Peter Hirschmann never saw the letter coming. It was written by the granddaughter of Nazi sympathizers who lived in his home after his family was kicked out at the start of the Holocaust.
In the letter, dated May 17, 2017, Doris Schott-Neuse, 45, of Germany, whose mother, Karin, grew up in his home in Nuremberg, Germany, wrote, “I am deeply ashamed for what us Germans did to yourself, your family and to your friends and relatives and to the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community. It is hardly bearable to start thinking about the details — what a horror and nightmare it must have been to live through this.”
Hirschmann, 92, still remembers the house at 15 Eichendorffstrasse. He called the three-bedroom home on three acres “stately,” with wood banisters, finely detailed moldings, and plenty of nooks and crannies and “secret” areas where he and his older brother Henry used to hide — or spy on the grownups. In particular he recalls the grounds outside, where there was not only a chicken roost, but “all kinds of fruits and vegetables” cultivated on the property where he and his brother played, often with Peter’s best friend, Thomas Lauinger.
“And when the fall came, we took care of harvesting the fruit” and feasted on loganberries, raspberries, strawberries, peaches, asparagus, and rhubarb, as well as peas, carrots, and beans. “Whatever you can think of,” he said. “My mother knew how to preserve the food for winter.”
But that house stopped being his home when Hirschmann was a few weeks shy of 15, and his parents sent the boys to England, alone, while they waited for visas in order to leave Germany. (The family was reunited and eventually made their way to Newark. Peter, who now lives in Maplewood, served in the U.S. Army and returned to Germany to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Thomas and his family were murdered at Auschwitz.)
While their parents waited, the house was “Aryanized” like other property owned by Jews and seized by the Nazi regime, to be either given away or sold for a pittance to an Aryan-German family. His parents were forced to rent a substandard apartment and received no compensation at the time for their home.
Over the years Peter held onto his memories, kept plenty of photos, even visited the house in the 1980s with his wife, Merle, and their then-teenage children. Henry, who died 15 years ago, also visited the house, separately, with his family.
Introducing herself to Peter, Schott-Neuse wrote, “I am 45 years now and it is a shame that I never looked into the Nazi past of my family. I should have realized earlier that there is a Nazi past of course.”
She described learning the history of the Holocaust in school. “But it was lessons filled with numbers, data, and facts of the deeds of ‘them’ — the Nazis and we felt that all that was something which was awful but that it happened in a faraway past. And I did not connect these history lessons to my family. My sister and I enjoyed a very happy childhood and connecting family with gruesome horrors did not work. I know that this was the same for my friends.”
Her quest to find her family’s role in the Holocaust, which led to her locating Peter, started in February on a trip to Israel where she learned how to do the necessary research. By early May she made the discovery that led to him. After checking the archives in Nuremberg, Schott-Neuse found the address of Peter’s childhood home.
In 1938, Peter’s father, “Hirschmann J.” was listed as the owner, but the following year the documents indicated that he was the former owner. By 1940, Schott-Neuse’s grandfather’s name, Muhr W. Kaufmann, became associated with the property, although he was not yet the owner. And in 1941, ownership was transferred to Muhr W. Kaufmann. Her aunt, Helga, who lived in the house with Schott-Neuse’s mother, sold the house in the 1970s.
With the information about the past of her mother’s family’s home, Schott-Neuse set out to find the Hirschmann family. As it happens, it was a 2009 NJJN article by this reporter documenting Hirschmann’s return to the house that led her to Peter.
In her letter she included a current photo of the house, now one of four on the original three acres, along with a photograph of the inscription her aunt wrote in the hymnal from Schott-Neuse’s confirmation at the age of 14, quoting the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke: “For the success of evil, good people must do nothing.” (The phrase is translated directly from the hymnal by Schott-Neuse. The phrase is often attributed to Burke, in many variations, but without any definitive source.)
Schott-Neuse expressed remorse to Hirschmann for her country’s, and her own family’s, misdeeds. “It seems to be only now that we — the grandchildren generation of the men and women who became criminals — start to ask tough questions of the degree and way our families have been involved and actively contributed not only to a war but to the Shoah.”
Because her family will offer no details, her search for facts comes to an end in the documents. She made no excuses. “I am not sure about the role of my grandfather, Willi Muhr in this, but what I read about the ‘Wilde Arisierung’ [Aryanization] makes me doubting the narrative of any helping your family to escape to the USA.” In other words, she understands exactly how her family acquired the property.
She takes on her family’s guilt as if it were her own. “The more I think about family history and all those immeasurable and ungraspable crimes committed against the Jews with the fact being that this was not ‘long ago,’ but Holocaust survivors are still living…the more I understand that the passage in the Bible telling that sin is running down the generations. There is no way to say ‘it is all past’ — us Germans need to deal with remembering. I do think that this is the task for my generation, handed down from the grandparents — ‘we did not know’-generation via the parents ‘we were not allowed to know’-generation to us…with this comes the obligation to remember and not to stay away any longer from tough questions.”
In a response letter full of the pathos, experience, and wisdom of a grandfather, Hirschmann acknowledged how moved he was to hear from her, and complimented her for the “great courage” it must have taken to do the research and also to write to him.
“I have lived a long life and you are one of the finest human beings that I have ever encountered,” he wrote. “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 beloved 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.”
He wrote that he was impressed she was not satisfied with the history she learned in school. “You had the option to ignore it and instead you confronted it. My tears reflect the fervent hope that the humanity, dignity, and compassion you have shown is shared by others of your generation and the generations to follow.”
With extraordinary courage of his own, he not only forgave her for her family’s crimes, but also offered advice for how to live in the wake of her knowledge.
“I want you to know that you are completely absolved of any responsibility and that you should not let the past haunt you. While I would never disregard the lessons of the past, I have lived my life by looking forward, not backward. I hope you will do likewise.”