By Elaine Midcoh
This story is not about my mother, who had the misfortune of being a Jew in Europe during the Second World War. And it is not about my mother’s sister, Zeta, who in 1942 was shot dead by the Germans in the little Russian town of Botek. Nor is this story about Zeta’s best friend, Sarah, who died with Zeta one day before her father arrived to save her. Thirty-five years later, in the summer of 1977, I met Sarah's father at the Frankfurt Airport. I was an American college student, who had just spent a summer studying in Israel. He was an old man in his eighties, who used to be a Nazi general.
I did not expect to call. My layover in Frankfurt was only two hours. Bad weather and the chaos of end-of-summer travel combined to extend the two-hour delay to seven. As I walked my third bored lap around the international terminal I saw the phone book dangling from a chain inches above the ground. Aware of the German reputation for order, I picked up the book and placed it neatly in the slot beneath the phone. And then I remembered the Nazi general and the story my mother had told me.
I wasn’t sure if he lived in Frankfurt or even if he was alive. But I looked up his name and it was there and I dialed the number and someone answered. He was the general’s grandson, a young man my age. I’ll call him Kurt. For reasons that will become clear, I will not use anyone’s real name.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello, do you speak English?”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know why I’d called.
“Hello? Hello? Are you there?” His accent was excellent.
“I'm looking for Hans Freelich.” I did not call him by his rank, as I doubted he was still a general.
“Yes, that is my grandfather.”
“My name is Amanda Lewenstein. I’m the daughter of a friend of Sarah’s.” I normally go by the name Mandy, but felt the need to be formal. There was silence at the other end. “From the war,” I added. I listened hard, and could barely detect breathing.
After a few moments he spoke. “Sarah was my aunt.”
I had already figured that out. “I know,” I said. “My mother was her friend.”
He spoke again, but in German. Although I couldn’t understand what he said, his voice was excited and loud. In the background I could hear other people talking and every now and then I caught the name “Sarah”. Then I heard the phone scraping something, furniture perhaps or a wall.
“Hello. I am Hans Freelich.” The general's voice was rough with age. “Who are you? How do you know about Sarah?” His accent was thicker than his grandson’s, but still easily understood.
I introduced myself and explained that my mother knew Sarah in Botek. He asked if my mother was Jewish and I said yes.
“Then it is not possible,” he said. “All the Jews of Botek were killed.”
“No,” I said, “some Jews escaped. My mother and a few others made it to the woods. She joined the partisans.” Then I added, “She became a soldier and fought the Nazis. Her partisan unit helped liberate that part of Russia.” There was no reason for me to tell him that, except that I wanted him to know. I wanted all Germans of his age to know that some Jews fought back.
He said nothing and then I heard the phone scraping again and more German being spoken.
“Hello?” Kurt again. They wanted to meet with me. We agreed to meet in an airport lounge. Just before we hung up, Kurt said, “I am very glad you called.”
As I sat waiting in the lounge, I watched people come and go. Back then the Cold War was still going strong and I knew that the West Germans rushing by were supposedly my allies, my friends, the first line of defense against the Soviet Communist threat. Yet, without even thinking, I began to mentally calculate their ages.
I forgave those under fifty. I did not believe then and do not believe now in holding the sins of the father against the child. Of those around fifty I was suspicious, but they were the young soldiers who could perhaps truly claim the defense of “just following orders”. But then there were the old people, sixty, seventy, eighty years old. Hunched over, wrinkled, slower than the rest, cautious with each step. The former master race. There was no reason to be afraid. Yet, I could not help but wonder what they thought back then and what they would have done to me.
“Excuse me, are you Amanda?” Kurt stood before me, tall and handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes that I would find attractive back home. When I nodded, he smiled and I saw his teeth were crooked. I focused on their imperfect angles on the otherwise perfect face.
Kurt shook my hand. Then he gestured to the old man standing beside him. “This is my grandfather.” He hesitated for a brief second, “Sarah's father.”
I stood up. The general had little hair and was not as tall as Kurt, but his back was straight and his eyes clear blue. He held his hand out to me. His fingers were thick and gnarled. Old age or hard work, I thought, hoping it was hard work, a hard life.
“A pleasure,” he said. He did not nod or bow. The three of us stood there for a few seconds, saying nothing. Kurt touched my arm and he also touched his grandfather.
“Let's get a table.”
