Sixteen Holocaust survivors describe returning to Germany after the war in von Treuenfeld’s work of oral history translated from the German by Siegal-Bergman.
The familiar narrative of the Holocaust is that it marked the end of Jews in Germany. Those who managed to survive settled in America or Britain or Palestine. And yet this view does not represent the whole story: When the war ended, some Jews returned to Germany. After all, it was their home. “How could they bear to come back to this country?” asks von Treuenfeld in her introduction. “To the country where relatives and friends were killed, and…futures were destroyed. The country that also wanted to kill the 16 women who I—in search of an answer—have asked to tell me their life stories.” This book profiles women like Bela Cukierman, whose family fled Germany east through Poland and—by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad—all the way to Harbin, China, and then Shanghai. After the founding of Israel, nearly their entire community was shipped there, but the German-speaking family couldn’t adjust to the already crowded country and returned to Germany. Renée Brauner’s parents kept her alive by fleeing to Yugoslavia, Italy, and Switzerland, settling in France after the war. Ultimately, they returned to Germany when she was 7. Others spent time in the Americas, and many were at least temporarily in Israel. But all found themselves back in a Germany that was quite different than before—though one that was still far from welcoming. Von Treuenfeld is an invisible presence on the page, and the book is compiled as though each woman is narrating her own story uninterrupted. The personalities and underlying trauma shine through the anecdotes, as here when Brauner describes the prewar residence of her father: “His sister had lived on the floor above. The woman who had lived there since then knew that my aunt was taken away with her two small children. That was on Reclamstrasse. When the Wall fell the building was torn down.” The book is a brilliantly composed account of a very different sort of diaspora and return. Each of the 16 strands is haunting and heartbreaking in its own way. The result is something quite distinct from the usual Holocaust memoir: a book that scrambles the very notion of a homeland and the ties that bind us to one.
A vital, understated contribution to the body of Holocaust literature.