I hadn't been back to Germany since the end of the war. Then, in November 1985, the mayor of Peine invited me to be the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony of a memorial to commemorate the destruction of the Peine synagogue, which was burned down on Kristallnacht, the Night of Shattered Glass. The invitation was extended to me as a Jew born in Peine who had survived the Holocaust. They didn't know the story of how I survived. And so, with mixed feelings, I accepted.
The ceremony included a torchlight procession, led by members of a youth club, to the site of the former synagogue. How I used to love going there with my father; especially on Simchas Torah, the Jewish holiday on which children are pelted with candy and nuts.
The street signs on what used to be Bodenstetter Strasse had been repainted in red. the street was now called Hans Marburger Strasse. Was this the same Hans Marburger who used to be my childhood friend, whose house adjoined ours, and who often played with me? I asked one of the men in the procession about that. He was, he said, the nephew of the former secretary of the local communist party who had been murdered by the Nazis, and he told me a heart-wrenching story. On Kristallnacht, he said, three Storm Troopers had forced their way into the Marburgers' house and started beating up Hans's father. Hans, showing incredible courage, tried to defend his father. The Storm Troopers immediately seized the boy, threw him into their car, and drove to the synagogue. There, after he was tied hand and foot, they locked him up in the sanctuary. The synagogue burned to the ground, and Hans Marburger perished. His "crime" was trying to defend his father against the SA thugs. He was fifteen years old. Blessed be his memory.
It may at first seem incomprehensible, but that day I also looked up my former Hitler Youth home leader, Karl R. Having just been told about this monstrous, inhuman deed, how could I justify my meeting with a man who was a representative of such barbarity?
I offer no defense for my willingness to see him perhaps life itself can do that. Sometimes the personality and character of a person are reason enough.
Occasionally the natural tendency to seek revenge gives way to generosity. A handshake does not necessarily signify forgiveness; on the contrary, it can express a generosity of mind and heart, a mixture of comtempt and human triumph over hatred and atrocity.
But to get back to the events that led to my meeting with Karl R. During a brief speech at the memorial ceremony I told the audience, especially the young people there, the story of young Hans. I praised his exceptional bravery. He had not hesitated to come to his father's defense, I said, even if though his chances were zero.
The next day the editors of the local newspaper interviewed me. During a lively conversation over coffee, one of the journalists wanted to know how I had survived the war: "I spent most of the time near here in Brunswick," I said. "I looked like a German, and I hid in the ranks of the Hitler Youth. I even strolled around Peine in uniform, right under the windows of your newspaper."
Judging from the surprised expressions on their faces and the skeptical looks they exchanged, the journalists didn't really believe me. So I added some details. Apparently that dispelled their doubts. One of them asked, "Have you been back to Brunswick since then?" I said no, I hadn't.
"Would you go there with me?" he asked. "Perhaps we'll run into someone you knew there, maybe the home leader you told us about?" Having smelled a good story, he was insistent.
After thinking it over carefully I agreed, even though I still had reservations. I couldn't foresee the consequences such a meeting might have for me. I would be confronting the past, again creating a direct connection with what had been a past that I had made such great efforts to suppress and that I did not want to touch. I would be allowing the dormant Jupp to come to life again and release thoughts that belonged only to me and no one else, and that I wanted to take to the grave with me. I had hoped to conceal these thoughts deep within me because I felt they were too vulnerable and too complex to entrust to others who might judge me too severely.
It took only twenty minutes to travel forty years into the past. Here were the once-familiar streets and buildings of Brunswick. I still knew how to get to the H.J school at 180 Gifhorner Strasse; it wasn't far. But as I stood there, I rubbed my eyes in amazement. Had memory played a trick on me? The main building, an expression of grandiose Hitlerian Machtarchitektur [power architecture] was gone; there were no dormitories, no lawns or sport areas, no swimming pool or dining hall-instead it was all wasteland. The Volkswagen plant adjacent to the school had expanded to where the school used to be. The only remnant of all that had once been there was the classroom building, which now contained the technical offices of the auto factory. For three years I had gone into that building to study National Socialist racial doctrines, among other subjects. Everything that had been part of our everyday lives-the places where we ate, slept, engaged in sports, and so on, had been destroyed.
Karl R.'s house was near the school. Sometimes I used to go for walks in that neighborhood. Bu we were in for a disappointment. His apartment was occupied by people who knew nothing about the tenants who had lived there in the forties.
We asked an elderly lady who was crossing the street, and she remembered Karl, "the disabled veteran." She told MS that he had started a new venture, making dentures and false teeth, but she didn't know where he lived. Using a phone book at her house, we found what we were looking for.
I dialed Karl's number: His wife answered. Without telling her my name, I said I was one of her husband's former students and asked if I could see him so that we could share old memories. "Oh," she said, "Karl will be happy to see you. He just went out, but he'll be back in a few minutes. Please come over."
We wrote down the address and started out. From far away I recognized Karl standing at his front door. I knew that this meeting would lead me down paths I did not actually ever want to set foot on again. I felt horror and disgust, but also a sort of vague attraction. And then I was standing before him.
"Welcome, Jupp," he said, obviously moved. "How are you? What brings you here?" I was not smiling as we shook hands.
"Karl," I said, "I have something to tell you. My name isn't Josef Perjell; it's Solomon Perel and I am Jewish."
He didn't understand, even when the journalist accompanying me confirmed what I had just ssaid. Karl looked at him, then at me, and turned pale. Gradually the enormity of a fact he wouldn't have dared imagine in his wildest dreams dawned on him. He was confused and upset. But finally he hugged me, saying softly, "Oh god, oh god, how wonderful to see you. "
It was a spontaneous expression of genuine joy. I didn't want to play the role of avenger; although I was determined not to forget the past. I merely wanted to set the record straight. Still, this was a very warm human encounter; and I gave in to my emotions. We both cried.