On the back of this book, someone said that the author writes like something between political commentator Göran Rosenberg and Woody Allen. Göran Rosenberg came out with a book, a couple of years ago, where he told the story of his father, who survived WWII and the Holocaust. It is called “A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz” but I gave up on the book after the obligatory first 50 pages. (My Swedish teacher in gymnasium always said, that you always have to give every book a chance. If it is still bad after 50 pages, you can put the book aside and not return to it, but it usually takes 50 pages to get in to a book.) Göran Rosenberg’s book was just awful. It was some of the most drole 50 pages I have ever read and I decided that my life is too short to waste on a bad book.
Everyone no doubt know who Woody Allen is, and I can’t say that I am a fan of his films. They are bizarre and only cement the idea that there is something wrong in Mr. Allen’s brain. With one exception. One of the funniest films I have ever seen, is “Radio Days”. It is supposed to be a portrait of Allen’s growing up years and family. I am not sure if it really is, but if it is, then it could explain why a boy’s brain might have got screwed up. On the other hand, lots of little Jewish boys have grown up in similarly crazy families and have turned out just fine! If you have not seen that film, please do! You do not have to see Woody Allen’s crazy and ugly-looking face, only hear his voice as a narrator, which is a great bonus. And the film shows both how much the radio meant to people before the television entered our homes and what it was like to grow up Jewish in New York, around the time of WWII.
One of my favourite parts is when the little boy who is supposed to be Woody Allen, has played hockey with his grandmother’s dentures for a puck. But the very best part is the Atonement Day/Yom Kippur, when Jews are not allowed to do anything except mourn and regret their sins. They can’t eat, wash, wear clean clothes etc. This family, in the film is just sitting in an armchair each, in their living room, waiting for the day to end, being starved and arguing as usual. The family lives next door to a family of communists and non-practicing Jews. On this day, those people have decided to annoy the other Jews, by barbecuing in their garden and play secular music, on a loud volume. The boy’s aunt always suspects that her husband goes over there to eat pig meat, which is a constant reason for argument. But on this day, she sends him over to tell the neighbours to turn off the music. He is gone for hours while she sits and complains loudly that he is probably over there eating pig and when he comes back, she is furious because she can “see” that he has eaten.
That film is crazy and funny, and this book is very similar to that film, in that respct. Danny Wattin tells the story about his “crazy” family and about a journey his father Hans-Gunnar, his son Leo nine years old and himself, make to Poland to find his great-grandfather’s treasure. And he tells the story in a Woody Allen way, describing how he grew up in a Stockholm suburb in Sweden, interwoven with the progress of the treasure hunt.
As a matter of fact, he is not so concerned with the treasure in itself. To him, it is a chance for the three males to bond and get some sort of closure to the Holocaust. But to his son Leo, this is a treasure hunt which has to take place, after he heard of his great-great-grandfather burying one in his garden, before he was arrested by the Nazis. The only thing Danny’s grandfather Erwin ever said about that man, the 1930s and the Holocaust.
Gunnar, does not really have any high thoughts about his strange son. He finds everything his son does, strange. Like not having a TV, naming his children strange names, but most of all, it is a matter of Danny not trying to fit in and be as assimilated as Gunnar and his wife are. A struggle Gunnar has had to go through his entire life. Like when his daughter every year fought to have a Christmas tree and her ending up having one in her room with presents under it, and finally dancing around it as well, all on her own.
In a way it is not about assimilation at all, but a generation thing. Danny watches TV on his computer, which he repeatedly tells his parents. And his sons names, Leo, Mingus and Moses, were picked because he and his wife liked them, like most people choose names for their children.
It is also a matter of different personalities and families. Danny remembers well, how his mother’s side of the family was like something out of an Isaac B. Singer novel or say Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”. But his father’s family was always very sane, calm and well-behaved. And maybe that is what makes this book so funny and great to read, because whether you are a Jew and can recognise yourself in those parts of the book or whether you are a Gentile like myself, you can draw parallels to your own life and family. Which one of us do not have crazy family members who act in a not so usual way or have crazy family traditions? And which one of us have not had conflicts with a parent who have determined that their way is the only correct way of doing things?
Danny sets out to describe what it was like to grow up in a suburb and on a street where everyone did the same thing. His family ate pig just like their neighbours and washed the car on the Sabbath. They were totally assimilated and like he says, the Nazis would have hated them for it. On the other hand, Hitler, would have been the one who got beaten up in Danny’s neighbourhood, for looking different and like an immigrant.
He also brings up how his sister and himself did realize they were different, since everybody else’s parents were so calm and never argued. That it is a Jewish phenomena to always argue. At the same time, he felt quite lost in the Judaism which the Holocaust surviving generation still lived with, when he grew up. He did not understand the Hebrew things they read at the holidays, when all of them got together to eat and celebrate. And he really could not see the purpose of all the symbolic things during those holidays, not having been taught the why and wherefores. It must have been very difficult to grow up and not really know what one is. With one foot among the survivors who would tell you that if the Neo-Nazis got hold of the information that you are Jewish, they will kill you, and one foot in a family which is doing everything to fit in and be like everyone else, because there is no reason to not do that. His father having been born in Sweden and having been given a really Swedish name.
