Child of the Holocaust, Celia Appel of America Returns for a Reunion to the Germany She Fled 50 Years Ago
The happy schoolgirl shrieks flash silvery through the thick air. The school friends fall into each other's arms, one and then another and another, entangling, embracing in that jumble of hugs and kisses young girls use when they come together after a summer's separation. As they embrace, Cilly Mann and Gertrud Gewürz, Fanny Gewürz and Anni Rephun shed no tears of joy; perhaps all their tears had been shed long ago. For this moment they are schoolgirls again. For this moment they hold in their hands a treasure that had been stolen from them 50 years ago: their childhood. This day was long in coming.
Cilly Mann: Her neighbors in the condominium complex in Coconut Creek, Fla., know her as Celia Appel, president of the B'nai B'rith Women, retired school district secretary from suburban New York. She looks American, speaks American English and for many years wanted no one to know that she had ever been a schoolgirl who lived at Rüppurrerstrasse 20 in Karlsruhe, in Germany, who went to the girls' division of the Uhlandschule, then to the Jewish school and spent summers playing in the Black Forest until the Nazis made her family flee for their lives. But now, in an extravagant gesture of atonement and affection, Karlsruhe has invited back all its ehemalige jüdische Mitbürger—its former Jewish fellow citizens. And Cilly Mann, along with 600 others, has decided to see her hometown once again.
"It was just fate," Celia Appel remembers as she sits near the Pan Am gate at the Miami airport, waiting to leave. "We have a little condominium in Tuxedo, N.Y., near our two sons, and last year we came back from there early. Had we come back a week later, I would have missed the article in our Jewish Journal here that said some cities in West Germany were extending certain hospitalities to the Jewish people that want to go back." Now, with her Brooklyn-born husband, Irving, by her side for support, Celia Appel is going back, to be Cilly Mann again for a week.
On Nov. 9, 1938, the Holocaust began with Kristallnacht, when synagogues, businesses and homes were sacked by organized gangs of hooligans. "This is the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust," explains Dr. Gustav Rembold, a bluff, outgoing young man who serves as the budget director of Karlsruhe; he helped organize the reunion. "There are a lot of reasons for doing this now. The first is history. These Jewish people are our fellow citizens. We are ashamed, and we try to make good as far as we can do it."
The city is spending about $1,105,000 on the reunion, paying airfare, hotel bills, some meals and offering $80 in pocket money to each person who attends—and 900 people from six continents have signed up to come, in two sections in October and November. "I'm a bit surprised at how many wanted to come. But I think these people have a little homesickness. We created a situation in which 5 or 6 million people were left without a Heimat," the official says, using a German word richer in emotion than the English "homeland." "And more than that number were murdered. Now, maybe, at least some of these people can see their friends, their neighbors, meet an old friend or a neighborhood." Like most of the city officials involved in the reunion, Dr. Rembold has no personal memory of the Holocaust. He was born as the war was coming to an end, in 1944.
"I've been awake since 4 o'clock this morning," Celia Appel says after the plane takes off. "I'm keyed up. I'm full of anticipation. They sent a list of all the people who are coming. I can't tell you how many times I went up and down that list, and each time I saw another name. That's the thrill of it all. I'm going to meet friends, friends that I thought had perished in the Holocaust, in the gas chambers."
She hasn't long to wait; Celia Appel settles into seat 21H of the 747. One row behind her, by complete coincidence, sits Belle Weintraub, a fellow Floridian. Each carries the same aging class picture from a school in Karlsruhe, and back in the waiting room, the first of many meetings take place:
"I don't believe it!"
All through the long flight, people scour the aisles of the cavernous plane, making reunions. "Have you been back in the smoking section?" one asks. "There are people back in smoking you might know." Throughout most of the eight hours in the air, people wander and discover, hug and reminisce. Celia Appel grows warm with remembered affection. "I love my city," she says. "Karlsruhe is a beautiful city. If it weren't for Hitler, I would have spent my life there. The people themselves are lovely people. But they followed Hitler blindly, without thinking."
"For years, she's been talking about Karlsruhe, telling me how beautiful Karlsruhe is," Irving Appel says with an indulgent smile. But the city she calls her Heimat lives in an ambiguous place in her mind. "I don't have a lack of anger," she says. "For almost 50 years, I had a feeling that I never wanted to go back. I was angry at them, very angry. I felt rejected by Karlsruhe. But I retired seven years ago, and maybe you feel that you're heading toward the last third of your life, I don't know...the feeling came over me that before I died I would like to see Karlsruhe once more."
In the Uhland school, the best student in class sat next to the second-best, the Jewish student Cilly Mann (born 1925). After a change of teachers in the middle of the school year, the new teacher looked over the seating order, then told the best student, "You don't have to sit next to a Jew!" and separated the two.