As soon as we sat down Kurt peppered me with questions. I told him where I was from and where I went to school and that I studied history. He was an architecture major at a local university. As we talked, the general nodded along, but stayed silent. When I mentioned I had just been to Israel, Kurt said, “I would love to go there.” I glanced at Freelich. His face was expressionless.
After a few minutes our chatter ran dry and we sipped at our drinks. I noticed the table was a little sticky and I smelled the faintest whiff of stale coffee. The radio was playing the Bee Gees. Finally, Freelich spoke.
“So, how did your mother know Sarah?” His voice was soft and calm. Kurt inhaled sharply and his face lost its smile. I put my drink on the table.
“Well, after Germany invaded Poland” — damn me, for some reason I was careful not to say “the Nazis” — “my mother and her sister, Zeta, fled to Russia. My mom was about seventeen. Zeta was about twenty-four, I think, just a little older than Sarah. They ended up in the little town of Botek. After Germany invaded Russia and took over Botek, all the Jews were put in the ghetto. My mother, Zeta, Sarah, and Sarah’s mother lived together. They shared a room.”
Freelich, who was sitting very straight in his chair, jerked even straighter. Kurt put his hand on his grandfather’s arm. Kurt’s eyes teared up. At that moment I realized Kurt was lucky. Unlike most Germans, Kurt could remember the war without guilt. His Aunt Sarah had been murdered by the Nazis. He was clean.
Freelich’s eyes were clear, but his voice trembled. “I didn't know about Sarah. If I had known... If I had received the letter a day earlier...”
“Yes,” I said.
Kurt patted Freelich’s arm again. “My grandfather loved Tatiana.” Tatiana was Sarah’s mother. She was half of a World War One romance that ended when Freelich, then a young lieutenant, left Botek and Russia with the rest of the German Army toward the end of that war. A few months later Sarah was born.
I didn’t question Kurt’s statement. It seemed pointless. Maybe Freelich had loved Tatiana, maybe not. Maybe he’d just forgotten her for a while.
Freelich leaned into the table. “Tell me about Sarah.”
What was I to tell him? Did he need to know of the hardships endured by Sarah and Tatiana in the ghetto? How, even before the war, Tatiana had lived in poverty with Sarah, making what little she could as a seamstress? How Sarah rarely went to school, instead staying home to work with her mother? How in the winter they sometimes relied on charity for food? So instead I chose another truth.
“My mother told me that Sarah was beautiful and kind. She liked to tell jokes. Zeta was Sarah's best friend. All of them were good friends.”
Freelich leaned back. “When I received the letter I was so surprised. Tatiana sent it to my parents' address. It took time to reach me. When I read I had a daughter...”
His voice trailed off. Kurt stared into his drink.
“Did she tell you what was happening in Botek?” I asked.
Freelich nodded. “When she wrote to me, the first action against the Jews had already happened. Most of the young men in the ghetto had been gathered up, taken to the woods, and shot. That’s why she wrote. Tatiana begged me to rescue Sarah.” His hands shook a little. “I came as fast as I could, but... ”
“Where were you?”
“France,” he said. I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t.
Kurt rubbed his grandfather’s shoulder. “By the time Grandfather reached Botek it was too late. There were no Jews left. We don't even know how she died.”
Kurt and Freelich looked at me. And so I told them.
“Tatiana was already dead – I don’t know how, my mother never told me. Maybe disease or starvation. Sarah, Zeta, and my mom had a hiding place, a secret room in a building. When the Germans carried out their final action to wipe out the ghetto, Sarah and Zeta hid there.”
“What about your mother?” Kurt asked.
“She and some members of the Jewish underground had decided to run to the woods to join the partisans. Their plan was to escape the ghetto once the Germans began the final action. Zeta and Sarah begged her not to leave the hiding place, but she wanted to fight the Germans. Only she and three others made it. By that time, almost everyone left had a secret room. So the Germans began to burn the ghetto. Whoever ran out of the burning buildings was rounded up and shot. Eventually the Germans reached Sarah and Zeta.” Kurt looked at me, but Freelich stared straight ahead. “When the building started to burn, Sarah and Zeta left. They held hands. When the Germans shot them they were still holding hands.”
“How do you know?” Freelich whispered.
“A witness, a member of the Jewish underground who survived.” I would not tell him Yacov’s description of how Sarah’s and Zeta’s bodies twisted as they fell, and how their fingers remained intertwined.
