Return to Germany

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes (Sarasota, FL)

In 1978, my husband, Roberto, and I began to plan a trip to Greece. Neither of us had ever been there, and we looked forward to exploring its historic ruins and taking a cruise around the Greek Isles.

In the past on foreign trips, I had given a number of talks for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) as an “American specialist” on the second wave of the women’s rights movement. (I was a founder of NOW–National Organization for Women–and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–EEOC.)  So, I called Michael Bennett, my contact at USIA, to see if the agency needed anyone to speak in Greece.

“No,” he said. “We don’t. But we do have a request for someone in France and Germany. One week in France and two in Germany. Would you be willing to go?”

I was taken aback by Michael’s request. Germany? The land I’d escaped from over forty years ago? The country of Heil Hitler, marching boots, and swastikas? The country soaked in the blood of my people? Could I go there?

I told Michael I’d need time to think about it and then consulted Roberto about USIA’s request.

“Up to you,” he said.

For years I’d had a strong desire to return to my birthplace, to see where I would have spent my life if Hitler and his band of murderers hadn’t come along. But when I had thought about it, I had envisioned a quick trip into Berlin, followed by an immediate departure. USIA, however, was asking me to stay two weeks–something else again.

On past USIA trips, I’d enjoyed sightseeing and local entertainment in my spare time. But how did one enjoy oneself on the site of a charnel house?

I’d always found it challenging, meaningful, and exciting to speak abroad about women’s rights. But were women’s rights relevant in a country where millions of Jews as well as non-Jews had been slaughtered?

I decided to consult local and national Jewish leaders. The first person I called was Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut, the Reform temple to which I belonged. A handsome young man in his early thirties, Rabbi Pearce empathized with my reluctance to go, but added, “It’s not just their country. There’s Jewish history in Germany, too.” I hadn’t thought of that.

“If you do decide to go,” Rabbi Pearce continued, “I hope you’ll report to the congregation on your return.”

I agreed to do this if I went but wondered what there’d be to report. After all, the Jewish problem had ended with the war in Germany in 1945, hadn’t it? What would there be to report now–over thirty years later?

I spoke with Jewish leaders in organizations such as B’nai B’rith. The consensus was that Germany was a new land with a new people. Israel was trading with Germany, so who was I to resist?

I decided to go. But because of Rabbi Pearce’s request, I asked USIA to include in my itinerary meetings with Jewish leaders and a visit to a former concentration camp.

Before departing, I called my brother, Hermann, who was 14 years my senior, and asked if he remembered any of the addresses of the places where we’d lived, where my parents had operated their stores, and where we owned an apartment building. To my amazement, he reeled off all the addresses, some of which were now in East Berlin. I resolved to try to find them all, if possible.

On November 2, 1978, I flew to Paris. (Due to his work commitments, Roberto was to join me later.) To my surprise, on the night of my arrival, the Jewish question came up. I was having cocktails with a small group of feminists at the home of the woman who was head of the American Cultural Center. A French woman reporter for the news magazine L’Express mentioned that she had recently interviewed Darquier De Pellepoix, the 80-year-old Frenchman who had been the Vichy government’s commissioner for Jewish affairs.

De Pellepoix, a major French war criminal who had been convicted in absentia but was never punished, lived in Spain. He told the reporter that the genocide of the Jewish people had never happened; that the 75,000 French and stateless Jews he deported from France to death camps had been resettled in the East; and that only lice were gassed at Auschwitz. The following day, his statements were on the front page of L’Express.

The reporter also mentioned that the French had never come to terms with their collaboration with the Nazis. While the NBC-TV film Holocaust had been shown all over Western Europe, it had not yet been shown on French TV. A Frenchwoman had, however, started a private fund-raising appeal so the film could be shown there.

Roberto joined me in Paris, and from there we flew to West Berlin, arriving on the night of November 8. The German assistant to the head of Amerika Haus met us at the airport and told us that by an odd coincidence we had arrived on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Forty years earlier, Hershl Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish student, had shot and killed Ernst von Rath, an official in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the treatment his family had received at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the incident to incite Germans to wreak vengeance against the Jews.

As a result, mob violence began on the night of November 9, 1938, and continued into the next day as the regular German police stood by and crowds of spectators watched. Nazi storm troopers, along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth, beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish women and children. All over Germany, Austria, and other Nazi-controlled areas, Jewish shops and department stores had their plate glass windows smashed, thus giving the terror its name, the Night of Broken Glass. Ninety-one Jews were killed, 267 synagogues burned (with 177 totally destroyed), 7,500 businesses destroyed, and 25,000 Jewish men rounded up and later sent to concentration camps.

We had missed the march commemorating that night but were in time to see the exhibition at the Jewish Community Center, the Jüdische Gemeinde Zu Berlin, on Fasanenstrasse 79/80. The Center was a modern building in the heart of West Berlin. As we approached, we noticed what appeared to be the ruins of another building cemented onto the front of the Center. We wondered about the significance of this.

