Passion and determination help solve family mysteries - opinion

As the High Holy Days approach, the importance of introspection and self-reflection cannot be overemphasized. We owe it to ourselves and those we love to make positive resolutions for the new year.

 ‘THE SEARCH for Major Plagge’ – The Wehrmacht officer made honorable choices, despite the fact that those choices put his life at risk from the Nazi war machine.  (photo credit: HESHIE BILLET)
‘THE SEARCH for Major Plagge’ – The Wehrmacht officer made honorable choices, despite the fact that those choices put his life at risk from the Nazi war machine.
(photo credit: HESHIE BILLET)

Like the two of us, many people who love books might dream of writing a book someday. Novels seem completely out of reach for the amateur. They require an original idea for a plot, building suspense at each turn of the story, developing interesting characters, and describing them in an engaging way. They need to have dialogue that is witty and full of pathos, that advances the plot and builds the characteristics of the main players to make them and the story more real and attractive to the readers.

Writing history seems only a minute bit easier, though many of today’s history books read like novels with their amazing plots, heroic characters and surprising turns of events. As the saying goes, truth can be even stranger than fiction! Even the reader who thought he/she did not love history cannot help but be baffled by, and in awe of, the heroes and heroines unearthed by researchers whose stories are retold in today’s thoroughly engaging historical works.

Books written by a family member are a particularly impressive genre. The author is often not a professional writer, but has stumbled upon, or discovered, fragments of a family story that is mysterious, incomplete and perplexing. The amateur writer is then motivated to research and unearth the story of the deceased or living relative and bring the details to life, thereby preserving a segment of the family’s history heretofore unknown by the family members of a later generation. 

Incidentally, this is also a fulfillment of the commandment “Remember the days of old; understand the years of the generations; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will speak to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

Holocaust dramas

 A collection of Nazi memorabilia  (credit: RAWPIXEL) A collection of Nazi memorabilia (credit: RAWPIXEL)

THREE SUCH books are all Holocaust dramas, hooking the reader into a journey to discover the stories behind these and other mysteries. One is The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis by Simon Goodman, a page-turner of this genre.

Goodman’s grandparents, whose surname was Gutmann, came from German-Jewish banking dynasties, were interred in Nazi concentration camps, and eventually perished due to ill-treatment and neglect, probably in Terezin. Described as a “model ghetto,” many Jewish prisoners died there of both active and passive damage inflicted by their Nazi captors. Their son, Goodman’s father, hardly ever spoke of the family’s history or heritage. But after he passed away, Simon received his papers, and a story began to emerge.

The Gutmanns, with the wealth they accumulated from their successful banking interests, had amassed a magnificent, world-class art collection that included works by Degas, Renoir, Botticelli, Guardi, and many more. 

Hitler’s appetite for art is well known; one of his goals was to put the world’s art treasures into his (and Germany’s) possession. The book The Monuments Men, and the film of the same name, graphically depict the train loads and cave loads of art that the Nazis confiscated, stole and hid to build Hitler’s collection and realize his dream. 

The Nazi regime snatched everything the elder Gutmanns had built: their remarkable art, their immense wealth, their prominent social standing, and their very lives. With painstaking detective work across two continents, Goodman was able to piece together the sequence of the horrific story of theft and deception, and prove that many works currently hiding in museums and private collections actually belonged to his family. He successfully secured the return of some family treasures (though far from all) to their proper place in his family’s legacy.

The Wall Street Journal described the book as “fascinating... splendid and tragic... Goodman’s story is alternately wrenching and inspiring... An emotional tale of unspeakable horrors, family devotion, and art as a symbol of hope. It is not only the account of a 20-year detective hunt for family treasure, but an unforgettable tale of redemption and restoration.”

ANOTHER SUCH book is When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains, the riveting memoir of Ariana Neumann, a young woman who grew up a Catholic (which she was, since her mother was not Jewish), in a grand house in Caracas, Venezuela, in the 1970s, the beloved daughter of Hans Neumann, her enigmatic, charismatic (Jewish) father, a successful industrialist, philanthropist and art collector. 

But things are not always what they seem. As a child, Neumann heard her father cry out in the night, seemingly from a bad dream, in a language she had never heard before. After his death, she finds a box that he clearly left behind for her to discover, with an identity card from Europe, adorned with his photo, but bearing a strange name.

There are other clues in the box that Neumann follows, like a detective getting to the bottom of a grim mystery. She pieces together her father’s wartime story, through interviews, phone calls, letters, and an incomplete memoir that her father had started to write. She discovers that as a young Jewish man, he fled Czechoslovakia on a false identity, found work in a Nazi factory in Berlin with a friend, and hid in “plain sight” at the heart of Hitler’s war machine. 

