Fiction | Homecomings

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Munich Massacre Memorial in Tel Aviv

Nelly Freiburg’s mother had brought few possessions when she escaped Europe. She’d accumulated few others in Brazil, where she had waited out the war, or in Brooklyn, where she had lived an additional quarter-century before taking that final nap on the afternoon of January 10, 1972. So when Nelly made the last trip to the Beth Israel Home for Elders ten days later, she knew a couple of cartons would more than suffice.

In her mother’s room, Nelly tucked an afghan into a carton. On top of it she placed the black and white wedding photographs. Her parents, back in Germany. Her own husband, Josef, and herself, surrounded by other refugee friends and relatives in New York, four months after Pearl Harbor. Their son, Mickey, and his Paula, smiling, just six years ago.

Then she turned to the more colorful images of her baby granddaughter—although Rebecca would be three in June, not such a baby anymore—beribboned for Rosh Hashanah or Passover. Some photos Nelly had taped to the wall next to her mother’s bed. She peeled them loose while she sat on the bare mattress. Something about the task reminded her not to forget the small brass nameplate, affixed to the door facing the hallway, spelling SOFIE KAHN. A gift on her mother’s last birthday, from the kids.

Nelly needed two hours to accomplish all this but more than two hours, or two weeks, or even two months to stop searching for change every morning, so she might take the bus over to the Home. To remember that she really couldn’t just share that bit of news. To decide where—or even whether—to keep the nameplate.

For his part, Josef still trudged to the bakery early each day. At least Mickey and Paula and the little one lived nearby, and Grandma was the preferred babysitter. Nelly loved nothing more than the feel of Rebecca’s small self climbing into her lap, her fingers freely exploring Nelly’s face and the fleshy folds beneath her chin and arms.

By late March she might have been feeling better, if not for her birthday—her first as an orphan. But maybe because that early spring of 1972 marked Nelly and Josef’s thirtieth wedding anniversary as well, they yielded when Mickey and Paula insisted that they “really celebrate.”

Of course, they all arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early. Pünktlichkeit.

“Freiburg, reservation at six-fifteen,” Mickey said to the maître d’. “Party of five.”

With pleasure Nelly saw other diners pause and smile as Rebecca toddled by, clinging to her mother by one hand and her grandmother by the other. Soon they had arrived at their table and, seated, contemplated the overwhelming menus.

“Liebchen, what do I want?” Josef asked her. He’d long since grown accustomed to yielding to her opinions on food and many other matters.

Rebecca banged on the table with her spoon.

“You want steak,” Nelly decided. She looked at the waiter. “He wants steak. The T-bone.”

“And you’d like that cooked how, sir?”

Josef waited.

“He’d like it medium.”

“Medium,” Josef repeated.

“Meeed-yum!” Rebecca shrieked, bouncing on her seat. Josef grinned and clapped his hands. Rebecca imitated him.

Mickey frowned. “Calm down, Rebecca.” He motioned to his wife. “She’s getting all H-Y-P-E-R.”

Paula gave him a meaningful look. “She’s fine.” She set Rebecca’s water glass a few inches further out of the child’s reach.

The waiter collected the rest of the orders and left them.

“We have a couple of announcements,” Mickey began.

“We’ll let Rebecca make the first one.” Paula smoothed the child’s hair and caught her attention. “Sweetie, remember what we practiced? What we said you would tell Grandma and Grandpa?”

The little girl was silent for a moment, then mumbled something incomprehensible. But, like always, Grandma wanted to be encouraging.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Nelly said. “That’s wonderful!”

Paula smiled. “Did you understand her?”

Josef pointed to the dinner rolls. Mickey passed his father the breadbasket. “She said, ‘I’m going to be a big sister.’ That’s what she said.”

Nelly’s memory flashed back to the moment her son and daughter-in-law had announced the first pregnancy, with the family gathered for Rosh Hashanah. Nelly’s mother had clasped her hands, her eyes bright. “A baby, a baby,” she’d exclaimed. And when Nelly and Josef had brought her, in her wheelchair, to the hospital to see the newborn girl for the first time, the emotion among them had been nearly thick and palpable enough to slice.

Now Paula touched Nelly’s hand. “I know how happy Oma Sofie would be,” she said, softly.

Nelly reached in her bag for a tissue. Not that she was actually going to cry. “So, when—?” she began.

“November,” Mickey said. “Early November.”

“Around the time of the election,” Paula added. “November 7, the doctor said.”

