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Ich Spreche Deutsch, Sort Of!

February 14, 2017

With both the first week of classes and one big trip done, I feel like it’s been weeks since I left for school. My visit to Munich was so spectacular and meaningful, it managed to outshine the Sistine Chapel – a feat I assure you I didn’t think was possible.

After waking up Friday (perhaps earlier than I would have liked after Thursday night festivities), I went on a captivating tour of the Vatican with one of the professors from my program. IES Abroad runs programming like this all the time on a first-come-first-served basis, usually for prices lower than you could get if you tried to do the activity on your own. The professor handed us each maps of the paintings around the Sistine Chapel so that we knew exactly what we were looking at. As someone with no artistic talents (not ridiculing myself, just being honest), I marvel at art endlessly. I would talk more about the Vatican, but I’ll have to cover it in a later entry. For now, we focus on Germany!

After our tour, my roommate Adira and I hopped, skipped, and jumped back to our apartment so that we could finish packing for our Munich-bound flight. We left with a group of six other girls, including another roommate Leah, and got to the airport with plenty of time. Now seems like a good time to explain why Munich for my first trip, so I’ll give it a go…

For years now, I’ve felt compelled to visit Munich as my grandmother and grandfather lived there together for several years in the late 1940s to early 1950s after surviving the Holocaust. They raised my two uncles, Joe and Harry, in Munich before emigrating and making their permanent home in the United States. I’ve been talking to my grandpa about my pilgrimage there for months, but we were never able to pinpoint exactly where in Munich they lived, only the neighborhood. While this was somewhat anticlimactic, I knew that I would still get a lot out of walking around their old stead. I made alternative plans to visit the general area and tour a factory that many Jewish refugees worked in after the Holocaust. I decided to visit the Jewish Museum and Community Center in Munich the day prior and they recommended this factory to me there.

On Friday night, I video chatted Grandpa for Shabbat as we have every week for the last several years. In the middle of the conversation – as sudden as it could have been – he told me that he remembered his address in Munich and I wrote it down, in shock. I spent the next hour mapping out my trip to the house for the morning.

I woke up early and got ready to go. I had written a script in German in case the family in the house didn’t know any English, which included a basic introduction and explained why I was there. It took a train, a subway, and a bus, but I found myself standing in front of the very house he had told me about. I walked around the neighborhood for a short time and then rang the doorbell of an ivory stucco home with dark green and brown brick roofing. I got as far into my script as “Mein Großvater lebte hier” (my Grandfather lived here) and the woman who answered the door said, “Please! Please! Come inside!”

For the last twenty years, a lovely family has owned the house, and I was lucky enough to spend my day with them. Heike and Jörg and their two children Zora (23) and Luis (17) could not have been more welcoming or kind. They immediately prepared donuts and tea and sat down with me to hear the story of my grandparent’s survival. After working with Grandpa on his memoirs for years and years now and becoming very familiar with my grandma and great-uncle’s memoirs as well, explaining my family story almost felt like telling my own. It was a deeply emotional conversation and brought us to tears at some points. They were absolutely struck by Grandpa’s yearlong journey to find Grandma and their eventual reunion in that small Munich community. “Like Hollywood,” Jörg commented at one point.

Heike, a bike tour leader, explained that they always knew that their neighborhood had that history, but they never knew about who lived in their house during that time. I showed them photographs of my whole family (most of all, my grandparents). In preparation for this trip, I had a folder of photos on my phone many of which were black and white photos from that time period. I showed them the Yiddish songs my grandfather has taught me over the years and they loved that I (sort of) spoke their native tongue.

They were open enough to share their stories with me as well. Jörg is a teacher of German literature, Zora is studying Speech and Hearing Therapy and will be a physician, and Luis is still in high school and is getting ready to do a year abroad in Utah next year. He is a New York Knicks fan but not a Yankees fan, which I explained would have been a massive betrayal. He knew I was kidding (but only slightly). 49 days until opening day, in case any Red Sox fans/readers are counting.

Walking around the neighborhood, we came across a house that is exactly as it was back in 1948. The barn in the back of my grandparent’s house is also in its original form, so I made sure to snap a few photos to show him on our next video chat. I’m calling him tonight to talk about the entire trip and describe the adventure. I couldn’t be more excited to share this piece of our family history with my best friend. After lunch, they brought me to the famous Munich park, Englischer Garten. They continued to find activities to do together, and Heike even texted me that evening to share her well wishes and joy that my grandparents had led such long and happy lives.

This day will stick with me for years to come. I called my dad just as the plane touched down in Italy and told him about everything that happened. His support and encouraging attitude towards my increasing interest in uncovering our (sometimes murky) family history means the world to me. He is my favorite person to tell when something like this happens. The night before I visited the house, I called my dad to share our awe at his father's unbelievable memory. I wish I could have shared it with you in person Dad, but we can look at the photos together in a few months! I look forward to continuing a relationship with that family and will keep you updated on all future family archeological digs!

Other highlights from Munich: the Lenbachhaus Museum, a very simple metro system, and a clean and cozy hostel. Shout out to my roommate and friend Maia for being the bomb. Photos below!

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