The Center was thronged with people from the march. The exhibition consisted of pictures of Berlin’s magnificent synagogues as they had looked before the Nazi desecration, the shambles that had remained after they had been bombed and ransacked, and how those that had been reconstructed looked today. One of the “before” pictures showed Kaiser Wilhelm visiting one of these synagogues in an earlier period. One of the “after” pictures showed the remains of the synagogue that had stood on the site of the Center. It was two pieces of those remains that were attached to the front of the building.

A poster announced that the following Friday there would be a joint synagogue service in which a rabbi, a priest, and a minister would participate. This would be the first joint Jewish-Christian service in a Berlin synagogue in recent history.

We left the Center and walked around the city. I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the ’20s and ’30s. It seemed so much like the Berlin of the past about which my parents had spoken.

Both West and East Berlin were a curious commingling of past and present for me. One day in East Berlin, as I was crossing the street, I saw two uniformed men coming to get me. I cringed until I realized they weren’t Gestapo, just two East Berlin policemen crossing the street.

Despite such experiences, I loved being in Berlin–staying at the Hotel Frühling am Zoo on Kurfürstandamm 17, walking on streets on which my parents had walked and seeing street names that had resounded throughout my childhood: Alexanderplatz…Kottbusser Damm…Koepenicker Strasse…Gipsstrasse…and Unter den Linden.

A friend in the States had recommended a West Berlin restaurant named Xantener Eck. We went there one night for dinner. In Germany, if there is no empty table, the maitre d’ seats you at one that is partially occupied. On this night, we were seated with two men in their early forties who, we later learned, were printers.

As we poured over the menus, one of them recommended several entrees to us in halting English. With his English and my German, we were able to converse. When he learned I was Jewish, he immediately said, “I feel no guilt. I was born in 1937.” He then embarked upon a tirade against Jews and Israel and referred to the head of the Jewish Center we had just visited as a Fascist. “Why does he have to be a Jew first and a German second?” he asked. “If I were a member of a proud people like the Jews, I would not take money from Germany, as Israel has done, as individual Jews have done, and as the Center continues to do.

“All people are equal: Jews and Christians, whites and Blacks, Israelis, and Arabs. Why does the Jew think he’s better than everyone else?”

I shifted uneasily in my seat.

“And look what they’ve done to the Arabs in Israel,” he continued. “Two thousand years ago, Celts lived on the land where my house stands today. Their descendants now live in France. They don’t come back here and say they have a right to my house. What gives Jews the right to do this?”

His companion had paradoxical views. On the one hand, he seemed to share his friend’s sentiments, if not his vehemence. But he also asked me whether I’d had any special feelings as a Jew returning to Germany. When I told him I had, he said, “You know, my father was involved during the Nazi regime. I have to live with that.”

We spent several hours at dinner, during which we shared drinks and reminiscences with these men. When we left, we exchanged business cards, and they promised to visit if they ever came to the States. One of them came close to hugging me when we parted.

I was in a state of utter depression as we walked the foggy streets of West Berlin after this encounter. “Those men really liked me, Roberto,” I said. “And yet, it wouldn’t take too much for them to come for me again.”

The discussion in the restaurant brought home to me the fact that what had happened in Germany was still there in some of its people.

A day or two later, I shared the experience with a law professor and his feminist wife while having breakfast in their home. The professor said that he resented the burden of guilt that had been laid on Germans, but his wife did not echo his sentiments. His students did not like being reminded of this guilt, he said. They did not want to be made to feel responsible for events that took place before they were born.

We visited the Center again, this time for a meeting with the assistant to the director. I asked him about the conflict between the Germans’ desire to forget and the Center’s commitment to remind them. “Do they want to get rid of the past?” he asked. “Or do they want to continue it? It is in the interest of Germany not to forget. It has nothing to do with guilt or responsibility. Germany must cleanse itself of these things. It must be different in the future from what it was in the past. How can this be done without history, without knowing why it happened and how it happened?”

“How long must it take?” I asked. “After all, this happened forty years ago.”

“Forty years is not a long time in the history of mankind,” he reminded me.

Germany was riven with the tension between the collective obligation to remember and the personal need to forget.

We rented a car and spent days looking for the addresses in both East and West Berlin that Hermann had given me. I knew that Berlin had been reduced to rubble during the war and that I might not be able to locate any of the streets I was looking for, much less the buildings. But that was not the case. We found all the locations for which we were looking. The buildings had, however, all been demolished and rebuilt–except one–the apartment house where I was born at 83-A Linienstrasse in East Berlin. It was still standing, un-bombed, intact. There were lights on in some of the apartments. I went inside, knocked on a door at random, and a woman came out.

“Is there anyone here who might remember a family named Pressman that used to live here in 1928?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. The oldest resident had moved into the building in 1947. There was no one to remember us.

A friend in the States had given me an introduction to a woman who had lived in Berlin for many years. I visited her, and we had a wonderful time together. We talked, as women do, about our lives, our husbands, our hopes for our children. We hugged, and I turned to leave. She wouldn’t have done it to me, would she? I walked out her door. Why not? Why would I have been the exception?

