By Frank Ephraim
I saw before me at my feet a patch of disheveled plants whose long and narrow green leaves drooped as if beaten down by wind and age. Vines of wild ivy had twisted themselves into knots among the plants and dozens of thin, wheat-colored stems, probably lazy and dried verdure, had risen through breathing holes in the ground thatch.
“Ja, the tomb,” Herr Forster said in his quite fluent, but literal German. “One more measurement to be sure, all right?” The question was superfluous. Of course it was all right. The man, wearing a surplus green German Army fatigue shirt—the German flag still sewn on the left sleeve—had been pacing off distances for the past half hour. Once in a while he carefully studied the map in his hand. The paper was fragile, obviously quite old and yellowed, with brown edges and a few tears that had been taped. I wondered why the cemetery administration had not bothered to enclose it in plastic. But, well, that was not my business, certainly not at this moment.
I lifted my eyes and took in the surroundings. There, ten yards away was a gravestone apparently only recently set. The name, in large gold-leaf letters, and a date of death: March 28, 1942. It would be my orientation marker. The staggered rows of gravestones to my right had been worn almost bare by the elements over all the intervening years, the names no longer legible. No, their descendants probably had not survived the Holocaust to care for these final resting places. Herr Forster was standing beside me once more. “So, now I am quite sure this is the tomb.” Strange how he had not learned the word “grave.” It did not really matter because I had finally found Uncle Paul.
Paul Rossinger lived in the Weissensee district of Berlin. Before the Nazis came to power, the area bustled with activity as its largely working-class residents went about their daily business. The shops and open markets catered to the needs of the people and the lovely lake, the Weissensee, with its swans and adjacent park served as a place for rest and recreation. Uncle Paul, as the whole family called him, lived in four rooms of a small apartment house not far from the largest Jewish cemetery in Berlin. A bachelor, he employed a housekeeper and carried out his chosen vocation of leather-goods dealer. He loved to play cards and weekend evenings saw him with his friends in the neighborhood having a good time accompanied by food and beer. He was not a wealthy man, but tended to be generous when it came to his nephews and nieces at whose homes he was always welcomed. He told wonderful stories.
Uncle Paul had been in the Great War and would reminisce with his four brothers and the husbands of his three sisters, all of whom had served the Kaiser—with honor. The Iron Crosses and other decorations were sometimes shown to the younger generation. In fact, Uncle Paul had been an officer in a cavalry regiment fighting in France and he was slightly wounded during the battle of Verdun. He did not willingly talk about it, but once in a while he came out with a few vignettes like the one about hunting for boar during a time when rations were short and the troops hungered for fresh meat. He would describe how the troops had to soak the boar’s carcass in a vat of vinegar to tenderize it—and how, even after days of immersion, it was still too tough to eat.
After the Nazis came to power, the family did not socialize as much as they had done before. Uncle Paul lived in the eastern part of Berlin and the rest mostly in the western districts. Fear of arrest kept everybody on edge and those with young children hoped to emigrate or escape. Whenever a family member went to see Uncle Paul and asked what he would do, his answer was always the same. “I’m an old man now. No children, no one depending on me. And what can they do to me anyway?”
Compared to their own situations—children, parents, and other close relatives—Uncle Paul seemed so at peace with himself in the ever deteriorating situation. The younger relatives were also preoccupied. They had parents whose age was an additional barrier to immigration into those few countries willing to accept Jews threatened by the Nazis. And then the turmoil of the Holocaust threw the families asunder—some were able to flee; most perished. The surviving family members tried to find out what happened to their immediate relatives—the parents, brothers, and sisters left behind. The news was almost universally bad. And what happened to Uncle Paul? East Berlin was occupied by the Russian Army. Would he turn up one day with a grin on his face and a story to tell? The surviving family dearly hoped so, but deep inside they knew the odds were stacked against jolly Uncle Paul.
Many years passed, the few that had survived reached their retirement years, and now all of a sudden the need to put closure on the past seemed to take on a new importance. They knew what had happened to their immediate relatives. The lists of transports to Theresienstadt, Riga, Auschwitz, and Dachau had become available. But the name of Paul Rossinger was never among them. What had happened to him? The remaining few, and aging, relatives wanted now desperately to know.
That is how the search for Uncle Paul became my, for want of a better word, “assignment.” I was in the process of exploring the return of family property in East Berlin after the Wall had come down. On a trip to Prague, I stopped off in Berlin to discuss matters with a lawyer the family had retained and to look at the property which according to the records had survived the war. It was duly listed as having been managed by the Berlin housing authority under the East German Communist regime. The “property” was the apartment house where Uncle Paul had lived.
The three-story building must have survived the bombing in World War II or been repaired because, while somewhat dilapidated, it was in good enough shape for people to live in. I did not know which apartment had been Uncle Paul’s and neither did the concierge, as most tenants were immigrants from Turkey. Nobody had heard of Paul Rossinger. I was disappointed.
The Weissensee cemetery was only a few blocks away and I wanted to visit my paternal grandfather’s grave, not certain if I could find it. An inquiry at the administration office brought forth an old card catalog and the clerk pulled a record out and showed it to me. Hand-lettered in black ink was the full record of my grandfather’s burial plot and the clerk directed me to the site. The cemetery was almost fully restored, a forested park with large and small monuments which was maintained by gardeners who could be seen pushing wheelbarrows of turf and plants. I found my grandfather’s grave with a small headstone that must have been put there by my uncle and grandmother, both of whom later perished in the Łódż ghetto.
In 1993 I became a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and one day chanced upon a set of memorial books in the library. They listed German Jews who had perished, and I found the names of my relatives, whose final destinies the family had long known. Then on an impulse I turned the pages to the names beginning with R. I could hardly believe it as the name, Rossinger, Paul, appeared on one of the lines. Was it Uncle Paul or someone else with the same name? I copied everything down and checked the date of birth. Yes, it was Uncle Paul. There was no place of death, only the German word for “suicide,” and a date—January 14, 1942. Where would he have committed suicide, I wondered, or was that only a cover for his murder?
The next day, on a hunch, I telephoned the Weissensee cemetery. The clerk there asked that I hold the phone for a moment. He soon came back and read from the file card. Yes, Uncle Paul was buried at Weissensee. A fax of the card would be on its way in a few minutes. Once I had that information I telephoned the Weissensee district registry office and they too had a record of his death and the arrangements that followed. They would send copies.
Uncle Paul had indeed committed suicide—by hanging—to avoid being taken alive to a concentration camp. One of his sisters and her husband had made burial arrangements, but by the time a gravestone could be set, the couple had been deported to Theresienstadt. Both perished. “So, ja, maybe I leave you here at the tomb, alone for a while...,” Herr Forster said in a voice that tried to convey sympathy but that did not quite make it. “We can talk about the stone later, OK?”
I just nodded, still staring down at the tumble of wild vegetation near my feet. I had finally found Uncle Paul. I silently pledged that a gravestone would stand here in this quiet forested Jewish cemetery to honor this man who in his own way had sacrificed his life in an act of resistance. He would remain on German soil forever, for all the world to see that he had stood his ground against the Nazi onslaught. In the year 2001, a gravestone for Uncle Paul was set in Weissensee Cemetery.
©2011, Frank Ephraim. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.