On July 16th, 2017, I fulfilled a dream. I sang in a night club in Berlin.
Summertime and the living is easy
Fish are jumpin’ now and the cotton is high
I had traveled to Berlin with my sister, mother and father. Even though our parents have been divorced for over 25 years, we were on a family history tour. Like all good families, after 72 hours of profoundly moving experiences and a lot of togetherness, my sister and I needed a break.
The jazz club was named, "The Hat" and is located below the train station in Charlottenbourg, a fancy section of Berlin. Thirsty for a stiff drink, my sister spied something cool and refreshing. "What's that?" she says to a young woman in a blue dress and a bright smile. The young lady offers us a taste, but we politely decline. We take our seats at the end of the bar and gesture to the bartender, "We'll have what she's having.”
Sipping on our cool libations, we were amused to see our new friend pick up a saxophone and walk on the small stage at "The Hat." She counted the band off and started to play.
My sister and I didn't subject ourselves to traveling overseas so that I could sing in a jazz club in Berlin. Oh no! We were here on a mission. A life's journey. A quest for closure.
The year was 1943. The height of World War II. My grandmother, Lina Banda Weber, perished at Auschwitz. They say the cause is angina. We will never know. Lina was 44 years old.
40 years later, like a wandering Jew in the desert, my mother, Ginger, formerly known as Bela, was reunited with her six siblings. At the age of six, three years after her mother Lina was murdered, the Weber children came out of hiding, got baptized and emigrated to America. Seven siblings arriving intact in 1946 was significant - today, a large black and white photo of the children standing in front of the SS Flasher ocean liner in New York Harbor hangs in the last gallery of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. After four weeks of quarantine in the Bronx, The Jewish Children's Bureau brought Alfons, Senta, Ruth, Renee, Gertrude, Judith and Bela to Chicago - they wanted all seven of the children to stay as close together as possible. But the children were all placed in foster care, and although they remained in daily contact, my mother, Bela, who was renamed Ginger because of her flaming red hair, was young enough and had another stroke of good fortune; she was adopted. But the adoption came at a price and for the first time, although all seven children remained on the south side of Chicago for the most part, the siblings were officially and legally separated. My mother eventually married and had a family as did all her siblings. In the late 1960s my mother's German family reached out to her. Their father had emigrated to America in 1956 and he was nearing the end of his life. My mother politely declined not wishing to upset her adoptive parents, really the only parents that she ever knew.
So why did it take forty years for Ginger to agree to meet with her brother and five sisters? That's a very good question. But the more interesting question, was why now?
My mother, a dancer and wanna be cowgirl, broke her neck skiing on February 23rd, 1984. Like her mother Lina, she was 44 years old. But my mother Ginger's story didn't end as tragically as her Mama's. In some ways, you could say my mother picked up where her mother left off. And rather than fighting for freedom and working for the black market and the underground which placed Lina on a suspicious persons watch list which ultimately took her to the camps, Ginger takes great pride in getting arrested at rallies supporting rights for the disabled. Mom has continued to dance despite her quadriplegia. She has traveled the world supporting women's rights and bringing culture wherever she goes.
On July 24th 1994, my husband and I gave birth to our first son. I would soon learn that July 24th was also the anniversary of my husband's brother Keith's death in 1967. Keith lived for 26 days and died of SIDS.
In 1996, we gave birth to our second and third sons. Two months early our twins decided it was time to meet the world. Coincidentally, my mother happened to be coming in town for a visit. Little did she know she would meet her grandchildren on the anniversary of her paralyzing skiing accident. My sister would manifest the same synchronistic circumstance when she would give birth to her son, also on February 23rd, nine years later. I know I digress, but how can I not mention that my sister's sister-in-law would do the same thing. So, we celebrate five birthdays in our family on the same day. One could say that my mother's survival from her accident was the birth of her new self.
