As a child, I never really appreciated how fortunate I was to have two sets of German-born grandparents in the 1950s.
Like most children, I lived in my own self-centered world and my carefree childhood did not include anything that had to do with Holocaust, concentration camps, the Kinder transports, war-time rations, London bombings or evacuations. These were all parts of my parents' and grandparents' past that I had no knowledge of.
I vaguely remember my mother telling me that my grandfather had been an important rabbinical leader in Germany before the war, and in the late 1940s he was asked to go back to try and rehabilitate the community. She told us this to explain why she went to Germany to visit them when my older sister and I were very young, leaving us to stay in England with our cousins.
Once my grandparents returned to England, we used to visit them in their London home.
On those occasions we always dressed our best and took the big inter-city bus which, to be honest, excited me more than the visit itself.
I knew my grandparents
I vaguely remember my mother telling me that my grandfather had been an important rabbinical leader in Germany.
loved us and that they were always happy to see me and my sisters. But we didn't exactly play together. We would sit together at the dining room table, where all manner of delicious treats had been prepared, and tell them about school. My grandfather's study was lined from floor to ceiling with books, and also had a beautiful piano. The room was pretty much out of bounds to us kids. We could peep inside but we couldn't touch anything, not even a pencil on the desk.
I remember my mother telling me that she and her sisters had grown up with a nanny, only spending the whole day with her parents on Shabbat—something I couldn't even begin to imagine. I had only read about such families in library books about rich British households of previous generations.
As children, it is difficult to think of your grandparents as ever having been young and, like most grandchildren, I guess I assumed that they had always been elderly, formal and rather distant.
It was only thirty years later, when I settled in Jerusalem with my husband and family, that I discovered another side to my grandfather.
In the absence of real synagogue buildings, the basement of our home was used as a synagogue in the newly built neighborhood of Ramot. One of the regulars was an elderly lady, originally from Europe, who was a widow with no children. We "adopted" her and she ate with us often on Shabbat. She liked to be called Savta (Grandma) Devorah, and, as is the common Jewish custom, one day we were playing "mishpachology" a.k.a. "let's see what relatives and friends we have in common." When we reached the name of my grandfather, her eyes lit up and her mouth was agape. "Rabbiner Holzer," she almost whispered in awe. "He was our hero. He was so brave and fearless."
Now I have to admit that even as an adult, with a more mature and rounded knowledge of our recent history, I was surprised at this description of my grandfather, and I was eager to hear more.
When she was a teenager, Savta Devorah explained, she and her
family had been members of my grandfather's community
Her eyes lit up and her mouth was agape. "Rabbiner Holzer was our hero. He was so brave and fearless," she almost whispered in awe.
in the Neue Dammtor Synagogue in Hamburg, Germany. Like most of the young people, she told us, she avidly attended his wonderful lectures and youth group meetings. During the early years of the Nazi rule leading up to the Holocaust itself, he had always been an outspoken denouncer of the despicable Nazi regime. He would stand up in his synagogue and give fiery Shabbat sermons attacking the very people whose guards, he knew, stood outside the doors of his synagogue just waiting for him to make the wrong move. But fear of arrest never stopped him.
On the morning after Kristallnacht, on November 10, 1938, a surprise phone call warned him not to leave his house and definitely not to go to synagogue. But that wasn't his nature. He wasn't going to let the Nazis stop him from going to his synagogue for morning services, nor would he let them dictate any changes to his normal routine.
He went to synagogue as usual and was immediately arrested and, together with thousands of other Jews, transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The next part of the story surprised me even more. My grandmother, who to me was the epitome of a Jewish rebbetzin: gentle, quiet, spending her days in the kitchen and helping her husband tend to his community, stormed the Gestapo headquarters and gave them such a tirade day after day that in the end, after some negotiations, they let my grandfather out on the condition they both would leave German soil within ten days.
My grandparents didn't need any further encouragement.
As I sat there in our Jerusalem home, now an adult and mother myself, and listened to this story, I could feel the tears of regret stinging my eyes and my heart. Regret that I never knew enough to even talk to my grandfather about this part of his life. Regret that I always thought of him as stilted, formal and, I admit it, rather staid and cold.
But it wasn't too late to correct my memories of him. Now when I look at photos of him, I don't see the elderly, serious eighty year old patriarch. I see the young, courageous leader of his community.
And at least it's not too late to pass on a true portrait of him to my children and grandchildren.