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The Motherland

On an odyssey of self-discovery, a reporter follows his mother’s childhood to the horrors of Nazi Germany.



Sometimes when you love someone, you have to let them go. Edith Clothilde Pick learned this painful lesson June 15, 1939. On that day 61 years ago, this 16-year-old Austrian teenager was let go. She was sent to live in England by her parents, Josef and Malvine. The Picks loved their only child very much, but they also knew if Edith stayed with them in Vienna, Austria, she would not survive. Josef Pick, you see, was Jewish.

In March 1938, the military forces of Adolph Hitler and Germany seized Austria. Just eight months later came Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” On that evening, all over Germany and Austria and other Nazi occupied areas, Jews were the target of a ferocious attack by storm troopers, Hitler Youth and members of the SS. By the time anti-Semitic brutality had ended, 7,500 Jewish businesses had been destroyed, hundreds of synagogues burned, scores of Jews killed and more than 25,000 rounded up to be sent to concentration camps.

This night of atrocities, however, did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. England soon relaxed its immigration laws and offered sanctuary to some of the threatened Jewish children of Europe. Over the next year, those children came by the thousands to the British Isles; Jewish boys and girls seeking shelter and safety. They came from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia. They were simply called, “The Children of 1939.”

Edith Pick was one of them. It was that year Josef Pick signed a document that began, “Ich bescheinige hierdurch, dass ich mit der Auswanderung meines Kindes Edith Pick.” Translated, the document says, “I authorize the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, to take all steps which are considered necessary for the well-being of my child in England. I recognize the Movement as the legal guardian of my child and declare myself in agreement with all decisions made by the Movement from now until the time my child and I are reunited.” Little did Josef Pick know he would never see his daughter again—or maybe he did know. Sometimes when you hate something you have to embrace it; otherwise the hate can consume you.

Long ago, I made a silent vow never to set foot in Germany. In my mind, it was truly an evil place. Just hearing the country mentioned or the language spoken disturbed me greatly. Things that began in Germany caused my family—and millions of other families—a lot of pain and misery. I had no desire to go there and certainly no plans to do so. But as I get older, I have begun confronting my fears. Instead of avoiding those things that make me uncomfortable, I have started seeking them out, embracing them if you will. Perhaps in so doing, I am issuing a personal challenge. If I can take on the things that haunt me, I seem to be saying to myself, then maybe they will no longer make me afraid. I didn’t want to go to Germany because I was afraid it might prove too emotional a journey. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to go recently presented itself, I went.

I am a great believer that the little things in life ultimately end up being the most significant. My first stop in Berlin, therefore, was at a small museum honoring a woman named Kathe Kollwitz. She was a greatly influential 20th century German artist. Using mostly stark black-and-white drawings, Kollwitz devoted herself almost exclusively to portraying the human condition. I guarantee you her work is not for the faint of heart. Some of the titles of her works include: “Want,” “Bread!” “Death Recognized as Friend” and “Battlefield.” The latter has particular meaning because Kollwitz lost a son on the battlefields of World War I, and a grandson in World War II.

What I found particularly fascinating and compelling about her sketches were her depictions of the horrors of war. Not scenes capturing the brutality of the battlefield, but instead the hardships endured at home. Kollwitz achingly made the plight of wartime widows and orphans come to life. To enter this artist’s world is to see the poverty, misery and uncertainty that war brings.

I went to this small art gallery not just for the quality of Kollwitz’s work, but also for the underlying themes of her drawings and sculptures. Seen over and over again in the art at the Kollwitz museum is the noble attempt of parents, especially mothers, to protect their children from the evils of the world. Many of these pieces depict mothers desperately wrapping their arms around their children, almost as if these emotional embraces would be enough to ward off any threat of evil.

While the art of Kathe Kollwitz can be truly gut-wrenching, I did, oddly enough, find some unexpected comfort in this tiny Berlin Museum. One of her most famous works, “Mother With Boy,” contrasts sharply with most of her other drawings. It is a black-and-white portrait of a German mother holding her young son snugly in her arms. Both have wonderful smiles illuminating their faces. This portrait lightened my mood immensely. It served as a tonic, a strong reminder of the positive bond that exists between a mother and her son.

Thus, I left the Kollwitz Museum in a surprisingly gentle and reflective mood. I had just been introduced to a new and powerful artist whose work will now stay with me for the rest of my life. Besides, it was a beautiful, sunny autumn day in what is rapidly becoming a very cosmopolitan European city.

