(page 2 of 3)
I received two research grants from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where I am an assistant professor, to hire genealogists to track down information about the original owners, and later to travel to Germany.
Eventually, I would learn that the book belonged to Walter and Klara Jess. The couple was married in Lübeck on April 29, 1938. Five years before their nuptials — nearly to the day — Walter became a member of the Nazi Party. She was a nurse; he was a land registry secretary. On their wedding day they received a copy of “Mein Kampf” from the Lübeck mayor. It was a common gift for such an occasion. Indeed, weddings helped put 10 million copies of Hitler’s political manifesto into circulation by 1945.
The Jesses could never have fathomed on that day that their Führer’s “Mein Kampf ” would end up in a Jewish home, 4,000 miles away.
The genealogists learned from city registries that the couple moved south to Hillesheim from Lübeck in 1938, and then to nearby Mainz in 1956.
They had three children. There was one entry for “Jess” in Mainz, listed in the local phonebook. First name: “Axel.”
One of the genealogists, Ursula Krause of the Berlin-based organization Rootseekers, emailed me his address. Perhaps he was related to Walter and Klara Jess and could share information about the couple?
Over Skype, Krause urged me to be withholding in my letter to Axel Jess. My approach should be gentle, she said. I should make no mention of the “Mein Kampf,” since it might cause him to shut down.
“All I’m saying is you have to be careful,” Krause said. “And be kind.”
So I sat down to write. I mentioned my great-uncle in the letter, saying that he brought home a book from the war. I didn’t mention what type of book it was. Nor how he got it. “You don’t know me, but I may have a connection to you,” I wrote. “My family has a book that may have originally belonged to your family.”
Eight days later, he emailed me. Walter and Klara Jess were indeed his parents.
It was a disorienting experience to come in contact with a living link to a book that has occupied so much of my mental space in recent years. It brought “Mein Kampf” out of the realm of history and into the here and now — although a here and now that is still shaped by the war.
Throughout the two dozen emails I exchanged with Axel Jess and his sister, Heike Stucke, I felt like a voyeur, peering into their family history through the sole lens of “Mein Kampf.”