But let's go back to Germany. Let's go back to 1925 when my mother’s father, Alexander Weber, a Catholic from Paderborn, Germany, met his future wife at the well. I just don't think you can get any more biblical than that. He voluntarily converts to Judaism, they marry in 1926 and give birth to their first son Alfons in 1927. It is 1929 the same year as Black Thursday and they give birth to their second child, a daughter named Senta and the family of four moves from Dortmund to Berlin where they live on welfare. In 1930 Aunt Ruth is born, in 1932 Aunt Gertrude is born and in 1933 Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and it is Alexander’s, first of several arrests for being favorable to Jews. Despite his conversion to Judaism the law still views Alexander as a Catholic. This turns out to be a very good thing. He is incarcerated in the labor camp Oranienberg and serves 10 months. By 1935 the Nuremberg laws are enacted and Aunt Renée is born. In 1936 Berlin hosts the Olympic Games and in 1937 Aunt Judith is born. By 1938 every Jew must have a J on their passport and I.D. cards with the names Israel or Sara are mandatory. It is the year of Kristallnacht. In 1939 the true beginning of six years of warfare, 12 out of the 1000 years intended Reich, my mother is born. The Nazis have invaded Poland and by 1940, Alexander denounces, on paper, his Judaism. In 1941, Lina was arrested several times, Uncle Alfons becomes a bar mitzvah and on October 18th the first official round up of Jews from Berlin to concentration camps takes place. In 1943 on February 27th, the one and only public protest against the Nazis, in their 12 year reign, takes place in Berlin. Gentile women married to Jewish men protested. So it comes as no surprise that just a few days later, on March 9th, Lina was arrested.
It was the middle of the day, there was a knock at the door. Lina took my three-year-old mother, Bela, and put her in the broom closet. There was a scuffle. The front door was closed and somehow my mother knew in her bones it was safe to come out. She climbs up to the third-floor window and looks down to the street where she lays eyes on her mother for the very last time. At the end of the day, Alexander and the other children come home to find three-year-old Bela but no Lina to be found. Alexander walks to the police station to locate his beloved, and he himself is arrested. The next day on March 10th, a man comes from the Jewish community and takes all seven children to a hospital in their neighborhood that has been set up as an orphanage. Four weeks later Alexander is released by the Gestapo and the children are returned to his care. They received two postcards from Lina; one that she is at Braunschweig Labor Camp and the next card, she is being transferred to Auschwitz. A third correspondence has come. It is official and is delivered to the police station. Lina Banda Weber is dead.
Alexander learns that his children's names are on a list.
A fruit farmer named Arthur Schmidt, who rents an apartment in their building, where he stores his crates for the central market, owns a truck and an orchard 60 km east of Berlin. This humane gentile, who belonged to the Nazi party in name only, along with his wife, as well as the mayor of the town of Worin, hide my mother and her siblings for the next two years of their lives.
So, my mother at the age of 77, has decided it's time to face her past. We come to Berlin, pull out our maps and family histories and walk the streets where she once lived. Nothing is the same anymore, even the street names have changed. But we all bring out our inner detective and trace the steps looking for lost souls.
“V'yit gdal, v'yit kadash, shm’ay rabah.” We say the mourner's Kaddish, for Uncle Alfons who died last September. We say kaddish on the plot of land where he became a bar mitzvah.
We drive to Worin and are hosted by the Schullers. They are the town historians, who greet us with homemade goulash, champagne and tears. We are looking through documents and photos. It is July 16th. It is Lina’s birthday.
We walk to the farm where one original wall remains standing. We stare at the field where my mother dug for raw potatoes and lived in fear.
My Uncle Alfons, who worked as a physicist for the last 60 years, presented papers around the world. His final treasure was a formal request in support of recognizing Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Schmidt and Mayor Rudy Ferhmann as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel. It is not easy to bestow this honor. Yad Vashem is meticulous in their research. But the merit has been granted and the award will be given. And who will be there to witness this act of heroism?
The town historians, Herbert and Marlis Schuller, have located the closest living relative of Paula and Arthur Schmidt.
He is standing before me. He is 6 foot two
And we hug and I tell him, “it is so good to meet you”.
He is the farmers’ grandson and he is my age.
He is a fine artist from Hamburg and has come all this way.
My mother and Arthur Schmidt III, dive deep into each other’s smiles.
We are now having coffee, homemade cakes and more wine.
We drive back to Berlin, the feeling is surreal, sublime.
One of these mornings you're gonna rise up singing
You're gonna spread your wings and take to the sky
But til that morning there ain’t nothin’ can harm you
I turn to this young saxophone player, she smiles and gives me a hug.
“We must meet again,” we promise, and take a photo.
“How will I find you on WhatsApp?” I ask.
She says, "my name is Lina."