Pass­port to the past

Should Hilary Free­man be­come a Ger­man cit­i­zen? The BBC helped her ex­am­ine her roots

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HILARY FREE­MAN

IN A small Jewish cemetery, on a traf­fic is­land in the mid­dle of a hous­ing es­tate, I am meet­ing my great­grand­mother, Hed­wig Baruch, for the first time. With­out the help of a map, I might (lit­er­ally) have stepped over her grave. Her head­stone, long-ne­glected, like those that lie along­side it, has al­most dis­ap­peared be­neath a knot of en­twined weeds and fo­liage. It is as if the land­scape is try­ing to re­claim it. I tug at the weeds with my bare hands, brush­ing away the soil un­til her name be­comes clear.

This cemetery is in Krefeld, a mod­er­ate-sized town in the north­west of Ger­many, where I have come to film a BBC One doc­u­men­tary, Bri­tish Jews, Ger­man Pass­ports, which fol­lows me, Rabbi Ju­lia Neu­berger and Robert Voss, as we de­cide whether or not to ap­ply for a Ger­man pass­port. Hav­ing re­searched my fam­ily his­tory, the film-mak­ers have brought me to my grand­fa­ther’s birth­place, so I can learn more about my fam­ily’s ori­gins.

That Hed­wig’s head­stone ex­ists at all is no small mir­a­cle; most Jewish ceme­ter­ies were de­stroyed by the Nazis. She died in Oc­to­ber 1939, just a few weeks after Hitler in­vaded Poland, and less than two months after her son — my late grand­fa­ther Sid­ney Brook (born Siegfried Baruch and known to me as Saba) — fled to Eng­land at the age of 18. She was only 46 (al­most ex­actly my age to­day), and it is said that she died of a bro­ken heart. At least she was spared the hor­rors of what was to come for the rest of her fam­ily. Two years later, her hus­band, my great-grand­fa­ther Ed­uard Baruch, was de­ported to the Riga Ghetto, where he was shot, along with 50,000 other Jews.

Un­til last year, I had no idea that I was en­ti­tled to re­claim the Ger­man cit­i­zen­ship that was stolen from my grand­par­ents, and it was not some­thing I could ever have con­tem­plated. I had never been to Ger­many, hav­ing been brought up to view it as a bad place, its pro­duce and its peo­ple for­ever sul­lied by the Holo­caust. My par­ents wouldn’t buy a Ger­man car, or fridge, and el­derly Ger­mans who we en­coun­tered on hol­i­day were re­garded with con­tempt. De­spite be­ing a quar­ter Ger­man, I felt ab­so­lutely no affin­ity with the coun­try, its lan­guage, or its peo­ple.

And then Brexit hap­pened and — be­cause I have a French part­ner, a half-French daugh­ter, and a strong de­sire to re­main an EU cit­i­zen and re­tain free move­ment — I started to think again about Ger­many. At first, its of­fer of a pass­port, which I learned about on Face­book, seemed like a purely prac­ti­cal an­swer to my prayers. It felt as though there were some kind of po­etic jus­tice about it; the coun­try that had taken so much from my fam­ily giv­ing some­thing, how­ever tiny, back. But the more I learned about mod­ern Ger­many, its open­ness and tol­er­ance, the more warmth I felt to­wards it.

Fam­ily leg­end has it that the Baruchs, who were Sephardi, first ar­rived in Ger­many in 1492, when the Jews were ex­pelled from Spain. Saba told us that a school fam­i­lytree pro­ject, de­signed by the Nazi author­i­ties to show how im­pure the Jews were, had in­stead proved — to the hor­ror of the author­i­ties — that he was more Ger­man than any­body else. Part of the rea­son I was in Krefeld was to dis­cover if this was true. Had my fam­ily been Ger­man for cen­turies? I also wanted to learn more about my great-grand­par­ents’ lives and to find out what hap­pened to other, un­known, mem­bers of my fam­ily. Did I have any sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives or was my grand­fa­ther the only Baruch who made it to safety?

It’s a short drive from Dus­sel­dorf to Krefeld, across a land­scape as flat as the nearby Nether­lands. Few would call Ger­many a pretty coun­try but, in the sub­urbs of Krefeld, there are tree-lined av­enues and at­trac­tive vil­las. I try to pic­ture my grand­fa­ther here as a young boy, walk­ing down th­ese streets, gaz­ing out at the same flat­lands, happily in­te­grated, with­out a inkling of what was to come. In the cen­tre of town, re­built after be­ing flat­tened by Al­lied bombs, I find the spot where he grew up. Once the premises of the butcher’s shop run by his fa­ther, it is now a tan­ning salon.

At the Villa Mer­lan­der, the town’s Holo­caust ar­chive and mu­seum, I am con­fronted by a fa­mil­iar face. There, on the wall, in the mid­dle of photo of a group of young peo­ple, is my Saba. The photo is la­belled in­cor­rectly, but it is un­mis­tak­ably Saba, with his cheeky grin and slightly pro­trud­ing ears. It is weird to see him in a mu­seum, a strange meld­ing of “His­tory” and my per­sonal his­tory, the in­di­vid­ual with the uni­ver­sal. When I re­turn to Lon­don, I find the same photograph in his own trea­sured al­bum. Ac­cord­ing to the back of his copy, the photo por­trays his very last get-to­gether with his close friends, be­fore he es­caped to Eng­land.