The critics are full of praise for this memoir, using various phrases to describe what the author writes about and how she does it: “A harrowing portrait of living, dying and surviving under the yoke of Nazism, [Neumann] tells a story of bravery and rare survival… the events happened more than two decades before she was born to a man to whom she was very close, but whose secrets she was only able to pursue after his death – thanks to the one hoard of evidence he never destroyed.

“To unearth such stories takes great determination, patience and sensitivity, not least because so many of those who survived did so by suppressing the truth. ‘Sometimes you have to leave the past where it is – in the past,’ Hans told his daughter. But he didn’t entirely let it go, and nor, on his and our behalf, did she.”

The third book that highlights the relentless search to uncover the details and the players in a family’s story is one we have written about. We explored Major Karl Plagge in the context of how different people in similar positions can make far-reaching choices whose outcomes are light-years apart. Plagge, a Wehrmacht officer in charge of a labor camp, made honorable choices, despite the fact that those choices put his life at risk from the Nazi war machine. His crucial decisions saved many lives, with Jewish survivors rebuilding their lives and establishing families. 

The book, The Search for Major Plagge: The Nazi Who Saved Jews, is another example of family members doggedly searching for the hidden stories of their beloved relatives. Author Michael Good, son of William and Pearl Good, grew up in the home of Holocaust survivors. Hearing snippets of stories of fear, persecution, hatred, antisemitic laws, ghettos, narrow escapes and the occasional kindness of gentiles, his childhood dreams were to grow up to live an American life, absent of harrowing experiences, discrimination, war and the decimation of populations.

Good did not have even one first cousin. His marriage to Susan, an American, non-Jewish woman of Italian descent, whose family tree he documented so he could keep track of her incredibly numerous relatives, emphasized the difference between their respective biographies. Susan’s family actually held reunions every year on the anniversary of four sons returning intact from the battles of World War II in 1945. Those joyous gatherings, which Good never experienced growing up, highlighted his wife’s huge family of aunts, uncles and cousins. 

His mother, Pearl, often spoke of the Heeres Kraftfahr Park labor camp in Vilna, where she and her parents worked as Jewish slave laborers for the Nazi war machine. She managed to survive the war, though many members on both sides of Good’s family died in Eastern Europe during 1941-1944, often without a trace.

Despite Good’s desire to raise his two teenage children as carefree Americans, without the presence of stories of persecution and genocide, he decided to make a trip to Vilna, Lithuania, with his parents, wife and children. It was an opportunity for his mother to tell her story of survival and pass on the history to the next generation, where it happened, and from the point of view she had bravely chosen – to choose life.

In Vilna that summer of 1999, as his mother spoke of the seemingly kind Nazi commandant of the HKP labor camp to whom she felt she owed her life, Good began to think: How exactly did Major Plagge save the lives of his workers? What had happened to Major Plagge after the war? Were his good deeds and character known to his family, if he had one? Who were other survivors who owed their lives to this elusive character who was a Nazi officer, yet seemed to have made compassionate choices about Jewish labors in his charge, and had simply disappeared from sight after the war?

The book is the exciting, remarkable search and discovery mission involving many years of painstaking research as he documented the remarkable story of the man who saved Pearl Good’s life, and the lives of over 250 other Jews – and gave Dr. Michael Good the opportunity to be born, have children, and heal others through his medical practice, and be a witness. 

Eventually, Good and the survivors of Major Plagge’s HKP camp were able to convince Yad Vashem to award Major Plagge with the title of Righteous Gentile, reserved for those who saved Jews during the war, even though such actions put their own lives in grave danger, and for which they received no monetary or other compensation. 

These three books are just a few examples of the inspirational journeys taken by family members to unearth the hidden stories of their loved ones’ survival, and to credit the decent people who intervened on their behalf, without thought of reward, and simply to do good as their consciences dictated. 

Along the way, these are also stories of unspeakable horrors that took place close to 80 years ago, when Hitler and his accomplices tried to destroy the Jewish people forever, and for which very few eyewitnesses remain. It behooves all of us to read, absorb and remember the heroes of those times, gentiles as well as Jews. Their incredible lives and deeds inspire the next generations, demonstrating that our personal choices can make a difference. 

As the High Holy Days approach, the importance of introspection and self-reflection cannot be overemphasized. We owe it to ourselves and those we love to make positive resolutions for the new year.

A recent oleh, Heshie Billet served as a pulpit rabbi for 44 years in the US and is a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.

A recent olah, Rookie Billet retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, synagogue rebbetzin, and halachic adviser in the US.