A Sentimental Journey Home
Copyright Vladimir Kagan May 28, 2012
Home is where the heart is... It is amazing to say that Worms in Germany is still where a part of my heart resides... I was born there nearly 85 years ago... A medieval city nestled on the shores of the River Rhine, where Martin Luther stood in 1521 defying Pope and Kaiser with his famous Edict of Worms. Where the esteemed 11th century Jewish scholar, Rabbi Rashi, held sway – It is home to one of the finest examples of early Romanesque architecture in Europe: St. Peter’s Cathedral - the Dom, Built in 1130 – 1181 and totally restored after the war. Worms is home to Germany's oldest (resurrected) Synagogue*, originally built in the 13th century…It is home to the fabled Nibelungen Saga – “Das Rheingold”, which inspired Wagner’s Ring Series. Worms is nestled amongst unassuming flat lands that are home to Germany's finest vineyards. Worms was also home to many, many decent people (some, who cared for my family in time of need) and it was home to its abundant share of brutal Nazis. Like Dresden, the allies bombed the heck out of it and left 90% of it in rubbles. Miraculously, most important landmarks, though severely damaged, survived and have been carefully restored. It is home to 83,000 people… And some sixty years later, my sister and I have met up with old classmates and folks who remembered our parents!
*The original Synagogue in Worms was the oldest in all Geermany - built in 1234 – It was totally demolished by the Nazis during the infamous Kristallnacht in 1939 - just months after we migrated to America. The commune of Worms rebuilt it after the war. Jews in Worms date back to Roman times – they came as merchants and settled in Mainz, Speyer and Worms. Today, Worms hasn’t enough Jews to make a ”minion” the twelve people required for an Orthodox service.
**There are people today, who cannot be reconciled to the fact that an entire nation can go Rogue… Everyone knew of Hitler’s final solution for the Jews ‘Die Endlösung’. That the death-camps of Belsen and Auschwitz were a fact known to all Germans. That the Holocaust was no secret. These people would have preferred to leave the Synagogues in rubble as a permanent monument to the atrocities of the Third Reich.
This was my third pilgrimage home; for my sister Tanya, it was only the second in forty years (after a brief two hour stop-over back in 1949).. It was an emotional decision for her. Was the reception going to be hostile? It took five years of cajoling to convince her to make this journey. Tanya travels with an entourage - her ailing husband (whom she can not leave alone) a young woman caretaker, a driver and of course - me. The five of us, set off in a well-appointed Mercedes Van on our “mad-cap” adventure.
Our trip started and ended in Geneva Switzerland. To break-up a long journey, (560 km), we made some amusing stops along the way: A brief visit to the Kagan Club in Freiburg and our first overnight stop in Baden Baden . (I have described the drive in a sister article: IMPRESSIONS ALONG THE ROAD TO WORMS)
We arrived in Worms late afternoon with a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance. The city seemed smaller and more claustrophobic than we remembered... distances that were an eternity, walking on our small legs, now were only “ a hop, skip and a jump” from where we lived on Obermarkt 12. Coincidentally, our Hotel “Dom” was located right next to our old house, which had been bombed and rebuilt. The hotel was touted to be the best available in Worms; by our spoiled standards, it turned out to be more a mixture of a college dorm and a Monk’s retreat. (Years earlier I stayed in an active Monastery serving as a Hotel in Cologne). Our accommodations were very reminiscent: neat – efficient – minimal – spotlessly clean. The hotel had only one visible employee… the friendly receptionist – no porters, room service or the usual accoutrements that go with a modern luxury hotel. It did, however, serve the most delicious German breakfast complete with smoked salmon a wide selection of “wurscht – (sausages) und schinken”, cheese and crusty breads and pastries.
The square where we lived was now filled with trendy cafés, trattorias and gelato-parlors complete with umbrellas and outdoor seating replacing the food stalls that we remembered as children. Our greatest disappointment was the closure of the Cafe Lott, a landmark that had survived the Nazis, the war and the turmoil of another 60 years... The owner decided to call it quits last New Year’s Eve.
This is Obermarkt 12 - the house that replaced our home, complete with the residence built over the entrance to the courtyard leading to my father's workshop and Art Gallery. (the original was destroyed in an Allied bombing back in the 40s.)
The view from our hotel room looking at the outdoor cafes that have replaced the market stalls of sixty years ago - normally is is a-buzz with young people enjoying an afternoon "kaffeklatsch"... ) I must have taken this photo very early)
For our first night’s dinner, we chose to go down to the Rhine; surely we’d find a suitable restaurant... and indeed we did. In the drenching rain, we stumbled into the Kolbe Brauhaus, a building dating from the 1800s that survived the bombs. Low ceilinged, filled with cheerful drinking patrons… we skulked in, somewhat hesitantly, and were given seating in a small dining room in the rear. Germans, with a few good beers in their bellies, become a noisy bunch… the ten people on the other table were no exception. Tanya was instinctively apprehensive “Do you think that they are friendly?” I assured her that they were. As the evening progressed, our neighbors became quieter and more interested in our little strange entourage; we spoke, English, German and Portuguese. “Und where are you from”, they asked in German – They were amazed when I said “Worms!” This naturally opened up a lively cross-table conversation. One of the men introduced himself as Jean Frank, a retired judge who turned out to be a good friend of my friend, Elke Scheiner, who also happened to be a retired judge. By the end of evening, we were all close friends, drinking to each other’s health in three languages with good German beer.
Worms as seen from the Rhein with the tower of the Nibelungen Bridge in the foreground and the Dom in the distance... to the right of the bridge is the Kolbe Brauhaus, where we had our jovial dinner
My old school pal from 1932, Heinz Meisenzahl and I enjoying a morning coffee chat
The next day we started our tightly scheduled 36 hours in Worms with a hardy breakfast in our hotel. Elke, the perfect organizer, produced Ulrike Schäfer, from the Wormser Zeitung, the local newspaper, to interview us. There was Dr. Jörg Koch, the head of the Europa Union and a local historian, who full of interesting Worms history… as a surprise present, he brought me a photo of myself as a two year old ‘Cossack Cowboy’, riding a wooden horse that my father had built for me. The photo was signed: “Photo by Giesen”. (The next day, we met the photographer’s daughter, Ursula Orth-Giesen, who came to greet us in a wheelchair.) She was charming, bright, and still beautiful - deep in her eighties. Our initial welcoming party included my classmate from 2nd grade (1932) Heinz Meisenzahl and his wife Sybille; Heinz is a tall robust, giant, who greeted me with a huge bear hug. Willi Johannes and his wife Regina, one of our beer-drinking friends of the night before came to escort us around town and stayed with us for two days. There were other dignitaries and just plain folks with connections to my family. By lunchtime, our small group expanded to over a dozen happy people. It was a family reunion… Baerbel Miller, who migrated to Denver back in the sixties, had moved back to Worms to take care of her aging mother, 99 years old and still in great form with a vivid memory: she remembered my parents and my Father’s store “Kunsthaus Kagan”. (Baerbel had written down her mother’s ramblings, all of which turned out to be accurate.) Her family and mine were friends. They came and brought food baskets late at night, at great peril to themselves, in defiance of the Nazi’s ruling that there was to be no intermingling between Aryans and Jews. Barbara Wand joined our table and brought photographs of a Silver cigarette box her parents bought from my father’s store. (An excellent example of post-war German modernism from the Deutche Werstatt... (It was a tribute to my father’s amazing avant-garde taste.)
Me... age two riding on my rocking horse which was made by my father - This photo was a present from Dr. Jörg Koch, a history professor
Our delightful lunch on the Rhine with new and old friends
Baerbel Miller with her 99 year mother (Renate Bayer is looking over their shoulders) - Me joking with Renate - I threatened to move in with her and her face tells it all! I think that her response was "God Forgive!"
There are many, many sights In Worms to entice the visitor. In our short stay we visited the Dom, The Synagogue, the Jewish Cemetery: (It took good Christian custodians to preserve it through the Hitler years) and Traudel Mattes, our non-Jewish guide to read the Hebrew inscriptions… (Very touching). The Martin Luther Statue was a must stop - the Rhine bridge (that both of us remembered crossing on foot as children with our parents), the famous wine estate of the Valckenberg, (The Valckenberg were great friends of my parents in the 30s. I have a vague recollection sipping wine through a rubber tasting tube in their Caves. Their world-famous Liebfrauenmilch put Germany back on the map after the war).
The only TRUE Liebfrauermilch, still produced in Worms by the Valkenberg family
Ursula Orth-Giesen having a laugh while looking at instant photos taken by Elke Scheiner, with the Lord-Mayor and me looking on
I did a nostalgic visit to the Dom and stood in solitude listening to the six o’clock ‘Glockenspiel’ that seemed to last an eternity. We all visited the restored Rashi Synagogue the next day, Regina Johannes, was so moved by the experience that she sang “Amazing Grace” in the empty cavernous space. Her beautiful voice resonated in the superb acoustics of this ancient building. Equally heart-warming was our visit to the ancient Jewish Cemetery, "Heiliger Sand" where there are over 3,000 graves, the oldest dating back to 1100. Attesting to the long history of the Jews in Worms. They came with the Romans and stayed.
Our wonderful guide, Traudel Mattes, dressed in a Jewish woman's dress and turban worn back in the 16th Century -
Tanya and I posing in a fabled indent in the Synagogue wall, a reputed miracle that happened when a pregnant woman was walking the street and a cart came careening down the narrow street and the wall gave way.
The stark and dimly lit Synagogue interior - a beautiful example of the simplicity of medieval architecture
Women were not allowed to sit with the men in the main Synagogue and had a separate wing of their own
The 1000 year old Jewish cemitary called The "Heilger Sand" where over 3,000 people are burried.
Our entourage at the cemetary looking at the oldest grave dating from 1100 AD.
Frome left to right: Regina Johannes, Elke Scheiner, Tanya, Willi Johannes, Dr. Hanna Karaka, me, Albano (our great driver) and Traudel Mattes
Tanya and me at our "official luncheon" with the Lord-Mayor of Worms - Michael Kissel, a friend of seven years ago
"the boys" Heinz Meisenzahl , Vladimir and Gerhard Holzer having a chat at the Hagen Statue which celebrates Siegfried tossing the Rheingold into the river.
Tanya and me with the Lord-Mayor Kissel
St. Peter's Cathedral, the beautiful early Romanesque Dom restored after severe damage in the last war. I love the strong simplicity of the arches and the domed ceiling
Tanya and me at the Martin Luther Monument... (my sister has a baby photo of both of standing in the same location 80 years earlier!) This strong modern monument was built in 1868 by Ernest Rietschel, a celebrated sculptor of the time
The War Memorial, built in the 30's to honor the dead of the First World War. (We remembered it well from our childhood and were duly frightened.)
The next day, our triumphant return was celebrated with a small official luncheon hosted by the Lord-Mayor of Worms, Michael Kissel. (I had met and befriended him seven years earlier)… it was a reunion of old friends. Another guest at our small gathering was Volker Gallé, the official art coordinator for Worms – (he looks every inch the part). My sister’s friend, Hana Karaka, who grew up in the neighboring city of Mannheim, flew in from Geneva, to join us for the weekend. (Hana is a heart surgeon, who saved Tanya’s life two years earlier). Mayor Kissel offered her the position of Head Doctor at the Worms Hospital… (she gracefully declined.) Michael drove me through the town and its suburbs, showing me the progress his administration had achieved during his first seven-year tenure. (He was recently re-elected to another seven-years. The city is fortunately to have such a jovial and efficient administrator). In the car, we discussed my inner feelings about the hidden casualties of the war: While my American contemporaries can proudly produce dusty photo albums of themselves and friends, brimming with smiles and laughter, posing in elegant new uniforms, or draped on the wing of their victorious bombers, my German friends, who also served in the war, have to hide this memorabilia in fear that it might give the wrong “body-language” and appear to be in praise of the past. (I escaped military service… just lucky timing). Heinz, a year older than I. at age 17 was drafted into the SS… the most notorious service of the German Reich… No choice. He managed to survive by eluding Gestapo agents looking for deserters and escaped into the hands of the American troop. There are thousand of similar stories and only one on one friendship’s can wipe out these deep wounds.
Our visit to Worms was a revelation for my sister Tanya, who came with apprehensions and left with deep affection for all the wonderful people who made our short stay so memorable… Tanya and I have resolved to make this an annual “return of the natives”.