A Monument to Forgiveness
On a journey to Germany a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences sophomore learns important life lessons from his grandfather. by Andrew Gruen
My grandfather has a penchant for what he calls "coffee and…" He can be in the absolute worst of moods — usually when I am working on his computer that "has broken yet again" — but suddenly smile and decide it's time for "coffee and…" And it's not the coffee he is interested in but the accompanying and, ranging from cake to éclairs.
Had someone asked me two years ago about Mellrichstadt, Germany, the town where he was born in 1924, I would have said, "It's a miserable place filled with dispassionate and disgruntled people." My first trip to the town filled me with anger and frustration, but my second trip showed me a side of both town and man that I had never seen before — the "coffee and…" of Mellrichstadt.
When my family first visited Mellrichstadt, we met with the Bürgermeister, or mayor, to solicit his help in accomplishing Papa's goal: a public memorial for the fellow Jews from his town who did not escape the Holocaust.
In that meeting, I felt more unwelcome than I ever have felt before. The Bürgermeister spoke only to Papa and only in German. He met a family of Jews in a room with a life-size crucifix hanging over the doorway. We were served breadsticks laced with bacon.
The Bürgermeister promised us all that the town would have a memorial. A year later he had made no progress.
Undeterred, Papa pursued other means of commissioning and placing a memorial, but I never thought I would return to Mellrichstadt again.
Then I got a phone call one Friday afternoon.
"Why don't you see if you can arrange things so you can be here for the ceremonies?" Papa said. "I would really like to see you here." On a Saturday afternoon, in the middle of spring quarter, I was on a plane to Mellrichstadt.
Nearly 70 years after he was forced to leave, Papa returned to Mellrichstadt to install and dedicate his memorial. How lucky I was to accompany him.
As a representative of a third generation of my family and as a skeptical 18-year-old with a low opinion of Mellrichstadt, I expected to be detached from the events of May 19, 2004.
However, watching Papa pull the plastic covering off the monument and declare, "Ich bin Mellrichstadter," to a crowd of more than 300 townspeople, disproved my expectations.
At first I felt a tremendous wave of pride. Not only had Papa known what to do, but after years of denial his town did what was right as well. They could have easily stayed home, to simply block the memories, but instead men and women, young and old, came in full force — all proud to be Mellrichstadters.
My feelings of pride were quickly followed by feelings of sadness. Papa's struggle for the monument took 16 years — years that he could have spent enjoying a return to his birthplace. Although he did not say as much, Papa does not think he will return home again any time soon. His time for travel is over.
When I asked him when he thought he would be back, he only chuckled and informed me that he had "spies" from the town to check up on the monument; he would not have to worry about it standing as a permanent reminder. Papa wanted to ensure that the horrible misdeeds of the Third Reich would be remembered, even if he could not personally return. At his point of triumph, he remained vigilant.
Suddenly, my place in Mellrichstadt became clear. Papa had brought me along not simply to witness the dedication of the monument. He wanted me to witness how he lived his life, as an example for my own.
Throughout his life Papa did what he thought was right, regardless of the barriers placed in his way. He forgave those who had abandoned not only him but his entire people and culture. But at the same time he was eternally vigilant to ensure that the cruelty shown to his people would never happen to anyone else.
The people of Mellrichstadt, too, provided a powerful example for me to follow. Years after some of their parents and grandparents had committed unimaginable atrocities, in many cases by apathy alone, they took a visible stand against indifference.
On my first trip to Mellrichstadt I would never have guessed the similarities between Papa and his town. Only as a result of my frustration and alienation did I experience the "coffee and…" of Mellrichstadt, and only after Papa and Mellrichstadt had come together did I see the lessons they held for me.
Andrew Gruen is a sophomore in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences from Minneapolis.