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entries tagged with: Kristallnacht

 

Kristallnacht in Munich,  then and now

Rabbi Noam E. Marans
Published: 06 November 2009
 
 

A return to Germany, a dedication for Kristallnacht

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Henry Benvenisti speaks at the Kristallnacht commemoration.
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The Kristallnacht commemoration, witnessed, from left, by Rhonda Bollens Rozak, Judy Benjamin, Michelle Benvenisti, Helga Baum Bollens, Debra Benvenisti Broadman, and Doris Baum Benvenisti.

The story begins in May 2008, when my aunt, Helga Baum Bollens, received a letter from a German charity called “Bundis fur Menschlichkeit und Zivilcourage” (Alliance for Humanity and Civil Courage), established and overseen by Dr. Yaghoub (Jacob) and Renate Khoschlessan. The Khoschlessans have vowed to dedicate themselves to educating Germans about the Holocaust.

The Alliance commissioned a well-known German artist to create paving stones, referred to as “stolpersteine” (tripping stones), in honor of Jews who were affected by the Nazi regime, either by death in the camps or by being unwillingly dispersed throughout the world. These paving stones are placed within the cobblestones in front of the family’s former home.

First Person

The cost was covered by donations from schools, churches, communities and individual citizens. Each stolpersteine’s sponsor gave an accounting of the people who had lived at its site. This personal touch brought together strangers from different worlds.

The Alliance invited my aunt to commemorate the 70th anniversary, Nov. 9, 2008, of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), state-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots. She is the sole survivor of the 59 Jews from Bernkastel Kues, Germany. Our family originated from this area and had lived there since the 1600s.

My aunt had fled with my grandmother to meet my grandfather in Luxembourg, where he was working on his brother’s land. Two years into their stay in Luxembourg the Germans invaded. My grandmother recalled seeing objects falling from the sky — paratroopers. That evening they fled, with thousands of others, into the forests of Luxembourg. They walked through the forests into France, where they lived in hiding for several years. My mother was born in France while the family was in hiding. My grandfather was in and out of work camps and concentration camps in France.

Once the war was over, they made their way to New York where those who had fled before the war had made their homes.

My aunt dreaded returning to Germany, and so we went with her. Altogether we were seven: my aunt; her sister, my mother, Doris Baum Benvenisti; my father, Henry Benvenisti; my cousins, Judy Benjamin and Rhonda Bollens Kozak; my sister, Michelle Benvenisti; and myself.

On Nov. 7, 2008, as we boarded our jet, we wondered what this trip would teach us. How would we react to being in a country that was once a fierce enemy of the Jewish people? But we were accepted with kindness and generosity by everyone involved in the Alliance.

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Paving stones honoring dispossessed Jews are placed in front of their former homes.

Our hosts drove us to Bernkastel-Kues, a 15th-century village on the Moselle River. Our temporary home was the 125-year-old Hotel Burglandshut, especially chosen for its history. It was here that the Nazis opted to establish headquarters; risking their lives, the owners refused the Nazis entry.

On the morning of Nov. 9, 2008, we awoke to the sound of light rain and church bells emanating from the medieval bell tower. We met our hosts, and we gathered in the rain, with many others, in front of a former synagogue. Under a canopy of umbrellas, we listened to speakers recounting stories of the rabbi and his family, who had been deported and later killed. The rain mirrored the sadness in our hearts. Prayers and song resounded in the rain-soaked air as we honored the Friedman family.

The stories of other Jewish families were woven between our footsteps as we made our way to Kues, our family’s former homestead. The house/butcher store was where my aunt and other relatives were born. My aunt told of walking with her father through the vineyards, to buy a cow in a town on the other side of the mountain.

At the doorstep of my grandfather’s home, Jacob Khoschlessan quietly repeated my aunt’s words: “First I was a German. I had a different religion. Why did I have to leave this beautiful place? Why did I have to leave my home?” Former neighbors huddled around my aunt as prayers were read. We all wept, imagining the family’s fear and desperation, and that of millions of others who had endured the same fate.

