Old Wallet in Berlin Keeps Memory Alive

In August 1942, the Gestapo arrested Walter and Elisabeth Blumenthal, an elderly Jewish couple in Berlin. As they were driven away on a truck, a neighbor noticed Walter tossing something from the vehicle. The neighbor later retrieved the object: a brown leather wallet, elaborately embossed in gold with the initials WB.

Inside the wallet was Walter’s business card and two photos: one of the couple dressed in their finest, the other of a young, sweet-faced boy wearing shorts and a large round hat. The Blumenthals were deported to Terezin and later murdered. The neighbor’s family kept the wallet; and told the tale of Walter’s final desperate attempt to be remembered.

I saw the billfold and its contents on a recent afternoon in Berlin’s new Jewish Museum, where an astonishing 850,000 visitors have been exposed to two millennia of German Jewish history in the year since its opening.

As the son of a family with roots deep in German soil, I wanted to see how our story was being presented. And as a journalist, I stopped about a dozen people who were wandering through the exhibits to ask why they were there.

Marcos, a 31-year-old rock musician, said he and his purple-haired girlfriend came because they’d heard it was "really cool." "I also saw many Holocaust films in the 1980s," he added, "so I know how the Jews died."

"And now you’re learning how they lived?" I asked.

Marcos nodded. "Exactly."

A stylish 60-year-old woman named Eveline had a different reason. "I’m a believing Christian," she said, "and we should know more about our origins in Judaism. It’s also good for us to confront our history."

This was my first trip to Berlin, but not to Germany. In 1983, I accompanied my mother to the places where she and her parents were born and had lived before fleeing the Nazis. While many of her former neighbors were still there two decades ago, I was surprised this time to again find residents who knew the family. Just as I arrived, three women in their late 80s strolled by the spot where my grandfather’s childhood house had stood in the village of Rauisch-Holzhausen.

"You’re Bachenheimer’s grandson?" one asked. "He lived right here with his mother."

"And how did you all get along before the war?" I ventured.

"We had no problems. We grew up together and were fine with the Jews," one of the women replied.

There was a pause, and then the second woman said, "Wir haben nichts getan" ("We didn’t do anything").

I later mentioned the curious, unsolicited remark to a young German named Andreas, who explained, "The old people, even if they didn’t do anything bad, still feel guilty that they didn’t do anything good."

I climbed to the village’s hilltop Jewish cemetery, which was desecrated during the Third Reich, later restored and is now protected by the townspeople. After leaving stones that I’d brought from my Long Island garden on the graves of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, I proceeded to nearby Kirchhain, my mother’s childhood hometown. On Kristallnacht — Nov. 9, 1938 — the Gothic-style synagogue there had been torched and half the graceful structure destroyed.

During our 1983 visit, we were infuriated to see a furniture factory attached to the remnant of the shul, which had been converted into a luxury flat for the factory owner’s son. Nowhere was there any mention that this building had been the heart of the Jewish community.

But after five years of contentious correspondence with the mayor, he informed us a sign would be erected to mark the 50th anniversary of what Germans now call the "Reich Pogrom Night." And there it was, a metal plaque with a symbolic menorah reading: "In memory of our hunted, deported and murdered Jewish fellow citizens; until November 1938, this was their synagogue, their place of worship."

I was overcome with emotion at the heartfelt, dignified, albeit belated tribute, another physical indication that despite continuing echoes of anti-Semitism, there have been profound changes in German society.

It is like this all over Germany these days, where an institutionalization of the memory of the Jews combines with a thirst for knowledge about their pre-Holocaust life. I walked the streets of Cologne with a German friend, Rudolf, who has an entire bookcase in his home devoted to volumes with Jewish themes.

Rudolf pointed out a number of small gold squares imbedded in the sidewalks outside various shops and apartment buildings. A local artist, supported by a recent government grant, has created a tile for each Jew who resided at that address: "Here lived Elsa Blaser, deported to Lodz in March 1942," read one; "Here lived Hans Rosenzweig, deported to Riga in 1943," proclaimed another.

Many young Germans, free from the guilt that burdened previous generations, are making sincere efforts to learn more about the Jews and their enormous contributions to German life and culture.

Back at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Nina, a college student from Hamburg, told me, "I don’t know any Jews. We don’t have them as neighbors anymore, so this is important for me."

We were speaking near an exhibit depicting Joseph Goebbels’ 1943 declaration that Berlin was now "Judenrein" ("free of Jews"). Standing in the once-again German capital in 2002, I was proud to prove Goebbels wrong.

And down the hall, as I watched people gather around Walter’s wallet, I silently addressed him: "Your wish has been granted, Herr Blumenthal; you have not been forgotten."

Steve North is senior producer of CNBC’s “Kudlow & Cramer.” .