It all started with a cache of 13 driver’s licenses. Confiscated from Jewish citizens of Germany in 1938, they were found in an envelope in a government office in the Bavarian town of Lichtenfels in February 2017.
After discovering the licenses, district administrator Christian Meissner could have simply archived them, in accordance with German law. Instead, he gave them to the headmaster of the local high school, thinking it might provide a research opportunity for the students.
And it did. For nine months, starting in January 2018, 14 students at the Meranier-Gymnasium Lichtenfels meticulously researched the names on the licenses, digging through archives, conferring with experts, trying to find and contact any possible descendants. The students worked under the tutelage of Manfred Brösamle-Lambrecht, the school’s director of studies, who wrote in an e-mail to NJJN that he saw it as the “perfect” undertaking for the teens.
Their research led some of the students to New Jersey. Three of the licenses belonged to relatives of Livingston resident Inge Stanton, a native of Lichtenfels who escaped in 1939 at the age of 9 with her parents, younger sister, and grandmother, first to England and eventually to the U.S. The licenses belonged to her father, Alfred Marx; his brother and business partner, Sigmund Marx, who also escaped; and Sigmund’s wife’s brother, Alfred Oppenheimer, who was murdered with his wife and his mother.
On Nov. 5, Stanton, her two daughters, a granddaughter, and Sigmund Marx’s three granddaughters (who grew up in Verona) were in Lichtenfels among an estimated 300 people who attended the opening of “13 Driver’s Licenses: Thirteen Jewish Lives,” the exhibit that resulted from the project. Stanton was among the speakers at the event, held in the high school and captured by local and national print and TV media outlets. It later moved to what was once the town’s synagogue — with no Jews left in Lichtenfels, it now serves as a community center. (Following Kristallnacht, it was confiscated by the Nazis and used as a warehouse; the building was restored in 2010.)
The exhibit, and the information it displays, has helped the town’s inhabitants confront its past and chart a way to move forward; for Stanton and her extended family, it was an opportunity to forge a new relationship with her hometown.
On this trip, Stanton, who had been back to Lichtenfels before, said she gained something new — a sense of connection and comfort. “When we got there,” she told NJJN in a phone interview from her winter home in Sarasota, Fla., “we had an instant feeling that these were, what shall I say, sympathetic people who were willing to look at what happened and are still upset at what their country did to humanity during those years.” By the end of their week-long visit, she added, “I think it was a much warmer relationship than I expected.”
The discovered descendants and the students and teachers are now staying connected through WhatsApp.
Just like the UN
Stanton and her family members were stunned by the size, seriousness, and reception of the student project.
“We thought we were just walking into a high school presentation,” said Lisa Salko of Elmsford, N.Y., Sigmund Marx’s granddaughter.
When they arrived, they were invited to sign the town’s “Golden Book,” reserved for dignitaries, and then headed to the exhibit. “We walked into hundreds of people, with cameras set up, a sound boom,” said Salko. “It was like ‘Wow, the media here, photographers there.’ We were ushered to the front row and given headsets, like at the UN. Already our heads were spinning,” she recalled.
Descendants of five of the original license holders came from the United States, Israel, and Argentina. At the end of the evening, Meissner invited each set of family members up to the podium. He then returned the licenses to them, a gesture, said Salko, that was “so powerful and moving.”
The exhibit features floor-to-ceiling banners with information about each person whose license was taken: full biographies, including details of how they had lived in Lichtenfels — their livelihoods, their homes, their respective lifestyles and social circles, and what happened to them. A catalogue contains additional details, photographs, and explanations. For those who survived the Holocaust, details of the rest of their lives are also included: how they escaped, where they landed, how they rebuilt their lives. For the five who were murdered, the material includes dates and locations of arrests, deportations, internment in concentration camps, and death.
The attendees were closely reading the information on display, according to Stanton. “They weren’t just glancing at items. They were questioning: Why? Where?” She found herself busy answering people’s questions. “Really, they were interested in knowing what I remembered,” she said.