The conversations between Danny and his father are the funniest of course in the book. His father having an answer for everything and an opinion about everything. Like why Danny has never become a best-selling author. His father tells him the following: “you must have more violence and sex in your book… Like Stieg Larsson. There has to be a man who gets to have sex with everyone he meets and a girl with a motorbike who is a little bit lesbian. … Not so much so that she will not sleep with the main male character. She will have been abused and will take a violent revenge. Then your audience will say that it is a book about fighting the oppression of women and not a orgie in sex and entertainment violence. Just like when women produce pornography and people applaud it and say that it is a feminist act of resistance.” Unfortunately the father is right, is he not?
Books and films today, have to have sex and violence to attract an audience. It is disgusting and very, very sad. Even worse is the fact that every book and TV series, have to have a homosexual aspect. Is it going to become what pedophiles say as well? That “homosexuality used to be taboo, but is now completely accepted. Pedophilia is just another form of sexual preference and will likewise be accepted one day, just like homosexuality.” (Taken from a documentary with an interview with a pedophile who was totally serious about the future!) Is that what the world is coming to? Will society one day accept pedophilia as well, like pedophiles think? Because when I sit and watch later productions of “Miss Marple” and see how the producers in every episode make one of the leading characters homosexual, and every book and film having it as a side theme, I start despairing. The world has really become a very dark place. In this book, the father is the realist and accepting the modern world more than his son is.
As their journey proceeds, little things will make Danny start thinking about his family and growing up. When they stop to stretch their legs in Söderköping, his dad sits down in front of a gigantic ice cream in a café and this makes Danny think of his father’s mother Sonja and all her trips abroad. She was always correct and taught him to always behave in a good manner, which made him love her the most of all his grandparents. At the same time he now realize how little he knew about her and her growing up in Berlin. She was the only one of his grandparents’ who grew up in a religious home and whose parents refused to visit her after she had children, since she did not have them circumcised.
As a matter of fact Danny says that the rest of his family “were all assimilated city Jews, who did celebrate the holidays but couldn’t care less about all the rituals which would have made life more difficult for them.” His great-grandfather Isak, was not from Germany like the rest of his family, but from Poland and 6 months before the trip, Danny learned more about the place where Isak came from. A place called Suwalki and I guess that all Jews who arrived to Sweden in the 1800s, came from this particular place, which means that most Swedish Jews stem from the same place today. The established families at least.
I am impressed with how well Danny has researched his family or should I say, how successful he has been in finding information. This Isak had emigrated to Norway at age 16 and left for Russia in 1918, where he got a visa to Sweden, where he met his wife and had his daughter Sonja. They had to leave in 1922, when they moved to Berlin. Why all the moving around? Because he traded illegally. Back in those days, most Jews were forced to travel around selling things in housing complexes and I guess he had no right to do so. Usually they bought up scrap metal and old rags. My dad used to work for a man who was a millionaire and that man’s Jewish father had started his career, by that sort of trade. Tells an important story doesn’t it? That if you are stubborn enough, you can succeed, no matter where you start out.
The family managed to get back to Sweden just in the nick of time, on a banana peel, it seems. The Jews in Stockholm tried to prevent them from coming, but Sonja’s mother who was Swedish, had a brother in politics who could help them. Otherwise, Isak and Sonja’s sister would surely have perished in a concentration camp. Sonja was 19 when she returned to Stockholm and her sister born in Berlin, was 12. Neither could find any friends, so to not be totally isolated, they got involved with the Jewish society. Not because they wanted to, but because they felt like such outsiders.
To be honest, Danny points out, that it is not easy to get to know anyone in Sweden. That perhaps we suffer “from a national Asperger’s Syndrome”. Good question really. We are a nation of shy people. Or is it shyness he asks. Or do we not care at all for others except ourselves? He thinks that Facebook has saved Swedes, by letting us tell the world who we really are and give people a glimpse of our personalities. I am not so sure I agree. Is it not only teenagers who tell everything on Facebook and does not hold anything back? I think a lot of people are like me, very cautious on Facebook as well. And to be honest, I fail to see the purpose of Facebook at all. I just get tired when I go to my home page and see the notifications on it. It is nice to see what the Autism and Asperger Society has been up to, and other societies I follow or am a member of. But I do not have the time to read the articles… And as for my friends and everything they have pushed like on, so that my home page is flooded with it… Boring! I joined the society of Colouring Books for Adults and while it is very nice to see how people colour in books that I own myself, and others I do not own, I get weary of reading comments there as well. It is so pointless really. All of it. I do not agree that my Facebook shows who I am at all! At the moment it only tells that I have reached a certain level on Juice Jam and the results of all surveys I have filled in, for the fun of it. But honestly, Facebook surveys or tests, with only 6 questions each, does not at all tell who I am. There is no way to determine that in 6 questions.
But I get side tracked just like Danny. During the trip, Leo treats his grandfather Gunnar to sweets and it makes Gunnar tell his grandson about how Danny once stole tons of candy from his father, samples for a business he was setting up. Danny starts thinking about his cousin Gabi from Israel, a lover of food and drink, and his own grandfather on his mother’s side. Ernst grew up as a privileged child, in Breslau, Germany. Till Hitler came to power and everything was taken away from the family, little by little. He and his two older brothers and sister, started to prepare for emigration. And Gabi’s father Georg did manage to get out and to Palestine. Married, fought with the British in WWII and then for the new Israel’s right to exist. In that fight he died.
