This piece was submitted by Carlos Fraenkel as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.

Carlos Fraenkel’s events: Behind the Conflict Zone, A Literary Quest.


In 2012 I moved to Berlin with Anne, my wife, and Lara and Ben, our two children, for a year-long parental leave after Ben’s birth. My long-divorced parents were there (at times Berlin seemed too small to accommodate them both), as was my actor-slash-taxi-driver brother. So Anne got to know this part of my family quite well (another brother and sister were living in Brazil at the time). “They’re lovable with their quirks and all,” she’d say, but a few months into our stay she began to list, with growing determination, the benefits of group therapy. What do we have to lose? we thought. At one session the two therapists, Frau Schäfer and Herr Huf, gave us little plastic animals—a giraffe, a monkey, a crocodile, etc.—so we could represent what we’d like family relations to look like in the future. We moved the pieces back and forth on the table, but in the end gave up; it proved impossible to find a configuration that expressed the simultaneous desire to flee from and stay close to each other.

Berlin, Anne and I discovered, is great for families with children. There are playgrounds everywhere, many of them with a creative twist—castles, trains, ships—to spark the adventurous imagination. On a warm October day, shortly after we arrived, we had lunch at my father’s and then went to the playground around the corner from his apartment in the Moabit neighborhood. Lara, who was three at the time, waved to us from the slide. Then she pointed to the swings, her playground favorite. We walked over through the rustling leaves. “My mother missed the fall leaves in Brazil,” my father suddenly remarked. “Higher, higher!” Lara spurred me on. She loves it when Anne gets worried. “Don’t overdo it,” Anne pleaded, to her satisfaction.

Lara may well have been swinging where the Torah Ark of the Levetzowstraße Synagogue once stood. It’s not the only spot in the city where a playground now fills the void. In 1941 the synagogue was turned into a “gathering point” for Jews who were then sent to concentration camps from the nearby Putlitzstraße train station. Outside the playground there’s a stylized cattle wagon to which a group of people, bound together by a steel rope, walk up on a ramp. A rusty metal stele lists the transports by date with the number of Jews they carried. One thousand and four Jews went on transport no. 18 to Riga on August 15, 1942, including Margarete Fraenkel, Lara’s great-great-great-aunt. She was shot in the Rumbula Forest, five miles southeast of Riga, along the Riga-Dvinsk Railway. On the way from the synagogue to the train station, Margarete likely walked along the street where my father now lived. He’d moved there so he could spend time with us (“my grandfather-year” he called it). As we were leaving the playground, Lara wanted to climb into the wagon. She thought it was another playground toy.

My father came to Berlin from Braunschweig, a midsize town in former West Germany, not far from where the Iron Curtain once divided the world into East and West. That’s where our family ended up in 1984, after four years in São Paulo—my parents’ failed attempt to return to the city they’d grown up in. For almost 30 years my father taught math in a Braunschweig high school. Then, after retiring, something happened that at first I couldn’t understand. Around age 20 he’d cut off all ties to the Jewish world he had grown up in. More than forty years later, he began to excavate our German-Jewish family history with a zeal that at times bordered on obsession. He’d spend white nights tracking pieces of the puzzle until his neck got so stiff that he had to take a break. When we flew back to Montreal in the summer of 2013 I had to pay for excess weight at the check-in because of the four thick ring binders he’d given me, holding everything he’d discovered.

In Berlin the past often disrupts the present. After the first day at her new German day care Lara proudly announced that she’d learned to cut “with real scissors” and pulled a yellow star out of her penguin backpack. A week later, a wheel on Ben’s stroller broke. We were told to call the company’s headquarters in Dachau for a replacement. On my ten-minute walk to Lara’s day care I’d pass by (or step on) dozens of “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine)—small copper plates embedded in the pavement in front of the last home of murdered Jews (to date 6,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in Berlin and 45,000 all over Europe with many more to come—the world’s largest monument). Engraved on the plates are the names of the victims with their dates of birth, deportation, and death, as well as their final destination—not enough to tell a story, but enough to make their absence felt. Looking up from the pavement didn’t offer much relief either. In the 1990s German artists put up 80 signs on lantern posts in our neighborhood that document the ostracism of the Jews in excruciating detail. By the time I would get to the day care, I’d be reminded that in 1933 Jews were excluded from choral societies, in 1939 subjected to a night curfew, in 1941 forbidden to buy soap, and in 1942 forced to give up pets.

