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Sep 2006 Journal

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Return to Leipzig

My name is Naomi. I am European. I am British. I am Jewish. Components of an identity which is too often pigeon-holed. I prefer just stating that I am who I am.
I am Naomi. People can discover the rest.

My grandparents were German-Jewish refugees. My grandfather fled Nazi Germany from Leipzig in 1937. He had just been released from prison, having broken the Nuremberg laws - he had a non-Jewish girlfriend. The competing dentist who informed on him did him a favour, as I see it. His imprisonment made him realise early enough that he had to get out. He departed from Leipzig train station on 1 August 1937. In July 2006, his granddaughter - me - arrived in the same train station in Leipzig.

I chose to learn German at the age of 12 because I thought it might help me to understand more of my family's history. I've never loved the language. It made sense to me though. I never tried particularly at school, but I could speak German fairly easily. A year after I started learning the language, I went on an exchange to Germany. It was emotionally unsettling - my first time in the country which had persecuted my family. I wanted to start afresh, but I had problems with my host family. Having read on my school information form that I was Jewish, they produced books containing pictures of orthodox Jews and insisted that I look at them. At best, the family was strange and misguided. At worst, and against my will, I suspect they were trying to make some kind of antisemitic point. It did not bode well.

A couple of years later I met a wonderful German girl with whom I have been in touch for five years now. It was her father who found an internship for me this year. Having worked in Paris during the first part of my 'gap year', in May 2006 I set off for Germany with all but forgotten GCSE German.

Now, I am nearly fluent. I worked in Mainz for a member of the local state parliament, a Christian Democratic Union politician. After replying that I was Jewish to the question as to whether I was Evangelical or Catholic, and after getting used to the cross in the hallway, things went smoothly! It was strange thinking here I am working in politics, in the country that persecuted my family less than a century ago. Round the corner from where I lived was a memorial to a synagogue that was burnt down on Kristallnacht. I passed it every day. I went to synagogue. The service in German was rather surreally translated into Russian, for the vast majority of the congregation (I later learned the congregation is similar now in Leipzig).

At the end of my stay in Mainz, I took a train to Leipzig, where I met my family on their first visit. There we met a dentist whom my mother had contacted 15 years earlier about my grandfather, Hans (following an ad in the AJR Journal). The dentist had been completing a thesis on the fate of Jewish dentists in Leipzig after 1933. He was able to take us to all the old Jewish landmarks around town: the Jewish school, hospital and synagogues. Our hotel, by chance, was next door to my grandfather's university. The dentist and his wife took us to where my grandfather had lived; the names of the roads had all changed, first under the Nazis and then the Communists and then after reunification. We would have seen little without our wonderful guide. We found the graves of my great-grandparents in the old graveyard. We saw a wide storm drain where male Jews were rounded up after Kristallnacht. Hundreds were made to stand in this tiny, exposed space for three days before being sent to the camps. Seeing this, and realising how early deportations began here, was extremely shocking for me. Of the Leipzig Jewish community, some 14,000 were killed by the Nazis. All around town could be seen traces of the Jewish life the Nazis had not been able to eradicate. In the tiling of the ceiling in one building there are Stars of David; in the brickwork of another there are more.

We went to the new Gewandhaus, or Concert Hall, to hear a wonderful Bach concert. My grandfather, my Opa, had had a season ticket to the old Gewandhaus. Sitting in cafés, we had iced coffee German style, just like my Omi used to make.

I will be studying modern history at Oxford this October and this trip gave me a chance to explore my personal history. It was strange going back to Leipzig, where there was so much family history, and it seemed very remote to me in many ways. It is part of my identity, and I will never forget what happened. Having lived in Germany before visiting Leipzig, however, made me realise how alien the two Germanys are. Today it is another land. With a friendly, outward, open-minded, fiercely liberal-minded, new generation. They are just the same as me and my friends back home. And they want to make a fresh start.


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