Danny continues talking about that part of the family, in the next chapter, which is called “A Swedish Tiger”, although that is just one translation of the saying which became propaganda posters during WWII. Another way of translating the message is that a Swede will always stay silent. During the war it meant that you should not give away secrets, like where you as a soldier was posted or other sensitive information. But it also meant, which Danny points out, to not speak out against Germany. Not for it either really. It was dangerous to speak out against Germany since the country needed the German business and Sweden did not want to get invaded.
But what Danny wanted to lead the conversation in to, is that it often is hard or difficult to read a Swedes expression. He means that at least his Jewish mother’s side was much easier to read since the feelings were always right on the surface. So much so in his mother’s father’s and mother’s family, that her Breslau grandfather finally had enough and moved to a Jewish nursing home to live out his last days in peace.
While this Wilhelm’s son managed to escape to Palestine in the 1930s, and his daughter Marianne likewise, he and his wife were not that lucky. After the boycotting of his shop, he did time in Buchenwald concentration camp and upon his release from there, he and his wife Hertha decided to walk to freedom in Italy, the day before WWII started. They did not have a penny to their name anymore, all assets frozen, but an US relative had deposited money for them in to an Italian bank account. They just had to get there and then continue on to Palestine. The plan worked as far as Italy goes but Hertha was discovered to have cancer and died in Trieste, leaving her husband to walk through all of Italy. He managed to get to Palestine only to be stopped at the border and sent to Cyprus. He was 60 years old, so it was quite an ordeal to go through before he after a one year wait, could enter Palestine with the help of his son Georg. When Georg had died, he wanted to go and see his other children, the two sons who were living in Sweden. They saved enough money, for him to go and visit a couple of times till he finally moved here at the age of 70. He lived with Danny’s grandparents but since he did not appreciate the noise level and that it basically felt like a hotel, with lots of people always visiting, he left what he called Hotel Lachmann.
When Danny and the travel companions reach the city for the ferry, they have to kill time by playing cards. Like his mother, he asks his son, whether they should play with fair rules or like auntie Hilde, who always cheated. He grew up knowing her, but he never understood that she was not just a friend of his grandmother’s but her grandmother’s aunt. I have avoided talking about the grandmother on his mother’s side, Helga, but now I guess I should sum up what Danny says early on in the book. This Helga was not someone to ignore. She would walk up to a neo-nazi and slap his face, having no fear of anything. They were all used to her standing under their kitchen fans smoking Pall Mall without filter and swearing at everything and everyone. She was opinionated and cared nothing for other people’s feelings.
Now he remembers her in the book, by telling her story. A story he had heard in fragments his entire life, without taking any interest. Noone ever listened to what she was actually telling them between her cigarettes and swearing. She talked while Danny’s both grandfathers never said a word about their history. Helga Gumpert grew up in a small town, Schneidemühl, where her father sold petrol and Ford cars. They did not lack money at all, but they were far from rich, in Helga’s aunt Hilde’s eyes. She and her husband were “filthy rich” according to his grandmother Helga. Having a tailoring business with 120 employees making dresses and clothes for all of Berlin’s fashion boutiques. They took trips for inspiration to Paris each year, every day a personal hairdresser shaved the uncle’s face and a message therapist came in and gave Hilde a message every day, too. They had everything except a child so Hilde loved to look after her sister’s children. When Helga was 3, she was sent to Berlin and Hilde, to avoid whopping cough. She came down with it anyway and got to stay for three weeks, but Hilde loved it. She had six dresses made for her and treated her like a princess.When she was six years old, she moved to her aunt Hilde, to go to school in Berlin and there she had a governess who taught her French, a private chauffeur and every other luxury on offer. Danny’s grandmother realised she was spoiled rotten and that when you are that, you do not notice what goes on around you and the fall becomes the greater, when things go bad. It did not seem like she missed that luxury life so much, but what she missed was all the noise of Berlin and social people. And the fact that she spent most of her life in a quiet country where people do not speak to each other.
And of course the luxury life did not last either. Which Danny returns to later in the book, when he speaks of how Helga’s father had to sell their business in Schneidemühl in 1936. He never got the money though since his account was frozen before the money arrived and when he was to pick it up in cash, he found out that the SS planned on arresting him when doing so. So he never went and never got the money. But the SS would not leave him alone in Berlin. They came to arrest him, but by then he had gone in to hiding and then fled to Czechoslovakia, to be safe. He had to stay in a single’s hostel and Helga’s mother had to send him money since he could not receive a work permit nor any kind of permit to stay.
When they get on the boat to Poland, the next problem arises. Danny’s father wants to eat the same sort of dish, that his grandson has ordered. A children’s portion of a hamburger, of gigantic proportions to a very reasonable price. But the waiter will not allow a grown up to eat that dish. Danny tells his father that Leo will not be able to eat all but Gunnar does not want to eat leftovers. He wants his own dish and Danny finds it all amusing since half the family has always dreamed of living on a Kibbutz in Israel where one shares everything. Even his grandfather Ernst’s brother’s wife Ruth, who always seemed so content with her suburban life in Stockholm.
She grew up in Grünewald, the poshest area of Berlin since the 1800s. Life was lived on the sunny side till Ruth’s father died and left her mother to support five children on her own. With Germany’s hyperinflation, this became very difficult. They had to move to Berlin major and rent out rooms as well as serve lunch to returning guests, something which I guess was a common thing. It meant that the children could eat at least. But things got worse and worse and they had to move to smaller and smaller flats. Ruth also noticed the change in society before many others and joined a Zionist group already at the age of eleven, in order to emigrate to Palestine. The rest of the extended family could not understand her, how she would want to leave a country where they had lived for generations. They said that if they had to move, “it would have to be on the last train” out of Berlin.
Ruth’s two oldest sisters Vera and Lily, were dating German men but in 1932, Lily’s fiancé broke things off with her because she was Jewish and she took her own life. As the streets were flooded with brown shirts, every day Germans lost courage and the family lost all its friends. At age 14, the school she was to attend was closed, so her mother sent her to a cooking school meant to prepare girls to marry. Not until she was 16, did she get to start preparing for emigration by going to stay at one of the kibbutzes set up in Germany for teaching what the youths needed to know and learn. Ruth met her future husband Heinz there and his brother, Ernst (Danny’s grandfather on his mother’s side) and many others whom Danny met, growing up.
One gets amazed by this statement, when almost in the next sentence, Danny talks of the ship moving in the opposite direction of what his relatives tried to go in the 1930s. But only some of them. All of Ruth’s relatives and their spouses and children, decided to outstay the brown shirts and only leave on the last train. And that they did, to the concentration camps. Paraphrased from Danny’s book. Amazing how an 11-year-old child can be so clear-sighted while the grown ups were not. On the other hand, adults have more fears of leaving the known for the unknown, than children do. Unless they are autistic.
Ruth had joined the biggest Zionist organisation in Germany, called Hechalutz, and the Nazis actually encouraged organisations like these, in order to get the Jews to emigrate. British Palestine was not anti-immigration either, since they needed farmers. More and more Jews saw this as an alternative or the only alternative since the Germans was slowly but securely closing all other options. Ruth’s sister Vera was living a dangerous life, being involved with a German and having had his daughter. All family members finally understood that they had to get out of Germany. So Ruth’s oldest brother applied for a radio technician job in South Africa and got to leave in 1936. He was allowed to bring one person over, so the siblings did everything in order to persuade their 56-year-old mother to go. She finally gave in and left. And by doing so, she finally could help her daughter Vera with child and husband, to get out as well, to safety. Ruth was alone by 1938, if one did not count all her Zionist friends. Among them were Ernst and Heinz Lachmann.
Danny has had to puzzle together Ernst story, since he never got to interview his grandfather. He did get to see a VHS tape that his great-uncle Heinz had made though, as an 83-year-old, where he told his own story. Of how he as a 19-year-old was forced by the SA to build a concentration camp outside Breslau and how he and his brother went to a Kibbutz outside Augsburg, where he met Ruth. He and Ernst were not convinced Zionists but they wanted to get out of Germany at any cost. They joined Hechalutz perhaps because it was the only organisation they could get in to, is Danny’s suspicions. He married Ruth right away since married couples could get out sooner and on one travel permit. They did not like the fact that they had to sleep in dormitories so when the got the chance to move to Heilbronn and get a room of their own, the two left and brought Ernst with them. At both places they worked as gardeners for local people, to learn “farming” skills for Palestine. But their travel permits never arrived.
In the morning of 9 November 1938, Ernst, Heinz and the other eleven men at the Kibbutz in Heilbronn got arrested. When Ruth went to the police to get to find out what was happening to them, she was sent home and found out the synagogue was burning. What noone knew was that all synagogues in Germany were burning and that it was an order from the top and not a little local thing. In the evening SS and some neighbours arrived to smash everything they had and the windows on the house. When a neighbour woman tried to intervene, they smashed her windows too, even though she was not Jewish.
The next day Ruth went with her Kibbutz friend Henny and asked about their husbands and found out that all the men had been taken to Dachau. Ruth had asked Gestapo to come home and mend their windows, and to Danny’s amazement, they had done so! Every day they went to ask for their husbands and found out that the men would be released if they had an entrance permit to some other country. But what country would let them in? Ruth’s mother had offered to help her get to South Africa and that meant that Heinz could go as well, as her husband but to leave the other men behind?
When Danny’s grandmother Helga had arrived home from school on the 9 November 1938, she only found her little brother in the flat. Since the Nazis could not arrest her father, him hiding in Czechoslovakia, they had taken her mother instead. Luckily she had met a police man on the street, as she was carried away, someone who dared to stand up for her and help her get released, since he knew her. So she came back home on the 10th November determined to get herself and her children out of Germany. Children under 16 could actually get out on different child transports to Great Britain and some other countries. Sweden had promised to take 500 children if the Mosaic congregation in Sweden paid for their upkeep. Margrete Gumperts applied to several countries and her 13-year-old son got to leave for Britain at the end of 1938, while Helga did not get to go to Sweden until May 1939. Then her aunt Hilde and husband Philip had been able to leave for Sweden too, with the help of a business associate and they continued through Russia till they reached the US.
