The Fruit Garden

VINEYARDS AND HILLS in the rural landscape around Freudental, where my Oma grew up

IN FREUDENTAL, a village in southwest Germany where my grandmother, Oma, and her siblings grew up, I feel at home among the vineyards and the fruit trees of autumn. It is October of 2011 and I have been invited here, along with other descendants of  the town's Jewish residents to honor the publication of a book by journalist-historian Steffen Pross, documenting with painstaking details the Jewish families who lived here and what became of them.

 

On a country road that leads out of the village, the vineyard leaves are lush and green, the purple grapes heavy with sweetness.  Along the bicycle path that threads between villages, ripening apples blush on the old trees, above worn wooden benches offering hikers a place to rest and enjoy the rural landscape. And on the quiet streets of the village, I come across neglected plum trees, the dusky blue-purple Italian plums falling to the ground.

If I were home now, I would reach into the branches of the trees to gather ripe plums, Zwetchgen in German, to make a cake. I’d cut the plums in half or quarters, toss with cinnamon sugar, then spiral the pieces around a circle of tender yeast dough in a sunflower pattern and sprinkle the top with streusel.  In the oven, the firm yellow fruit becomes juicy and turns a beautiful deep golden-plum color.  This is Zwetchgenkuchen—a challenging word that I learned to say early in life as it meant the delicious cake that my Oma made only in autumn. She brought the recipe from here, from this village where she was raised.

THE FRAGRANCE OF THE PLUMS on this street in Freudental reminds me also of a story that I heard here. Before the Nazis persecuted and annihilated the Jewish population of Freudental and other German towns, there was a Jewish teacher here who was so observant that he would cut open a plum or an apple before he ate it to be sure that no worm had left its mark: A worm was prohibited by kosher dietary regulations, so he would not eat the fruit if a worm had been there before him.  

 

And yet this same strictly observant man completely lost his faith after the Holocaust, I was told.  When he went with a group to visit the Jewish cemetery, he was the only man who refused to wear a yarmulke, the head covering that is considered an essential symbol of respect. He had rejected the God who allowed this catastrophe to happen.

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LAST NIGHT I COULDN'T SLEEP.  Here I was, in a small and comfortable room in a guest hostel connected to the former synagogue. Next door to this building was the home where my Oma and her siblings grew up, a half-timbered two-story house of whitewashed stucco, with windows framed by brown shutters and pots of flowers on the window ledges.

 

Behind the house was once the Obstgarten, the fruit garden, a small orchard with cherry and apple and walnut trees. A photograph of the Herrmann family, with their friends and relatives gathered around a table in the shade of a tree, evokes the most profound nostalgia for me. They are all well dressed, handsome, and smiling, looking secure in their continued well-being.  The photograph was taken in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power.

 

The beginning of the end of my family's home, land and lives came in November of 1938 with the brutal events of  Kristallnacht.  We learned the details from Steffen Pross's research. The synagogue was demolished by local Nazis joined by those from the nearby city of Ludwigsburg. (It was not burned only because a fire in the center of the village would have caused too much damage to surrounding buildings.) Prayer books, Torah scrolls and benches were thrown out of the synagogue, taken to the soccer field and set on fire, while the Jewish men and boys were forced to kneel around the fire and chant, “We will leave the country, we will go.” Later the men and boys were taken to the town hall where they were beaten and made to declare that they were “pigs,” while the Jewish women were forced to clean the courtyard and street in front of the synagogue.

Was this not cruelty enough? No. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Steffen told me, the Reich confiscated any compensation claims that insurance companies paid to Jews and, with forced the Jewish community to pay an enormous collective "atonement tax" of one billion Reichsmarks.

 

AND SO, THE OBSTGARTEN HAD TO BE SOLD by Moritz Herrmann, Oma's brother who had remained in Freudental as a farmer, to pay his share of the fine. Of course, I think, as I lie awake, the first loss was not the house or the land, the animals or tools of farming, the things that formed the essentials of their existence. (These losses would come later).

 

Of course, the first loss was the very thing that was non-essential: the orchard, the joy of life, the delight of fruit and blossoms, the happiness of sitting at a table under the fruit trees. Perhaps because I have spent much of my life working in, living in and simply enjoying fruit orchards, this makes me unbearably sad. Perhaps it is resonates so deeply with me simply because it is a forgotten detail in the mass of much grimmer and horrifying details. It is a loss on a small scale, the loss of a little piece of land, a few trees, a family's special place, a For whatever reason, thinking of the Fruit Garden, I could not sleep.