In Wachtberg near the Rhine is a bronze monument to a heroic German general of World War I. He was able to bring back a few of his men. My German grandfather, Gustav Felsenthal, was among the hundreds of thousands holed up in the terrible trenches of France, 1915-1918. Although Germany lost a war that should never have started, the young general managed to get the release of a few hundred Prisoners of War by negotiating with the French. After the Armistice, my “Opa Gustav” came home to my Oma, his 13-year-old son, and my seven-year-old mother. He was well enough to resume his cattle-dealing business. A second son was born, my Uncle Eric. Gustav Felsenthal’s return was a miracle. German men were so scarce at the end of the “Great War,” that my four German aunts in their early 20s never married.
The tall bronze monument was dedicated to the general in the town of his birth for staying with the few surviving German soldiers. He brought them home from the Kaiser’s devastating war, a war that they had had no interest in. Twenty years later, as Hitler came to power, the heroic general joined the Nazi Party and soon became one of Hitler’s henchmen. The WWI monument stood silently overlooking an historic town square. After the second WW it didn’t come down as most such tributes didn’t. Germans simply wanted to get on with their lives. Monuments to a murdering Nazi were overlooked.
In the ‘80s a liberal German mayor is elected in Wachtberg. He is an historian with a conscience. A few years into his term, he wants the statue to be removed because of the brutality of this general who helped massacre thousands of Jews. The City Council agrees with him. A few of the townspeople are offended, especially the old veterans of WWI. They wage a campaign against the mayor. The statue, high on its stone pedestal, quietly stays up. The mayor barely wins a second term.
A few years later, Jewish tourists come through this cobblestoned Bavarian town, now fully restored to its pre-war charm. One of the tourists, my mother’s cousin Julius Rosenfeld, asks the day’s guide, “Excuse me, but don’t people know what this General did during WWII? The tour guide stammers, “It’s so complicated; they tried to… it was a long time ago.” He apologizes. The German tour company generously returns the cost of the tour and removes Wachtberg from its itinerary.
In 1995 I returned to my parent’s much more modest village, Niederkirchen, well north of Bavaria. It had once been so populated by prosperous Jews that a beautiful large synagogue was built there during the 1880s. On November 11, 1938, it was torched during Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass.” My German parents living nearby in France listened on the radio with horror. “It was named Kristallnacht because so many magnificent crystal chandeliers were destroyed in the hundreds of synagogues that were burned to the ground,” Maman explained, when I, a curious 13 year old, wondered how such a beautiful name could be given to such a horrific event.
That May of 1995, I was met by Niederkirchen’s former mayor, Herr Karl Bäcker. Karl had been my Uncle Eric’s boyhood friend before the second World War. He and his frail wife, Trude, greeted us with delicious Apfelkuchen and tea. The same Kuchen my mother baked when pippin apples were ripe at the Original Farmer’s Market in L.A., just before the High Holy Days.
It was the beginning of an emotional visit; the stories, the visit past my Opa’s house and the walk around the town to its outskirts and its ancient cemetery with a small corner for the Jews, the “Judischer Friedhof,” was neatly set among tall trees. In the Jewish tradition I placed granite stones on my grandmother Josephine’s 1937 grave.
At the end, Karl Bäcker took us past a big cow-barn, the site of the grand Moorish Style 19th century synagogue that had once been a Niederkirchen landmark in a prosperous village with nearly 100 Jews living peacefully within its population.
“It was here at the back of the Synagogue that your Tante Rosalia Mayer lived and had to flee when the Synagogue was set on fire by the Nazi hoodlums from a neighboring village,” Herr Bäcker told me sadly. I fell silent. I knew the story, but there I stood.
The site of the Synagogue was sold to a farmer in 1961 to build the present barn. Mayor Bäcker wanted to place a marker on the barn to memorialize the Jewish people who once worshiped in that sacred space. Trude protested – a sign on a cow-barn could never convey the irreplaceable loss of the Niederkirchen Jews. Instead, a handsome plaque affixed to the right of the cemetery’s entrance commemorates the Jewish community that once thrived in its midst.
It is but a piece of stone, not even a monument, but it meant everything to me. After so much death and destruction, Mayor Karl Bäcker, Trude Bäcker, and a handful of village aldersmen voted to memorialize the people who once were solid German Jewish members of their community. Through my tears of sorrow and gratitude I read the names quietly and lit a candle.
June 2020, monuments in the U.S. seem to come down like bowling pins. I am troubled by the desecration of statues to Columbus, Washington, Jefferson. They must stay. Confederate Generals? Sure, take the traitors down, but save them. Put them in an historical museum so that their bronze presence can be used to teach young people about our tragic history of slavery. When even Woodrow Wilson’s name is to be removed from two buildings at Princeton University, I’m shocked.
Woodrow Wilson? The great scholarly president, winner of the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize? The “Poster President” with his dignified, blue-blood, pedigreed handsomeness? Not a single one of my American high school or university history books mentioned Woodrow Wilson’s “abhorrent views on race.” These monument take-downs were more complicated than I wanted to think. President Wilson had overseen the RE-segregation of the federal government offices including the Treasury Department. While President of Princeton University, he called it, “Altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” The current president Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement, “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by standards of his own time!” (NY Times June 28, 2020)
I’m glad black, brown, white students, and all the wonderful mixes in between will no longer have to sleep under the roof of a residential building bearing President Wilson’s name. And yet… Wilson wasn’t a traitor against our country. I hope students will still be inspired, as I had been long ago, by Wilson’s progressive policies unparalleled until FDR’s New Deal and his prescient vision with the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations.
Heroes, exhilaration, worship! We seem to need icons/idols in our lives. And yet common wisdom, and the Bible tell us throughout history, we have cursed and thrown down the idols when we discovered their clay feet. President Trump is so affronted by the “desecration” of our national heroes, whether they actually served our country or started a Civil War to tear it apart, that he wants the “desecrators” to be imprisoned for ten years. He announced this at the rally at the foot of Mount Rushmore, July 3rd.
I am a World War II survivor. I don’t ever want to walk past a monument to Adolf Hitler. There have been rumors… somewhere at an old frontier outpost, maybe Montana, North Dakota? At my advanced age, I’d probably do little more than curse and throw rotten eggs at it, write a letter. As a German-French immigrant, a naturalized citizen, you can bet I’d start a petition and work tirelessly to bring it down.
I hope it’s just a rumor.