Those Stories: Holy Water. Unholy Times.
In 1995, as the United States and England marked fifty years since the end of World War II, public broadcasting and cable news networks commemorated the anniversary with an endless series of specials. The airwaves were replete with photos and film of injured soldiers, emaciated Jews, and piles of bodies fresh from the gas chambers. I often monitored my mother’s television viewing that year, rushing in when I heard the sound of bombs or air raid sirens. She was ninety years old and entitled, I reasoned, to a bit of peace. She did not need to be reminded of humanity’s depravity. I felt a tinge of guilt when I entered her room too late to save her from the cruel visage of Adolf Hitler filling the TV screen, his smug countenance drinking in the adoration of the crowd. The face of Hitler had made its first indelible mark on my mother in 1934, a year of complicated historical transitions.
Brownshirt thugs, officially the Sturmabteilung or SA, had become a strong and popular paramilitary arm of the Nazi party, pushing against opposition forces like the Communists and, most visibly, intimidating Jews. By the early 1930s, Nazi popularity had exploded, and with its growth came the expansion of the SA. When Hitler assumed power in January 1933, SA members numbered two million – twenty times larger than the Reichswehr, the official German Army! By April, Nazis executed a nationwide boycott targeting Jewish businesses and professionals. While the SA stood menacingly on guard, the Star of David was painted on Jewish-owned establishments and the offices of Jewish doctors and lawyers. Posted signs distilled the policy: "Don't Buy from Jews!" (Kauf nicht bei Juden!), "The Jews Are Our Misfortune!" (Die Juden sind unser Unglück!) and "Go to Palestine!" (Geh nach Palästina!). Jewish civil servants, from teachers to judges, were then stripped of their positions.
By the end of 1933, under the leadership of Ernst Röhm, the SA had grown 3 million strong. Its autonomous members were mostly unemployed and working class, ready for radical economic change and, often, ready for a fight, running riot after a night of drinking, attacking passers-by and even the police sent to quell them. The loutish brownshirts who had helped Hitler rise to power now appeared out of control and threatening in their own right.
To consolidate his power, Hitler planned a purge now known as Nacht der langen Messer: the Night of the Long Knives. From June 30 – July 2, 1934, the Shutzstaffel (SS) under Göring and the Gestapo under Himmler carried out Hitler’s orders to execute at least 85 people – perhaps hundreds – and to imprison many more. The German military was pleased by the cleansing of the SA and Hitler boasted that he was saving Germany from instability. He used the occasion to rid himself of all other political rivals.
I hesitate to repeat his words, but I do so as a cautionary tale. “If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice,” Hitler said, “then all I can say is this. In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterize down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone!”
It is against this backdrop that my mother, Elsa Rosa Charlotte Stern, innocently set foot outside her family apartment in Frankfurt on a brilliant autumn morning. Even before she saw the parade of troops, she felt the vibrations of the goose-stepping blackshirts – the SS that protected the self-proclaimed Führer. I admit that I cannot find corroboration that Hitler visited Frankfurt in the days after President Hindenburg had died and German democracy along with him. But Elsa’s memories were vivid.
“Jude, verrecke! Perish, Jews!” they thundered as they marched. Adolph Hitler, his right arm outstretched, stood erect in an open military car, greeting mesmerized onlookers with a steely stare. Throngs of men, women and children crowded the street to get a glimpse of the young Führer. “Did you see his eyes?” a young woman asked Elsa admiringly. “They’re so dreamy. I could look at them forever.” Elsa felt her heart pounding, her stomach churning, the fear stirring and rising into nausea. “Just like Rasputin,” she thought. It angered Elsa that this mustached ruffian so hypnotized fainthearted females. The crowd chanted Sieg Heil! Literally, the words mean, “Hail, Victory!” but everyone knew the refrain was pure adulation. As the soldiers passed, Elsa bent over to tie a shoelace – any pretense to avoid the expected salute. She pulled her wits together.
“Good day, Frau Berger,” she said politely to a neighbor as the crowd dispersed. But Frau Berger turned away as if she hadn’t heard Elsa at all. After a dozen years of propaganda, even decent people had begun to believe that anti-Semitism was patriotic. They were heeding the message. Do not associate with Jews. They are the enemy. Before the fateful summer of 1934, Jews clung to rumors of assassination attempts against Hitler, certain that saner heads would ultimately prevail. But now, even the optimistic voices grew more anxious.
The irony of Hitler’s appearance did not escape Elsa, for she was on her way to a Mikvah – a Jewish ritual bathhouse. It was not a customary trip for her, having grown up in a modern Jewish family. But her fiancé, Sali Levi, was a religious man from a Conservative Jewish family. It was his wish that Elsa was suitably schooled in Jewish tradition and properly purified before an official engagement. Or, to be perfectly candid, his parents insisted, and Sali was loath to defy them. After all, Elsa’s Christian grandmother lived in the family household. Elsa’s mother, Gertrüd, was not Jewish by birth, and though she observed many Jewish traditions, it remains a mystery as to whether she actually converted – or would have wanted to during these days of rising anti-Semitism. And if Mama was not Jewish, then, according to doctrine, neither was Elsa.
