I walked with my 90-year-old grandmother down a wide cobbled street in the middle of nowhere in Germany. We were in a small town called Bechhofen, and she hadn’t returned for nearly 80 years, since the threat of the Nazis forced her family to flee because they were Jewish.
As my grandmother, Senta Baum, and I turned past a trim green and into an unassuming brick chapel, the steeple bells clanged and clanged overhead. “As long as I live, I will never forget those bells,” she told me later. We heard choir music inside. It was the greeting “Shalom Aleichem,” and the German villagers — the children of Nazis — were singing it to us.
My grandmother’s much-anticipated return to her childhood home began with an interview four years ago, when she and her younger brother, Gunther, were featured in a documentary, “Bechhofen, Bethaus und Big Apple,” about the unique synagogue they had worshipped in before they fled Germany — a wooden structure known for watercolor murals that covered its walls.
The synagogue had been burned down during the war. Back in Germany, a local newspaper published a story featuring Grandma Senta and her role in the documentary. Since leaving, she had had absolutely no connection to Bechhofen. And her husband, my paternal grandfather, insisted they never return to the country that had brutalized both of their families. My father remembers hearing him rail against the Fatherland passionately and frequently enough to dissuade Grandma Senta from making the trip.
However, two people who read that article wanted very much to get in touch with Senta — Herbert Dommel, Bechhofen’s historian, who has made it his mission to welcome Jews back to Germany, and Anna Lange, who sat next to my grandmother in school. She still remembered my grandmother 78 years later, but had assumed she’d died in the war. Dommel and Lange’s kindness, and the way they reached out to my grandmother, led her — and my entire family — back to Bavaria.
In the summer of 2011, my mother, father, sister, grandmother and I arrived in Bechhofen from New York City. Exhausted from our long flight, we collapsed in a modest local inn. I dutifully struggled to fight off jet lag, but my younger sister, Molly, felt no such compunctions and lay stretched diagonally across the bed snoring softly, her long hair falling over her face. I heard a soft knock at the door. It was my mom.
“Do you want to go for a walk?”
I nodded, and we headed down the stairs together and into the alleyway outside. Bechhofen was tiny, a fraction of a fraction of the size of Brooklyn, my hometown. All of the buildings were low and set close together, with red terra cotta tiled roofs and window boxes bursting with pink flowers. As we drove in, I remembered Grandma remarking upon these buildings: “This is all new,” she said.
Bechhofen could not have seemed a bustling metropolis to Grandma after she’d lived in Upper Manhattan and then Queens, but it must have been a jarring contrast to the home she remembered — a town of wooden and stone structures where she lived with no electricity or running water. To me, she hadn’t just grown up in another century; she had grown up in the Middle Ages. She had learned to write with a quill!