The Tears of Time

They say, “You can’t go home again.” But you can. Especially if you’ve never been there before. It only took me 75 years.

My father, born in 1912, was from Germany’s Hartz Mountains. As a man in his early twenties, he wrote a letter to a cousin outside the country condemning the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in his homeland. It was confiscated at the border, and he was jailed for two to three months. When he was released just prior to Christmas, he was told all jailed political prisoners were freed as a holiday goodwill gesture. When he got home, however, he learned his father and the mayor of his town had bought his freedom with the stipulation he would leave Germany immediately. He fled to Zurich, Switzerland.

Later he deduced he had been released mere weeks before the concentration camps were ready to brutally dehumanize their victims and horrify the world.

Dad lived in Zurich from 1936 to 1946. During that time, he was a man without a country. Exiled from Germany and not allowed to seek Swiss citizenship, he had to ask permission from the Swiss government to accept any work he was offered as well as to attend classes at the University of Zurich where he had hoped to earn his PhD in corporate law. It was a humiliating time for my father.

Dad lived in a pension (pronounced “pawn-see-on”), similar to a boarding house, during those years. He also met my mother, a native Zurich resident, early in that decade. They immigrated to the U.S., Seattle to be precise, in 1946 and were married shortly thereafter.

Near the end of his life, Dad wrote his memoir. It included the address of the pension in which he had resided for those ten years. It was a minute detail. But, obviously, it was important to him.

I recently traveled to Europe for the first time. After two weeks in Spain, I flew to Zurich and walked the streets of my mother’s youth and young adulthood. And I searched for the pension, never dreaming it still would be there. I had an image of a weather-worn wooden Old West boarding house, borrowed from TV westerns and Hollywood movies, on a busy thoroughfare full of clanging trolleys and rushing pedestrians.

I simply wanted to visit the neighborhood and the property where he had lived so long ago. I wanted to walk the streets he had walked long before I existed. I wanted to honor my father’s past and somehow share the ghosts of that time with him. I also knew Mom had spent considerable time in and around that building, so it connected me to her, too. But, I thought, “How could such an imagined shabby building survive all these years? Certainly, a modern building had replaced it.”

Imagine my surprise when I found the building, a sturdy concrete four-story fortress in a lovely, quiet neighborhood. As I spotted the street sign on the corner and then “22” on the side of building, I could feel my heartbeat race. As I walked the path to the front door and steps, I could feel emotions well inside. My knees shook. By the time I reached the steps, I was sobbing. I stumbled to sit down. And I sat there for ten minutes, an emotional wreck, thinking about all Dad had gone through prior to and while living there. I thought about how strong he had been and how he seldom spoke about those times, but when he did, it was without anger, but rather in a matter-of-fact tone. I gazed upward, to the top floor, knowing Dad’s room had been there. And I realized I had defied the saying, the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, and I had gone home again. For the first time.

As I walked away, tear tracks on my cheeks, I thought about all Dad had sacrificed due to anti-Semitism and hate. While he did earn his PhD in comparative corporate law, comparing German and Swiss laws, it all was for naught. It meant nothing in the United States.

Dad, however, did fill that legal gap, that need for process, throughout his life. He sat on countless committees, often chairing them, and he served on the board of directors of a leading HMO for nearly a decade. One of my prized possessions is his wooden gavel.

But as I walked away from that pension, I also realized I had just had my “Auschwitz moment.”

I didn’t lose any close relatives in a concentration camp — Dad’s parents had been carted off to the Warsaw Ghetto where they allegedly died, his brother had escaped to the U.S. in the early 1930s — but I have read and viewed numerous accounts of descendants of camp victims when, decades after the atrocities, they visited the sites. They were overcome with pain and emotion, often crumbling to the ground, mourning their deceased family members.

I had the same experience, just in a less violent scenario, in a more-humane place. I, too, had gone home again for the first time.

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Tom Nussbaum
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