But Berlin, I was about to discover, is very much a place of strong contradictions. Just a few blocks away from the museum, I stopped abruptly in my tracks. Right before my eyes was Germany’s dark past laid out for all to see. It came in the form of a rather large sign just outside a U-Bahn subway stop. Written on the sign were German words I did not recognize: “Orte des Schreckens, die wir niemals vergessen durfen.” But it wasn’t those words that made me shudder, it was the names listed underneath: “Auschwitz, Stutthof, Maidanek, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, Trostenez and Flossenburg.” These are the names of Nazi death camps. Later, I would learn what “Orte des Schreckens, die wir niemals vergessen durfen” means. Roughly translated, those words at the top of the sign said, “places of fright, which we never forget.”

Suddenly, it seemed wherever I looked in Berlin, World War II was never far away. Just a few steps away was the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church—or perhaps I should say what remains of it. This bombed-out former place of worship still stands in the heart of Berlin as dramatic testimony to the destructive powers of war. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon something I had only seen in old black-and-white newsreels—the Brandenburg Gate. It was built more than 200 years ago. On the bottom section are a half-dozen columns. They support an all too familiar image on top. It is a statue of the Goddess of Victory, a winged woman driving a chariot pulled by four horses. I remembered the “Brandenburger Tor,” as it is called, not because it is one of the most identifiable landmarks of Berlin. No, I remembered this edifice because Hitler used to parade his troops underneath—legions of goose-stepping German soldiers. Perhaps some of those Nazis I saw in the newsreels were the same ones who invaded Austria or herded people onto trains bound for those places of fright.

After the war, Edith Clothilde Pick went back to the European continent to look for her parents. She never found them. She was told they were sent to Auschwitz and never came back. A few years later, in 1952, she met a young American soldier at a social gathering He was handsome, whip-smart and a lieutenant with U.S. Army Intelligence. Eventually they married and she moved with her husband to the United States. There, the former Edith Pick had two children. One of them was me. Incidentally, the city my parents first met in was Berlin.

Suspecting it would be the most emotional and most difficult moment of my visit to Germany, I waited until my last day in Berlin to visit the city’s old Jewish district. The historic synagogue on Oranienburger Street had been attacked by Nazis during Kristallnacht, but restored and reopened 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, since the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade ago many new and positive things have gone up in its place. Now, I haven’t been to a synagogue in years, and as my friends at Salt Lake’s Congregation Kol Ami will quickly confirm, I am not the most devout Jew in the world. Still, being in Germany and given my family’s history, I felt a visit to Berlin’s “Neue Synagogue,” would be most appropriate—even vital, perhaps.

After seeing Washington, D.C.’s, National Holocaust Museum a few years ago, I felt emotionally prepared to handle any future exhibits focusing on Hitler’s so-called “final solution.” I was wrong. I found this out when I entered the synagogue and discovered a special display called, “Juden in Berlin, 1938-45.” It was a history of Jews in Germany’s capital city starting with Kristallnacht and continuing until the end of World War II.

Bit by bit, the synagogue’s exhibit began to take its emotional toll. First there were the stark black-and-white photos of anti-Semitism and persecution. Then there was a faded, yellow patch of cloth. It was a Star of David, the kind Jews in Germany and elsewhere had to wear on their clothes. Finally, there was an old video of a train pulling out of the station, German soldiers hanging from the sides. According to the narration, it was a train headed for Auschwitz. For the first time since arriving in Berlin, I felt an anger—no, a rage—welling up inside me. This was the hate I had traveled thousands of miles to embrace.

Toward the end of the exhibit, I came across a familiar but unwelcome sight. It was a small, white cardboard “kindertransport” identification card. It had been issued to a young Jewish teenager 61 years ago so he could escape Germany and enter England. This was another of the “Children of 1939.” I recognized the card immediately. It’s a document well-known to my family. As a matter of fact, as I wrote these words my mother’s own “kindertransport” card lay on the desk in front of me. On one side, there is a picture of my mom as a 16-year-old girl. Flip the card over and you’ll see the stamped date she arrived in England: “15JUN1939.”

By the time I left the Berlin synagogue, dark clouds had formed over the city, the wind had kicked up, and a distinct chill had settled in the air. But the elements were the least of my concerns. At that point I was numb inside. The exhibit had gotten to me. Anger, sadness, despair—I felt all those things and more. I suspect my despondent face at that moment resembled something from a Kathe Kollwitz drawing.

As much as I wanted to go back to the hotel at that point and curl up under the covers, there was one more place in Berlin I had to visit. The Grosse Hamburger Strasse Memorial is just a few blocks away from the synagogue. It is by design small, simple and unassuming. But it is the little things in life that are ultimately most important. On one side of this tiny memorial park there are dark metal statues of adults and children. They represent the tens of thousands of Berlin Jews deported to concentration camps. Perhaps most striking about these statues are the expressions on their faces—or maybe it is better to say the lack of expression on their faces. The faces are blank, almost devoid of any emotion or feeling. Their eyes reminded me of the eyes Kollwitz drew. Eyes so dark and set so far back, they almost look like black holes. Stare into them long enough and you might never come out.

Next to these statues is a simple marker commemorating other Jewish citizens of Berlin. In and of itself, it is rather plain—just a stone marker with a plaque written in German and adorned with a metal Star of David. Yet it moved me greatly, as much as anything had moved me in a long, long time. Who knows why? Maybe it was the single rose resting in front of it, or perhaps the tiny rocks placed on top by other visitors. Maybe it was simply the fact that I was in Germany finally confronting my fears. The truth is, at that point I began to lose it. The weather had grown quite cold, the wind had picked up considerably and a sad rain began to fall. Yet, there I stood. I simply could not stop staring at this marker. It wasn’t long before images of my mother, her parents, the war and the Holocaust gathered in my mind. Try as I might, I simply could not make sense of an incomprehensible injustice that happened some 60 years ago. A young girl forced to leave her home because of her father’s religion. Parents who would never see their daughter again, and who would perish just because of who they were and what they believed. But it wasn’t just thoughts of my family that pushed me over the brink. It was thinking about all the victims of Hitler’s “final solution” and thinking about their families.

The tears were the first indication something was wrong. Then my knees— they suddenly seemed incapable of supporting me. Then came the shakes, violent and uncontrollable. Alone with my thoughts in a country I had vowed never to step foot in, I could no longer escape or deal with emotions long since bottled up. I was about to crumble under the enormous weight of the past.

Then something mystical happened. Instantly, the tears stopped, my spine stiffened and the shakes vanished. Suddenly I went cold and hard inside. Every emotion and feeling inside me immediately drained from my system. An eerie calmness and newfound resolve had quietly taken hold. I turned my back on the marker and never looked back. Only later, after I had found warmth and shelter in the Cafe Beth Jewish restaurant, did it truly dawn on me what had happened. Just as I was about to come totally unglued at the Hamburger Strasse Memorial, a single, unusual thought sobered me up: “If you cry, then they have won. Don’t let them win.”

That is what an inner voice had screamed to me at the marker. I wasn’t entirely sure who “they” were. Hitler? The Nazis? Germans? I just didn’t know, nor was I entirely clear about what not letting them win meant. I suspected, however, it might have had something to do with the old Israeli vow: never forgive, never forget. Eventually, as I sat in this small Kosher Cafe, it all started making sense. “Don’t let them win,” was a command from the past. It was my mother and my grandparents telling me that the best way to honor them was to remember what had happened 60 years ago and never let it happen again.

As Lufthansa flight No. 402 headed down the runway to begin its journey back to the States, my thoughts naturally turned to my mother. Some 43 years ago, she had turned her back on Europe and gone to live in America. She never told us about her childhood or what had happened to her parents. As dad once told me, she simply wanted to get on with her life. Mom passed away before I really learned of her past. I never got to ask her any of the questions that now haunt me. Did she know exactly why she was being sent to England? Did she ever hear from her parents after she got there? What is the full story of Josef and Malvine Pick and Auschwitz? Sadly, I may never find the answers to these and many other questions.

I somehow wish I had a happy ending to this story. I wish I could tell you going to Germany provided a cathartic release, that I have finally confronted my demons and been made whole. But that isn’t the case. I left Germany much as I had entered it, with decidedly mixed emotions. Yes, I did summon up the nerve to go to a dark place that frightened me, but in so doing, I was painfully reminded why I had resisted it. Now I understand that I may never have closure for this part of my life. I may never find out exactly what happened to my mother or her family, and even if I do, I may never fully understand it or accept it. At times, I simply wish the whole matter would merely go away, but somehow it always comes back to haunt me. I guess my quest to find out exactly what happened to my mother will continue. Sometimes when you love someone, you just can’t let them go.

Chris Vanocur is a reporter for KTVX News.