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“I think this is a coffee house,” Mom said, pointing as we walked through a well-tended but deserted plaza. The café was empty and clean, with a few small round tables. A stout middle-aged woman stood behind the counter while we gazed at the pastries.
“Hallo,” she said in heavily accented English. “What would you like?”
We selected a few thickly buttered pretzels and ham sandwiches on poppy seed rolls.
“You’re the Americans, aren’t you?” she asked.
So she’d heard of us. We nodded.
“I’m going to the reception,” she said. “I’ll see you and your family there?”
Baffled, I nodded. It was a small town, indeed.
The sky grew dim as we made our way back to the inn. Grandma was fussing about, putting on earrings and meticulously applying lipstick and eye shadow. That evening, the town was holding an event in her honor — an official welcome and a chance for her to talk about her experiences living in and leaving Germany. Soon, we were clustered in front of the guesthouse, preparing to walk to the church. I looked at my grandmother, dwarfed by my mere five-foot-tall stature, and grasped her hand. She was impeccably coiffed as always (she had barely slept on the plane — in order to keep her hair nice), but she had a nervous look on her round, careworn face. My father, too, looked tense. The war seemed a lot closer to him than it did to me.
Entering the chapel, we immediately heard the villagers singing “Shalom Aleichem.” The song rankled me for an instant — what right did they have to sing it? — until I realized the meaning. I watched Grandma as she took her seat in the front row of pews.
Dommel spoke first (with the deputy mayor translating to English), about paying tribute to the Holocaust and its victims as well as the importance of embracing peace and tolerance in Germany’s present. Then it was Grandma’s turn. She clutched her notes with a shaking hand as she spoke, in her mother tongue, about growing up in prewar Germany and how it felt to be forced from her home. The audience listened with palpable admiration. Some people cried. I felt enormously proud of her as she told her story, reconciling present day Bechhofen with her own experiences.
As the night progressed, small, almost unnoticeable moments reinforced why we had come. There was an old man who remembered cheating off Grandma’s tests (she remembered him for being the most handsome boy in class). There was a woman whose family had fed Jews in hiding during the war. There, across from the church, was where Grandma’s house once stood.
But one moment in particular crystallized the profound meaning of our trip: At the end of Grandma’s speech, someone asked her if she had gentile friends as a child.
“Ja,” of course, she said, pausing. “We were all friends.”
Jesse Baum was born and raised in Brooklyn. She attends the University of Vermont and studies environmental sciences, English and German.