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From Berlin to Buffalo

Growing up in the 1940s, when my family members and I were still relatively new Americans, there were various German words I heard often around the house:

Sicherheitsnadel (safety pin) — my mother always seemed to be looking for one.

Füllfederhalter (fountain pen) — my father was very devoted to Parker pens.

Wickelkommode (changing table) — my father and his sister had been changed on it in Berlin; it was then used for my brother and me in Stuttgart, my brother’s children (in Buffalo, N.Y) and for my children (in Baltimore), as well as for my brother’s grandchildren on Long Island and in Boston. Thirteen different tushies so far, in just a little more than a century of use.

Until they died, my parents slept under the Steppdecken (down comforters) they brought from Germany. I hated fish meals when we used Fischbestek (fish flatware), because children were not permitted to speak at the dinner table for fear that they might choke on the bones, which were, of course, Gräten.

But there are two German words I don’t remember ever hearing: Heimat (homeland) and Exil (exile). Indeed, my father often reminded us that he didn’t want us to learn “the language of murderers” even while using German words in the middle of completely English conversation. He also expressed his disappointment in us for not readily quoting Goethe and Heine. I don’t think my parents were thrilled that our Kindermädchen, Inge, spoke a lot of German with us. We had brought her along to America, since she was Jewish and had come to work for my parents after the Nuremberg Laws had required them to dismiss their children’s nurse, who was not Jewish. Taking her along in our immigration meant saving another Jewish life. She died two years ago, in Queens, in her 90s, leaving behind a wonderful American Jewish family. I don’t recall that Inge ever spoke of missing her Heimat or of being in Exil.

So, while contemplating various family memorabilia elegantly installed in the Jewish Museum Berlin exhibition, “Heimat und Exil. Emigration der deutschen Juden nach 1933” (“Homeland and Exile: Emigration of German Jews after 1933”), I inevitably wondered what my father — who died in 1986, having never again set foot on German soil — would have thought about being so prominently on display in the city of his birth. I decided that he would have been as proud as I was, because he was there as an American.

Like many immigrant children, I was nurtured in a confused world of language and people and things that were multicultural, before people used that word. We lived in a large late-Victorian house with many extra rooms to put up the various relatives who would follow us to America. Some of them did; most of them did not.

Our neighbors’ homes were still very old fashioned in décor; they looked like they had been assembled in the 1890s, when most of those houses had been built. But in the small front parlor, where I endured my weekly private Hebrew lessons, my old Russian Jewish teacher and I sat on a group of square seats covered with hand-woven brown-and-orange abstract-patterned Bauhaus fabric. I still have a swatch of the original, and the seats are now in my niece’s home on Long Island.

In my Washington, D.C., home are various other items from that 1932 household: the sleek black-lacquered table on which my Hebrew lesson books were sitting; the matching (pre-Ikea) modular desk that we now use as a bar, and the chrome-and-glass Bauhaus-style light fixture, originally in my parents’ Stuttgart music room, that has long been hanging above my dining room table.

Even if Berlin was never thought of as Heimat, it still resonated heavily. My grandmother, who emigrated from Berlin in 1938, would often sing, “Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du musst nach Berlin….” (“You’re crazy, kid — you need to go to Berlin!”), but it took another 50 years and my living in that city for me to understand what she meant. My grandfather Leopold (his original name was Lippmann), had first come to Berlin in 1868 for the wedding of his older brother, Rudolph, who had already established a woolen business there.

Leopold wrote in his diary that it was an eye-opening trip for a 16-year-old from a small town near Posen in East Prussia. He gawked at the new Rotes Rathaus (the red brick City Hall) and the nearby royal gardens; on the way to the Schlossplatz, he was amazed at the window displays of the famous department store, N. Israel, on Spandauerstrasse, and at Gebr. Friedlaender, the noted jewelry store. Then the young flâneur sauntered along Unter den Linden for coffee at Konditorei Kranzler.

Leopold’s other brothers had preceded him to Berlin, and they had jointly founded a lumber and veneer business, which was located on Neue Jakobstrasse (near what is now the new Jewish Museum). In 1870, he persuaded his parents to let him to go to Berlin to apprentice with his brothers.

For business reasons, my ambitious grandfather needed to learn French, so in 1873 he engaged a Monsieur Lacroix to teach him, lessons he shared with Georg von Bleichroder of the famous banking family that advised Bismarck. Eventually, the Freudenheim brothers had separate businesses, and they must have been competitors; however, Leopold seems to have made his fortune rapidly (he was still a bachelor), because by 1889 he managed to get the contract to provide the wood for the original Reichstagsaal (main chamber of the National Parliament). So it was my family’s wood that was burned in that famous 1933 conflagration of the Reichstag, a key event in the Nazis’ rise to power.

Above my grandparents’ flat in Brückenallee lived prominent Berlin artist Hermann Struck, friend of Theodor Herzl and official representative for the interests of Polish Jews at the Versailles Peace Conference. Struck may be best known for teaching print making to Marc Chagall when Chagall came to Berlin in 1914 to present his first one-man exhibition, “Der Sturm,” at Herwarth Walden’s gallery. But my father, Ernst, who would have been 10 years old at the time, never mentioned meeting Chagall; he was much more impressed with Struck’s Herzl connection. Indeed, Struck served as my father’s early Zionist mentor and also introduced him to the world of old Judaica, my father’s first business career in the late 1920s.

