The silver Mercedes that my father and I rented in Frankfurt passed through the city gate of Mainbernheim, a town surrounded by a wall and turrets, and stopped at the small, neat parking lot. Since we were hungry, we went to have lunch in a typical German restaurant on the main street of the Old City, whose roads are paved with cobblestones and are wide enough to accommodate a single truck filled with Jews, and maybe also a small boy running alongside and hurling stones at them.
A stout 79-year-old woman pianist played German country music to accompany the chewing sounds made by customers munching on white sausages, sauerkraut and kroketten. She only interrupted this divine pleasure when my father stood with a liter-glass of beer in his hand and asked her how old she was and if she knew the Bernheimer family that used to live in the city and left before they got old.
Olga first needed a sausage to calm down from the excitement that gripped her. Then she implored us not to move, rushed out of the restaurant in a flurry and disappeared somewhere among the chilly alleyways. A few minutes later, she returned with two women of about 50 - one was the wife of the mayor and the other was the wife of Mainbernheim's top Lutheran minister. They shook our hands warmly and informed us that we were coming with them for a tour of the city and the city hall, and joining them for dinner afterward. I tried to explain that we had come to Mainbernheim for two hours, that we were going to see my grandfather's house and then continue on our way to Baden-Baden for a sauna and massage, but they weren't about to brook any insubordination.
Bernheimer had written an email to the mayor in advance, asking if they could find archival material about their family, and that they would arrive the next month.
Perhaps I need to explain a little about the excitement that seized the town because of our arrival. It's important to note that this is a small place, with about 2,400 inhabitants, and the e-mail I sent to the mayor via the town's Web site was most likely one of a total of two e-mails they received that whole month. In my very polite communication, I wrote that my father and I would be pleased if they could find archival material for us about the family and that we would arrive for a visit sometime in the next month. I didn't even provide an exact date. I didn't expect that we'd have the Mainbernheim municipality hopping to attention in our honor, and put the Lutheran women from the Association for the Preservation of the Region's Jewish Heritage on high alert. But that's exactly what happened. They apologized that there were no Jews left in the region to preserve, but promised that the heritage was in good hands.
The minister's wife took them to see an old woman who had known his grandfather's family.
She told us that my great-grandfather Eliezer was the owner of a shop for designer (of course!) fabrics, very high-quality fabrics, and she described how he and his wife Elsa were terribly isolated when the non-Jewish residents of Mainbernheim were prohibited from greeting them on the street under orders from the Nazis, and how she and her twin sister, who were little girls, said hello to him one day on the street and he was so overcome with emotion that he wept. She told a few more stories and then she pulled out a picture of my great-grandfather as a young boy in a suit and cap, standing next to a horse-drawn cart. It was at that moment that I realized the trip had become serious.
The story covers a city hall visit with the chief archivist, a file documenting the family history since 1868 starting with Emilia who arrived with a baby - his great-grandfather Eliezer, but no other information on her, and they also visited Bernheimer's grandfather's house.
Read the complete article here.