Following a turn of events that my grandparents didn’t see coming and that must have hurt them deeply, my parents settled in Germany in 1970. A year later I was born. My relationship with Germany started out as a genuine love story that gradually soured until, in 1999, I moved away for good. Thanks to my father’s research, the Germany I came back to in 2012 was punctuated by family stories with unhappy endings. There were two ways to get to Lara’s day care, for example. On one I’d pass by the address where my grandmother Erika lived from 1932 to 1937 (the building itself, like most buildings in the area, had been bombed and was replaced in the 1950s by an ugly new construction). On the other I’d pass by the school she went to, though already in first grade her parents took her out after the teachers made her sit in class with a sign around her neck saying “I’m a Jew who hit a German girl.” The names on the Stolpersteine on the way to the day care, I now realized, were those of her former neighbors. The past kept stepping out of the history books.

We didn’t know any of this when Anne and I decided to rent an apartment in West Berlin’s Schöneberg district (I only started looking through my father’s binders after we’d moved in). Our building—one of the few that were elegantly restored after the war—was on a quiet, leafy street in an area dubbed the “Bavarian quarter” that Jewish real estate tycoon Salomon Haberland had developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Many affluent Jews moved into the new residences that featured ornate towers and corbie-step gables in the “Bavarian Renaissance” style fashionable at the time. The neighborhood was also famous for its many scientists, writers, and artists. “I’m sure we crossed paths with the Einsteins,” Aunt Hannelore, my grandmother’s sister, once said.

Reading through my father’s notes felt like deciphering a palimpsest, though one in which the scraped-off text and the new one turn out to be part of the same story. The family ties he’d unearthed led all the way back to where our postwar life in Germany began. Since my mother didn’t speak German, my parents’ first stop was a six-month stint at the Goethe Institute. They chose to go to Iserlohn, a town southeast of Dortmund, where my grandmother visited them for the first time (parental love trumping the vow never to go back). None of them knew at the time that Sigismund Herz, Erika’s grandfather, had married Mathilde Waldbaum in Iserlohn in 1888. The couple later settled in Krefeld, where my grandmother’s father grew up and she was born (they moved to Berlin in 1928 just after she turned two). The Waldbaum relatives who stayed in Iserlohn included Erich Waldbaum, owner of a menswear shop, and his brother Herbert, a physician, who opened a medical practice in the same building. Herbert committed suicide when Jewish physicians had their licenses revoked in 1935. Erich, his wife Irma, and their six-year-old daughter Gerda were deported to the Zamość ghetto in Poland in 1942. How exactly they died—disease, bullets, or gas—is anybody’s guess. My father’s Waldbaum file includes typewritten letters that Irma sent to friends and relatives in the U.S. in late 1941, desperately seeking a way out. The many spelling mistakes reveal the haste in which they were written.

To see how past and present connect, I had to look beyond—or underneath—my father’s declared reasons for taking on this project. While he dutifully catalogued all lines of his family, the story of Erika, his mother, is clearly the centerpiece of his monumental documentation. In a short preface he writes about “shedding the tears she’d been unable to shed because she’d repressed everything.” He also says that he wants “to restore the dignity of his parents that the Nazis had taken from them” and speculates that “if they were still alive they would be proud of him.” With even more hyperbole he claims that his work led to “a kind of redemption for them and for me.”

I don’t think that’s true, or at least not without qualification. Sure, in the circle of German-Jewish immigrants in São Paulo that my father grew up in there were people like Flora Alvin, who couldn’t stop talking about what had happened to them. She and her husband Jacques, who played tennis with my grandfather, often came over for a game of Buraco—the Brazilian version of Rummy. (According to my father the Alvins were keen to see him marry their daughter Sofia, but he, as we will see, had other plans.) Flora Alvin, however, was the exception. Most people in that circle, including my grandparents, felt ashamed. They wanted to forget, not revisit, their shattered lives. I doubt my grandparents would have been happy to see my father in tears. Both of them asked to be cremated, their ashes tossed to the wind. They didn’t want to leave traces. 

