Life is Coming & Going


My Mom always says that “life is coming and going.” Mom is now over 100 years old, and she should know.

It was Sunday evening, September 14, when we arrived back in New York after an eventful, satisfying, busy, and physically and emotionally exhausting week in Germany. Now it is Sunday again, and we are flying off to Greenville, SC, to speak to and with many more students and adults. After all, this is my mission in life.

We had left late Saturday night for our visit to Germany, and were wondering if we would get off on time after a stormy, windy, and rain soaked day. We were concerned about making our connection at London’s Heathrow Airport for our end destination, Hannover.

Arriving at the Hannover Airport Sunday afternoon, we were met by Arnold Jurgens, a staff member of Stiftung niedersachsische Gedenkstatten, The Bergen-Belsen Memorial, as the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen is now named. Bergen-Belsen, situated between the small towns of Bergen and Belsen, began its notorious history, first as a POW camp from 1941 - 1945, then as a concentration camp from 1943 – 1945, and finally, as a Displaced Persons Camp from 1945 - 1948. More than 70,000 men, women and children are buried in its numerous mass graves. Its last commandant, Josef Kramer, nick-named “The Beast of Belsen,” was hanged by the British authorities after his trial. Over 200 of its cruel SS guards were never brought to trial, although their names were known!

We were driven to our hotel in downtown Hannover, and lodged in the Loccumer Hof, a medium sized, friendly, comfortable, clean and hospitable hotel. As we exited Arnold’s car, we were greeted by the piercing sound of an emergency vehicle passing by, which eerily brought back memories of the squad cars driven by the Gestapo during the round-ups in the 1930’s.

After a good night’s sleep, and a melatonin tablet, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny morning. Immediately after an early breakfast, we were driven to the grounds of Bergen-Belsen, where my family & I endured close to a year and a half of terror. This was actually my 4th visit here since our first visit some 13 years earlier, on the occasion of our 50th year of liberation.

In place of the small former museum, a new, sophisticated, and complete exhibition and documentation center, was constructed and completed just about a year ago, thanks to the efforts of its historian, Dr. Thomas Rahe. 
We also met with Elke Von Meding, and the two of them brought us up to date on all that has been done at BB. Much work and effort went into this project, and is visited by many from around the world, and by German school groups. 
We also met Stephanie Billib & Heike Rudolph, both of whom were helpful in planning our visit. Martina Staats, a historian at BB, sat in on one of my presentations to students.

After the morning presentation to the Holty Gymnasium students and their teachers, Nathaniel and I were given a detailed tour of the new museum by Dr. Rahe. The large concrete complex is filled with many exhibitions of how life, and death, existed in Bergen-Belsen. It is very complete with details and personal video histories of former inmates. I only wish I could show you additional photos of many of the exhibits taken by Nathaniel.
In the late afternoon, after much walking, talking, and viewing of exhibits, Barbara Schulz, an expatriate, living her entire 40 year married life in Germany, came by to take us to our next lodging, this one in Mascherode. Fritz, Barbara`s husband, did the driving through the German countryside.

We first got to meet Barbara a few years back when we visited our friends, Heike & Hans Huth in Hoya, my so-called “home town.” 
It was Barbara who planned and arranged the next 2 days of school presentations, one at the Schlossgymnasium in Wolfenbuttel, and two, morning and afternoon, at the Gesamtschule Franzsches Feld in Braunschweig. It was this building in Braunschweig, built by the Nazi, which was used to plan their strategy against the British.

And, practically just around the corner from the school is Prinz Albrecht Park, where Hitler, y`mach shmo (may his name be obliterated), in the early 1930s, made speeches in connection with his attempts to obtain German (Reich) citizenship so that he could run for political office; he had given up his Austrian citizenship in 1925 and lived in Germany as a stateless person. In February 1932, he was given an administrative post in a ministry of the state of Braunschweig, and with it the German citizenship.

Often, when speaking of our non-Jewish German friends, there are those who ask “how can you make friends with Germans?” My answer is – there are good people, and bad people, in every corner of our world. We should not judge an entire group by the actions of some within that group. Unfortunately, some 60-70 years ago, there were way too many bad ones in these parts. And today, we certainly have too many bad people throughout the world doing their evil deeds.
This is the reason we must work hard with our children for them to understand the need for respect and tolerance towards one another, regardless of the religious belief, color of the skin, or national origin.

