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“What a shame that the book is a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’!” Jess wrote when I finally told him the title of the book and my family’s story. “I thought that the book might be a guide to the city of Lübeck, a lovely town.”
What he told me contradicted my own family’s story: Walter Jess survived the war. He was not killed in battle by my great-uncle Eddie; he died from skin cancer, in 1967.
Jess and Stucke came up with another theory about how their parents’ book came into my uncle’s possession. Americans invaded the town of Hillesheim, near the Belgian border, in 1945 and entered the Jess home. They destroyed a bookcase and a piano. Perhaps “Mein Kampf” was sitting on that bookcase. Perhaps a soldier — my uncle? — lifted it.
We don’t know if Eddie was stationed in Hillesheim, since the National Archives and Records Administration lost his military records.
I had reached a dead end.
In June I went to Lübeck to visit the place where my family’s myth began. By that point, I knew that visiting would do nothing to advance my knowledge of the book’s origins, but I went anyway. I thought it could add a new dimension to the backstory of “Mein Kampf.”
The historic entrance to the city is marked by a 15th-century gate with round towers. The landmark structure — considered one of the most important city gates in Germany — welcomes visitors with the Latin greeting “Concordia domi foris pax.” “Harmony at home and peace abroad.”
I visited the address in the center square where the young couple lived right after their nuptials, at 27 Sandstrasse. The original home must have been torn down; the simple brick building was a postwar construction.
I strolled through city streets and visited cafes selling marzipan — a local specialty — and it became clear to me that I’d experience no great revelation about the book. I felt I was chasing down a family story I could never verify.
My family now lives with two parallel narratives. We still hold on to the heroic version of how my great-uncle came to seize “our” “Mein Kampf.” We recognize that just because a story may not be factually true doesn’t mean it’s a lie.
Krause urged me to think about my quest as a way to come to terms with my family’s past. “Just having a peace treaty to end the fighting is not really how you end it,” she said.
My mother, once afraid of the book, enjoys learning about the Jess children. My father says this journey has elevated “Mein Kampf” beyond a painful historical artifact. He now sees it as a vehicle to understand history — personal and geopolitical.
When Eddie brought home “Mein Kampf,” it was evidence of his victory. But the book had another chapter in it, one that could only be written decades later, by taking it out of the basement and off of the shelf.
Hinda Mandell teaches in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology.