Out of the blue
"DEAR MS. SONNEMAN," THE E-MAIL BEGAN. Probably you are surprised by this message from Germany, but we hope that you have a few minutes to read it."
TWO STUDENTS IN MANNHEIM, GERMANY, Joel Keller (l) and Benjamin Konetschny (r), wanted to learn about a Jewish student who had once attended their school. They chose my father, who was a student at Lessing Gymnasium Mannheim from 1921 to 1928.
The letter was from two 16-year-old students at Lessing-Gymnasium, a school in Mannheim. For a class project, they had decided to research a Jewish student who had attended their school. They'd read my father's short biography in a book of recollections, "Reflections By Jewish Survivors From Mannheim." He had mentioned the names of his children, so they had simply entered my name into Google and found the Grey Folder website.
"IT'S VERY EXCITING TO GET TO KNOW a person who lived nearly a hundred years ago in our city and went to the same school," the students wrote. "We don't want to forget what happened."
"We don't want to forget what happened." That line -- along with the rest of the letter -- touched me deeply.
The boys asked if I could send some photos and documents --for a presentation, they said (eventually it became a film). "We would be very happy if you could support us," they wrote. Immediately I wrote back, with attachments of photos and links to information about my father.
MY FATHER'S REPORT CARD from his seven years at Lessing-Gymnasium in Mannheim, one of the many documents he had to present when he applied for a U.S. visa in 1938.
"IT WAS INDEED A SURPRISE to hear from you, and a very happy one," I wrote to them. "I found your note quite moving. My father would have been so pleased, both at your project (which brings the past into a meaningful focus with the story of one person who went to your very school) and also in awe of the wondrous way in which the Internet can connect us through time and place!"
On the heels of my doubts and dark questions about the very meaning of my project, Joel and Benjamin's letter lifted my spirits.
It was the start of an active correspondence, as the boys decided to make a film about my father, and I sent them photos, audio files, scans of documents, a family tree and lots of information. In October of 2015, when I went to Mannheim for the placing of a Stolperstein for my great-aunt Frieda, I met Benjamin and Joel, their parents and one of their teachers, saw their film and spoke to their classmates.
IN OCTOBER OF 2015, after a showing of Joel and Benjamin's film about my father, I spoke to students at Lessing-Gymnasium in Mannheim, They were interested and polite and asked many questions (in perfect English). "Did your father miss Germany?" one student asked. "Only in the way you would miss something in your childhood that you could never go back to," I replied.
NOW, CHEERED and encouraged by the youthful interest of these students, I could return to the search.