The most jarring line in the thousand-plus pages in my father’s binders is the description of his mother’s temperament: “life-negating, gloomy, insecure, morbid, depressive, inhibited, and pessimistic.” The truth, it struck me, was that surviving for her hadn’t been a blessing, but the start of a life of misery under the cover of middle-class comfort and outward good order. “There are no fairy tales,” she once said to me after we’d watched Charles and Diana get married on TV. I loathed kissing her at the beginning and end of visits because of the taste of cigarettes she smoked in a chain (according to my father “two packs without filters a day at the peak”). Once I asked her about the pills on the kitchen counter. “To digest and sleep,” she replied in a tone that cut off any further questions. When much later I brought this up with my father, he said that she likely suffered from mild anorexia. Her good figure was one of two things she was proud of (the other was my father who, unlike his rebellious younger brother, used to be a model child). She’d wear a corset to highlight it and often describe—not without glee—how her overweight niece broke two chairs during a Yom Kippur service (“finally she went to sit on a bench in the back; she looked so humiliated!”). When I got older I enjoyed talking to her; she had a keen eye for what was wrong with the world and offered astute comments on current affairs (though the bottom line was always that, no matter what, things wouldn’t get better). She too was happy to have an interlocutor. My grandfather, whose great passion was sport, dismissed our conversations as “Fisimatenten” (colloquial German for “nonsense”). She couldn’t forgive him for being content with the life they’d carved out for themselves in São Paulo. He became a skilled sales representative of men’s underwear and pajamas. To this day some of the best jokes I know are those he’d exchange with his clients and later retell us, usually in Portuguese with a painful German accent (though impeccable grammar). To be sure, he was also haunted by his lost Hamburg childhood world. On beach holidays in Santos, according to my father, he’d nostalgically point out ships built by Hamburg shipping companies; he was also always up to date on how Hamburg clubs were doing in the German soccer league. But the loss didn’t take away his joy of life altogether. The picture of him that my father grew up with was that of a selfish, unfaithful bastard. Today my father claims that the affairs my grandmother accused him of having (with their black maid, Maria, and others) were all figments of her imagination. Be that as it may, in her late 40s she “retaliated.” My mother found out when her in-laws came for a visit in Münster. While folding the clothes that had come out of the dryer, she complimented my grandmother on her chic new underwear. “I’m having an affair with our family physician,” she replied proudly, as if she’d finally found the key to regaining her self-esteem.  

My grandmother wasn’t a happy-go-lucky girl to begin with—even when they were affluent German Jews in Berlin with a governess and vacations in Venice and on the Baltic Sea. So we can’t put all the blame on Hitler. Still, it’s one thing to be a melancholic butterfly, another to get your wings cut off altogether. “Had we stayed in Germany I would have become a pediatrician,” she wrote when she applied for reparations from the German state in 1957. “Given our social status that career would have been open to me.” (Does it matter if she really wanted to become a pediatrician before leaving Berlin at age 13, or if she just imagined, later, what her dream profession would have been?) It took five years—and more than a hundred pages of bureaucratic paper trail—until her application was approved (among other steps, she had to renew the German citizenship she’d lost in the wake of the Nazi race laws and provide proof of domicile in Germany). In the end she got a “Wiedergutmachung”—money “to make good again”—of 5,000 Deutschmark for “damage to her education”—likely less than the expenses she incurred in the application process. “RIDICULOUS!” my father wrote on the margin of the official notification. She never made it through elementary school. In 1939, at the last moment, Erika and her older sister, Hannelore, got out of Berlin on a Kindertransport, the trains that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to the UK just before the war broke out. “Our mother was still in denial about our Berlin life ending,” Aunt Hannelore told me when I visited her in São Paulo in 2010. “You know what she put into the one suitcase each of us was allowed to bring? Our expensive evening dresses!”                       

Can one blame my grandmother for seeking help to carry her burden? Estranged as she was from my grandfather, she chose my father to share her misery with. “Growing up,” he writes, “I always felt the need to protect her.” Throughout his life he tried to repair the world that caused her so much despair—as a communist, educator, spiritual counselor, and ecological farmer, to name his main callings (after his “grandfather-year” in Berlin he bought a farm in the mountains of Minas Gerais where he hopes to reassemble the family, now spread over three continents, and weather the impending breakdown of capitalism).

