By Van Wallach
Birthright Israel brings young Jews to Israel to build Jewish identity, connections among Jewish communities, and bonds with the people and land of Israel. I’m too old to do Birthright, but this fall my girlfriend and I undertook what I called “Birthright Germany.” This trip exposed us, as Jews, to the country where our families originated.
Naomi and I had been intensely curious about Germany, but had never visited. That changed last year when the Dresden city government contacted Naomi’s father, White Plains resident Eric Leiseroff, and invited him to visit as a guest of the city. For 20 years, the city has hosted groups of former residents and their families for tours of rebuilt Dresden, visits to Jewish sites, and shared stories of flight and survival.
Born Erich Leiserowitsch in Dresden, Eric immigrated to the U.S. with his mother Valeska in June 1941, on one of the last trains out of Germany. He politely told the city liaison that, at 88, he had never flown before and didn’t want to return to Germany. He had already returned once, as a 19-year-old soldier with the 89th Infantry Division in 1945. He helped liberate the concentration camp Ohrdruf (a subcamp of Buchenwald) and used his native German-language skills to interrogate German POWs. One trip back was enough. Eric once told me, “I came home from the war and I just wanted a boring life.” And he succeeded, with a marriage that’s still going strong after 64 years, and a 58-year career as a salesman for a paper manufacturing firm.
However, he suggested Naomi and I could represent him. The city agreed, and we built a two-week vacation around Dresden, starting in Prague, going to Dresden and finishing in Berlin. Naomi contacted a volunteer researcher for the Dresden Jewish community, Gabi, who would take us to Stenz, the town north of Dresden where Eric and Valeska lived before they left for Lisbon and continued to New York on the S.S. Excalibur.
My own family connections to Germany are more distant than Naomi’s. My mother’s maternal grandparents were born in Posen, Germany in the 1860s and then moved to Texas. Her paternal great-grandfather was Rabbi Heinrich “Hayyim” Schwarz, born in Kempen near the Dutch border in 1824. He moved to Hempstead, Texas in 1873, becoming the first ordained rabbi in the state. Based on these relatives, I felt a historical connection to Germany, curiosity mixed with anxiety about over there.
Anya, a representative of Mayor Helma Orosz, met us at the train station and took us to the hotel where the city’s 15 guests stayed. Anya became a constant, informed companion, shepherding our group from the hotel to historical and social events. The first full day in Dresden brought the reality and remembrance of the Holocaust to us. We saw the laying of several “stumbling stones,” or stolpersteine, created by artist Gunter Demnig. The size of cobblestones, the memorials have a metallic plate bearing the name of an individual, date of birth and last date living at a particular address before the person was sent to a transit or extermination camp. Demnig installs the stones personally throughout Europe, with over 48,000 now laid. That day, he installed stones at four Dresden sites.
Some deportees must have worshipped at the Dresden synagogue, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht. The old synagogue had great personal significance, as Eric had the last bar mitzvah there before it burned in November 1938. Gabi had unearthed a notice in the Jewish community newspaper that congratulated Eric on his passage, and had sent Naomi a copy. We visited the new synagogue and attended Friday night services there. I felt an intense sense of Jewish continuity, as we joined other Jews, many from the former USSR, who tenaciously embodied Jewish tradition there.
The next day Naomi and I visited Stenz, the town north of Dresden where her father and grandmother lived until 1941. Gabi and her husband Alex, who did most of the translating, were our tour guides. We first stopped at a church in Konigsbruck, next to Stenz, where we met with Werner, the nephew of Franz Osang, who had hired Eric as a carpenter’s apprentice when most people avoided any contact with Jews. Werner, a church sexton, took us to a meeting room off the church’s main sanctuary, where Naomi spread documents about her family—photos of relatives, birth certificates, Eric’s Bronze Star medal commendation, a copy of a telegram confirming Valeska and Eric’s passage on the Excalibur out of Lisbon.
Werner shared a story from his father, who remembered the day in 1941 when Eric and Valeska left to get the train to Dresden – Eric, he recalled, carried a violin case, a detail that Eric confirmed for us. We visited the cemetery where Franz Osang was buried when he died in 1940. Naomi placed a stone on the grave in memory of this brave and honorable man who showed kindness to the Jewish teen.
Gabi and Alex drove us to nearby Weisenweg, the street where Valeska and Eric rented rooms in a house. Nobody was home, but we saw the next-door neighbors were outside, so Gabi and Alex introduced us and explained the purpose of our visit to an elderly woman with her two sons and a woman, perhaps her granddaughter.
The woman, Regina, was 80 and had lived in the house all her life. The sweep of history that flowed past her front door astounded me: the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, the war, the Russians, the communist decades, the abrupt transition to a united Germany, all observed from the house on Weisenweg.
She recalled Eric giving her brother a toy fire truck, and that Valeska gave sweets to her family. Regina mentioned a man of Eric’s age, Hans, who still lived nearby and provided his address. With thanks and exchanges of names, we parted.
An elderly woman answered Alex’s knock on the door there. We asked if Hans was in; yes, that was her husband and he joined us. A dapper man at 90, Hans eagerly shared his memories. He had attended school with Eric and remembered him from classes. He told us about the time Eric brought a world atlas to class and the students pored over it, fascinated.
Han’s memories of Eric stopped at a certain point. When he and others had to join the Hitler Youth, Eric, well, was left out of the “inner circle.” Hans related a story told by a local man who swore he saw Eric as a U.S. Army soldier guarding German POWs. He called out “Erich, Erich!” but got no response. Eric later told us that, yes, he did remember somebody shouting his name, but at the time he thought it must be somebody else and, anyway, you can’t ignore a column of POWs to chat with a childhood acquaintance.
After we returned to the U.S., Hans emailed a class photo from the early 1930s to Eric, with the two of them sitting side by side—boys instantly recognizable as old men 80 years later.
From Dresden we reached Berlin, finding places where Eric’s father and two uncles lived before the war. We learned about their fates: his father, a star on the Tennis Borussia soccer team, moved to Palestine in the 1930s, one uncle was killed by the Germans and the other survived hidden in Berlin. The Jewish Museum, the New Synagogue and memorials connected us with remembrances of all that vanished.
Birthright Germany continues to echo for us. We stay in touch with Gabi and other Dresden guests. We investigate the past. Naomi deepens her knowledge from a widening web of relatives. My older family members said my great-grandfather returned to Posen from Texas several times before World War I. Why? Who did he see? Uncle Max, the Czech-born husband of a great-aunt, helped refugees settle in San Antonio. Who? When?
And old soldier Eric Leiseroff is using a memoir class to record his years in Nazi Germany and his return as a liberator. He joins other veterans in school presentations in Westchester County, where he amazes children with photos of his soccer-playing father, taken over 100 years ago, in Germany.
Van Wallach is a writer in Westport and the author of A Kosher Dating Odyssey: One Former Texas Baptist’s Quest for a Naughty and Nice Jewish Girl. He is a native of Mission, Tex., a graduate of Princeton University, and a member of Beit Chaverim Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk.
CAP: A class photo of Eric Leiseroff in his hometown of Stenz, Germany. He can be seen in the center of the middle row, sixth from the left.