by Cynthia Bruckman
“EXCUSE ME, MISS! ARE YOU JEWISH?”
I had just moved from San Francisco to New York City. I was walking down Park Avenue, heading to the 6 train after a particularly grueling day of work, when I was approached by two young men from the Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, waving what looked like willow branches at me as they shouted and ran in my direction. I had that dark-haired “Jewish look,” I suppose, that they were eagerly scouting for in rush-hour Manhattan during Sukkot. They were very excited.
“It depends on how you define ‘Jewish,’” I answered. It appeared as if I were about to be blessed by their branches, and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I needed to be blessed.
“Is your mother Jewish?” they fired back.
“N-no, but my father’s father was Jewish,” I hesitated.
“Then you’re not a Jew!” they said, hugely disappointed. They started to run away from me, frantically in search of a “real” Jew.
“Wait!” I shouted after them. “My great-grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp! Does that count?”
“Wait! Come back! I want to be blessed!”
But they were gone.
In November 2016, archaeologists found a girl’s pendant, almost identical to one that Anne Frank had owned, in the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland. Not long after this news broke in January 2017, I received a message from a cousin: “Short story is, we are related to the girl who owned the pendant!” Her name: Karolina Cohn.
Yad Vashem and the Israel Antiquities Authority had asked the public’s help to locate Karolina’s family. A talented part-time genealogist quickly found relatives all over the world.
Karolina is my first cousin “twice removed.” My father was born to an Italian Catholic mother and a German Jewish father. My grandfather was her first cousin on her father’s side.
The possible connection to Anne Frank (whom we now know is not a relative), was intriguing, but Karolina’s story alone was compelling. Archaeologists located the wooden plank, known as “the stairway to heaven,” that girls and women had to walk across, stripped and shaven, on their way to the gas chamber. Under these floorboards, they found Karolina’s pendant, which, they believed, she had purposefully dropped.
I received an invitation to come to Frankfurt. The Claims Conference, representing the interests of Holocaust survivors in Germany, would be honoring Karolina and her family in an art project commemorating “the victims of national socialism.”
Although I’ve been living in Canada as a dual citizen for the last six years, I continue to participate actively in the American political system. I absentee vote and make as much noise as I can to resist the authoritarianism tearing apart America’s hemorrhaging democracy. So when I received this invitation to honor my relative in a ceremony that would be commemorating “the victims of national socialism”? I knew I had to be there. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia were the tipping point. Neo-Nazis weren’t hiding anymore in America; they were murdering people in broad daylight. And our president was proclaiming that “there are good people on both sides.” Before I left, I asked people on social media for German expressions that might be useful during my trip. A cousin suggested that I tell people, in German, “I’m sorry about Trump. I’m from Canada.”
On a trip to Europe in 1989, I had the uber-creepy experience of staying at a bed and breakfast in Amsterdam where the hostess was a Holocaust denier. When my friend and I told her that we were going to the Anne Frank Museum, she snapped at us that it was “a hoax,” that the Holocaust had never happened. Fake news! On that same trip, I was also in Berlin, just after the wall came down. I now found this ironic, given the trash-talking about building a wall to keep out those “murderers and rapists.”
To prepare for what I knew would be an emotional trip, I started watching Holocaust testimonials, which served as a sort of masochistic homeopathy; treating like with like, I figured that to bolster myself, I needed to put myself there—particularly in Sobibor, where people were immediately herded to the gas chambers when they arrived. One bright spot was that the prisoners there staged a revolt, successfully taking out their Nazi guards with hatchets and anything else they could get their hands on.
I was watching these videos in my kitchen one morning with my mother, when I learned that the Cohns had first been transported to the Minsk ghetto in Belarus. Nearly everyone there had either died under the harsh conditions, been transported to Sobibor and other camps, or had been shot. This meant that Gitta, Karolina’s little sister, who also deserves to be remembered, likely died in Minsk, as very young children were not sent to the camps.
What was becoming clear to me was that my cousin Karolina was shrouded in absolute mystery, her voice, like millions of others, silenced. There was no diary left behind to attest to her precious singularity, but instead only a vague idea of what kind of spirit she may have had. Like Anne Frank, she longed to be remembered. Subversively leaving behind evidence of her murder spoke of a defiant girl on the verge of young womanhood. She was a rebel in the face of unadulterated evil.
My Lufthansa flight involved free cocktails and watching Wonder Woman kick some Nazi butt, which was hugely gratifying. Emboldened by cognac and Gal Gadot, navigating through German customs was a breeze:
Agent: Why are you here?
Me: Family flying in from all over the world for a big ceremony for Karolina Cohn, possibly related to Anne Frank.
Agent: Thank you. Go ahead.
It was raining in Frankfurt, early morning. My cab driver was a long-haired, artsy-looking guy named Yoschua, curious about me after noticing the Canadian flag on my luggage tag. In the course of our conversation, he told me that he was German, born in Iran, and seemed pleased that I mistook him for a South American. “A lot of people think I’m Peruvian,” he said. He immediately differentiated himself from some of the newly arrived immigrants, many of whom, he said, “are not assimilating. Now there is backlash—not so bad in Frankfurt, but worse in other places. German women are being called ‘whores’ by these fundamentalists when they walk down the street. This is not so good.”
Given the anti-Muslim scapegoating coming from the White House, I wondered how this was affecting everyone else in the world. I didn’t bother to tell Yoschua why I was here. When he asked, I said only, “A family event.” I was tired from the long journey, so I made things convenient for myself: I kept quiet both about my Jewish ancestry and my American citizenship.
