When I was growing up. my family didn’t much talk about the Holocaust and I have since learned that, at the time, almost nobody did. Out of shame, I think. On the Jewish side, shame that they let the catastrophe – Shoah – happen to them (although, of course, they really didn’t). On the German’s side, shame that they had let themselves become such monsters (although, of course, not all of them were). On everybody’s else’s side, shame that they were passive bystanders (although, of course, in the end, they weren’t). However for much of Michele’s long lost, just found, family – collectively known as The Cousins – the Shoah was the center of their lives.
Michele’s father, Kurt, got out of Europe before the war with, apparently, the help of his – then -wife’s family. They bought him a ticket to the United States where he joined the US Army, watched Europe convulse from the safety of the Aleutian Islands, divorced, changed into a lapsed Catholic named Kurt von Henriksberg from Belgium, remarried, became a photographer and, then, an American success story as Kurt Heath, the developer. In the process, he left his family behind with his old life.
Michele grew up wondering why all of her Catholic father’s stories didn’t quite line up. So, after Kurt died and after she read and reread his self-written obituary, after she obtained his Social Security application and found out Kurt’s real name was Hoenigsberg, Michele went to the Internet. There she found a family tree that had a branch almost the same as the family Kurt talked about. One of the family, Fred Hilsenrath – in suspenders above – even lived nearby. Michele called him and to see if he was related to her father, while he doubted they were related, he invited us over for dinner (just like Kurt would have done). That was the first clue, the second was their matching accents, and the third was a picture that Claudia brought of their grandfather that was taken in Fred’s home town in Romania.
I had the honor of spending some time with this family at a get together organized by Fred and Michele’s sister, Claudia. In a curious way, I felt very much at home with them. Michele’s cousins give the impression of being closer to my father’s family of my childhood than they do to any part of Michele’s family that I have known.
There is an observational joke sometime attributed to Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who said For every two Jews, there are three opinions. In many ways that is the core of the Jewish intellectual legacy. I have been told that it is much of what the Talmud is about and it seems to be the core of both this family and what I remember of my family growing up. Some of my fondest memories of my father – and mother, for that matter – are arguments. Arguments over Dred Scott v. Sandford or the desirability of a tram to the top of Mt. San Jacinto with my dad; here, arguments over Israel or affordable health care. There were more than two Jews at the reunion – and because this is a modern family, and much of it, a modern American family, there were more than just Jews – and many more than three opinions.
There was time to visit with grandchildren,
time to tell stories, and take photographs.
At the end of the day, there was time to drink a toast to life, to resilience, and to family.