I went to Luebeck, Germany, to research an artifact from World War II that had wedged its way into my family’s mythology.
Now that I’ve returned from this canal city, located 40 minutes from Hamburg, I’m certain of only one thing: Family stories should be nudged and probed.
Three years ago, I wrote about the tension in my Jewish-American family over what to do with a 1938 edition of “Mein Kampf” that my great uncle brought home from the war in 1945. This particular copy of Hitler’s political manifesto bore an inscription from Luebeck’s mayor wishing a couple best wishes on their wedding day.
As I embarked on my quest, I hoped to build bridges that history meant to destroy. Yet nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, it’s an uneasy endeavor to nurture a connection between a Jewish-American family from Boston whose relatives perished at Treblinka and a German family whose patriarch received a copy of Mein Kampf as a wedding present.
My siblings and I grew up on the story that my great uncle, Eddie Cohen of Brooklyn, N.Y., killed a German soldier in battle, went through the man’s rucksack, and found this copy of Mein Kampf. But as I tracked down the names inscribed on the front page, I became more puzzled than puzzle master.
The handwritten inscription was difficult to read; we thought the couple’s last name was “Tefs.” But when I showed it to a genealogist and expert in German Gothic handwriting, she concluded the inscription was addressed to Walter and Klara Jess, dated April 29, 1938. Historic resident registration cards from Luebeck indicated they were married that day.
Yet it was not a battle wound that took the life of Walter Jess. It was skin cancer, an affliction far removed from the epic chaos of the battlefield. He died June 30, 1967.
I know this because his son told me.
Two weeks before I left for Luebeck last June, I made contact for the first time with the Jess children—now in their 60s and 70s — thanks to the genealogists who located them. Axel Jess and his older sister, Heike Stucke, patiently answered my flurry of questions over email. They did not protest the personal information I sought from them. But ours was not a comfortable interaction.
How could it be — considering our different histories and that our only link was a copy of Mein Kampf?
Walter Jess joined the Nazi party in 1933, according to his Nazi party registration papers that a genealogist located at the German Federal Archives, and worked as a land registry secretary. He did serve as a sergeant in France in 1943, according to his son, but I do not know if his path ever crossed my great uncle’s.
I asked Heike over the phone whether her parents ever spoke about the missing book.
“I never heard anything,” she said. “After the war we never talked about [World War II] in our house.”
But perhaps a clue could be found in a bookcase that had been in Walter and Klara’s home.
In my parents’ house in Needham, my father had insisted on displaying the Mein Kampf that had come from his uncle upside down on his bookshelf. My mother couldn’t look at it. She wanted it quarantined from her books, but sometimes it touched something she wanted to read, causing her great distress.
Nearly 4,000 miles away, a bookshelf in the Jess homestead told a different story.
In 1945, American troops entered the German town of Hillesheim, where the Jess family had moved from Luebeck. Soldiers went from house to house.
According to Heike, who was visiting her grandmother at the time, “they axed down the bookcase.”
Because it held a copy of Mein Kampf?
Axel, Heike’s brother, said he thinks that might be a possibility.
“The bookcase of that time is still standing in my living room!! And the colour of the wood of the two sliding doors is indeed different to the colour of the rest of the bookcase!! ... That means, these parts had to be replaced (because the American Soldiers probably destroyed these doors, as our parents told us). And I think, the book ‘Mein Kampf’ was in the bookcase,” Axel emailed from his home in Mainz, Germany.
But Axel wasn’t born until after the war.
So both of our families — one Jewish, one German — share our respective anecdotes that somehow don’t match up.
I asked my father if perhaps he, as a precocious boy, invented the story about how his uncle came to seize the Mein Kampf.
My father, after all, once took a baseball bat to his parents’ television in 1950 — at their home in New York — when a news station broadcasted a picture of Hitler. Perhaps this battlefield story was little Freddie Mandell’s way of honoring his uncle’s service against the Fascist tyrant.
“Maybe,” my father said. At this point, there’s no way to know.
My family loaned its copy of Mein Kampf to Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, where it became part of an exhibit on prejudice.
Its spot in a glass case made it look like a relic. But it’s not — it’s a story, evolving with each email I exchange with the Jess children, bringing the ripples of World War II into the 21st century.
A gold plaque inscribed my family lore into the book’s history. It read: “The book was a war ‘souvenir’ taken from a dead German soldier by Fred Mandell’s uncle Eddie Cohen during a World War II battle.”
When the school’s facility director, Steve Greenberg, heard me say that the Mein Kampf’s original owner survived the war, he offered an unambiguous response.
“I like the story on the plaque much better,” he said.
On a drizzling day last June, I stood in front of a strip of stores in Luebeck.
On the street level there was a Greek fast-food joint, a lingerie boutique and a shoe outlet. But it was the floor above these shops that captured my attention. That’s where the Jesses, an ordinary German couple, lived in 1938 when they became married.
The Jess family didn’t live there anymore. And the Jess children were out of the country on vacation.
At the church in Luebeck where Walter and Klara Jess wed, I told the woman selling books there that I knew of a couple who got married at St. Mary’s in 1938.
“That was a very long time ago,” she said.
But history is always with us.
While Walter and Klara are no longer alive, my research has put me in touch with their children, which has pushed me to consider difficult questions. This was only possible by viewing the Mein Kampf as a book that is not relegated to the dark alleys of history but as an object that can shed light on my family’s history today and that can connect me to two people I didn’t even know existed.
I do not yet have children. But if one day I do, then this journey, including my search for Axel and Heike, will be part of the amended Mein Kampf story I tell them.
And now, unexpectedly, my family’s lore has become etched into the Jess family history, too. That, perhaps, is the bridge-building I was after.
On July 13 I received an email from Heike that struck a personal chord.
“So, I wish you luck with writing a family saga and [offer] hope with some resolution,” she wrote.
I never told her or Axel that I was in search of something as clear-cut as a “resolution.”
Yet they knew.