A Christmas absolution
In our barking and snarling political climate, here is the story of healing involving one of the darkest moments in history. It is timed for Christmas, but it is about the Holocaust. Peter Hirschmann is 95. He is balding with a ring of snow white hair. He has a cheerful smile and warm friendly eyes. He lives in central New Jersey with his wife. They have two children and five grandchildren. I met him recently at a country club near his home. Peter moves slowly, and when he tells his story, his words come quietly, his eyes mist, and the smile seems to sometimes gently bite on itself.
Peter was born in Germany. He and his family lived in a “large beautiful home” in Nuremberg at 15 Eichendorfstrasse. Their home sat on three bountiful acres of land, with three spacious bedrooms and an interior adorned with intricately carved wood. His father, a recipient of the Iron Cross for his bravery during the First World War, had built a successful manufacturing business, and his mother had been a nurse in a German Army Hospital. Peter tells me “life was good” at 15 Eichendorfstrasse.
But in 1933, Adolf Hitler became the head of state in Germany. Peter says things “gradually deteriorated as our lives changed in painful ways.” His friends who were not Jewish turned away from him and his brother. His family was banned from restaurants, hotels, and theaters. He was beaten and expelled from his public school. In 1938, on what became known as “the night of broken glass,” his synagogue was burned to the ground.
Remaining in Germany was a death sentence. But immigration hostility in America meant tight visa quotas out of Germany, and Senator Robert Reynolds had proclaimed, “If I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.” Excluded from America at that point, Peter and his brother Henry said goodbye to their parents and left for England. “Parting from our parents was very difficult because we did not know whether we would ever see one another again.” (Keep that in mind, kids, next time you complain about not having the latest gadget.)
While the Hirschmann boys were in England, their parents were arrested by the Gestapo, and detained under horrific conditions including lack of sleep and bare rations. They were not released until they “voluntarily” signed documents surrendering their home and other properties. They were evicted from their home at 15 Eichendorfstrasse in Nuremberg.
But their fortunes would then improve. The family was able to reunite in America. In his high school newspaper, Peter wrote, “November 15, 1939 was the happiest day in my life. I felt like Christopher Columbus. It is true that I had not discovered America, but America was a discovery for me all the same. I have been enjoying the reunion with my parents and the start of a new life which will give me every fair opportunity, although I shall be barred from becoming president. There would be something lacking if I did not finish my story with the heartfelt wish that God bless America.”
Peter joined the United States Army, fought bravely at the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured by the German Army. He escaped being shot on the spot when an interrogator heard him speak German. He spent nearly six months in a prison camp, dropping from 138 pounds to 98 pounds. In the spring of 1945, the prison camp was liberated by British forces. Peter returned to America, prospered as an accountant, and raised his family. The dark shadows of the past faded. He kept his eyes set on the future.
But what about the house at 15 Eichendorfstrasse? In the spring of 2017, Peter was sifting through a stack of mail when he noticed an unfamiliar envelope. He opened it and unfolded a neatly printed letter sent from Nuremberg. The correspondent was Doris Schott Neuse. They had never met. Doris decided to track Peter down because she wanted to “contact the family who owned the house in Nuremberg where my mum Karin and my aunt Helga grew up and lived. All I knew was that this house had been owned by a Jewish family and that the owners were able to make it to America on the last ship that made it there in the Second World War.”
Doris was told that her family had bought the home for a realistic price and aided the Jewish family that had resided there. But she did not accept the neat explanation, glossed and guilt free, a convenient spin against historic brutalities. So she combed city records for information about the house and the family that used to live there. Doris began “doubting the narrative of any helping your family escape” Nazi Germany for America.
Doris wrote, “I am 45 years old and it is a shame that I never looked into the Nazi past of my family. I am deeply ashamed for what Germans did to yourself, your family, your friends and relatives, and the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community. It is hardly bearable to think of the details. What a horror and nightmare it must have been to live through all this.”
She enclosed a photograph of the house still standing today. How did Peter respond? The man who was beaten, expelled from his school, and torn from his parents, whose best friend was murdered at Auschwitz, who was under fire at the Battle of the Bulge, and nearly starved in a German prison camp, wrote back, “Your letter brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. First because it called to mind the undeserved suffering of my family and so many other families like mine, and the loss of my childhood home. But it saddened me also because it is obvious that you too are suffering, and it pains me to think of that, of you, who are blameless.”
Peter continued in the letter for Doris, “I want you to know that you are completely absolved of any responsibility and you should not let the past haunt you. While I never disregard the lessons of the past, I have lived my life by looking forward, not backward.” He also wrote, “My tears reflect the fervent hope that the humanity, dignity, and compassion you have shown me is shared by others of your generation and the generations to follow.”
That sharing of humanity, dignity, and compassion is my Christmas wish for President Trump, and for the rest of us. The red staters and the blue staters, the “Never Trumpers” and the “Never Impeachers,” the pundits pouring venom into the flames of social media and the fist clenching, neck tightening, name calling combatants in an increasingly Disunited States of America. If Peter Hirschmann can heal, why not the rest of us?
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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