At the funeral in Frankfurt for a woman who died this month, just short of her 98th birthday, the presiding rabbi said, “We should feel some happiness today, because Friedel was one of the very few German Jews of her generation who were brought to a proper, peaceful Jewish burial here in their ‘Heimat,’ the land of their birth.”
Friedel Nussbaum was my grandmother’s first cousin, and she was one of the last, if not the final, survivor of those native German Jews born before the Hitler era and still living in Germany in the year 2014.
Born in the Hessian village of Rhina in 1916, Friedel was the youngest of 16 close-knit siblings and first cousins. She became a family favorite, and when my grandmother got married in 1928, she asked her then-12-year-old cousin to fulfill a German-Jewish tradition. “She chose me to recite a ‘Gedicht,’ a poem,” Friedel told me in 2002, her voice still revealing her pride in that moment. “I remember the wedding well. There were so many people there.”
Five years later, a millennium of Jewish life in Germany began the slide towards total destruction. The torment began as soon as Hitler took power in 1933. In one now legendary family anecdote from that year, my grandmother Jenny and my mother Brunhilde, then age four, were staying at Friedel’s home while her parents were away on business. Two Nazi stormtroopers entered and ransacked the place, finding a letter from Friedel’s older sister, who’d left for England. “If I came back to Germany,” she had written, “I’d throw a bomb at Hitler.” The officers warned my cowering Oma (grandma) what might await the cousin if she ever did return.
My grandmother and her cousins saw the evil writing on the wall, and all managed to flee Germany to safety in the U.S. or pre-Israel Palestine. Friedel’s odyssey took her through England to Belgium and finally, in 1938, to Tel Aviv. She married a Polish Jew named Oscar who’d been active in the Revisionist Zionist movement, a colleague of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, and they had two sons and a daughter.
In 1949, Friedel sailed to New York to visit her relatives. Decades later, she still remembered arriving at my grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx. “The door was all locked up,” she said. “It took so long to open it. And once we got in, she locked all the locks again, about four or five of them. In Israel we would leave our doors open. I thought, ‘How can anyone live in a place like that?’”
Less than a decade later, it was my grandmother’s turn to ask that same question. Friedel, Oscar, and their children left Israel, moving to Frankfurt. Her older son, then 16, was so fearful of the reaction of his Israeli friends that he lied, telling them he was going to America. “I had no part in this decision,” he recalled. “I came along like a piece of luggage.” Her second son later returned to Israel, permanently.
The rest of the family was, to put it mildly, shocked, outraged, and angry. And no wonder. As Judy Dempsey wrote in a 2012 New York Times article, “Israeli leaders and the media vilified those Jews who decided to remain in Germany after 1945 or who had chosen to return to Germany if they survived the Holocaust. They were considered traitors.”
And very few had made that decision. An historian with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs estimates that 11,000 Jews returned to Germany from exile after the war, but says many of them left again in subsequent years. Now, nearly 70 years after the end of the war, how many of the “original,” deeply-rooted German Jews might remain in the country? I asked officials at Berlin’s “Centrum Judaicum.” “We have no statistics on that,” one told me, “but the number is now miniscule, if any.”
So what drew Friedel back to the country that a dozen years earlier would have murdered her? In 1983, my parents and I spent an extremely cordial afternoon with Friedel, Oscar, and their family in Frankfurt. “I am living in Germany now,” she poignantly told us, “but I do not want to die in Germany.”
During that visit, we didn’t ask, “Why are you here?” But on a solo trip to Germany in 2002, I finally put the question to Friedel, by then a widow. She sighed, and after a pause, said, “It was too hot for my husband in Israel. He was working in a bakery, and was getting ill. I wanted to go to America, but he preferred Germany because he didn’t speak English, and his German was good enough to start a new business.”
I tried to fathom why an Israeli man, a lifelong Zionist, would bring his family to a country so drenched in Jewish blood, rather than simply find a more temperature-appropriate occupation in Israel. The answer came days later, from another relative. “Oh, yes, things were hot in Israel, but in a different way,” I was told. “There were food shortages and rationing in the ’50s, and Oscar’s partner had been arrested for selling flour on the black market. They thought Oscar would be next, so they packed up and headed for Germany, the easiest place for them to get into.”
Finally, a rational explanation for a heartwrenching decision that profoundly affected the lives not only of Friedel, Oscar, and their three Israeli-born children, but eventually, their nine grandchildren and now, 14 great-grandchildren (only four of whom are Jewish).
Several years ago, one of Friedel’s grandsons, a neurosurgeon with five kids of his own, asked her to bring them all to her hometown, and give a first-hand account to this new generation of what had happened during the “Hitlerzeit,” the time of the Third Reich. She agreed that they should know, and made the physically and emotionally trying trip.
We had a final visit with Friedel in 2009. For my mother’s 80th birthday, we returned to Germany with my sister’s two college-age children, to give them a visceral sense of the German-Jewish experience. I introduced my niece and nephew to Friedel and explained they were meeting the last living link, in Germany, to our family’s documented thousand-year history there. She welcomed us warmly, and shared memories of my grandparents and great-grandparents.
One of Friedel’s Israeli granddaughters recently moved to Los Angeles, where my sister lives, and we invited her to my sister’s home for Shabbat (Saturday) lunch. I, of course, asked how Friedel was doing, and was told she was as well as could be expected for someone of that extreme old age. We spoke about her for quite some time.
We did not know that at that moment, half-a-world away, Friedel was in the final hours of her unlikely, almost-century-long journey. The next morning came word that she had passed away peacefully in her bed.
There may be one or two more somewhere else in Deutschland, but I will forever think of Friedel as the last German Jew.
Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist.