Jun 20, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill takes us through his time in Germany and France.
At the baggage carousel at Frankfurt airport, a sign in English and German explained that because of a shortage of ground-staff, “the airport apologizes for the probable lengthy delay of baggage delivery.” They weren’t kidding. In this summer of 2022, airports throughout Europe are suffering a chronic shortage of staff. As the pandemic waned, tens, hundreds of thousands of “survivors” decided to take their lives in a new post-Covid direction. A week earlier, passengers arriving at Heathrow had gone home for a nap, and then returned hours later to retrieve their bags. A week earlier, my father-in-law had WhatsApped me a photograph of thousands of passengers crammed outside Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, waiting hours to check in.
I’m incapable psychologically and practically of traveling with carry-on. Eventually, bags from my United flight from Newark started to trickle out, five at a time, followed by a five-minute wait, then another five. Some passengers steamed. Most just sighed. Priority bags, as they so often do, arrived last. I imagined harried luggage clerks in the bowels of the airport, whizzing from baggage container to baggage container, to distribute – or lessen – the agony. Finally, one of my bags slid down the chute. But not the second. I strolled over to the United baggage office – happily located almost adjacent to the carousel. The pert and polite clerk tapped the tag number of my yet-to-appear Vuitton duffel into her computer, squinted at the screen, stood and apologized.
“I have good news and I have bad news,” she said. “The good news is that your bag is in Frankfurt. The bad news, is that it was loaded in Newark into a container for luggage to be transferred to an onward flight, not one direct to Frankfurt.” She was cheery yet contrite. “I am so sorry,” she continued, “it’s been happening all the time recently, with United luggage incorrectly loaded not only in Newark, but in Chicago, San Francisco, Denver…”
She made a phone call. “It should be here in 20-to-30 minutes,” she swore. And, happily, two hours after landing, it was. But with a late departure from Newark, and a two-hour wait for luggage. I was seriously behind schedule for a unique journey to the Black Forest.
My sister, Marion, who lives in Dusseldorf, had taken the train to meet me that morning, for our southbound adventure. We trundled to the Avis counter where I was informed that as I was late, my car had been given to another traveler. The clerk was affable, and said he hoped to have a car for me within half an hour and he would call my cell-phone. I desperately needed coffee, so Marion and I went searching for a suitably European coffee-house in the vast netherworld of Frankfurt airport – and came up with McDonalds, KFC, Bangkok Noodles and, yes, Starbucks, whose coffee I usually avoid because to me it tastes like dishwater. Shockingly, my Latte from McDonalds was actually not revolting at all.
Of course, the gentleman from Avis didn’t call, but my keys were ready when we returned to him. Then we walked the ten or twenty miles through the cavernous underground garage to a really nice shiny black Volkswagen Passat station wagon. Finally installed, my GPS navigated ramps and sharp turns and swirls and exits and finally onto the southbound Autobahn for our two-hour drive south. It was now 12:30, the time we had planned to arrive in the small town of Kippenheim in Baden-Wurttemberg.
Kippen-where? This was no ordinary vacation or business trip. In my “memoir of travel and obsession,” ALL ABROAD, published last year by the University of Wisconsin Press, I wrote about this small town in southwest Germany where my grandfather was born in 1881. The Weills had lived there since the middle of the 18th century, and, like hundreds of other small villages throughout Germany, it had, until 1940, a substantial Jewish community. My grandfather, one of five siblings, had wanderlust, and moved to London in 1899, and it was in London that my Dad was born in 1909, and where I was born forty years later. When I was six years old, we drove from London on a car tour to the “continent,” something massively exciting back then, and it was that trip that helped kindle my neurotic yet, I suppose, harmless, passion for travel in all its forms. It was during that trip that we stopped in Kippenheim to visit the grave of my Liverpool-born grandmother, Gladys, who had died in Germany in 1928 of a catastrophic and never-diagnosed illness.
This was eleven years after the end of World War II. The cemetery was overgrown. Sadder still, the town’s synagogue -- wrecked and set afire on November 1938’s “Kristallnacht” -- while still standing, remained with its windows smashed, its interior a wreck of overturned furniture, slashed walls and desecrated ark.
After Hitler took power in 1933, the burgeoning antisemitism was often anonymous in big cities like Frankfurt or Berlin or Munich. But in a small village of 2,500 people, where everyone knew everyone, it was a nightmare. The majority of the Jews of Kippenheim managed to emigrate to Britain, Palestine or the USA. Indeed, by the summer of 1938, my Great-Aunt Claire was the last member of the Weill family still in town. Widowed, lonely, ignored or abused by her neighbors, and soon to lose her home because of the enforced “aryanization” of Jewish-owned property, it was on the evening of September 1st that she sat before the mirror of her dressing-table, and used a knife to slit her throat. Her body was found the next day.
My sister and I were coming to Kippenheim to pay tribute to her. In 1993, an artist named Gunther Demnig, a Christian Berliner, came up with the idea of “Stolpersteine” – brass “stumbling stones” – to be placed in the sidewalk outside the homes of Jews who were victims of the Nazis (www. https://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/). Since 1993, Demnig has personally installed close to 100,000 “stumbling stones” in the sidewalks of 27 European countries. Most recall the period’s Jewish victims, but many are for other victims of Germany’s National Socialism, including Roma, gays, and political dissidents. And Marion and I had come to Kippenheim for the installation of a “stumbling stone” in memory of Great-Aunt Claire.
I realized as I went to bed in Kippenheim’s tiny Burgers Hotel, that I was possibly the first Weill to sleep in the town in 84 years. Kippenheim has grown and changed since my first visit in 1956. It’s still German, yes, but also European. Outside town we drove past a grand-looking mosque. I was looking forward to a dinner of Bratwurst that evening, but the hotel restaurant turned out to be Italian, its owners from Puglia. Gunther Demnig joined us for dinner, and told us tales of his “stolperstein” adventures, including installing them not only throughout Germany, but in sidewalks in Paris, Rome, Athens, Thessaloniki, Vienna, and even on the tiny island of Hammerfest in Norway’s Arctic Circle, where one Jew had the misfortune to live in 1941.
The next morning, we walked the 200 yards to the home in which my grandfather was born and raised. Town workers were already helping Demnig remove paving stones to be replaced by his “stumbing stone” dedicated to Claire Weill “who fled into death.” Reporters from local newspapers were there, notebooks at the ready. Townspeople. Photographers. And an 80-year-old Robert Krais, a devout Evangelist who’s spent much of his life trying to memorialize and make amends for Nazi horrors. The handsome, 35-year-old mayor of Kippenheim (who markedly resembles actor, Mark Wahlberg) made a speech as Demnig was hammering the brass stone into its place. And then I gave an address in German, in which I reminded those present of the awfulness experienced by the Jews of Kippenheim on Kristallnacht. And I spoke of being in the town for the pogrom’s 50th anniversary in 1988, at which a teenager had accosted me, explaining the Holocaust away “because the Jews were rich.” There was an audible gasp.
After the ceremony, we strolled to the now restored synagogue that has been declared a national landmark. No longer used for prayer, it is a museum whose exhibits graphically recall Jewish life in the village, and the torment inflicted on its Jews from 1933 to 1940. In the synagogue forecourt, there is a monument showing train tracks, and a bright yellow road-sign pointing to “Gurs.” Because it was on October 22, 1940, that the mostly impoverished and elderly Jews still remaining in Kippenheim, were among the 12,000 Jews of southwest Germany deported aboard trains that wended their way into Vichy France, to Gurs, an internment camp near the Pyrenees. There, they remained until the summer of 1942, when more trains brought them to Drancy, a concentration camp in the suburbs of Paris, and then the final train ride to a place called Auschwitz. Among them was another of my grandfather’s siblings, Hugo, gassed on September 6, 1942, in whose memory we named my younger son, Liam Hugo.
The Nazis were strangely not obsessed with smashing up Jewish graveyards. Synagogues, homes, stores, people, yes; cemeteries not so much. Giant centuries-old Jewish graveyards remain undamaged in Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, and, a few kilometers from Kippenheim, in the hamlet of Schmieheim. Since 1682, some 2,500 Jews were buried here, their terracotta sandstone gravestones engraved in Hebrew. As you enter the cemetery you come upon a substantial memorial to the Jews of the area who “gave their lives for the Fatherland” in World War I – a sacrifice cynically ignored by the Nazis. Eight were from tiny Kippenheim: I’m related to six of them. We paused at Claire’s grave, its shiny stone installed in the 1990’s by her Australian grandchildren. My grandmother’s grave was one of the only stones in the cemetery totally overgrown with inch-thick “trees,” ivy and moss, so that the engraving – with its English quotation from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was impossible to decipher. Our Kippenheim hosts have promised to repair it. And I know they will.
That afternoon, my sister’s and my journey into nostalgia took us back up the autobahn to Frankfurt and the very grand 146-year-old Hotel Frankfurter Hof. In ALL ABROAD, I talk about the regretfully ostentatious Bar Mitzvah of my London-born father that had taken place in that very hotel exactly 100-years-to-the-day before our arrival. Marion and I sat on the terrace, its Victoria-era walls, pediments and arches overlooked by the soaring skyscrapers of what some people have dubbed “Mainhattan” (the River Main runs through Frankfurt), and we toasted our late Dad. Even with a ghastly war in Ukraine, we pondered, is it possible that the 21st-century could ever be more awful than the 20th?
After breakfast, my journey took me onward aboard Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Bordeaux. Warned that check-in and security at Frankfurt Airport would take forever, I arrived at the airport three hours before the flight. Check-in was achieved in 6 minutes, security in 10. I sat in the Senator Lounge for two-and-a-half hours, eating plateful after plateful of (what else?) Frankfurters. I should really stop listening to people’s travel advice.
The highway signs on the Autoroute south from Bordeaux are like driving through a wine list. Medoc. Graves. Sauternes. Entre deux Mers. Armagnac. With a side order of Roquefort. It took me just over two hours to reach my destination: Gurs. My journey into my family’s history had compelled me finally to visit the place my great-uncle Hugo, and two great aunts, spent almost two years: freezing in winter, boiling in summer. The “Camp de Gurs” was built in 1936 to house refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but in 1940, with Vichy France’s instant and enthusiastic adoption of everything antisemitic, the camp’s unheated wooden huts became home to the Jews of southwest Germany. Just like 2022 when there is a good America and a bad America (you pick which is which), in 1940, there was a good France and a bad France. And it was the bad French who oversaw Gurs, not the Germans. One theory has it that it was Hitler’s hope to bargain the lives of these German Jews to keep America out of the war. Well, that didn’t work.
I walked along the railway line, now overgrown with weeds. I walked through one of the remaining wooden barracks which, according to a posted sign, had never contained beds, bunks, tables, chairs…just a floor. There were square window openings. I believe they never contained glass. The internees’ bill of fare was under 1,000 calories a day. Winters were icy. Spring and fall converted the camp into a sea of mud. Summers were fly-filled and muggy. The 12,000 internees were divided by gender into separate camps. The sexes came together only at funerals – when a husband learned his wife was dead, a daughter learned her father had succumbed.
The cemetery at Gurs is now tranquil and “elegant,” with beautifully hewn stones recording the name, hometown and dates of birth and death of the deceased. Thoughtfully, a stone has been placed atop each gravestone by the local organization that maintains the camp as a memorial to the lost. (When Jews visit cemeteries, they don’t bring flowers: they place a stone on the grave to let their loved ones know they came to call.)
As I drove back up the autoroute to the gorgeousness of 17th-century Bordeaux, I thought back on my visit to Gurs. And I realized that those 1,200 Jews who’d died and were buried there were, in a tragic sense, the fortunate ones. Yes, they died in misery immured in the middle of nowhere. But, unlike Great-Uncle Hugo, they didn’t have to endure the train to Drancy, where French policemen and German soldiers were vicious guards. And they didn’t have to climb into the cattle cars for the stench-filled, days long train-ride to the death camps and 24/7 gas chambers of German-occupied Poland.
Traveling can be joyful, restful, illuminating, romantic, pleasure-filled. It can also be a pilgrimage into faith, into discovery, into memory, into tears. And there are some journeys something compels one to take. This was one of them.