Since immersion in the ritual bath is mandated for conversion and before marriage, the purification was doubly significant. Still, the concept was more than a little intimidating to Elsa, but she was in love, and a bit of angst seemed a fair trade for a lifelong partner. It was the seventh day following Elsa’s menstruation. Rabbi Laupheimer was expecting Sali’s intended at the bathhouse below the grand, domed Westend synagogue in Frankfurt am Main. No expense had been spared to adorn the inner sanctum, but the mikvah was grey, stony and sparse – much like the older woman who greeted Elsa as she entered.
“First, you must get clean,” the mikvah attendant coached. She led Elsa to a private room just large enough for a tub and a small wooden bench for clothes. “Scrub. Skin, hair, nails. Everything must be spotless.” Even left alone, Elsa was uneasy, undressing in this dreary place with strangers nearby. She comforted herself with thoughts of Sali, their upcoming engagement, their future.
Sali had entered her life without fanfare. He was a friend of her brother, Gerhart, and together they spent time at parks and sidewalk cafes. Elsa could not even remember the first time she saw him, but certainly romance was not her intention. She was dating a stout but jovial movie buyer named Walter and enjoying his casual company.
But over time, Sali’s looks grew longer, his deep, dark eyes more inviting. At first she noticed his prominent nose and ears, but later she observed how heartily he laughed, how courteously he treated Mütterchen, how elegantly he dressed, how dashing he looked in his gray felt homburg, its brim tipped fashionably low. And, in an innocent embrace one evening, she thought to herself that Sali was just the right size for her, too – just tall enough so she could fit her head comfortably under his chin and lay her cheek on his chest. Gerhart, always the comic, pulled Elsa aside one day and advised with uncharacteristic seriousness, “He’s a good one, Elsa. Save yourself for him.” Not long after that, Elsa bid farewell to Walter and focused all her attention on this intelligent young businessman who seemed to have the world under control.
Elsa put one foot cautiously in the tub. Pleased by the water’s warmth, she soaped her body and closed her eyes. The air was cool and humid, as if she were outside on a cloudy day. She wondered where her Sali was right now: at his office in Brussels, buying aluminum or magnesium from industrialist Alfred Spiegel, or making a trip to the bank where he had established his primary business account, away from Germany and the threat of the Nazis. It had been years since Sali had made speeches for the Socialist Democratic Party denouncing Nazi principles, but officials kept a close eye on him, awaiting a misstep. While he kept a residence in Frankfurt with his parents, Sali and Gerhart spent more and more time in Belgium, where they could conduct business freely and travel to the rest of Europe. Elsa looked forward to her next visit. She could imagine nothing better than strolling the Grand Place de Bruxelles at midnight, with Sali on her arm.
“The Rabbi is waiting," a voice said abruptly through a crack in the door. Elsa finished washing and put on the white cotton robe provided for her. The mikvah attendant checked her fingernails for cleanliness and her back for stray hairs, then led her down seven steps – one for each day of the creation - to a small round pool where the rabbi, draped in white, stood at the water’s edge. An Orthodox married woman was expected to go to the mikvah each month after her period to purify herself for her husband, but today was a special occasion complete with divine benedictions to prepare Elsa for the sanctity of marriage with a man who didn’t want her Jewishness questioned. Both the Rabbi and the attendant turned their backs as Elsa disrobed at the edge of the pool, slid into the lukewarm water, and folded her arms self-consciously to cover her breasts. Standing silently in chest-high water, she was instructed to dunk herself completely. The illustrious rabbi and the attendant turned to witness the immersion and verify that every body part, each curly red hair on her petite head, was covered by water. The rabbi recited a Hebrew prayer that Elsa could barely hear as she broke the surface of the water. She had never been much of a swimmer, and the submersion, however brief, distracted her from all other embarrassments.
“Repeat after me,” the Rabbi said kindly. “Blessed art Thou, Eternal God, ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us through mitzvot and has enjoined us concerning immersion.” Elsa echoed the blessing a few Hebrew words at a time, and was instructed to dunk two more times under the duo’s scrupulous gaze, and to recite two more benedictions. When the ritual was completed, her impurities washed away, she fled the pool as quickly as a bird escaping capture.
On the way home, Elsa passed Greenberg’s Groceries and saw the now familiar JUD on the front door. Beside those angry letters was a new sign emblazoned on his window by Nazi hoodlums, drops of paint still moving slowly downward in rivulets, like blood oozing from a wound. “DO NOT BUY FROM THIS STORE,” it warned. Saddened but stoic, Mr. Greenberg stood outside his shop in his starched white apron and watched the paint as it hardened. Elsa remained mute, tamping down her sympathy, for fear of who might be watching.
Later that night, Mütterchen, Elsa’s maternal grandmother, would smile and ask how her baptism had gone. For an instant, Elsa could understand Sali’s concerns about his Orthodox Jewish family meeting the hybrids of the Stern household. Mama had many questions, but Elsa confined her response to a cursory description. Some consider the ritual immersion for conversion an emotional, life-changing event, a spiritual cleansing and rebirth. But, for Elsa, it was more transactional: a few uncomfortable moments in exchange for the sanctity of marriage. It was a good thing that Sali was a worthy man.