Roses were gently placed beside the stolpersteine as the names of my family were read: my grandfather, Karl Baum; my grandmother, Bertha Samuel Baum; my great-uncle, Wilhem Baum; and great-aunt, Jeanette Baum. A priest approached my aunt and offered solace.

As we walked back to Bernkastel, a man told me a story about his mother, Maria Coen. Maria was the Baums’ neighbor and risked her life for my great-aunt. Maria would secretly meet her at night on the path behind their homes. Maria would give her milk from her family cow, as Jeanette had nothing to eat. Someone discovered what was happening and denounced Maria and Jeanette. Luckily Maria was spared, but Jeanette was sent to a detention camp and then later killed in Auschwitz.

I shook Paul Coen’s hand and we wept. His mother’s bravery and kindness might have cost her her life, yet she did what she could to save a neighbor. He proudly gave away a picture of his mother. But he could not part with a yellow star of David imprinted with the word “Jude” imprinted on it — the only remaining item of Jeanette’s.

My Aunt Helga walked with me and recounted stories of former friends taunting her, calling her a “dirty Jew.” Some children and parents would throw rocks at her. She didn’t understand why this was happening; these children had been her friends.

Later in the day, we were invited to the mayor’s office for a cocktail party in our honor. As they thanked us for returning to Germany for this event, I noticed a strange fact: Portraits of mayors who had held off during the Nazi regime were conspicuously missing. Only subsequent mayors’ portraits were displayed, as if the town had been reborn after the Holocaust. We toasted to a new Germany, a new beginning for everyone.

At dusk, we gathered in the town square for another event. Seventy years earlier, rampaging Nazis had burned, desecrated, and destroyed Jewish property. On this night, the town square overflowed with people. As somber violin music echoed off the walls, we surrounded a brightly lit six-pointed star; a candle of remembrance was placed on each point. Children sang songs and read poetry. Speakers told stories of sadness and healing. Stories abounded of Christians helping Jews at the risk of their own lives. The surviving families were thanked for attending this emotionally difficult ceremony. As each story was told, we were hopeful that the younger generation had learned from history.

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A candle of remembrance was placed on each point of this star of David.

We heard about some Jewish families who created a makeshift classroom in secret because Jewish children were not permitted to study with Christians. It was a dangerous time for non-Jews, as Nazis recruited children to spy on their own families. People were secretly induced by the Nazis to denounce anyone who made eye contact with Jews or acknowledged them in any way. Children turned against their parents as well as neighbor against neighbor. My grandfather Karl had a friend who was a policeman. One day he visited my grandfather’s butcher store and warned him of impending arrests. He apologized that this was the only deed he could do to help and took a huge risk to protect his friend.

Among the speakers that evening was my father, Henry Benvenisti. He spoke on behalf of my aunt, whose words of gratitude and honor were too emotionally difficult for her to say.

He then shared a story about my grandfather that for 70 years had circulated around the community as legend. On Kristallnacht, my grandfather, Karl Baum, put on his World War I uniform and placed the Iron Cross, Germany’s highest honor for bravery, on his chest. He and his brother, Isadore, had served in the German army. Isadore had been killed and posthumously received the Iron Cross as well. As the Germans approached on the night of Nov. 9, 1938, burning and destroying Jewish property, my grandfather stood tall and proud, his Iron Cross emblazoned on his chest. They neared the butcher store, my grandfather saluted them, and miraculously they walked past, without harming him or his property. Eventually my family did lose everything, and their home was taken from them.

My father thanked our hosts for their kindness. He said this is a new Germany, a new generation. They should not feel guilty for the sins of their forefathers. They should move forward without shame and teach that such horror must never happen again. The crowd applauded.

My mother and aunt held one another and cried. We sobbed openly in the square, a spotlight shining on our grief. I hugged and whispered to my aunt, “I’m so sorry you experienced so much pain in your childhood.”

After a period of silence, the church bells rang, as if to free our hearts of the burden of pain, bringing lightness to the future. I looked into the night sky, lit with the stars and moon, as if the millions lost were watching us honor them.

In the aftermath of the ceremony, many people approached my aunt, saying they remembered her “wearing a red dress.” She said “I don’t remember having a red dress, but I tried to forget a lot.”

Others told my father that they had heard the “legend” about the Jewish man who had saluted the German soldiers as they marched past his store. They were happy to know of its truth. Many said they felt released from their guilt and were more comfortable admitting they were German.

Story after story was shared of a time that was dark, confusing, and fearful. The trip put to rest the horror, answered questions, and lay to rest some of the grief and pain that many people have carried for most of their lives.

The kindness, generosity, warmth and welcoming after 70 years was the most phenomenal experience of our lives. We thank everyone who made this ceremony possible.

My family and I wish to thank Dr. and Mrs. Khoschlessan, Ruth Maria Kohl, Elizabeth-Jung Herges, Christine, Karin, and Gertrude and all others behind the scenes who made this trip possible for our family. They are exceptional people who gave of themselves to make our visit unforgettable.

 
 

Congruences and tragedy

Rebecca Kaplan BorosonEditorial
Published: 13 November 2009
 
 

Kristallnacht and tales of survival

Honoring my family’s Holocaust past

Part I: The town that hid my grandparents

Ever since starting a family of my own, I’ve become increasingly interested in my ancestry and the concept of L’dor v’dor, from one generation to the next. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from France who were hidden by non-Jews in the small remote town of Ceyroux, I wanted to know more about my ancestors. I found myself wondering: Who were the people who perished? What were they like before the war? And how do their ancestral threads connect to the delicate fabric of my family’s past and present? When my brother Carl told me he would be in Paris for a month, I knew this would be a perfect opportunity to search these answers for myself and to visit the town that hid my grandparents. My grandmother, who hid with seven other family members in Ceyroux, is still alive and inspired this amazing and exciting endeavor.

With my grandparents’ blessings and with the help of French-speaking friends, I wrote e-mails and sent letters to establish contact with present-day inhabitants of Ceyroux. I had cousins in Paris, but sadly, no one could find their contact information — an unfortunate consequence of a forced diaspora. Then, to my surprise, a short e-mail from the mayor of Ceyroux, Daniel Daguet, arrived in my inbox. He said it would be his pleasure to meet with my brother and me upon our arrival. We set a date for our visit and the mayor and his staff arranged for someone to pick us up at the nearest train station.

My brother and I arrived by train to La Souterraine, a 20-minute car ride from Ceyroux. We were thrilled to see the mayor’s secretary, Monique Resche, and a local translator waiting for us. They were as effusive and enthusiastic about our visit as we were. As we approached the town of Ceyroux, I saw signs bearing the names of towns that my grandmother had spoken about: Viellevielle (where she bought wool for her father to tailor) and Aulon (where other relatives had hidden). From my grandmother’s detailed stories and descriptions, I felt as if I had already been there. However, when they drove us to the farm where my grandmother had hidden, I thought, “This isn’t the right farm.”

The farmhouse had been remodeled, and the detached single room where my grandmother huddled with four family members had been “adopted” into an adjoining house. It was not until I saw the well outside the room’s window that I knew it was the actual residence of my family from June 1942 to September 1944. It is hard to imagine how four people lived in such a small space (10x10 feet) for two years, without running water or bathroom plumbing. Thinking about those years of fear and struggle still brings my grandmother to tears.

During a tour of the farm, we learned that the previous owners (the descendants of the family who hid my grandparents) live in a nearby town, where they own a winery. We walked around the rest of the farmhouse, including the upstairs, where the current owners reported that other Jews hid as well. I thought they were mistaken, as my grandmother surely would have remembered “other Jews” living in Ceyroux, but then I remembered that my grandmother’s in-laws had lived in a “nicer” space nearby. Since the two locations were now attached, I realized that this upstairs was where my great-grandparents stayed. It was a truly emotional experience to see the actual living quarters of my ancestors during a time of atrocious inhumanity.

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The author’s grandfather, Jack Bienstock, as a young boy with his sister, Clara, and his mother Fanny and father David Bienstock. His father joined the French army when he emigrated from Poland so that his children would be French citizens. Photos courtesy Danielle Sandler Reiffe

I wondered why the family who owned the farmhouse risked their lives. Had they been caught with Jews in their home, they would have been killed or sent to a labor/concentration camp. What impressed me more than their silence was the cooperative effort of the entire town. Many people knew that my grandparents were in hiding. Any of the townspeople could have easily turned them in.

