It was going to be the trip of a lifetime. More than a roots trip, it was a pilgrimage to the part of the world that kept my father alive during the Second World War, where my mother was liberated from a death march by U.S. soldiers, where my parents met and married and had their first child, my oldest sister, displaced persons in Germany, all of them.
Growing up, these stories were family lore. Especially the farm in Germany where my father spent most of the war. But the details were fuzzy and I was hoping to get some clarity on my visit. Something about hiding in a haystack – or was it an apple tree? – for two days while the Nazis searched the county for Jews. My father had escaped from Poland using false papers and with a false name. Jacob Lederman, a Jew in Poland, became Tadek Rudnicki, a Catholic in Germany. That farm, that family, gave my father life.
But my father died unexpectedly in 1984 and my mother suddenly in 2006 and, stupid us, we never got our facts straight. We didn’t think to ask for the exact location of the farm so that, maybe, we could visit it one day.
A few months ago, my sisters and I decided we wanted to see the village where my mother was liberated. With the three of us living in different places and in different stages of life, it felt as if there were a million little challenges and details to iron out, but we pressed on. This was so important. And a rare opportunity for just the three of us to spend time together. The most recent time we were able to travel together was 2000, on a cruise to Alaska with our mom, for her 80th birthday, just the four of us.
Little did we know that, just as we were in our final planning stages, the Germany trip would be threatened by a global health crisis that’s pitched us all into a dilemma.
Long before this unforeseen problem, we were totally focussed on the dream of finding my father’s farm. But with so little to go on, it felt like a needle in a haystack – or was it an apple tree?
Then, my middle sister unearthed my father’s diary from a 1979 trip he took to Germany. It contained emotionally excruciating details. He wrote about seeing “the village and the church where I prayed to the Gods for my life.” We remembered, after my mother died, finding among her most precious things a little black leather book the size of a computer mouse: my father’s wartime bible, in Polish. The diary also contained clues about where the farm might be and, amazingly, a name.
I sent the information to a researcher we hired in Cologne. Within days she had found the family and the farm. We too were part of their family lore. The patriarch, son of my father’s wartime employer, recalled my father showing up in 1979 and that he, the son, threw down his pitchfork and yelled “Tadek!”
Andrea, our wonderful researcher, also found the little church. She sent us a photo. A white church, a brown roof and a steeple. The family had a key. They would allow the three of us, just my sisters and me, to visit the church privately.
We would also visit the town where my mother had been a slave labourer at a satellite camp of Buchenwald, making munitions for the Germans who had murdered her parents, little brother and almost everyone else she knew. And we would see the spot where she had been liberated by the U.S. Army. There is a little park there and a plaque. The itinerary was set.
When I first read that COVID-19 had become a problem in Germany, I figured, no sweat. Must be Berlin. Maybe Frankfurt. Munich? But a bit of Googling revealed that nearly all of the cases in Germany were in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
It was a place I doubt I would have heard of had it not been where my mother was liberated. Where my father survived the Holocaust hiding in plain sight. Where my sisters and I are booked to travel this month.
I’m relatively young, in good health and determined to see this through; I plan to write about it. But my sisters are 10 and 17 years older than me and my oldest sister has a compromised immune system. My middle sister, God love her, has a tendency to worry.
Last week, I forwarded some good news to my middle sister: the outbreak is centred in Heinsberg, nowhere near anywhere we are going. But she responded with a hot-off-the-presses news article. The number of cases in Germany had tripled in 48 hours; 324 of them were in North Rhine-Westphalia. That was Friday, six days before my departure.
The news had us in knots. This was not like cancelling a trip to Disneyland, or even a European adventure. This was perhaps the most meaningful trip we would ever take. The farmer who remembers my father is 87 and in delicate health. My sisters and I aren’t getting younger either.
By Monday, the number of cases in Germany had risen to more than 1,100. Two deaths were reported, both in North Rhine-Westphalia. My middle sister, the one I was to share a room with for that unforgettable week in Germany, sent me a text message: she had decided not to come along. “I feel horrible about it, but the entire world seems to be suffering from the turmoil right now and it is just escalating.” On Tuesday, my oldest sister pulled out. “I’m heartbroken,” she told me over the phone.
I decided to go on my own; to Skype them from the farm where my father’s life was preserved, from the church where he prayed.
The night before my departure, Donald Trump imposed the European travel ban, and I had to face the possibility not just of getting sick – but of getting stuck. I have an 11-year-old boy. It would be irresponsible of me as a mother to go. I owe a debt to the memory of my parents. But I owe much more to my son, Jacob Lederman.
I picture all of us talking about this at family occasions to come: the soaring joys of the unlikely discoveries; the absolute devastation at having to change our trip-of-a-lifetime plans. We’ll retell the story to ourselves and to our children and to our children’s children. I don’t know how the story will end – with another trip, I hope. But I imagine this chapter becoming less awful in the retelling, a little lighter, even funnier. It will become, perhaps, a new piece of family lore.