As a novelist, I am fascinated by decisions. Choice, real or imagined, is what separates tragedy from mythology. Decisions, always made with incomplete understanding, shape the arc of lives and narrative.
Last summer I was fortunate enough to receive a monthlong fellowship, the Beth and Arthur Lev Student Research Fellowship, to try and understand decisions my great great aunt made which lead to her death in the Neuengamme concentration camp in late April of 1945. After Kristallnacht, my great great aunt Senta Doheme fled Hamburg in 1938, with her mother and daughter. She traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where her uncle had a pharmacy business. Then, in 1939, she returned to Hamburg, to her husband, and to her eventual death. Why did my great great aunt decide to return to Germany having already escaped and knowing the danger? Over the years my family, my mother in particular, have speculated any number of reasons, from heroic ones involving distributing Ecuadorian entrance visas, to less admirable motivations like smuggling coffee. The novel I’m writing built from what I know of Senta’s life uses fiction to cultivate these different possible stories, and I used my time in the archive to search out parallel experiences to my great great aunt’s possible ones.
Throughout my time researching topics that intersected Senta’s life (Neuengamme, the Fuhlsbuttel prison, and Kristallnacht; as well as testimonies of migration to Ecuador and other Latin American countries and resistance groups.) I was struck again and again by destabilization as the condition of genocide. Beyond the horrific stories of train cars bringing victims to the death camps that I knew, there is a whole cascade of uprootings and migrations that happened before and long after the genocide. Once the campaign against the Jews is underway there was no way not to move, not to lose. Over and over again the index term ‘Flight Decisions’ appeared in the testimonies. These were the inflection points where people decided if they could leave everything. Where they decided that their society had turned against them. Peter Beck, one of the Jews who emigrated to Ecuador, fled in 1939. In his testimony he remarks that his father had been awarded an Iron Cross in the First World War and could not believe Germany would ever turn on him. On the eve of the war, he was told by a contact in the Argentine consulate that he could have forged entrance visas to South America if he could get corresponding exit visas from Germany that weekend. The ambassador was on a trip and so the contact could vouch for the questionable visas. Beck’s father used his Iron Cross to get exit visas at 5pm on Sunday after waiting in line all day, he went to the SS officer and demanded the favor. Later he would give the Iron Cross to Peter for a school recycling campaign. That night they flew to Genoa, where they took the same ship that likely brought my great great Aunt back from safety. That ship, the Orazio, was sabotaged shortly after, likely by the German government who had warned the Italian passenger line to stop transporting refugees to South America.
Others were not so lucky, or waited too long. Many of these people were interdicted, or rejected at Latin American ports having been sold false visas. Marion Mostny’s aunt, who lived in Chile, sent four visas that saved Marion, her parents and her brother. But left Marion’s grandparents to perish in Auschwitz. Marion’s mother never forgave the aunt, or herself, and only lived ten years after learning of her parent’s fate.
The term ‘flight decisions,’ implies something of a voluntary nature, but I don’t think that anyone would voluntarily have these experiences. And while the testimonies of survivors who escaped to South America are free of the wrenching witness of murder on a mass scale, I never found one that was not marked by loss in a real and permanent fashion. I was struck by this considering my great great aunt’s decisions, and what might seem irrational or reckless in retrospect. How much control did she have returning to Germany at that late date? Could she have imagined that her daughter would spend her entire life in Guayaquil, as she did, or was she assuming the danger would pass in a few months or years? When lockdown was announced last year it was only supposed to be two weeks. Studying the testimonies is a profound reflection on how little we can really choose our fate.
At the same time, they are a reflection on luck and generosity. Countless times a friend or relative reaches out at the last minute with a way to escape. A border guard waves someone past. A customs officer stamps a forged visa. A small community of Jews, like the Lebanese Jews of Guayaquil, welcome a wave of Eastern European Jews they have nothing in common with. A young Jewish girl, Jodie Mendelson, was welcomed to join the Ecuadorian National Ballet at age 9. On one hand, this is the stuff Hollywood has made of the Holocaust. On the other hand it is true. Even as my great great aunt’s story ended in tragedy, her daughter and mother along with thousands of Jews made new lives in Ecuador and in Latin America. Any number of small acts of grace made that possible. I feel this is an important fact to reiterate in our new century of migration and displacement. I’m reminded of Jenny Erpenbeck’s fantastic novel of the latest European ‘migrant crisis’, Go, Went, Gone. In it a retired professor performs a series of small kindnesses for African refugees in Berlin. He observes, “The [Refugees] probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.” While we can’t know how the large choices we make in life will resolve, we can make small kind ones to help ensure that others meet a happier fate.
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