Thursday was our most eventful day, the day Hans and Heike drove us to Trobitz, the little farm village in eastern Germany where our “train” was finally liberated by the Russian Army. It is also the village in which my father, Walter Blumenthal, died of typhus 6 weeks after our liberation.
You need to know, that although I always wear a skirt when giving a presentation, I do travel often times with “pants.” But not this day. I told Nathaniel that my father would be distressed if I were visit him wearing pants, and so traveled to Trobitz with blouse and skirt!

In Trobitz, we met with an old acquaintance, Erica Arlt, the unofficial village historian, who has documented many of the survivors of that incredible train ride. At this point in her life, she feels she may have to turn her incredible life`s work over to others.

Erica, Hans, Heike, Nathaniel and I, accompanied by a newspaper reporter from Dresden, drove the short way to the Jewish cemetery, which was established adjacent to the Christian cemetery. The burgermeister (mayor) of this small village joined us, expressing sorrow for what happened those many years ago. 
Those who died early one were buried in mass graves, but those, such as my father, who died a bit after the chaos subsided, were buried in their own resting place. A few of the bodies were eventually exhumed, and taken elsewhere to finally rest in peace.

We brought sand from where Mom lives in Far Rockaway, and spread it on my father’s grave, to establish a “connection,” and also placed some stones from the Dead Sea in Israel as a reminder that the grave had been visited, a Jewish custom. Please see photo at bottom of page

The next big event of the day was my first ever return visit to the house in which we, and many other families, lived upon our liberation. As did many other residents at the time, the family that owned this house also fled the village, in fear of the Russian soldiers. At the time, the man of the house was a German POW in Canada. Not only did we visit this house, but we also were warmly greeted and embraced by Inge Gantke, who in 1945 was the family’s 12 year old daughter. Today, she is a proud grandmother, with many stories herself to tell.

As the afternoon drew to a close, we took leave of Trobitz. Hans worked his way back to the autobahn, where he once again drove at a speed of 210-220 kph, (roughly 130-135 mph!) His full attention was on the road, and whenever the posted speed limit was reduced, he complied immediately.

The Huths deposited us in front of our hotel in Hannover, and then drove another hour to their home. They are an incredible couple. It is people like these that renew one`s faith in humanity..

Friday morning was again an early wake-up for the hour drive back to Bergen-Belsen, where I spoke to and with students, these being from the Kurt-Schwitters-Gymnasium Misburg, Hannover.

We returned back to Hannover for lunch; all our meals in Hannover were prepared at the Jewish Old Age Home, where the food is both delicious and kosher.

Late Friday afternoon, we met Hans-Jürgen Hermel , a journalist, and his son Shawn, for coffee. Hans-Jürgen had written about me on a previous visit to Germany, and is a most interesting person.

Then it was time to get ready for the onset of Shabbat, and for our delicious Shabbat meal. Shabbat morning, we arose early, and walked 45 minutes to the orthodox synagogue, which adjoins the old-age home. Many in the congregation are Russians; the rabbi is from Israel. Nathaniel was called to the Torah for the 3rd aliya.

We had our Shabbat lunch at the old age home, and chattered with a couple of its interesting, elderly residents. We then walked back to our hotel for our yom menuchah - our day of rest.

Sunday afternoon, we departed Hannover airport aboard our MDI jet to Heathrow, and boarded our American Airlines 777 for our trip back home to our blessed United States of America. It had been a very special week, but we were so very glad to be back home.

I was able to complete this newsletter on our flight back from beautiful Greenville, SC, where I spoke to elementary, middle and high school students at Christ Church Episcopal School, Greenville Middle Academy, Woodmont High School & Greenville Senior High School, in addition to a large number of adults at Temple of Israel.

With our Jewish New Year about to be ushered in on Monday evening, let us all be inscribed in the book of life, blessings and peace! Best wishes to you and your family for a Shannah Tova u`Metukah, a good and sweet year.
G`mar Chatima Tova 
5769/Septemebr 2008