In the Villa Mer­lan­der’s most grandiose, wood-pan­elled room, there is a me­mo­rial to all the Krefeld Jews who were mur­dered by the Nazis. It takes the form of a ta­pes­try, with each name han­dem­broi­dered by chil­dren at lo­cal schools. Ed­uard’s name is there, and so is that of his sec­ond wife, Frida. A lo­cal his­to­rian, who has been re­search­ing my fam­ily tree, tells me that, after my great­grand­mother’s death and my grand­fa­ther’s es­cape, Ed­uard was forced to live in a com­mu­nal Jewish house. There he met the much younger Frida, whom he mar­ried in 1941. They would still have

been in their hon­ey­moon pe­riod when they were de­ported to Riga, that Oc­to­ber. Amaz­ingly, Frida sur­vived the ghetto, but she was forced into a con­cen­tra­tion camp, prob­a­bly Auschwitz. She didn’t sur­vive.

There can be lit­tle doubt that the Jews of Krefeld knew what fate would be­fall them. In one sec­tion of the Jewish cemetery, a few rows away from Hed­wig’s grave, I stop in my tracks. Be­fore me lies a group of head­stones, each bear­ing sev­eral names, and all with the same dates in­scribed on them. A me­mo­rial plaque ex­plains that th­ese were the Jews who chose to take their own lives, rather than be de­ported.

Be­fore I leave, I am told that the town wishes to hon­our the mem­ory of my grand­fa­ther and great­grand­fa­ther, by plac­ing en­graved, gold “stum­bling stones” at the site of the house where they once lived. It’s a lovely ges­ture, and I hope to re­turn to Krefeld for the cer­e­mony.

From Krefeld, we drive to a town I have never heard of: Frechen, which is sit­u­ated on the out­skirts of Cologne. There, I meet an­other lo­cal his­to­rian, who has not only re­searched my fam­ily, but ac­tu­ally writ­ten books about them. He tells me that Ed­uard was born in Frechen, only mov­ing to Krefeld

to open his butcher’s shop. His fa­ther, Isaac, was also a butcher. So was his fa­ther, and his wife’s fa­ther and so on… To my amuse­ment, I learn that I come from a long line of butch­ers and cat­tle traders, gen­er­a­tions of them. I won­der what they would think of me, a veg­e­tar­ian since I was 12.

Frechen is where my fam­ily’s real Ger­man his­tory lies. In fact, my an­ces­tors on Ed­uard’s grand­mother’s side — the Levys — were the old­est Jewish fam­ily in the town, with records dat­ing back to the early 18th Cen­tury and be­yond. It seems that the fam­ily leg­end might hold some wa­ter, al­though there is noth­ing tan­gi­ble to link them to Spain. The cemetery here is full of my rel­a­tives — in­clud­ing an Asher ben Le­vite, who died in 1839 — and was des­e­crated on Kristall­nacht. At the end of the war, the Bri­tish or­dered the towns­peo­ple to re­store it, as penance. There is still vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of bul­let holes on some of the head­stones.

The ar­chiv­ist has a sur­prise for me, some­thing I could never have an­tic­i­pated. Records show that the Baruch side of the fam­ily did not orig­i­nate in Ger­many, after all. My great, great, great, great, great grand­fa­ther, Leibel Baruch (or Baruch Leibel — sur­names did not ex­ist at the time) was born in Re­ichshof­fen, Al­sace, France. My ori­gins are French! Given that my rea­son for start­ing this jour­ney was to se­cure the fu­ture of my An­glo-French fam­ily, this is a rather pleas­ing dis­cov­ery. Through my own re­search, I have found Leibel and his fam­ily, on the 1784 Al­sace Cen­sus, recorded as “Fam­ily no 7.” From a ge­nealog­i­cal per­spec­tive, an­ti­semitism — with its fre­quent lists of Jews — has its uses.

And there is an even big­ger sur­prise: news of some sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives. Saba’s grand­fa­ther Isaac had many sib­lings. One of them, Joseph, had a son — like Saba, named Siegfried Baruch — who es­caped to the US, set­tling in Chi- cago. His son, Steven, now lives in Wis­con­sin and has two chil­dren, Laura and David. Since com­ing home, I have cor­re­sponded with both Steven and Laura, and hope to meet them some day. I’m just sad that Saba didn’t know of their ex­is­tence be­fore he died in 1998. He be­lieved ev­ery­one had per­ished.

While I was in Ger­many, I was over­whelmed by the kind­ness and the gen­eros­ity of the lo­cals, and their ef­forts to make up for the past. The Mayor of Frechen even came out to meet me. As a Jew, I felt more wel­come there than I do in the UK. Here, an­ti­semitism is a slightly grubby and com­plex is­sue, bound up with anti-Is­rael sen­ti­ment. There, an­ti­semitism feels un­com­pli­cated, out in the open, just some­thing evil, to be stamped out.

But I can’t say I felt at home in Ger­many. I don’t feel Ger­man, any more than I feel French, or even par­tic­u­larly Bri­tish. I now feel like I am from every­where and nowhere in Europe, keener than ever to re­tain my EU cit­i­zen­ship. And that’s why I have de­cided to ap­ply for my Ger­man pass­port. I think Saba would have sup­ported my de­ci­sion.

‘Bri­tish Jews, Ger­man Pass­ports’ is on BBC One at 10.45pm on Tues­day May 2

Lo­cal his­to­ri­ans in Frechen show Hilary Free­man her fam­ily tree. Be­low: pre-war Ger­man pass­ports

Meet­ing the ar­chiv­ist in Krefeld. Be­hind him is the ta­pes­try of lo­cal Jewish vic­tims

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