These farm owners and townspeople knew what war meant. They had seen the Gestapo search for guns among resistance supporters within the town. They knew the Germans had locked men, women, and children (all Catholic) into a nearby church and burned them alive in retribution for loved ones the Germans had lost in the First World War.

I do not think the farm owners were trying to save Jews. That was not their ultimate goal. But they were willing to take a risk — a great risk. The townspeople had known that any information could be dangerous and so they spoke little about what they saw and nothing of what they heard. A 12-year-old boy saw my grandfather hiding in the woods. His parents told him never to speak about what he saw and for 67 years (until the day we arrived) he never said a word.

Now in his late 70s, he gave me a picture of himself that was taken for his communion. Under the photo he wrote that the suit he wore was tailored by my great-grandfather. In return for the suit, he remembers giving my great-grandfather eggs, butter, and other much needed food. He said he had felt proud and honored “going before God” in such a fine suit. To actually see a product of my great-grandfather’s handiwork and skill was a real treasure.

There were many special stories like this hidden about the town and uncovered during our visit. I always knew that my great-aunt went to school in Ceyroux for two years while in hiding during the Holocaust but I guess I never really questioned how remarkable that was. My grandfather played soccer every Sunday in another town nearby! The pharmacist (who was also my grandfather’s soccer coach) warned him when they were rounding up foreigners and Jews. At the time, no one really knew where the people were being held or taken after being rounded up. Even my grandfather admitted that he never imagined the mass murdering of Jews happening at the concentration camps.

The townspeople said they felt “liberated” upon our arrival because they could finally speak about the war. They told us that our visit was a “gift” and that their actions (or those of their parents) seemed “natural.” But it was not natural. It would have been easy to turn the other way, to have said, “Here are some Jews, spare us” in a moment of duress.

Do we really know what we would have done if we were in their place? Having two small children, would I take such a risk?

So there I was, a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors, sharing stories with the people in a town that saved my family. I am grateful to them for their bravery and silence. My family has a legacy and my children now know their grandparents and great-grandparents. And whenever I think about the evil that still persists in the world today, I remember the people of Ceyroux and I have hope.

Part II: ‘They all perished’

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Danielle Sandler Reiffe and her brother, Carl Sandler, stand next to the well that was their grandmother’s only source of water when she was in hiding.

Many people have asked me, “Why was it important for you to thank the people of Ceyroux?” The short answer is simply because I felt that a thank-you was in order. My grandparents, while happy to be alive, were traumatized and hurt by the Vichy government’s cooperation with the Nazis. They left France for the United States and never looked back. But their extended families (and millions of other innocents) were not as lucky. On the back of an old family photo my grandfather cherished, he had written simply, “They all perished.”

But how did my grandfather know this and who told him? What were the names of the family members who died and who were they as individuals? My Aunt Beverly (my mother’s younger sister) had spent 10 years looking for answers, but my trip to Ceyroux kicked things into high gear.

Both my aunt and I believed in the importance of knowing these family members and taking the time to document their lives. Although my grandfather is still alive, his memory for such family specifics has deteriorated, so my aunt and I became pseudo-genealogists. She mastered document retrieval (with the help of a website called Jewishgen.org, which is like ancestry.com for Jewish genealogical searches) and I began putting together the actual family tree (with the help of a website called Familyecho.com). My aunt retrieved records such as death certificates, marriage licenses, and naval manifests. Many documents were either in Polish, Russian, Cyrillic script, or Yiddish, so we had to enlist the help of friends and agencies that could help with translation.

The records of many of my Polish-Jewish ancestors bear the letters LDS (which stands for Latter Day Saints). In order to access information about these relatives, we had to contact the local Mormon church. We wondered, what do the Mormons want with the records of my Polish-Jewish ancestors? And why have they spent millions of dollars microfilming the records of Jews throughout the world? Sadly, we found out that the Church of Latter Day Saints has “converted” thousands of Holocaust victims posthumously since 1995. And while the church has agreed to stop these conversions, genealogists have found such disrespectful practices continue to this day. These secret “baptisms” angered me a great deal. (Feel free to search the Mormon catalogue online, where you can type in any name into the search engine. Just go to www.familysearch.org.)