“So your aunt and my aunt died together,” Kurt said, his eyes wet.
We sat in silence for several minutes. Then I asked Freelich the question that I had wondered about for years, ever since I’d heard the story.
“How did you do it?” I asked. “How did you explain that you were rushing to Botek to save your Jewish daughter?”
“He didn’t!” Kurt said, sitting up from his slumped position. “He just went. And he suffered for it.”
“Really?” I looked at Freelich for an explanation, but again Kurt responded.
“Grandfather was sent back to Berlin. They court-martialed him and took away his general's rank. He was demoted to major.” As Kurt spoke, I saw Freelich smile at him. So this was the story Freelich had told his family about the war, and Kurt was a true believer, the heir to Freelich’s and Sarah’s legacy.
“And what about the rest of the war?”
“They kicked him out of France and sent him east.” From the way Kurt spoke it was obviously a punishment.
“Where?” I pictured the harsh Russian front.
“Hungary?” I turned to Freelich. I’m not sure exactly what expression was on my face, but his eyes widened. In that moment I knew and he knew I knew. To his credit he did not break away from my stare, though I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down.
“When?” I asked, surprised that my voice didn’t crack or rise, but sounded normal, like I was asking about the weather outside.
Before Kurt could answer, Freelich said, “Nineteen forty-three and forty-four.” Nineteen forty-four. The year the Germans recognized that they would lose the war. The year they hurried to clean up the last pockets of European Jews. The year they wiped out one of the last surviving Jewish communities, the Jews of Hungary. More than four hundred thousand Hungarian Jews deported to concentration camps in just a few short months, with most sent to the gas chambers upon arrival. A massive, intense military effort. And Freelich was there.
Stay calm, I thought. “How was it in Hungary?”
“I was promoted to colonel,” Freelich said. His eyes had the watery look that Kurt's had had only minutes earlier.
“But he never got back to general,” Kurt said. I doubt he knew anything about Hungary. Back then German schools hardly ever taught about the war or the Holocaust. For German schoolchildren, German history ended in 1933 when Hitler came to power and resumed in 1945, with the birth of West Germany. This silence would begin to break in the 1980s. But during Kurt’s schooldays, the government — along with parents and grandparents – preferred silence, preferring that children not ask uncomfortable questions. So the war was an unwelcome guest, lurking near the doorway of homes and schools, waiting for an invitation, capable of being discussed, but not being discussed. For Kurt, perhaps ignorance was bliss.
Freelich squeezed Kurt’s arm. “Could you get me another soda, please?”
Kurt jumped up. “Of course. Amanda?”
“Nothing for me.”
After Kurt left, I stared at Freelich. He was contemplating the table, studying it with great intensity.
“So, what did you do in Hungary?” My voice was a little loud. I took a deep breath. I reminded myself that there must have been plenty of military jobs in Hungary not involving the murder of thousands: feeding soldiers, conducting military maneuvers, lots of things. Perhaps he had been a mere paper-pusher. It was possible.
Freelich raised his eyes from the table. Twenty feet away Kurt was waiting for the soda.
“I organized the trains,” Freelich said. “I was in charge of loading up the Jews and sending them on their way.”
“To Auschwitz,” I prompted. He knew it was to Auschwitz. Of course he knew. I wanted him to say it out loud. But Freelich did not even nod. He glanced over at Kurt who was reaching into his wallet to pay for the Coke.
“He doesn't know,” Freelich said. I waited for him to ask me not to tell Kurt. I wanted him to ask me. I will spit in his face, I thought. And Kurt, Kurt will know everything.
But Freelich didn’t ask. He said, “My family thinks I’m a hero, because I tried to save Sarah.”
Kurt was finishing with the cashier. As he approached, I reminded myself to watch Freelich’s face when I told his grandson the truth. But then Kurt smiled at me and I saw his crooked teeth. He was being careful with the drink, but it spilled a little anyway. He laughed and knelt down to wipe the mess off the floor.
Feeling ill, I knew I would not tell Kurt anything. I would not shout the truth, nor even whisper it. I would not speak of it at all. Kurt was clean and, by my choice, he would stay clean.
I looked at Freelich. He truly had risked everything for Sarah: his military career, his life. And yet.
“Were you a hero?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and his eyes grew watery again. “I don't know.”
And then Kurt was with us and nothing else we said mattered.