Obtaining Jewish silver and related materials from Eastern Europe, my dad was briefly partnered with Julius Carlebach, of the famous rabbinic family. He also handled other kinds of art on the side, and in his youthful optimism he wrote to various museums, suggesting that they organize a Jewish division. He corresponded with Karl Schwarz, who eventually became director of the first Berlin Jewish Museum (the museum opened on Oranienburgerstrasse in January 1933, shortly before Hitler’s legal accession to power).

But Ernst had given up his Judaica career and returned to the family lumber business by the time he married my mother, Margot Freund, in 1932. He moved to Stuttgart to manage the branch office. So of course, my newly married parents ordered very special veneered dining room furniture (which is now in my dining room in D.C.).

Could they have imagined, then, that as World War II came to a close, various Zionist luminaries would be sitting at that very dining table in Buffalo, discussing strategies for how to make a reality of their dreams for a Jewish state? Those dinner guests included Moshe Shertok (before he became Moshe Sharett) and the chain-smoking schoolteacher from Milwaukee, Goldie Meyerson (before she became Golda Meir) — Israel’s second and fourth prime ministers, respectively. Appropriately, they sat in a room in which walls were covered with Struck etchings.

Despite growing up in the surroundings of a bourgeois German Jewish environment, with frequent echoes of Berlin, ours was a very American home. We ate peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Jell-O and hamburgers, just like everyone else. We also ate Kassler-rippchen, Spaetzel, Roll-mopps, Lachsschinken and Baumkuchen, like no one else.

The early years in the United States were war years, and everyone was very patriotic. In 1942 my father wrote the Selective Service Board (in charge of the draft): “I wish to volunteer… I am at the disposal of the country in any place which the Board may see fit to place me; in consideration of my obligations and with anxiety to serve, I sincerely hope that the Board will have use for me and my limited abilities. I will wait for your call.” Shortly thereafter, he was appointed a Jewish chaplain for “Duties in Event of Attack” (as the Buffalo Evening News recorded), even though he wasn’t a rabbi; and he was so proud of the special car license that certified him in that role.

Aside from his regular jewelry business, he took a job working nights at the local Chevrolet factory, making war munitions. My mother learned to do what all American housewives did: She read all the women’s magazines that were popular at the time, and cut out recipes for American food. To supplement war rationing, we all worked in our neighborhood “victory garden.”

During the war, Margot was a part-time nursery school teacher, although I don’t know how good her English would have been back then. Like my father, my mother spent much of her time working for Zionist causes. Helping us with our schoolwork, especially school essays on patriotic subjects, gave my father great joy, because he had learned English as a young man; so we often won prizes for being able to write about Americanism — my immigrant father’s specialty. My mother, on the other hand, had to learn English once she arrived in America, so her language was less elegant and she loved using common street words that no one else’s mother ever used in those days.

If any single thing held us firmly together, it was that big American family house — that was our Heimat. Probably the first major home celebration was the party my parents gave to commemorate becoming American citizens in 1943. There were special napkins printed (“God Bless America. The Freudenheims”), a large American flag hanging in our front hall and a guest book (all in the Jewish Museum exhibition).

Having recently looked at all the signatures in the guest book, I confirmed what I remembered: Virtually all the guests were Americans; there were no other immigrants. That’s how intensely my parents cut off their association with refugees. And of the Americans, most came from Eastern European backgrounds, since those were the fellow Zionists with whom my parents developed their closest associations. Many refugees who came over before and after the war stayed in our house before they could get settled independently, but that was very different from our family’s social circle.

I sometimes think that my parents’ attitude reflected a very German Jewish quality: They succeeded in being a part of their new community the same way they had been in Stuttgart, and in Berlin before that; they were now Americans, just as they had once been Germans. Sometimes they, probably unfairly, mocked people who stayed together in refugee communities. About 10 years ago, when I used the word “refugee” in front of my mother, she angrily said, “We were immigrants, not refugees.”

Now that my parents are gone, and I have long passed the age when they were uprooted — or when they uprooted themselves — I am ever more aware of how heroic they were. While I remember many tales of “how it was” in Germany, I don’t think they ever felt that their earlier way of life was better. There were always nostalgic stories about an earlier time. Far more important, however, was my parents’ pride at having met challenges they never envisioned when they married in 1932.

Every major occasion — a bar mitzvah, a graduation from high school or from college, a marriage, a new grandchild — would be accompanied by the unspoken mutual eye contact that said: “We made it. We survived. We beat the odds.” Their Heimat turned out to be the place where they had been forced to make new lives; it was never considered Exil.

I remember my parents occasionally discussing other life options than the one they followed. My mother told me that in 1936, when people found out she was pregnant (with me), many of her friends suggested that she have an abortion, saying it was wrong to bring a Jewish child into the world at this terrible time. How would our lives have been different had my father been able to save his daughter (from an earlier marriage), who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942? But of the many choices discussed, with the range of English and German that peppered our conversations — in the early years and as I grew older — the concept of Heimat and Exil never entered the conversation; those two words represented ideas that were as foreign as Germany had become. Surely that helps explain what made us Americans, and why it was as an American that I had to rediscover my German Jewish roots.

Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who has served as assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian Institution and as deputy director of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

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