Steffi

Steffie's 94th birthday celebration

Steffi’s 94th birthday celebration

Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

Vickie sits with our Pastor friends Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening in the sukkah they built for us at their home in Bad Segeberg, Germany.

A Surprising Request

Vickie and I were thrilled to learn that Pastor Ursula Sieg and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening were coming to visit us in America. When we asked if there was anything special they wanted to do during their visit, they said, “If it is at all possible we would like to travel with you to San Francisco to meet Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg.” Although the request surprised us, it was an opportunity we eagerly embraced.

For our visit to Germany last fall, Ursula created and curated a remarkable exhibit about Stefanie’s life and travels. As a young child, Steffi had to leave her native Breslau and flee to Spain with her parents when the Nazis took over Germany.  Not long thereafter, they had to flee again—this time to Switzerland—during the Spanish Civil War.

Eventually Steffi made her way to New York, then across the country to Los Angeles and ultimately to San Francisco. At 94, she is still active as an artist, who is well-known for her paintings, photography and collages. For several years now, she has done much of her work on her computer. She lives independently and keeps alert and in great shape by attending lots of lectures and classes, and working in her garden. She gave her most recent presentation to the San Francisco Women Artists, of which she is a past president, earlier this year.

“Why do you want to go to Germany?”

When we told her that we planned to spend ten weeks in Germany last fall, Steffi did not like the idea. Given all she had endured at German hands, her reaction did not surprise us.

As the weeks unfolded, it pleased her that her life had become the vehicle for German students to learn about the Holocaust and the basics of Jewish living in a more effective way than books alone could ever teach. Many of these students had never met a living Jew before Vickie and I came to their school.

Never Again!

By the time Vickie and I left Germany, several of the students had sent Steffi very touching emails and voice messages. They wrote that they would do all in their power to insure such horrors never happened again to anyone. The bond the students forged with her has been a healing balm for Steffi.

In addition, Vickie and I had the joy last January of presenting Stefanie Steinberg with an honorary diploma from the Holstenschule in Neumünster accompanied by a beautiful letter of gratitude from the Headmaster. The gesture touched Steffi deeply especially since the Nazi take over in Germany forced this erudite and accomplished woman to suspend her formal education years before she could graduate from high school.

For all of these reasons Steffi was thrilled when Vickie told her that Ursula and Martin were coming to visit her. When the big day came, they embraced like long-time friends. Steffi found more photos to give to her visitors because the exhibit will travel to other schools when Vickie and I return to Germany in September. Then the five of us enjoyed a sumptuous dinner overlooking the Pacific to celebrate Steffi’s 94th birthday.

A Fitting Celebration

It was a wonderful way to honor a remarkable woman whose life and work will always stand to testify against the horror that the Nazis reigned upon Europe. And it was a wonderful way as well to honor two visionary Lutheran pastors who are making heroic efforts to help Germans confront the horror of their past and replant Jewish life in the land where it once bloomed so beautifully.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

Vickie presenting the honorary diploma to her mother.

Learning from the Past and Facing the Future

Months ago, when I was invited to speak in Leipzig on Kristallnacht, the invitation filled me with joy. What could be more wonderful? The city where my father was arrested and sent to Dachau has invited me back as its guest to speak at the city’s three separate Kristallnacht commemorations. And yet the changes that have occurred since I accepted the invitation six months have tempered my joy with concern.

Anti-Semitism is rising sharply around the world. The aftermath of the Holocaust gave us a respite. Now, the world seems to be going back to business as usual. Questions about the legitimacy of the Jewish state—not this policy or that–-but her very right to exist as a Jewish nation don’t come just from radical Arab capitals. They come from England, France,Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and even here in Germany now and then.

Anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish institutions hardly make the general news any more, but they are becoming more common. In Europe anti-Semitic violence is such a pervasive threat that if you wish to visit a synagogue, you had best have a reservation in advance or the locked and guarded building is likely to be off limits.

How should we respond to such existential concerns?

One Yom Kippur a congregation responded to the plea of Rabbi Meir of Apt to repent by bursting into tears. After enduring the sobbing for two hours, the rabbi addressed his congregation saying: “Jews, I don’t want you to turn to God with tears and sadness. I want you to turn to God with joy and hope.” (S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, page 210)

Yes, we live in troubled times. Israel is besieged from every corner of the world, and Anti-Semitism is sprouting anew even at times here in Germany where it is forbidden by law.

Are we to succumb to despair? No, as the Rabbi of Apt advised, our task is to find joy, wherever we can and do our very best to live up to God’s hopes for us, and trust that if we do, God will see us through the perils in our path as God promised Abraham so long ago.

This summer, Israel’s long period of quiet exploded into a horrible war. Certainly it was neither a lasting military nor a moral victory for Israel.

In the grief and of disappointment, over the loss of life both of Israelis and of innocent Palestinians we need perspective. I find it here in Germany. Despite occasional Anti-Semitic expressions I see daily reminders of where we Jews were just decades ago, and how far we have come.

Currently the Holstenschule in Neumünster has a beautiful exhibit based on the life of my wife’s 93-year old artist mother, Stefanie Steinberg. Her maiden name is Apt, and maybe the hope and joy with which she lives, despite what she endured, was taught to her forbears by the famous Rabbi Meir of Apt, whom I quote above.

The Neumünster exhibit allows students a wonderful opportunity to learn of her remarkable life journey from Breslau to Spain, to Switzerland to New York to Los Angeles and eventually to San Francisco where she still lives independently and recently gave a marvelous talk  to the San Francisco Women’s Artists in which she has been active for over half a century. The ingenious exhibit in Neumünster, designed by Lutheran Pastor Ursula Sieg educates students and members of the public who visit not just about the horrors of the Holocaust but about Jewish thought, history and practice as well.

Just last week I spoke at the University of Potsdam to open the semester of the School of Jewish Theology and to rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin. Both of these institutions offer their tutelage to our future professionals in Europe at government expense.

Can this be Germany?

As Jews we have many roles to play in this world. We are not just a beleaguered country that became a State in 1948. We are not just congregations—in North America and around the world– concerned for our fiscal and programmatic futures. And we are certainly not just those whose past is tied to the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

No, we are a people with a 4000 year-old Covenant with God, a Covenant that calls on us to (as God called on Abraham and Sarah: Be a blessing in the lives that we lead (Genesis 12:2) and to follow as best we can God’s teachings and to be worthy of them (Genesis 17:1). Our Covenant with God also calls us to use every ounce of our talent to try to create in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our synagogue, in our nation, in Israel, and in our world a just, caring, compassionate society built on the biblical ideals–of Tzedakah and Mishpat–of righteousness and justice. (Genesis 18:19)

Although I have real concerns as I return to the city of my father’s birth and upbringing, I will certainly be aware that the Leipzig to which I return is very different than the Leipzig my father left. Buoyed by the reality of today, I will return to Leipzig to proclaim with the joy and hope Rabbi Meir of Apt recommends.

Although we can never undo the past, we can learn its lessons and build a better future—a future marked by righteousness and justice–for ourselves our children and the generations to come

Noa and Great grandmaThe irrepressible 93-year-old artist Stefanie Steinberg (Vickie’s mother) subject of the exhibition at the Holstenshcule in Neumünster, Germany, holding three-year-old great-grandaughter, Noa Lauren Moskowitz with whom she has a special bond.

From Breslau to Neumünster: A Long Journey Home

From Breslau to Neumünster is not so far, but it is a longer journey if the route is via, Spain, Switzerland,New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But that is the route my mother-in-law, Stefanie Steinberg, now 93-years young has taken.