Helga left Berlin the 4th May 1939, and could wave goodbye to both her parents since her father had fled from Prague, after the Germans had arrived there too. But he stood in another spot than his wife, for safety’s sake and moved around Berlin to try to survive. But Helga never saw her parents again.
What about Ruth? She could not abandon the eleven Kibbutz men, so she and Henny traveled to Berlin and the head quarter of the Hechalutz, where they were told that one could travel to Sweden and Britain as farm hands. They were convinced there would be a war and that Britain would enter it, so Ruth decided that it must be Sweden then. They went to the Swedish consulate and applied, since Sweden had decided to take in 150 farm hands, in case of war and the country having to become self-sufficient. They would get to stay two years in Skåne. My province! The men were not released from Dachau for weeks but eventually they all got out, even Heinz and Ernst who should not have been released because they had frost-bitten toes and the Germans did not want bad publicity. But the men had fooled the guards and disguised their toes with hot baths.
They arrived to Skåne and was placed at a large estate in Skurup. They had 400 cows for them to take care of, for very little money and the women were paid in milk and potatoes. They had to live in barracks. Now, from what I have heard from this period, a lot of Swedes lived the same sort of life really. This is the time when my dad’s father worked a lot in the same area as these Jewish men and women! My grandfather worked as a day labourer and dug ditches all through the war and did other farm work. He was also cheating on my grandmother who was expecting her fifth child at this time, while my grandfather had made a girl pregnant around Skurup. Both women gave birth in 1940. But by then my grandfather had totally abandoned my grandmother. He had not told his new flusie though that he was already married. He called himself Edvin in that part of Skåne, so they would not know that he was the married man Artur from the western part of the province! He earned very little from his work and my dad and his siblings were starving, while my grandmother was on her knees picking sugar beets for the farmers. Her oldest daughter, whom she had after being raped by another man, died at this time as well, from tuberculosis. So if anyone thinks that the ordinary Swede had a much better life than these farm hands, it is not true. A LOT of Swedes were poor and worked as farm hands and day labourers! The only way my mum’s family survived the war and had food on the table, was thanks to my grandmother’s foster-sister up in Småland, who had no children and a farm, so that she could send things down here, to help out. My mum and her sister had to take care of themselves while both my grandparents worked in the sugar factory. What was produced during the war, I have no idea, since the sugar was rationed.
9 April 1940, they all saw the airplanes fly over Skåne, towards Denmark and Norway. My mum told me that the windows rattled and my grandmother had packed clothes, for them to run off to the forests up in Småland, to her foster-sister Edith. My grandfather sat in a bunker down in Ystad somewhere, as a soldier, probably hoping that he would not have to face any German soldiers, since he was a very peaceful man. And Danny’s grandfather and the other Jews, were petrified for other reasons.
What happened with Helga, the little Princess of Berlin who had had a French governess and private chauffeur? She arrived on the child transport and a lady from the Mosaic congregation in Stockholm met her, having no knowledge at all, what Jews had been through in Germany. Helga became a house maid, for an older Jewish gentleman which was a common thing to happen. Instead of sending the children to school. And Helga had dreamed of becoming a doctor! She received no money for her work and was treated so poorly that she went back to the Mosaic congregation and complained after six months. They placed her in another family where she at least got paid. She was very angry over not being able to go to school though. The older man had said to his defence, that she was too old to go to school. And I think that perhaps Danny does not realise that the majority of the Swedish population did not get to go to school after their confirmation in the State Church. Which meant that children were 14-15 when they quit school and became domestic servants, errand boys, became apprentices etc. Only Jews and the rich went on to higher schooling!
My dad was one of the ones who had to quit after 8th grade. That means that he was 14 when he graduated and became an apprentice to a baker. That is what it was like in those days. And that was in 1945!!! My mum always hated the fact that she had to go nine years in school, since the law had been changed four years later, because she hated school and could not wait to get out and become and apprentice to a hairdresser. These children had no options and to dream of becoming a doctor, was ludicrous when coming from the social classes they came from. Helga must have been at least 15 when she arrived here, if she was 89 in 2012. It almost sounds like she was 16 in 1938 and should have been too old, to come on a child transport in 1939! So the man was not “bad” in that respect.
In the next chapter he enters an interesting conversation about name changes, after his father speaks of changing his surname to his favourite dish. Wattin is the name Gunnar’s father took, to give his children a chance at a good career. Danny would have liked to have changed it back to Isakowitz, since it sounds sexier and one should stand up for who one is. But he also realizes that this is how a youth thinks. That we grow more realistic with age. A name is very important, there is no doubt about it. That is why I changed my name in 2011. Back to my maiden name. Since I did not understand anything back when I was 22 and got married. When they asked me at the registration office in the US, what I wanted my married name to be, and my future husband told me that his mother did not want me to take the family surname since she wanted to be the only Mrs. S…, I got angry and obstinate and told the registrar that I would be Mrs. S…
A couple of years later I was desperately unhappy with that decision. I disliked my mother-in-law and did not want to share name with her or be associated with that horrible woman. And knowing the story of the background of the name, well it made me ashamed to always have to tell the story to inquiring people. Because people ALWAYS ask where it comes from. Who feels proud to say: Well, my father-in-law was posted in Alaska with the Air Force and his nutty wife joined a Kabbalah sect. That sect believed in all letters having a number attached to them and you must have names with the right numbers. The numbers in your name, have to add up to a particular sum, or you will not have a happy life. So she changed her first name and surname and forced her husband to do the same thing. Only, this was the Cold War period and the Air Force and authorities got suspicious why a high-ranking officer was changing his name, so they did not promote him any further. He became bitter and eventually divorced the cow, since she had wrecked his life in so many ways that he could not live with her anymore.