In spite of herself Nelly frowned. She just didn’t trust that Richard Nixon. So he’d gone to China. Big deal. As she’d pointed out to Josef, it was such a victory, for the President of the United States to take a trip on his very own airplane?

“And thank you for bringing that up,” Mickey said. “Anyway, before the world as we know it comes to an end with the likely re-election of Richard Nixon, we want Grandma and Grandpa to take advantage of their special anniversary gift.” He handed over what seemed to be a travel folder. Tickets.

“Now that Oma Sofie is—” He had spoken so beautifully at the funeral, but now—although he had been the only grandchild, so loved by, and so loving toward, Sofie Kahn—he could scarcely mention his grandmother. “Well—you should travel. You should go back to Europe.”

The waiter brought their salads. Josef lifted his fork.

***

Mickey had it all planned, he revealed the next day when he and Nelly talked privately on the phone. He’d corresponded with the cousins in Strasbourg. He’d anticipated all Nelly’s objections.

For instance, she said, it was too cold right now.

“Actually,” Mickey answered. “It’s spring. Warmer every day.”

She and Josef would not miss the wedding of their neighbors’ daughter. “That’s just a few weeks away.”

And they would not miss Rebecca’s birthday, either. Never.

“Of course not.”

By summer it would be too hot. And Josef had to work.

“The man’s entitled to some vacation,” Mickey reasoned. “And what better time to break away from that place than summer?”

Didn’t Mickey realize how hot it would be in Europe then? No air-conditioning! And so crowded!

“Not at the very end of the summer. Late August. Early September. I hear it’s a great time to go.”

Finally the words escaped her: “I’m afraid.”

He didn’t falter. “That’s the point. The cousins in Strasbourg will understand. But think of it, Mom. The chance to go back and see your apartment in Mannheim, and maybe even visit your father’s gravesite for the first time.” Daniel and Simone would take her and bring her back over the border to France, at night. No one expected her to sleep on German soil.

“Besides,” Mickey added. “Germany’s going to be full of tourists with the Olympics at the end of the summer. I bet we couldn’t even get you a hotel room now.”

She said nothing.

“It’ll be good for you,” he said. “Closure. Especially now that Oma Sofie—” Again, he stopped.

Closure. What did her twenty-seven-year-old son know about closure? What did that newfangled word mean, anyway? But at times, it was just easier to give in, to be taken care of, to decide that there was no arguing with Mickey. He was smart. He’d gone to college, and to business school. He had those two degrees and a fine job, and thanks to him, she and Josef would probably never really have to worry about having food on their table ever again.

She cleared her throat. “All right,” she said. “We’ll go.”

***

Mannheim’s water tower still stood, surrounded by a well-tended lawn. The florist shop she and her father had visited each week, so that he could buy a bouquet for her mother—still there, too. The office where her father had run his business, until the Reich outlawed that. Only the shoe store had changed; now it was a café. The shoe store where she had found a job at the age of eighteen, because even with her Abitur she couldn’t attend university. Not then. Not in 1933. But her father had said: “You’re not just sitting around here, my dear girl. Waiting to emigrate. You shall do something useful.”

Her cousin Daniel turned the Citröen off the city’s main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse, and Nelly thought she’d stopped breathing. The building where she and her parents had lived in an apartment that occupied the entire second floor was the same! The same purplish stone. The same flowerboxes. The same big windows.

No. The windows. Those were not the same.

“Those men came in,” her mother had said, once they could speak freely about that night back in November 1938. “They smashed the windows. The china. The paintings.” Much worse, indescribably worse, was the way they had smashed her father, too. Before even sending him to Dachau. Today one could visit Dachau, and it seemed that many people were, especially this summer of 1972, since it was a mere six miles from the Olympic Stadium in Munich. There’d even been a memorial service, at that place, with the Israeli athletes laying wreaths. They’d seen the pictures of this event already, and Nelly had stared at the grainy newspaper photographs with some fascination. Still, the thought of going anywhere near there made her retch.

Her cousin slowed the car to a stop and turned to face her. “Shall I see if the current owners are home? Would you like to go inside?”

Nelly pressed on Josef’s arm. The air in the car seemed unbearably warm. “The window,” she whispered. “Roll it down.”

“Honey?” How easily Josef worried. She studied his warm brown eyes. Here, next to her in the back seat of her cousin’s Citroën, was someone uneducated, someone uncultured, someone who certainly did not bring her a bouquet every week. They never would have met or married had she stayed here in Mannheim, and had he stayed in his little village on the edge of the Black Forest.

But they did get out. And in the upside-down world of that time they’d ended up visiting the same friend in the same New York boarding house. Each, alone. She taught him English. And flowers or not, he was devoted to her. And, in due time, to Mickey. Paula. Rebecca. “Josef would run in front of a truck for any of us,” her daughter-in-law had confided, once. It was true.

Nelly’s father did as much. He hadn’t been run over by a truck, though. Not literally.

“I didn’t let anyone see him when they sent him back from that place,” her mother had said, dry-eyed, after the war. “He was so beaten, so broken. It was just as well, that the casket was closed.”

Thus had ended the life of Michael Kahn, for whom a grandson, whom everyone called Mickey, would one day be named. But back in November 1938 there was only a wife, Sofie Kahn, numb in the apartment in Mannheim; a daughter, disbelieving in New York; and a visa application, clogged in the American consulate in Stuttgart.

Nelly turned toward the closed window on her side of the car. She leaned her forehead against the glass and wished, silently, for water.

“I don’t think we’ll be contacting those people in the apartment today,” Simone said.

Nelly did not protest as the key turned in the ignition, the engine started, and the wheels scraped against the street.

***

They hadn’t yet crossed back into France. Daniel stopped the car again.

“Need some petrol,” he explained. “This is a decent stop.”

“I want to buy Rebecca some souvenirs, anyway,” Nelly said.

In the small store “MÜNCHEN1972” T-shirts and banners and magnets abounded.

Nelly considered them all. “Let’s buy a bag,” she told Josef, examining one in black leather, though its odor only added to her discomfort. “A real keepsake.” Not like a T-shirt. She didn’t want Rebecca to hate Germany, to hate all Germans. Maybe this new generation could have a new start. In an era when Israeli athletes could be present, marching along with everyone else. In Germany. It was amazing, especially if you remembered Berlin in ’36, as Nelly did.

Still, she left it to Josef, to actually reach for the bag. To approach the cashier. To hand the credit card over.

“Maybe we can watch some of the Games this evening,” Josef suggested later.

***

They did. The next morning Josef asked if they could watch some more. Nelly realized she hadn’t yet inquired as to how Josef was feeling, about coming back to Germany, or even whether he had any desire to return to his own hometown. The least she could do was sit and watch those competitions a little longer.

They switched the television on. The screen showed athletes winning more medals. Sunbathing by the pond. Playing ping-pong.

But there were bulletins. About something else. Something beyond comprehension.

Black September, the group was called. At least one Israeli athlete was dead. No one knew exactly how many were captive in Building 31, in that sunshiny Olympic Village.

Between the competitions—“How can the Games go on like that?”she and Daniel and Simone kept asking each other, when they could speak at all, and when they weren’t mesmerized by the images of trucks marked with the all-too-familiar “POLIZEI” that suddenly seemed to fill Munich’s streets—they absorbed the interviews.

Including the one with the Israeli prime minister. More than anything else, more than appearing angry or vindictive or even fearful, Mrs. Meir looked deeply dejected. Grieving. But that old determination showed in her not-altogether-downcast eyes when she refused to negotiate with the terrorists.

“If we should give in,” she said, her voice steady and sure, no Israeli would be safe. Ever. Anywhere. What had happened to the Israeli team during the night, she declared, what was currently underway, was nothing except “blackmail—of the worst kind.”

Simone sighed. “She’s right.”

***

Hours passed. Nelly sat on the sofa, sentences coalescing in silence. It is a Tuesday in September. I am in Europe. Two hours from my old home. And the Jews are again the targets.

I have to get out of here. I have to get out of here.

Instead they continued to sit by the television. Early in the afternoon, Daniel looked over to her.

“Maybe it isn’t the right day,” he began. “But do you want to see your father’s grave? Maybe try the apartment again today, too?”

She shook her head. Because it wasn’t the right day.

***

In the evening, as Simone and her daughter were preparing supper, the phone rang.

“It’s for you, Nelly,” Simone called from the kitchen. “It’s your Michael.”

She and Josef exchanged a glance as she hurried to the phone.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, before even telling her son hello. She leaned against the wall. “Is Rebecca all right? Paula?”

They were all fine, he said. Why did she always jump to such awful conclusions?

He just wanted to see how the trip was going. He sure hoped she wasn’t going to let these “events” in Munich ruin anything.