As a child though, he did all he could to help his parents—especially my grandmother—redeem their shattered dreams. In his bar mitzvah speech (in German, of course), he quoted the Fifth Commandment—“kabbed et avikha ve-et imekha” (honor thy father and thy mother)—and solemnly declared “gratitude to my parents” to be his “everlasting duty.” This duty he promised to fulfill “through diligence and obedience so that, as your son, I’ll always give you joy.” Every year he was top of his class. He was engaged in the Jewish community and later dated Jewish girls. At one point he even considered becoming a rabbi, though more because he felt sorry for the people around him than out of religious fervor (in the no man’s land of alienated German-Jewish immigrants he grew up in, Fritz Pinkuss, the rabbi, took pride in the small number of suicides that occurred under his watch; Stefan Zweig, he speculated, might not have overdosed on Veronal had he joined his congregation). When he was accepted into South America’s most prestigious school—São Paulo’s Institute of Engineering—his overjoyed parents gave him a gold ring engraved with his initials. Once he got to university, though, he discovered the world outside the German-Jewish bubble and new and bigger causes to embrace. In a stunning reversal he kicked his earlier life away—career, religion, community—to join the fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s. He married the daughter of a top enemy of the state, a leader of Brazil’s largest urban guerrilla group who later was involved in kidnapping the United States’s ambassador (Comandante Toledo was his nom de guerre; the wedding took place at a secret location so he could attend). After the military police failed, by a hair’s breadth, to detain my mother, the newlyweds fled head over heels to Cuba, where they contemplated guerrilla training (the one suitcase they had time to pack had been a bar mitzvah present, a relic now). For my grandparents, I imagine, this must have been the biggest blow since they’d been driven out of Germany in the 1930s. That my father never realized that speaks to their ability to hide their feelings. 

In the end my parents didn’t take up guerrilla training. After six months as guests of Cuba’s revolutionary regime at the former Havana Hilton, they packed up the bar mitzvah suitcase and moved to Europe. Of all places they decided to settle in Germany (the main destination for political refugees from South America was Paris). They had practical reasons. My father spoke German and they had a good chance at a stipend for political asylum seekers. But there also was a twisted curiosity about “the land of evil you shall never return to,” the land my grandparents hopelessly loved and hated and that had shaped my father more than Brazil had. Take the Prussian virtues, for example, that my grandparents brought along to the tropics and that became a major obstacle to their integration. I recall my grandmother’s frustration over the ubiquitous Brazilian jeitinho—the way around rules to get what you want through charm, bribes, friends, family, threats, and the like. “Rules must be followed,” she’d say with indignation, “but here they think every rule can be bent!” So for my father, strangely, exile in Germany was like coming home.

Things got off to an inauspicious start, however. After picking up their suitcase at the baggage carousel they checked into a small Frankfurt hotel. “Are you Jewish?” the owner, an elderly lady, asked after looking at their passports. “My blood froze,” my father recalls. “Should I tell the truth or lie?” (The lady, it turned out, didn’t plan to call the Gestapo, but feared they had come to reclaim the building on behalf of its former Jewish owners.) 

My parents were a good match when they first met. Having failed at the impossible task of consoling my grandmother, my father developed a compulsive need to protect others. My mother, in turn, needed protection. In Germany he helped her through a bout of paranoid delusion—she was sure the CIA was on their heels—and took charge of rebuilding their life. Over time, however, he became more and more overbearing: help turned into dependence, dependence into frustration, and frustration into rage. My mother, whose letters (later emails) to me are lyrical, funny, sometimes self-deprecating (“don’t worry, I can’t commit suicide today; I have an appointment at the hairdresser’s”), couldn’t find her own voice with my father at her side (they separated in 1990). For me and my three siblings, family life was often a war zone: crushed by my father’s good intentions, dragged from plan to plan to save the world, ducking away from pots and pans that my mother aimed at the “Nazi tyrant.”

This is where the past rejoins the present. My father’s grand investigation didn’t redeem my grandparents or restore their dignity, but it may have done so in his eyes. He got to see the larger picture—why he grew up the way he did, in the place he did, which in turn helped him to understand the course of his life and the family we became—scrambling to find a suitable configuration for our plastic animals under the eyes of two bemused family therapists. It is thus unfortunate that he never quite got to the heart of the matter. My grandmother lost her mind to Alzheimer’s in the 1990s and died in 2001, long before the past became a pressing concern to us. My aunt Hannelore sat down with us a few times, but stalled when questions became too personal. Two first cousins who left Berlin on the same Kindertransport and ended up in Detroit also didn’t want to go there when my father visited them in 2009 (“I’d love to tell you more,” Ellen said, “but somehow it’s all a blur”). In the end he bought a book—a German translation from the English—of testemonies from Kindertransport survivors. Through their eyes he tried to see how his mother experienced Nazi Germany, the farewell at the Friedrichstrasse train station, the years in England, and the challenges of building a new life. “I cried,” he writes, “through the whole book”—as I did when I read, at yet another remove, the excerpts he included in the binders.

This is an excerpt from a family memoir in progress.