What I never got around to telling my mother-in-law, who was anti-Semite, was that Kabbalah is the Jewish mysticism only practiced by a very few chosen Jews. Chosen because most people will go insane if they study it. Few can handle it. I have studied it, for my university course Judaism, and I can assure everyone, that since you do not understand anything, you can go insane trying to understand it. My professor told me that “Don’t try to understand it, just drill it in to your head so you can answer the exam questions!”. I said goodbye to our Kabbalah surname in 2011 since no way was my daughter Serena Rose going to have a commemorative plaque at the cemetery with that name. She has my maiden name, which I took back, since that is ME and not my mother-in-law. And my four youngest have had my maiden name added in front of the Kabbalah surname. She had such a low IQ that she did not even realize that the surname she manufactured was not so Scottish as she thought! It is not the Scottish version nor the French. And she who always walked around dreaming of Scottish ancestry.
But Danny will probably not change his name, since he is a realist. I doubt it is a good thing to change it to Isakowitz in today’s VERY anti-Semitic Sweden. It gets worse with every Muslim migrant which crosses our borders. And Ruth and her Kibbutz friends were so afraid that the Germans would cross our borders in 1940, that they fled to Stockholm where they first could not get any gardening jobs, thanks to German passports, but Swedes needed the help, all men gone in to the military, so they finally managed to get jobs. And Ruth, who became a house keeper to a man on the council, managed to get them a house, where they could live Kibbutz life, share everything and grow things in the garden to sell. It became a meeting point for a lot of Jews and the seven people who lived in the house grew very close, even though only Heinz, Ernst and Ruth were related. Ruth had a baby daughter Juditha, in 1942, but the little girl died of pneumonia since the winter was so cold. Ruth had a son, Johnny, in 1943, who got a lot of extra parents. Henny from the Germany, never had any children of her own, so she really became a spare mum.
In August 1944, Helga was invited to a party at the “Kibbutz”. While sitting comforting a sad Johnny, Ernst had come in and tripped over her. That led to dating. But she did not want to marry him, since she was set to move to her aunt Hilde, who had settled in Texas, USA. Hilde had convinced a rich Jew to pay for it all. But it was a tough journey to make. Fly a re-modeled bomber airplane to Glasgow, take a train to London and sail to the US. But the bomber could be shot down, so it only took off if the weather was right. Helga had to be ready to go, for months and made lots and lots of trips to the airport, only to find out, that the flight had been cancelled. On the last trip there, Ernst had given her a lift, and as they returned because of no flight, he proposed. But she did not know if she really loved him and Hilde was after all a relative. She had two weeks to decide, took a job and thought a lot. Then one day, her employer came in and said that there was a flight and that she must hurry. Helga phoned the organizer and said that she did not know what to do, but if he could get someone to take her place that day, then she would stay in Sweden and get married, otherwise she would go. She stayed and married Ernst. As soon as possible,, after the war ended, she found out that her brother was alive in England and that her mother’s brother was alive in Israel, after having hidden in Holland during the entire war. Everyone else had been killed.
While travelling in Poland, Danny makes the reflection, that his father is all amazement over Danny taking his son Leo on the trip. Gunnar’s parents never hugged their children nor did they every take their children on vacations but sent them away to camps etc. Gunnar decided to raise his children differently and Danny, well he is a modern father. But he starts remembering his grandfather Erwin, who never hugged his own children, but once hugged Danny after a ping-pong match. Danny was an insensitive teenager but that day, he had felt something was up, and had let his grandfather win. Soon after that, his grandfather had committed suicide and noone knew why. A man had passed away, whom they knew nothing about really. Till one day, when his brother Georg, whom Erwin had always said was not the slightest interested in his relatives, came for a visit, from Argentine.
Georg Isakowitz had a very sad tale to tell. He had as a child dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. When 15 years old, he played at a Catholic school in Königsberg, a piece by Bach, when Hitler Jugend walked in and demanded he stop. He did not hear them, so they rammed the lid down on his fingers, over and over till they were broken. When he got home, he refused to tell his parents what had happened but had decided to leave Germany. He applied for a visa, to go as a farm hand to Argentine. On the eve of him receiving his visa, his mother died of a stroke. But before that, she had packed two gold coins in his socks, which he did not know. He was arrested in Hamburg, for trying to smuggle currency and put in a youth prison. The prison guards broke his arm, destroyed his thumbs and hit him so hard in the head, that he had to have surgery. But help was on its way. A year later, his father’s lawyer friend, finally got him released and put him on an airplane to Argentina. Only problem was that his visa had expired and they took him in to custody as well. He knew he would be sent back to Germany since he had nothing speaking for him to get to stay. But he got seriously ill and was taken to hospital. As soon as he could, he escaped and walked the streets till he one day ran in to some cowboys, who agreed to take him with them. He spent five years in the countryside, being a cowboy. As soon as he could, he had fixed visas for his father and Erwin to come to him in Argentine. But his father was too old to go and he never found out why Erwin did not show up. After the war, he went to see his brother Erwin in Stockholm, but his brother did not want him there, so he left. And his brother spread the rumour, that it was Georg who did not want any contact with his surviving family. One reason could have been that Erwin, according to his brother, always was envious of Georg’s piano lessons and constantly was at war with everyone and everything.
