A box of letters in German – and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Center Volunteer Program (VHEC) – brought Andy Rosengarten and I together in June 2006. Andy, who doesn’t read German, brought this box to this VHEC to get translation help and the center called me, a German-speaking volunteer.
When we first met, Andy told me the story of his father, Manfred, the letter writer, as he knew. Manfred Rosengarten was born in 1921 in the village of Themar, Germany, the older of 2 sons of Paul and Bertha Rosengarten. He lived with his family in Themar until November 1938, when he was suddenly imprisoned in Buchenwald with his father Paul and brother Erich. With their release, Manfred and his family left Germany in May 1939 for Shanghai and the Hongkew Ghetto. The family traveled to America in 1947; Manfred remained in the San Francisco Bay area while the others moved to the eastern states. He married Eveline Berger, whom he met on the ship to America, and they had 2 children, Andy and Linda. Manfred Rosengarten died in October 1987.
Andy also told me how he had become increasingly interested in family history after his mother’s death in 1996. His first activity was to contact various branches of the Rosengarten family who had left Germany for Australia, Argentina or elsewhere. He also delved into a huge photo album of notes that Manfred had prepared for his children and grandchildren – it included pictures and a detailed commentary in English about life in Themar and Shanghai. Curiously, Andy then brought the box with the German letters into the VHEC. We didn’t know what to expect.
In the box we found both pages of a remarkable quadrennial correspondence (1983-1987) between Manfred, 62 years old, and a small group of non-Jewish school friends whom he had last seen in the 1930s. A curious coincidence led to this correspondence: Manfred wanted new pictures of Themar for his album and the sister of a Californian friend, who lived in Dresden, wanted to take some. On the day the photos were taken, Gisela met an older citizen of Themar, Karl Saam, who remembered the Rosengartens and invited Manfred through Gisela to write to him.
And so, on August 21, 1983, Manfred wrote to Mr. Saam and asked him to distribute the letter to his former schoolmates if any of them were interested in hearing from him. Mr. Saam did that.
The result had been an avalanche of letters crossing the ocean between Manfred and the small group of classmates still living in Themar. Manfred’s precise memory enabled him to recall details of places and events as if they had happened yesterday. One evening he drew a map of Themar as he knew it, between 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., accurate down to the smallest details. For each friend, Manfred remembered specific incidents of their friendship: with one, he asked for forgiveness for hitting him 45 years earlier; at another, he remembered beer-drinking bouts in the back alleys of Themar. To everyone he wrote: It has taken me a long time, but I have overcome my anger and would rather work towards understanding before it is too late. I would be very interested, he continued, to find out what experiences you had in the war and what you observed. The truth will set us free. Real witnesses are always better than books. The former classmates responded by telling Manfred about their war experiences. One had been in Warsaw during the siege; He writes that he saved 2 Jewish girls, although he did not know that he had saved their lives. Another said he served in Africa. One person had the sense that in the letters to Manfred, the school friends expressed for the first time their feelings about being Germans in Nazi Germany.
And in the letters, Manfred told the full story of his teenage years in Nazi Germany: he lived no more or less peacefully at home in the 1930s than Andy had believed. Instead, from the moment the Nazis took power, he felt the boots of the local Nazi tyrants.
He was forced to leave school at the age of 14 and left Themar in 1935 – forever. For the next 4 years he bounced around North-East Germany, working in a cemetery, in factories and on various farms, acquiring as many skills as I could in order to be ready for other worlds. In the meantime, his parents moved to the larger town of Meiningen, hoping to escape the constant persecution of the small town of Themar and to find work for Paul. Manfred expressed exactly what happened to his family in November 1938: Manfred happened to be at home with his parents and was arrested with his father Paul and other men from Meiningen. Erich, Manfred’s younger brother, was locked up somewhere. Both Paul and Erich were imprisoned in Buchenwald; Not Manfred. On the morning of November 10th, the police let Manfred go – the only man in Meiningen let go. He set out until the family left for Shanghai in May 1939, happily rushing through Germany – always one step ahead of the Gestapo. Despite his horrific 6-month escape, Manfred believed that his brother’s experiences were easier for him in terms of his future prospects in life: I was never in a concentration camp, he wrote, my 15-year-old brother was. I think that gave him a completely different perspective than mine.
For Andy, knowing the full story, his father’s teenage years, triggered a performance process. In 1975, Andy moved to British Columbia, a time when Manfred was still battling his pain, anger and emotional frustrations over the past. Andy knew nothing about his father’s reconnections with his Themar friends and the healing that occurred between Manfred and his past. Now 20 years after his father’s death, the letters allow Andy to understand the true contours of his father’s life, to know what happened to his father, where he was, how he felt and what influenced him for the rest of his life. Andy feels that not only does he have greater insight into his father’s own experiences, he also has greater insight into the opening of wonderful opportunities – concept of tzedakah (charity) – that Manfred has given him. Just as the letters had connected Manfred to his own story, the letters now connect Andy to his father.
For me, as a volunteer working with Andy on his father’s letters, it was both sobering and exhilarating at the same time. I became a VHEC volunteer in 2003, bringing with me German-speaking expertise and an academic background in German history. Every translation opportunity has been worthwhile, but this project has been special: as the key to the new connection between father and son is a rare privilege.
To the end of his life, Manfred Rosengarten was excited about news from Themar: All these years, I was very homesick for Themar and I don’t know how often I thought about the place. Near the end of his life, he wrote: It may be a bit stupid to be so consumed by the past, but it is good for my soul and I believe that it is good for all of us. Everyone who knows the story agrees: At his funeral on November 1, 1987, the incumbent rabbi put it well:
Despite his memory, in the last few years Manfred began an astonishing effort to reach out across the Atlantic to the Germans he once knew in Themar, his homeland.. . . Manfred was not a man trapped in his past. He wanted everyone acquitted. He could not believe that his (non-Jewish) city people could have done what they did to his people. How could you stop being human? He couldn’t believe that there should no longer be connections between them. They had shared so much, Manfred wanted to eradicate the terror that distanced man from humanity. He wanted to undo her betrayal. A spiritual worker destined to stop human tears, believing that people are essentially good, sharing evil and future hopes. That was the core of his humanity.
Sharon Meen, “Humanity,” Zachor, Newsletter of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, January 2008.