Shortly after a posting the names of the family members on the front of the “they all perished” photo on Jewishgen.org, my aunt received an e-mail from a woman named Yael who was searching for her own family history and found a “match” with our own. It was only Yael’s second week on the website. Yael sent my aunt some pictures of her unknown relatives. One of the pictures she sent was of my aunt!

Yael’s grandmother survived Auschwitz, where she lost her husband and two daughters. She later remarried and gave birth to two sons in Poland. When the sons were about 10 years old, the family immigrated to Israel. Yael is the daughter of one of those sons. She has twin boys who are the same age as my oldest son. Today, we videoconference practically every day, using Skype. We are not sure how she obtained the photo that links us, since her father and grandmother are both dead. Nonetheless, the photo confirmed our connection and the existence of a descendant of our family who we thought had perished in the Holocaust. And on Dec. 24, I will be flying with my mother and my oldest son to meet Yael in person.

My aunt and I continue to gather information about our ancestors in order to honor our family’s victims of the Holocaust. We have a duty to pass on the information to the next generation so that their memory stays alive.

Despite everything my grandparents went through, they continue to believe that life is beautiful. I feel blessed to have been given such a gift in knowing them and in discovering our long-lost cousin Yael. Now a piece of our missing lineage can be filled in, and the story can be told. L’dor v’dor.

 
 

Kristallnacht and tales of survival

Wayne man recalls childhood after ‘night of broken glass’

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Ernst Pressburger looks through a book chronicling the journey from the Jews of Rexingen, Germany, to Shavei Zion, Israel. Josh Lipowsky

Ernst Pressburger, 75, sat in his Wayne home on Monday looking over pictures of his life in Germany before World War II. And though he was but a child at the time, he remembers the aftermath of the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, which many consider the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust.

Pressburger was born in the small village of Rexingen, which had a population of about 1,000, of which 260 were Jews. In 1935, many of the village’s younger Jews decided they needed to get out of Germany. They looked to what was then Palestine, and, like the biblical spies Moses sent to the land of Canaan, Rexingen’s Jewish leaders sent three people to Palestine to see if the villagers could make a living there. And although upon their return they spoke of hardships, they said the Rexingen Jews could make a living in the holy land. In 1938, a group of 41 people founded a moshav called Shavei Zion, Return to Zion.

Not everybody wanted to go there, though. Many thought themselves too old to start over, while others, like Pressburger’s father, didn’t like the idea of a Communist-style collective. Ernst Pressburger, his sister Anne, and their parents, Adolf and Paula, remained in the village.

In November 1938, the village’s synagogue, dating to 1710, was set on fire.

“Several of the Jewish men went down to put out the fire,” Pressburger said. “A lot of the regular firemen stood around and watched. The police stood around and watched.”

Then just 4, Pressburger remembers that the police and firemen largely ignored the emergency. Except one policeman, Pressburger said, who saved a Torah from the burning synagogue and gave it to one of the villagers headed for Palestine.

Pressburger doesn’t remember Kristallnacht itself well, but he remembers the next day when Paula Pressburger told her children that a salesman was bothering her and she didn’t want to talk to him. If he came to the door, she told her children, the family should pretend they are not home. The next day, two men in leather coats and hats came to the Pressburger house, pounding on the door, and the family hid behind the sofa, silent, until they left.

Someone had alerted Adolf Pressburger that the Nazis were coming to arrest him, so he fled to the nearby Black Forest, where he stayed for a few days. When he came back he was arrested and held in the town’s prison. Pressburger’s mother said she was going to take some things to him, and young Pressburger threw a tantrum until his mother agreed to take him along.

When they arrived at Adolf Pressburger’s cell, young Ernst shouted at the guards, “You can’t take him! I won’t let you!”

Adolf Pressburger, through his cell, calmed his son, telling him, “Your sister and mother are going to be alone without a man to protect them. Would you do that until I come home?”

“I stood up and said, ‘I will,’” Pressburger said. “From that day on my childhood ended because I had the responsibilities of a man.”