It does not explain the abuse though, which Erwin put his children through, constantly beating them and being overly strict and unloving towards them. Georg told Danny that their father in turn, never lifted a finger against them. The thoughts on how our background shapes us whether we want to or not, makes Danny ask Gunnar if he was bullied as a child, for being Jewish and if the others knew that he was Jewish. Gunnar says something surprising. That it was something nice to be Jewish, because people in Sweden admired Israel and looked upon it as a model socialist state and very modern in its thinking. Sweden sure changed in just one generation, since Danny felt that he had to do everything he could, to hide the fact that he is Jewish. Today, it is dangerous to be Jewish in Sweden. I am surprised they dare to stay here, really.
By now, Danny, Leo and Gunnar has arrived in Kwidzyn, their goal. A historian informs Danny and Leo, about the history of the place, while Gunnar does not even want to be present. The town never had more than a couple of hundred Jews and that relations were fine till the Nazis arrived. Georg had told Danny, how his mother Dorotea had handed out clothes for free to Polish workers, who had no money to pay with and that when the Nazis arrived, those same workers made sure that customers could not get in to their shop. Classic story really. Danny did find out something new though and that was that Hermann Isakowitz must have had to sell his business during the 30s, like all the other Jews in town had to do, according to the historian. So he could not have been fetched from his business combined home, by the Nazis, when time came. And the Russians had burned all the houses around the town square, in 1945, where Hermann’s shop had been located. Or they think it must have been located, since the Russians had also burned all archives and left the place an open field. The Poles having tried to recreate the square, when Danny visited, and having dug the place out, only finding spoons and forks, nothing of value. Or?
Danny was informed that the grave stones from the Jewish cemetery, had also been removed for safety, since people stole them for filling material at their building sites. The same day, he goes to meet with local historian Lukasz, who spent his entire youth trying to find out as much as possible about the former Marienwerder or today’s Kwidzyn. He has three photos from Danny’s great-grandfather’s shop and the last of the three, shows that Danny is an identical copy of his great-grandfather. Lukasz also has a map which shows that Hermann had two properties and Lukasz can guess where Hermann dug down his treasure. A place now full of asphalt and an underground garage. He sadly tells Danny that whatever was found, when it was dug out, went in to the archeologists pockets.
He also brings Danny home to his parents where he keeps all HIS treasures, which he has found around the town, during childhood treasure hunts. He plans on opening a museum, and showes Danny all sorts of things, but the thing he really wants to show, is the clothing cupboard he has just bought, which contained a hanger with the name H. Isakowitz imprinted on it. A gift for Danny to take home as a souvenir from his search for his ancestry. Gunnar is as overjoyed as Danny is, over this find! But unfortunately, the next day yields nothing but frustration when Danny, alone, is escorted to a cellar to look at grave stones he can not read, since they are all in hebrew. He does not find Dorotea’s stone. As the three leave the town behind, Gunnar is surprised to hear that Danny actually believed in the story about the treasure. Gunnar has always figured that it was one man’s wishful thinking and Danny realizes that it probably was the old man’s way of avoiding to talk about what he had REALLY been through.
That people who have been through hardships, look to the future instead of looking back. That they want to just blend in with the masses and be like everyone else. That this is why they change their names, to not stick out as, say Jewish. Danny thinks about how hard his grandmother Helga was, the spoiled little Princess from Berlin, who was thrown from a world of luxury in to a very insecure world. And how she ended up being so hard on everyone else, expecting much, since she had had to learn the hard way. Maybe that is also why Erwin beat his children for smallest offence. But you can not really teach children with violence! They can never learn your lessons, because they have not lived your life. They will have their own lessons to learn, in THEIR world and time.
8 months after their return home, Danny found out about an archive which tells his grandfather Erwin’s entire story. How he studied business till 1934, when the Jews were forced to quit the school of business in Königsberg. He then also joined the Hechalutz movement and moved to Denmark, to work as a farm hand in 1937. In 1938 he went to Sweden and worked as the same, for three years. He ended up working as a farm hand for seven years and during that time he did everything to behave well, so that he would get to stay safe. He also tried his best to get his family out of Germany. He was not successful, but his sisters Ewa and Hanna, managed to get to England and survived the war.
Hermann wrote desperate letters to his son Erwin, asking him to help him out of Germany, and Erwin applied over and over to no avail. Finally he received a post card where his father said it was too late. By then Erwin was really in trouble himself, since the Germans had removed his citizenship and he had been forced to marry his girlfriend, since she was pregnant. Hans-Gunnar was born stateless. After the war, Erwin’s problems continued since he was not allowed to go visit his sisters in England and then return to Sweden. And in 1947, his sister Hanna, was not allowed to come and visit and help the family with a new baby, even though 500 pounds had been posted as security for Hanna not trying to stay beyond her six month visit. In 1949, Erwin was denied once again, to go see his sisters. He and his family did receive Swedish citizenship, finally, but he was a frustrated, broken man, who had failed to do everything he has set out to do. This, Danny thinks, might be the real cause for his bad parenting.