I owed them nothing
Stanton was impressed by the level of detail the students captured. Her daughter, Nancy Stanton-Tuckman of Towaco, acknowledged that by the time they were contacted, the student assigned to her grandfather’s license had already amassed quite a bit of information. Stanton provided a bio of her father and other information. In her talk, Stanton acknowledged her pleasure in developing a “pen-pal” relationship with Clara Aumüller, the student assigned to research Alfred Marx. Stanton said she viewed the project as an opportunity to educate the townspeople. “They should know about what is a very small part of all the misery that occurred in Germany,” she said.
“I’m one more person in history who can vouch for some of the things that happened in my little town of Lichtenfels.”
But she is clear that she isn’t indebted to Germany. “They threw us out; they killed so many Jews. I did not owe them anything,” Stanton said. “Whatever I do is because I want to clear up as much of history, my little piece of it, that I was aware of.”
Aumüller was deeply affected by the experience. “I have always been aware of the horror of the Shoah,” she told NJJN in an email interview conducted in English. “However, doing research on a family and finding out about their fates made this terrible topic far more personal to me.”
She continued, “Actually meeting Alfred Marx’s descendants after almost a year of research was incredible and felt almost unreal. Their kindness and their gratitude toward the small things we’ve done is the biggest honor for me.”
Teacher Manfred Brösamle-Lambrecht said the project was compelling for students for many reasons, including the detective work involved, the personal connections made, and the “ethical implications and dimensions, the feeling for what is right and what is wrong,” that he believes both “fascinates and motivates.”
But the most important lesson the students learned from the project?
“Victims are never numbers and figures, but always individuals,” he said.
The trip left Stanton full of optimism. “Oh, it definitely gave me hope for the future,” she said, though she acknowledged the troubling resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe.
A strange message
The adventure began when Lisa Salko’s sister Debbie November-Rider received a “strange message” via Facebook Messenger in May 2018, while the three sisters happened to be in Florida together. “This girl, a high school student, was researching our family,” Salko told NJJN in a phone interview. The sisters were skeptical. “This is a little weird” is what they thought, according to Salko. “We were dumbstruck. It came out of the blue.”
By that time, student Victoria Thiel had already spent six months researching the family. “It was really unbelievable how much information they were able to figure out before even making contact with us descendants,” said Salko. Ultimately, Victoria won over the sisters, who shared information and documents freely, including a series of letters written in German they had never managed to get translated.
Those letters provided critical information about what happened to another of the license holders, Alfred Oppenheimer, Sigmund’s brother-in-law, who was murdered in either Sobibor or Belzec.
The letters revealed that Sigmund was trying desperately to get Oppenheimer out, along with his wife and mother. But a fatal mistake occurred when family in the United States had furs sent to Oppenheimer to sell upon arriving in America. The idea was to give him a means of getting some money to start with, but someone who knew about the furs tipped off the Nazis. They raided the home, confiscated the furs, and arrested Oppenheimer and his family.
A sense of peace
The opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with the week marking 80 years since Kristallnacht, and the family stayed through the week. As part of the town’s Kristallnacht memorial, “Stolpersteine” were laid in front of five of the homes where Jews had lived. Literally “stumble stones,” Stolpersteine were first conceived of and designed by artist Gunter Demnig in 1993 and installed on a Berlin street in 1996 as a commemoration of the destruction of Jewish communities in Germany. The brass plaques are placed in the pavement in front of the last known residence of Jews who were deported and murdered by Nazis, or who escaped their hometowns. Each one, made and laid by hand, is inscribed with the words, “Here lived…” and the name of the person or family being remembered. Demnig has laid more than 70,000 across Europe.
“Knowing those stones are there gives me such a sense of peace,” said Salko. “They can’t be erased.”
Brösamle-Lambrecht hopes the exhibit, and the stones, have cast a permanent light on the town’s Jewish history. “Lichtenfels, a town of approximately 20,000 inhabitants, has a Jewish history since 750 years, and you don’t see anything of it when you take a walk in the city, except the now-restored former synagogue in a little street called ‘Judengasse’ and a shy little monument in a narrow street where Jews used to live,” he told NJJN. “So, we wanted to teach the public about the lives of these citizens.”
He said he’s pleased with another important outcome of the project, the connections forged: “We reached so many descendants in such an emotional way, [and] that there are friendships made and roots revealed 80 years after the biggest crime in the history of mankind.”
The exhibition is now traveling throughout Germany.