“Have you been to the grave yet?” he asked.

She hesitated. “No.”

Long pause.

“Can you put Rebecca on the phone, please?” she asked.

“She’s napping,” he said, in a voice that sounded suspiciously short. She still didn’t understand his apparent insistence on her revisiting these scenes. These ghosts. But this wasn’t the time to explore it.

“How is Paula feeling?” she asked instead.

“She’s fine. She’s resting.”

“Send our love, then.”

She stood for a few moments with her hand on the phone, then returned to Josef. And then she stayed on the sofa, even after the reassuring initial reports, even while the others moved to the table for the meal, because she had a very bad feeling.

Which proved to be justified. Because the Germans, so masterful at murder just a few short decades ago, had truly botched the job at the airport. They’d failed to kill the terrorists. So in the end, in addition to the two dead Israelis back at the athletes’ village, the terrorists had, with the help of a grenade and a machine gun, much more effectively ended the lives of the other nine Jews. A German policeman was also killed.

The commentators noted that the games had indeed paused, eleven hours into the siege, and that there would be a memorial service in the morning.

***

She couldn’t go back to Germany. Not then. Not in September 1972.

“I’m not in any shape to handle it,” she told Josef. “We’ll go another time.”

They thanked the cousins, boarded the train to Paris, and flew the Pan Am jet back.

Outside customs, Rebecca stood between her swollen mother and her father.

Wie war die Reise?” Paula asked.

Sehr gut!” Josef said, pleased, as always, when Paula tried a German phrase.

“It was a good trip,” Nelly confirmed. “We’re very grateful. And we’re grateful to be home.” She scooped Rebecca into her arms. The child settled against her, as always. Mickey lifted one of the suitcases.

“Do you have everything?” he asked.

***

The leaves changed. They turned the clocks back. Soon it would be time not just to see Nixon re-elected, but to say Kaddish for her father, again. But this fall promised hope and happiness amid the usual dread. Because the baby was due.

“We just want you to know, of course, that we’ll take care of Rebecca,” Nelly told Mickey and Paula. “When the baby comes.”

“We’re counting on that,” Paula said. “Especially if I’m induced again. It will be a huge help.” She glanced at Mickey.

He cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said. “It will.” And in a move that seemed to take them all by surprise—even the baby, whose sudden shift must have caused Paula to take that sharp breath and place her hands over her middle—Mickey came over to her, to Nelly, and embraced her.

***

The morning of the birth Nelly put Rebecca on the bus to her nursery school, then returned to wait by the phone. Which rang shortly after eleven.

“Well, Mom,” Mickey said.

“Is everything all right?” So much could go wrong. So much.

“Paula’s fine. The baby’s fine.” His voice shook. “Sofie—Sofie Freiburg—arrived an hour ago. Six pounds, twelve ounces.”

“Sofie,” she whispered.

“That’s right.” He exhaled. “Listen, I want to tell Rebecca, myself. Don’t tell her, when you pick her up, OK? I’ll be over before dinner.”

Sofie. Sofie.

She cried, after the phone call, as she opened the drawer she hadn’t touched in months, to find a gift for her new grandchild. Another keepsake.

It was buried beneath the afghan and the photographs. The small brass rectangle. She’d check again, about Paula and baby Sofie’s homecoming. She’d prepare food, have Rebecca dressed up for a party. How long could it take, to fasten the nameplate?

Or—perhaps she’d wait. What was waiting, anyhow? Why not wait, too, until this Sofie, as well as her sister, could talk and listen and understand? Then she could perhaps give the nameplate over with words to match it.

Or—maybe—there could even be another trip. This time she and Josef wouldn’t go on their own; they’d ask Mickey and Paula to come along and to bring the girls. Rebecca, and Sofie. Maybe then she’d be ready herself to go back to Mannheim. To the house, and to the grave.

Then again, maybe she would not.

Earlier versions of “Homecomings” won the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing on Jewish Themes Award and were published in Jewish Education News and in Erika Dreifus’s short-story collection Quiet Americans.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Birthright: Poems and Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal honor title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She is also the editor/publisher of The Practicing Writer 2.0, a popular newsletter available on Substack. A fellow in the Sami Rohr Institute for Jewish Literature, she lives in New York City and teaches at Baruch College/CUNY. Visit her online at ErikaDreifus.com and follow her on Twitter at @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets (mainly) “on matters bookish and/or Jewish.”


Top photo: The Munich Massacre Memorial in Tel Aviv. Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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