A Quest for Family Roots in Germany
Answers from an honorable family in Steele
The morning after the trip ended, I made my way to Fred and Ingrid Jaeger's* sun-drenched home in Steele, a suburban section of Essen. Although Dad had few of his own memories, he had told me many times how the Jaegers had held our family’s Hebrew Bible for 25 years before returning it to my great uncle Ernest in 1968. Reproductions of wooden etchings of biblical scenes by French artist Gustav Dore were sprinkled throughout the books; the inset held a handwritten Lowenstein family tree dating back to 1791, Dad said. I had called Fred Jaeger before flying to Germany to arrange to meet with him.
A strapping man with thinning blond hair and round glasses, Fred explained in his foghorn of a voice that his father and grandfather had been Papa Joseph's patients, and that the Lowensteins had been customers at the Jaeger's print shop. Because of the families’ friendship, my great-grandfather Joseph had given the Bible, originally a 25th anniversary gift to his parents, to Ludwig Jaeger*, Fred's father, shortly before his deportation.
A blue notebook with the name Lowenstein across its spine lay on their coffee table. I opened it and turned to the back. Four pictures were there, including three of my namesake. Nearly bald with a thin mustache, Joseph's expression radiated intensity and seriousness of purpose in the first two images. Another picture was a family portrait, probably from the late 1920s. Taken before Hitler’s ascent, the picture showed a well-dressed, successful family that looked as “German” as any other from the time. Clad in dark three-piece suits, Joseph and his four sons--Max, Albert, Rudolf and Ernest—stared sternly at the camera. Rudolf had his hands on his wife Margarethe’s shoulders. In a final picture, taken closer to his death, Joseph’s jaw was less firm and resolute and the lines around his eyes held his resignation. Fred, Ingrid and I sat quietly for a minute after I looked at the pictures.
Lean and willowy, with a head of graying hair, Ingrid delicately lifted an orange letter from the next sheath and started reading in a gentle but firm voice. Written by Ludwig Jaeger to my great uncle Ernest in 1947, the neatly typed, single spaced black lines told what had happened to our family since Ernest had left for the United States a decade earlier.
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the letter said, Joseph sustained a double blow. Not only had the Nazi government fined him 5,000 Deutsch marks, but also neighbors he had treated for two generations shunned him. Ingrid read about how, as the war progressed, Joseph often walked around Essen, English books in tow, so that he could survive in America were he able to escape. She read about how Joseph’s son Rudolf, who had refused to leave Germany because it was his home, had been “sent to the East” with his wife and young children, Klaus and Klara. And finally she read about how Joseph was deported on the final train from Essen to Theresienstadt in the former Czechoslovakia, eventually going to Auschwitz, where he was murdered at age 77, along with more than a million other Jews. It was the "worst, blindest part" of the nation's history, Ludwig Jaeger wrote, and one that left a shame with which each German must reckon. Although I had known this information before, hearing Ingrid read her father-in-law’s letter opened a part of me that had been closed and allowed me to picture my relatives more clearly.
The letter covered just four of more than 100 pages of documents in the notebook that spanned close to 70 years, beginning with the notice of my great-grandmother’s death—printed at the Jaeger's print shop in 1931—and ending in 1997 with the notice of my great-uncle Ernie’s death. The binder held receipts from 1947 for care packages our family had sent to the Jaegers after settling in the United States, correspondence from 1962 between my grandfather instructing Mr. Jaeger how to proceed with reparations from the German government for the loss of Joseph’s business, and a 1968 letter from my great-uncle Ernest's wife Helen after the couple had come to Germany to retrieve the family bible.
Each letter further converted the unknown to the known, locating my family in time and place, helping me understand how painful it must have been for my family to leave their homeland and making me feel their loss more deeply.
Fred handed me the notebook after I finished looking through it. I held it reverently. Through their wartime actions, retention of the families’ correspondence, and this transfer, the Jaegers had supplied both the answers to my long-held questions and the connection for which I had hungered.
Fred drove the three of us to our family's old neighborhood in his green BMW wagon. We walked by the family house at Alte Zeilen 22, a towering three-story building where Joseph had lived and conducted his practice. As we walked, Fred talked about how his father had urged my great-grandfather many times to leave the country.
"Joseph did not want to go until it was too late," he said, his blue eyes filling with dismay. "He thought it was his country."
We hunted around for a German national team soccer shirt for me to bring back to my son Aidan—the Jaegers insisted on buying it—and then it was time to go to the train. We chatted on the pavilion, the notebook firmly in my grasp. We hugged and they waved goodbye as the train pulled out of the station, 62 years after Fred's father Ludwig had last seen Joseph Lowenstein before he took a very different type of train to the southeastern part of the country. Grateful for all that I had received, I thought about history might have been if Germany had had more men like Ludwig Jaeger, and fewer like Adolf Eichmann. The train gathered speed and headed toward its destination.
*These names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.