Last week, in the small German city of Neumarkt, the curtain went up on an improbable musical about the life and death of a young Jewish woman who was deported and killed by the Nazis.
The production was unlikely in part because of the Broadway format chosen for a Holocaust tale. But more than this, the production was unusual because the town of Neumarkt has made little prior recognition of its Jews, a community that vanished during the Holocaust.
The subject of the musical, Ilse Haas, had two brothers who survived the war and made it to America, but neither was contacted or given recognition by anyone from Neumarkt. Even more egregiously, in history books about the town — written by the city’s long-reigning mayor — the presence of Jews had been noticeably excised.
The first time that Haas’s brothers received so much as a phone call from Neumarkt was three years ago, when a few high school girls began researching the life of the men’s sister as part of a religion class. That research culminated in this musical, “The Last Letter,” which opened to a sold-out crowd in the municipal auditorium last Friday. More performances are scheduled for this weekend.
Ernest Haas, who was a year younger than Ilse, was moved by the production and grew close with the Catholic teacher who made it happen. But he never received any correspondence from the town officials, and so he declined to travel to Neumarkt to see the show.
“It would have been nice to receive a welcome, saying, ‘We will make a dinner for you in your honor,’ or saying, ‘We threw you out, but it was a big mistake,’” said Ernest, 81, who survived the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps and went on to become a commercial real estate broker. “The only relief has been these young kids. When they came along, I figured, ‘Ah, there is a generation who really wants to change things.’”
The path to reconciliation since the Holocaust has been a difficult one, and the German government has devoted tremendous resources to the project. But the situation in Neumarkt, a Bavarian city of 40,000 people, sheds light on the competing local sentiments that come into play when individual towns try to do the same.
A spokesman for Neumarkt, Franz Janka, said that the Haases had not received an official invitation because the town had nothing to do with the production. Janka pointed out that the deputy mayor attended the premiere. He also noted that the town has taken over the tending of the old Jewish cemetery. All the same, at the opening of public exhibit on Ilse Haas, town senator Albert L–hner said that in Neumarkt, one could speak of a “collective pushing away of the responsibility to remember the past.”
The tensions bound up in memorializing the Holocaust became a central theme of the new musical. The production opens with a young girl finding a bundle of letters in her basement — correspondence between her grandmother and a friend who speaks of festivities around the holiday of Purim. The grandmother tells the girl to put back the letters where she found them. Instead she begins to research the story and turns up the friend’s identity: Ilse. The action then alternates between Ilse’s story and the present, accompanied by klezmer-inflected music. The moral of the story comes from a character who sings, “Anybody who is forgotten dies a second time.”
The impetus for the production was Helmut Enzenberger, the Catholic chaplain and religion teacher at the Ostendorfer Gymnasium. In an e-mail to the Forward, Enzenberger said that “from a young age, I was moved and shocked by the inhumanity of the Third Reich.”
Enzenberger trained for but did not ultimately join the priesthood. He eventually started a family and gave his children Jewish names, David and Moritz. When he moved to Neumarkt, he began researching the town’s Jews. He now believes there were 90 in 1930. In his research he found Ilse’s name, with her birthday and address and a shortnote: “Lost in Riga.”
“When I read that note,” Enzenberger wrote, “I immediately realized that this woman could not be forgotten.”
Over the past three years, Enzenberger and three of his students, along with help from the city archivist, have dug for information. The town had listed Ernest as “missing,” but the students found him. As they learned, Ernest came from a well-established, though relatively assimilated, Jewish family in Neumarkt. His father, Semi, had fought for Germany on the front lines in World War I, and the three children went to a local Catholic school. Both brothers remember the atmosphere in town changing very quickly when the Nazis came into power. One year they had a teacher — Herr Bock — who was kind, but the next year a Nazi Party man took over and told the other kids to beat up on the Haas children. (Some of the blanks were filled in this past spring, when Enzenberger drove eight hours to meet Haas, who was vacationing in Italy, in person.)
To escape the abuse and the weekly marches of the Nazi storm troopers past their household, the Haases moved to F¸rth, a larger city that had a Jewish school. In F¸rth the Haases spent much of their time — leading up to Kristallnacht — trying to get visas to leave; Ilse went off to attend a school that prepared youngsters for life in Palestine, but when she arrived the attendance rolls were full.
Ilse’s youngest brother, Walter, remembers his sister as “very goofy” and “full of life.” Even when she was 17 and he was 13, she would ask him to serve as a chaperon when she went on dates.
Walter was the only one to get out of Europe; he was sent to America via Portugal. His last contact with his sister came on a postcard November 23, 1941 — the “last letter” to which the musical’s title refers. Four days later, the rest of the family was picked up by an SS truck and shipped to the east. Ernest, the middle child, last saw his sister when they were in separate camps in Lithuania: On the morning of April 10, 1944, as he was marched to work, he saw Ilse pressed up against the barbed wire fence. The siblings exchanged a final wave.
Soon after that, the Russians approached and the Nazis brought in mobile gas chambers, in which Haas’s aunt and cousins were killed. Ilse was taken to the Stutthof concentration camp, where she died. Ernest was put on a death march to another camp. It was there that he was found, weighing 80 pounds, by the Russians — the only Jewish resident of Neumarkt to survive the war in Europe.
Searching for his sister after the war, Ernest returned to F¸rth and then to Neumarkt. An old family friend there warned him to keep his Jewish identity secret, and he left soon thereafter.
The only time that Ernest returned to Germany was in 1977, when he went back to testify at a war crimes trial and left the same day. His younger brother, Walter, took his children to Neumarkt in 1970. His wife asked many locals about the Holocaust, and he says they all gave the same answer: “We didn’t know.”
“That’s a pretty disgusting expression,” Walter says now. “I can’t quite accept that.”
During the ensuing decades, Walter and Ernest heard nothing from their childhood town. Ernest contrasted this to a German friend whose town of only 10,000 people tracked him down and has invited him back each year, all expenses paid.
“They haven’t even bothered to send a post card,” Haas said of Neumarkt.
But the greater sting came from Kurt Romst–ck, the town’s mayor from 1972 to 1990. Romst–ck is the author of a series of books about Neumarkt’s history. One book surveyed all of the town’s cemeteries — except for the Jewish one. Another gave a list of the Neumarkt residents who died fighting for Germany in World War I; however, it left out the 11 Jewish residents, as did the war memorial that Romst–ck helped realize.
At Ernest Haas’s prodding, Ernst Cramer, then the chairman of one of Germany’s largest publishing houses, Axel Springer Verlag, chastised Romst–ck in a 1991 letter. “I can understand that you would like to ‘put this behind you,’” he wrote. “But the past that we lived through does not let us forget it, especially if you handle it without care.”
Enzenberger, the teacher, says that Neumarkt’s new leadership is much better: The mayor is a “young, fresh, dynamic, open-minded guy.” And the story of Ilse seems to be engaging the residents in a larger discussion. Enzenberger now has a PowerPoint presentation to give to every student at both of Neumarkt’s high schools. And the musical is being prepared for a European-wide festival.
Ilse’s baby brother, Walter, is warmed by the words coming from Neumarkt.
“Somewhere along the line, I said, ‘Dear God, maybe there is a next inning, where something new will happen,’” he said.