Years ago, for a performance piece that I was writing, I had asked my nonna to sit down and record her World War II experiences for me. She talked about hiding my grandfather from the Italian fascists. I was raised with her stories and her culture. But I knew very little about my grandfather who had died before I was born.
The rainy cab ride set a tone. As Yoschua weaved in and out of mounting traffic, he repeated “scheise” under his breath. I thought about what it must be like for him to be here in Germany, feeling the need to say, essentially, that there were people who were not assimilating as they should, but that he had. I imagined my grandfather, hiding out in Italy during World War II, fearful of being discovered, but secretly holding close, just under his skin, the person who he really was.
The experts who study trauma and its impact have found that it courses its cold blood through families for generations. I started experiencing a jittery kind of PTSD when I arrived at the hotel. I viewed everything through Karolina’s ghostly, yet palpable lens: the grey façade had the feel of a bunker; the elevator up to the third floor was claustrophobic with its metal gate; the room was dimly lit with old lighting fixtures; a gas heater barely threw its heat; everything was dark, and quiet.
One night, I accidentally locked myself in my hotel bathroom. My sister, standing just outside the door, couldn’t open it, and I couldn’t open it from the inside, so I panicked. I shouted, and I pounded on the door. My sister ended up prying open the door with a can opener, of all things. Afterward, we laughed at the ridiculousness of it, but she later told me that she too was terrified when she thought she wouldn’t be able to help me.
On a cold and rainy morning, we boarded a train to Weinheim to visit the stolpersteine, or the “tripping stone,” which marked the last freely chosen residence of our great-grandparents. A black swastika was spray-painted on the seat across from us—a sobering message that Nazi hatred was alive and well. On that train ride to Weinheim, where all Jewish businesses, including our great-grandfather’s furniture upholstery store, had been liquidated, we realized that these were the very same train tracks that had carried our relatives to their deaths.
That night, we attended a dinner held on the anniversary of the Cohn family’s deportation, and for the first time we met other family members. We were joined by the genealogist and the archaeologists, who surprised us with an exact replica of the pendant that we had all seen in newspaper photos.
The next morning, a lone clarinet delicately looped its stark melody around the ethereal, flapping wings of shooting cameras while artist Gunter Demnig scraped at mortar and placed the four stolpersteine for Karolina, her sister Gitta, her father, Richard, and her mother, Else, in front of their last freely chosen residence.
We listened to speeches and presentations from journalists, politicians, and students from the Anne-Frank-Schule. In one speech, the large audience, huddled together on the narrow street, was asked to imagine everything that Karolina might have been: perhaps a doctor, a dancer, an artist, or a mother. There I stood, a grown woman whose years on Earth had been meted out in equal parts joy and grief. Nevertheless, I had been gifted a life, while Karolina’s had been brutally snuffed out just as she was beginning to plan her stretched out future.
I took a shallow breath, clutching at my pink rose, feeling completely inadequate. Not accomplished enough. Not brave enough. Not Jewish enough. I felt that old pang that had wounded me all those years ago, when I stood there on Park Avenue, abandoned by the young men in black suits waving their willow branches.
Later that day, after attending presentations at the Frankfurter Philantropin, believed to have been Karolina’s school, we took a train to Darmstadt, where we visited our great-great grandparents’ graves. We asked the rabbi who gave us a tour of the cemetery why the Nazis hadn’t destroyed it. The family names on the gravestones, he told us, were used to identify those who tried to deny any Jewish ancestry, to implicate those who were simply trying to stay alive.
The world now knows one more murdered girl’s name, a defiant and heroic feat that Karolina miraculously pulled off when, over seventy years later, the hands of an archaeologist dug deep into the dirt and found her pendant as proof that she existed, despite the Nazis’ desperate attempts to erase all evidence that she had. “I was here! Remember me!”
A cousin commented on one of my social media posts: “Wir sind alles Karolina.” We are all Karolina. His inclusive prayer holds all of us together in one hand, doing our best to love our imperfect, unfinished selves, so that we might have a measure of love left to give to this damaged world.
Author’s Note: July 3rd would have been Karolina’s 90th birthday. The German Claims Conference will mark this day by asking people in Frankfurt to lay a flower on the memorial in Thomasiusstrasse 10 and share their thoughts on social media. Their postings for this event will be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at the handle @JewishClaimsCon.
Cynthia Bruckman is a dual U.S./Canadian citizen, currently living in Victoria, B.C. Her writing includes creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and plays. Her poetry book Endangered Species was published by Wind River Press. Her plays have been produced in New York City (American Living Room Festival at HERE/Lincoln Center Theater; Soho Rep), San Francisco (The Climate Theatre), and Seattle (New City Theater). She is the recipient of awards and grants from the Bossak/Heilbron Charitable Foundation, the Brooklyn Arts Council, and the American Conservatory Theater. She teaches English to refugees and new immigrants, and occasionally works as a theater teaching artist. In her spare time, she volunteers with at-risk youth. You can find her at cynthiabruckman.com.
She would like to thank the archaeologists, Yoram Haimi and Wojciech Mazurek, for unearthing the pendant, and genealogist Chaim Motzen for reuniting family, and Cornelia Maimon Levi from Claims Conference Germany for all her hard work. She dedicates this piece to Karolina, Gitta, Else, and Richard.