Hermann Sigfried Isakowitz was murdered in Riga, Latvia, according to Yad Vashem’s records, which is where the book ends.
The book is a very different kind of Holocaust book, and in that it is refreshing. Somehow it gives one hope, because even if 6 million Jews died one way or another, by the Nazis and their associates’ hands, many Jews did survive. Maybe not millions, but they were not exterminated from this Earth, like Hitler had planned and wished for, and that is important to remember.
When I see “Romeo and Juliet” I always hope that the story will end differently. Even though I know that it can’t or it would not be Shakespeare’s play. When I read the diary of Anne Frank, I hope the end will be different every time. But her grave stone stands in Bergen-Belsen, testifying to the fact, that she and her sister did die there, somewhere, and she did not survive the war. That is why it is so nice to know when setting out reading this book, that for Danny to be there, the people he speaks of, did survive. What is the “worse” part to read is actually how he does not see until now, that all his Jewish ancestors have made him in to the person he is. That one can close one’s eyes to one’s background, one’s heritage and people, but it will all catch up in the end. It has tainted us to see the world in a specific way and it has made us act in certain ways in certain situations, even if some people are blind to that fact.
The book has its humourous moments. But there is always something dark behind it all. And that is what a lot of Jews probably asked themselves as they ended up in concentration camps and today ask themselves, as they feel as split as those people did during the Holocaust. To die for being Jewish, when Jewishness doesn’t mean anything to you. Danny says that only one person in his family was brought up in a religious home, and yet they were all put through the same hardships, for belonging to a people who they did not really think that much of. I guess that is what is so difficult for me as a Gentile and a historian to understand. How one can be Jewish and not feel Jewish. How one can more or less deny thousands of years of history, being a link in the chain. At the same time, I as a Latter-Day Saint, don’t have more than one choice. Either you are in, or you are out. There are not degrees in our church. You are active or you are not, you do not have conservative, orthodox and ultra-orthodox to choose from or secular.
Throughout the pages it seems like both Danny and his father, can not decide whether to be Jewish or not. Eating pig but celebrating the Jewish holidays. Danny hiding that he is Jewish but his father wore a star of David around his neck, as a child. I spoke of studying the Kabbalah driving Jewish men insane. Well, I would say that I would go insane if I lived with one foot in one world and another foot in the other one, like Danny and Gunnar do. And in a way, all of Danny’s mother’s side of the family did. That is the dark in this book, that no matter how much genealogy he does, he still doesn’t really know who he is.
The only thing I did not like about the book, is the fact when Danny speaks of the ill-treatment Ruth and Helga received in way of bad pay and no further schooling, upon arrival here as refugees. Of course, all his ancestors came as refugees, so he has no other knowledge, of how the other side lived, on the other side of the hedge. There could have been an afterword which took that up, but that of course required research. My dad and his sisters starved! There was no welfare system to help them. A majority of the population lived in one room, where they slept and ate. There was a report written in the 1930s, called “Dirt Sweden”, where the researcher blamed it all on having too many children. Another report said that one should let the state raise the children, while the parents both went out to work. Yes, Danny’s Jewish relatives had a rude awakening, but it is a little bit difficult to feel truly sorry for privileged people, when they lose their privileges and have to test what real life is like. My dad had a good head, he was bright and wanted to have studied. But it was not done when one was born in the working class. Or should I say in the farming class without land? You were not entitled schooling beyond the age of 15, you were not entitled respect nor a job per automatic. Many people like my mum’s bright mother, had to leave school and go in to service, clean and cook for the rich. And have the father of the house, try to rape them in the kitchen or in their little maid’s room. And when they could not stand that any longer, the factory floor was the only option. Or marry a farm hand, move in to one of the farm barracks, and work for slave wages as a couple, the woman milking cows and the husband working the land.
For these Jewish refugees to feel bitter about their reception, is not really fair. They came to a poor country, way behind other European countries in development. And how can you give something to refugees, which the innate population does not have? Their ungratefulness makes me think of the refugees today, from Syria mainly, who are flooding our borders, expecting to live on our tax money, with no thoughts at all, to the fact that more than 10% of the Swedish population, is unemployed with no chances of finding jobs, because there are none. And what do they do? They sit and complain about our Swedish food being gross and not getting fancy enough places to live in. The young men are out on our streets handing out the Koran. So, not when in Rome do as the Romans do, but they want to move Syria and all the other Arab countries, to Sweden. Then it will not only be Jews who need to flee our country. But which Jews will it be who flee? The ones who feel Jewish or the ones who suffer for something which they can not make peace with?
This book, seems to be coming at a time, when the market is being flooded with books, trying to make us feel positive about all the migrants entering our country. But no book can change my view on all the Muslims flooding our borders, and I really do not care if people scream till they are blue in their faces, that these people are being persecuted just like the Jews were, 1932-1945. Because it is NOT true and it is NOT the same thing. Not at all. Read the book, and you will become fully aware of that fact. May it be translated in to English soon, now when it has been so in to German.