—from Swastika and Jewish Star: The Fate of Karlsruhe's Jews in the Third Reich (Badenia Verlag, 1988)
The greengrocer's daughter does not specifically remember the incident with the new teacher, but the hurts, small and great, will always be there: the shops with the Juden verboten signs, the friends and neighbors who stopped talking to her, the expulsion of Jewish children from the public schools. It was in Poland that Nazis shot and murdered her grandmother in cold blood and shipped her cousin and aunt off to their deaths in a concentration camp. But it was in Karlsruhe that, she recalls, "I heard Hitler ranting and raving against the Jews. He rode in a car right in front of our house on the Rüppurrerstrasse with his hand stretched out, and everybody in a frenzy of 'Sieg Heil! Sieg Heill' and the black-and-white-and-red flags were flying from every window by the thousands. I stood there on the sidewalk, and I was the only one who didn't raise her hand, but I was a little girl and I wasn't noticed."
It is a good day in West Germany, crisper and brighter than fall days along the Rhine often are, and Celia Appel is attentive as a cat to every changing detail of the landscape. The city of Karlsruhe has sent a bus to fetch its former fellow citizens from the Frankfurt airport, 90 minutes away. The buses will run all day, for people from Australia and Israel and South America, even a few—very few—from Germany. Soon, Celia will see her younger sister Selma Semmelman, from Los Angeles, and their baby sister, Ruth Cohen, from Atlanta. But first Celia will see Karlsruhe.
"This is it! This is the old part of town," she exclaims. "This is Karlsruhe, meine Heimat. It's still pretty! Irving, take a look, this is Karlsruhe!"
"I saw, I saw," answers Irving, in a voice heavy with fatigue.
"It's thrilling. Look at the cars. I never saw a car in those days, except maybe an official's. We rode only bicycles. Look how clean it is! You were arrested if you so much as threw a cigarette butt in the street. I wonder where our hotel is?"
"I hope it isn't a fleabag," says Irving, eyelids drooping.
"In Karlsruhe there should be a flea-bag?" the former citizen says with injured civic pride as the bus moves on at a stately pace, depositing guests at a string of hotels. "Look, there's the entrance to the Stadtgarten. They have the most beautiful botanic garden! And a lake! When I was not even 9 years old, I would go out on the lake alone in a rowboat." The bus moves along. "This is my territory here. There was a synagogue in this street. This is the main shopping street. I remember this so well. In my dreams I think of this." In that dignified American frame, the heart of the little Karlsruhe girl has once more come to life.
Her last day here was a different day. For several years, they had been trying to leave. In 1936 the Manns went to the American consulate in Stuttgart with an affidavit from her mother's sister that the family would not have to go on welfare in the United States. They submitted to interrogations and physical examinations. "We went back home, and my mother said, 'If we are allowed to leave, we will hear in a small white envelope. If we are rejected, all our papers will be sent back in a big brown envelope.' Two weeks later, the big brown envelope came." They never knew why. A year later, after more affidavits and another round of physicals, they got their white envelope. That final morning, her father sent her off to pay a rent bill to make sure that nothing stood between the family and freedom. She raced back, afraid that they might leave without her. At the border checkpoint on the Rhine, the Nazis went through everything they owned, leaving them only 50 Reichsmarks—about $50 for a family of five. But that night they had dinner in Paris, and the next morning they boarded the Aquitania, bound for New York. "In those days, people left everything behind and fled," she says. "What they lost, they lost. But they had their lives.
"Even though we came in May, near the end of the school year, I was registered in a school on the Lower East Side," she remembers. "The only word of English that I understood was when children pointed a finger at me and said, 'refugee.' That, to me, was the most degrading word. That summertime, we moved to the Bronx, and I determined to learn English without an accent." Within months, Cilly Mann, German refugee, had disappeared somewhere inside Celia, the American girl. She has stayed there until now.
That night, a coterie of city officials arrives at the hotel to welcome the guests and ask them what they want to do. For Celia, the priorities are simple: to see her old best friends, Gertrud and Fanny Gewürz and Anni Rephun; to see her old home on the Rüppurrerstrasse; and once more to row a boat in the Stadtgarten lake. An obliging graybeard named Heinrich Stephan, in daily life an architect for the city, promises to see to her requests.
Morning brings memories. A busload of visitors goes first to the old Jewish graveyard, then the new, then the synagogue. In the old graveyard stand markers for entire families from the last century; from this century, though, rest husbands without wives and wives without husbands, parents without children. The graves of many members of these families will never be known. One corner of the cemetery had been cleared of its ancient residents; neat rows of crosses stood over the graves of Russian aviators. Here the Third Reich buried all of its enemies together.
Abe Semmelman, the husband of Celia's sister Selma, is a pensive man with warm, sad eyes who serves as cantor in his Los Angeles synagogue. He also was a Karlsruhe child, and the weight of returning seems at first to sit heavily on him. When the group arrives at the new cemetery, they are met by a local cantor. Unplanned, unrehearsed, as if prompted by some force in the earth itself, the two men begin to sing the ancient prayer for the dead: Yisgadal Ve'Yiskadash.... The words of the kaddish hang in the rain-dampened air, and the tears that have been dammed up are shed.
Once there were four synagogues for the city of Karlsruhe. Now one synagogue serves three cities; more than 3,000 Jews lived here in 1933. Just over 200 do so in 1988. But a member of the congregation tells the visitors, "This is a good place for us to live today," and the officials of the city are eager to prove it. The Holocaust is held in the memory, but this week, these people find room in their souls for happiness as well. "We're not coming here to see the camps and the ovens," Celia reflects. "We're coming to see each other and the city. We all have good feelings about the city. It was a lovely way of life we had here. Gemütlich."