Adolf Pressburger was sent to Dachau, but returned several weeks later with stories of how the inmates had to stand outside in the cold and the Nazis would turn hoses on them.

In 1940, the U.S. consulate allowed Pressburger’s parents to go to the United States, but Pressburger and his older sister Anne would have to stay in Germany with their grandparents until their parents could show that they could support their children.

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Ernst Pressburger visited his childhood home during his first trip back to Rexingen in the 1970s.Courtesy Ernst Pressburger

In 1941, 9-year-old Anne and 6-year-old Ernst were finally set to leave Germany. They boarded a train for Paris, where they would take another train to Spain. After a week, they boarded a ship.

“You have to be lucky in life. We were very lucky in that we got on that ship,” he said, noting that German U-boats were trying to sink ships crossing the ocean.

On April 3, the children arrived in Brooklyn. Their father had found a job taking care of a nearby farm, and the family soon moved to Washington Heights.

People from Germany would ask one another what they had heard about the war. Some letters from the camps, not many, Pressburger said, were able to get out through the Red Cross. Pressburger recalled that one day his sister came home from school and their mother was sitting shiva. She had received a letter from her father that said not to bother looking for him after the war.

In 1944, the remaining Jews of Rexingen, 128 people, were sent to concentration camps. Three survived.

“The Jewish people in Rexingen, before the Nazis came, really had a good life and they enjoyed it,” Pressburger said, flipping through a journal commemorating 70 years of Shavei Zion. The journal chronicled life in the moshav and Rexingen, and Pressburger pointed out pictures of himself as a child and his family in school and at Purim celebrations.

The Jews from Rexingen who came to America formed a benevolent association and erected a monument at Cedar Park cemetery in Paramus. Members still meet there every year on the Sunday closest to Nov. 9.

Unfortunately, he said, Kristallnacht does not receive the recognition it should, even in the Jewish community.

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Ernst Pressburger he also picked up a postcard in the 1970s featuring his village. Courtesy Ernst Pressburger

“In the United States, and rightfully so, the Warsaw Ghetto has become the key event, and that’s fine,” he said. “Kristallnacht is not considered a key event and is not even recognized by many.”

Pressburger became an engineer and in 1973, while working on a flight test in Israel, stopped in Germany with his wife, Minnie, and their two daughters so he could show his family where he had grown up. They visited Rexingen and Pressburger’s old house, then occupied by the people who had used to live next door.

“Without thinking about it,” Pressburger said, “when I met someone I automatically thought, ‘How old is this person? How old were they at the time?’”

In Rexingen, Pressburger met a veterinarian, and while their children went off to play, the doctor told Pressburger that he had served in the German army during World War II because as a 17-year-old, that’s what you were supposed to do.

Pressburger called the fact that the German people did not collectively resist Hitler “the biggest idiocy.”

“At the time, if you read the history and go back, the German institutions were very weak and they didn’t stand up,” he said. “If they had, things would have been very different, because it turns out Hitler was very political and … he would back off if he got a lot of resistance. But there wasn’t a lot of resistance.”

Pressburger recalled a TV documentary about the Japanese from which he learned that a German Jewish banker from New York had funded Japan during the Russo-Japanese War because Russians were killing Jews. In the early 1930s, Japan offered to take in any Jews who wanted to come there in order to boost the country’s industry, but European Jewish leaders turned down the offer because they thought the United States and Great Britain would come to their rescue. Those countries also could have acted differently during World War II, while the German government and army could have fought off Hitler’s rise to power, Pressburger said.

“The Holocaust could have been avoided,” he said. “Many have sinned. Things happened the way they happened. That should only make us aware of the future. History is only good if you learn from it and use it.”

Unfortunately, Pressburger said, pointing to a rise of anti-Semitism in the past few years, he does not see people learning from history. Because his first wife was Canadian, Pressburger’s children have dual citizenship, and he prefers that his children and grandchildren have more than one passport. Though his younger daughter cannot conceive of things changing as drastically in America as they did in Germany, Pressburger said, he pointed out that his family lived comfortably in Germany for 300 years.

“One would hope that when push comes to shove, things would be different,” he said.

 
 

Past and present

 
 
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