud: Feldafing and Foehrenwald. My hand shakes as I pick up the book. I rifle the pages and understand enough with my foundation in Yiddish, that this is where my father finds my mother in his bed. Where my parents spend five years healing. Where I am conceived. I make my purchase. I will have my German friend Rainer translate it for her.
The trip is as described: breathtaking river views from bike or barge, framed by Riesling vineyards disobeying the laws of gravity in their impossible verticality. I pass German bicyclists, panniers weighted down, taking their vacations along side me, napping on sightseeing benches, tenting in campgrounds, celebrating in riverside beer gardens. So normal.
After another round of museums in Berlin, particularly the horribly powerful Topography of Terror housed on the site of Gestapo and SS headquarters, I have had enough. I want to go home. I want to see my mother.
We are back at the Essen Room when I give it to her before I send it to Rainer for translation. She chooses matzo ball soup with a side of rye bread and cabbage salad. She puts her spoon down and stares at the cover. “I know this place. I was there.” She flips it open and begins to read. In German. The words slip out of her mouth as easily as if the last time she read German was not over 70 years ago. “This is the best present you could ever give me. How did you know?”
“You told me,” I say.
We are both crying as I wrap my arms around her soft, stooped shoulders.
The Essen Room is closed now except for takeout. Every Sunday when I drop off dinner at her locked-down assisted living facility’s entry, after they spray the bag, after I thank her caregiver for taking such good care of her, after I wave to her through the window, I drive home and call. “So how did you like your chopped liver?” I ask.
“Is that what I had? I forgot already. Next time please bring me herring.”
“I will,” I say.
“I want to ask you something, Shirley, I have this book about Feldafing, and I don’t know where it came from. I love it. I read it every day. You know I used to spend my pennies on books instead of food.”
“I know, Mom,” I say.