Herr Stephan has been attentive to his task. A city-owned van arrives to carry Celia and her sisters back to their childhood home. Rüppurrerstrasse 20 has changed. The alley that curves back from the street was bombarded in the war; although the brick facades remain, the innards of these old buildings have been replaced with functional precast concrete. The tenants nowadays are mostly Gastarbeiter, the foreign workers on the bottom rung of Germany's social scale. Celia walks along the alley with her head cocked back and her eyes alight and stops the first resident she sees to ask whether her old neighbors are still around.
"Wohnet eine Familie Kistner oder Golling hier?" she asks. The man shakes his head; he has never heard of either family. But then he is a recent arrival from Jordan.
As the three sisters examine the entranceway, a fourth-floor window flies open. "What's going on down there?" an old woman demands, in accented English. "I'm nosy. I don't mind asking."
She is told that three former residents have returned. "What's their name?" she asks. Mann, she is told.
"Mann? Jakob Mann's daughters?" Her aging eyes bulge. "Wait there. I'll be right down."
The old woman who waits for her is unfamiliar; hair blond, skin firm, eyes clear—who could she have been in 1938? "I am Cilly Mann," says Celia. "This is Selma and Ruth. What is your name?"
"G-O-L-L-I-N-G," she says. "Golling."
A moment of stunned silence, then three voices shrieking, "FRAU GOLLING!" as one. Kisses. Embraces. Gasps. "Frau Golling," says Celia. "This is the lady! The lady I'm looking for. Our next-door neighbor!" Then, to the smiling octogenarian, "You were our neighbor! You were such a good neighbor!" Says Selma: "Remember when I won the star in school, and I gave it to you for the top of your Christmas tree?"
Frau Golling nods.
"She was our best friend, "Selma says. "On the Sabbath, when we couldn't put on the light, she would put on the light for us. On Passover, we would give her matzohs, and she loved them."
They catch up on 50 years: Yes, the building now has electricity. Yes, she has lived here all that time. Her husband is dead. Celia's father has also passed on, but her mother, 88, is still alive. Frau Golling will write to her in California. There is a long goodbye, backward glances, waving. Walking away, they recall how, in this woman, the mad enigma of the Germans in those days was personified. Though she lit their candles and turned on their lights and invited their mother in to listen to her radio, Frau Golling was married to a man who supported Hitler. "He was a very stern guy, tough, anti-semitic," Celia recalls. When she was with her husband, Frau Golling avoided her friends, the Manns.
That night at the civic auditorium, another long-awaited moment. The German hosts have been working to track down Celia's school friends, but they needn't have bothered. She scours the giant room, looking through hundreds of faces with a happy singleness of purpose. "I'm not sure I'd recognize them," she says again and again. But she does: Anni Rephun's face has not changed over 50 years, and minutes later, they and the Gewürz twins are together, hugging. There are stories: The twins had to go on foot to France; a Jewish agency eventually resettled them in Palestine. They have lived in Israel since; Celia has been near their homes in Israel.
From every purse, the photographs fly out: Here a husband, here a daughter, here a grandchild, here a house. Beneath the soaring ceiling of this hall, more home photographs may be displayed than in any other single place on earth, before or since. After a long reunion, and a date to meet again tomorrow, the girls split up, in search of other friends. Celia pauses in wonder: "This moment made the trip worthwhile."
There will be no end to the magic of the week. Because Celia wanted once more to row a boat in the public garden, Herr Stephan has arranged it. Only later does it develop that no row-boats have ventured there for 30 years. The city found one in the zoo lake and sent a worker to row it, in the rain, a mile or so down the canal to the garden. Herr Doktor Kohm, the director of the zoo and garden, personally escorts Celia to the boat. And though Irving has to shield her with an umbrella against the rain, she is off like a shot to the center of the lake, the little girl's grin back on her face once again.
Karlsruhe has labored mightily to make its former fellow citizens comfortable: There are receptions, exhibits, maps, translators, facilitators. But for Celia Appel, perhaps the most memorable occasion is a very unofficial function. The phone in her hotel room rings. The Gewürz twins are having a little gathering in their hotel that night; they have just heard from Emma Clausing.
Emma Clausing has not come to Karlsruhe for this reunion; she has lived here all her life. As a schoolchild at the Uhlandschule, as a little girl living through the war and as a mature woman. She comes into the hotel with five other women, the girls from her class at the Uhlandschule who still live in the city. Every month for as long as any of them can remember, they have had this reunion. Tonight, for the first time, the class reunion will finally have a quorum.
They talk, well into the dark, until midnight, re-creating the 50 years they should have spent together as friends. They kiss, and embrace, and part; they have not repaired those 50 years, just reminded each other of what should have been. "You know," Celia Appel had reflected earlier, "this is my city. I would have spent my whole life here."
And you can tell, from the smile in her voice and the happiness in her face, that Cilly Mann no longer feels rejected by Karlsruhe.