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 was here, in the Fruit Garden. After Kristallnacht, Steffen had told me,