We left Berlin and spent the rest of our trip driving through the German countryside and into the other cities where I lectured on the women’s rights revolution in the United States: Dusseldorf, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Munich. I looked at the people; they looked just like anyone else. What had happened to their ancestors? What madness had seized them?

In Freiburg, we stayed at a picturesque hotel high up in the mountains. When I awoke in the morning and drew the curtains aside, an incredibly lovely panorama was spread out before me. As far as the eye could see, there were undulating valleys with picture postcard houses nestled among them. The beauty of it in the midst of the horror that had been struck me.

It was in Freiburg that I met with Margrit Seewald, a German program specialist with the US Embassy in Bonn who had coordinated many aspects of my programs in Germany although we had not met previously.  The Embassy had asked her to travel to Freiburg for my program there, and she, Roberto, and I spent some lovely times together there.

Then it was on to Heidelberg. At the end of my talk there, a woman came up to me and said, “You have made me feel so good personally that you, a Jew, came back to Germany–and that you came back to talk about women’s rights. I hope you’ll come again.”

In Munich, at Café Kreutzkamm on Maffeistrasse, I had lunch with two women who were leaders of Jewish women’s organizations: one was chairperson of an organization which was named Ruth and the other was with WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization).

“How can you live here” I asked, “next to Dachau?”

The younger woman, in her 50’s, had, with forged papers, survived the Holocaust by passing as a Christian. “Everyone has his or her own story; we each have a certain degree of schizophrenia,” she said. She felt guilty about living in Germany and read every available book on the Holocaust, but she had not encouraged her son to identify with Judaism. He considered himself “European,” she said.

The older woman, in her 70’s, had, with her husband, spent part of the war years in a Jewish ghetto in Austria. They had returned to Germany because German was the only language he knew. “I don’t think about it [the Holocaust],” she said. “I work with German women in organizations. They would be hurt if they felt I was different, and I don’t want to be different. When so many people stretch their hands out to you, you forget. Germany’s no different from any other country. After all, the Swiss prepared the poison gas for the concentration camps.”

She had told her children and grandchildren about the Holocaust. Her son-in-law told his children about the camps once and never mentioned them again. He had enrolled them in an exclusive private school, where they were the only Jews. There, they were being educated as “cosmopolitans.” She was nonetheless pleased when her young grandson came to visit, donned his yarmulke–skullcap–and accompanied her to the synagogue. She was optimistic about the future of Jews in Germany.

In Munich, I was interviewed and taped by Dr. Michaela Ulich, a feminist who was preparing an American Studies program for German high school students. And so, I, who had to flee Germany for my life in 1933, would, through the medium of tape, have a chance to talk to the young people of Germany.

We left Munich and talk of the future and drove on Dachaustrasse into the past–to Dachau, the first of Hitler’s camps. Dachau was full of tourists, most of whom were young Germans. In the midst of the crowd, one couple stood out–a man and woman in their late 50’s, walking arm in arm. Wherever I looked–at the gate with its ironic Arbeit Macht Frei–Work Makes You Free–sign, at the museum, on the grounds where the barracks had stood, at the gas chamber (which had never been used), and at the crematoria (which had)–they were everywhere. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I walked over to them and said, “What is it with you people? Wherever I look, there you are.”

The man responded in Yiddish. He was a German Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of fourteen for five years. He now lived in Israel with his Israeli wife and children. He had come to Germany to testify at the war crimes trial of a former official at Auschwitz and had done so the day before. Now, he was showing his wife a camp such as the one in which he had been interned. Tears welled up in her eyes as he told us that on one occasion he had been beaten six times with a whip such as was exhibited at Dachau; he had thereafter been unable to sit for two weeks.

He pointed to the chimney of the crematorium and told us that on his first day at Auschwitz, one of the officials had directed his attention to the smoke coming out of the chimney and said, “Tomorrow the smoke coming out will be you.”

Roberto asked to see the number on his arm.

“Do you still think about it?” I asked.

“Think about it?” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night saying this number.” Like Primo Levi, he “felt the tattooed number on . . .  [my] arm burning like a sore.” [Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening (Two Memoirs), trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Summit, 1985), 370.]

I asked him how he could identify the camp official at whose trial he had testified when he hadn’t seen him in forty years. The passage of time was not an obstacle for him. “That is a face I will never forget,” he said.

We left Germany and returned to the States.  Shortly thereafter, I received a postcard from Margrit Seewald, who wrote:  “Those last moments in Freiburg when I walked down the steps and you stood there at the top have impressed themselves hard-edge in my mind. It occurred to me that my life could’ve been yours, and yours mine.”


Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the founders of the second wave of the women’s movement, was born in Berlin, Germany, but came to the U.S. in 1934 with her parents and brother to escape the Holocaust.  She is a writer, public speaker, feminist activist, and retired attorney who lives in Sarasota, FL.

This excerpt from her memoir, Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, is reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright 1999 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

For more information about Fuentes and her book, visit:

You can reach her at:

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