Stefanie was born in Breslau and spent a happy childhood there displaying remarkable talent as an artist. But when the storm clouds of Nazi hegemony threatened the idyllic existence–indeed childhood itself–ended for her> In her own words:

My father realized that Germany was becoming a dangerous place, and suddenly the government no longer permitted him to treat Kranken Kasse patients, his primary group of patients. He began to make preparations to take us out of Germany. During that time, he was again given the permit to treat the workers because he had been a decorated officer in World War I, and had been given the Iron Cross. Wisely, he had the foresight to take his family out in 1936. He brought us to Barcelona, Spain, where he set up a medical practice, having brought his radiology equipment with him. Six months later, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and the women and children of foreigners were forced to evacuate the country. Father could not leave until much later, and had no possibility to work in Switzerland. My mother, brother, and I had small bags packed, and we went by refugee boat to Marseille, and from there by train to Zuerich, Switzerland. With the help of Julius Schueller and the International Council of Jewish Women, I was sent to Kinderheim, Wartheim, in Heiden, Canton Appenzell as an unpaid helper, a Practicantin with two other teenage girls and about forty children. My mother went to Dijon, France, to work as a secretary for a woman professor, and my brother was sent to live with a family in Switzerland who treated him poorly. Much later, my father went to New York to try to set up a medical practice there.

When I first arrived at the Heim, I was quite shell shocked, and the other people there called me the Steffie who does not talk. After a while, I began to thrive, and even taught the children a calisthenics class outside. After I had been there about a year, the children put on a play for the delegates of the Council of Jewish Women, and I painted the whole backdrop, a forest scene. When the delegates saw what I had painted, they helped me to get a scholarship to attend an art school, called the Kunst-schule Muench-Winkel in Zurich. I was able to attend that school for about a year, until 1938.

In the summer of 1938, my mother and I boarded a boat in Le Havre, bound for New York. My brother could not leave Switzerland until he graduated from the Institute Juventus in Zurich. He came in October of 1938, just a few weeks before Kristallnacht. When we boarded the boat, I had just had my 17th birthday. It so happened that I met my future husband, Ulrich Steinberg, whom I would marry 7 years later, on the boat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in New York, I didn’t attend high school, I went straight to work. One of my first jobs in New York was in a ladies hat shop on Diekman Street, sewing felt onto hats. For that, I was paid $5.00 a week, far less than someone who was born in the US would have been paid. Sometimes I had to work until 10:00 at night, and Uli would pick me up from work and bring me home half asleep, using the subway.

My next job was at a store called Jane Engel, on Madison Avenue, an elegant store not far from where we lived, where I was paid $7.00 a week. I worked there for about three years. I would usually walk home for the lunch my father prepared for me. His doctor’s office was then on the ground floor, and we lived on the third floor above his office. Later, I worked painting on ceramics and on silk ties. When my father became sick with cancer, I worked in the mornings, and in the afternoon I visited my father in the hospital. My brother took mornings off in order to visit him. When my father died, at Mount Zion Hospital, where he had volunteered in the outpatient department, the hospital would not release his body because my brother and I did not have enough money to pay the fee. Eventually they released him, and my brother and I moved into his small office and living quarters.

I decided to leave New York and worked my way to California, where I looked up Uli in the phonebook. We married a few months later, in April of 1945, and lived in his tiny bachelor apartment.

For a while, I painted on silk ties, and then I painted a blouse for myself. I wore it to the Ambassador Hotel gift shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and asked the owners to give me some of the blouses, called “dogs” that they could not sell. I painted them, and they sold like “hot cakes”. I painted more and more blouses, and even painted a ball gown for the actress Joan Fontaine to wear in the movie, “Emperor Waltz” (about Franz Joseph) which she starred in with Bing Crosby. The famous movie designer, Edith Head, had asked me to paint the ball gown. We then rented the top floor of an office building, and hired 10 artists to paint my designs. We sold our creations all over the US. We painted on blouses, ties, bras, girdles, swim suits, undergarments. It became a big company. At that time I also took classes at the Art Center School. Then a large Chicago company brazenly copied our best selling flamingo blouses. After the lawsuits, money ran low, our company folded, and I worked as a designer for a factory that made decorated clothes. Shortly after that, we moved to San Francisco, and began anew.

In San Francisco, I had the chance to take classes at San Francisco State University, which was in walking distance from our apartment. I took classes in drawing, painting, and art history. I became a member of a long established organization called The San Francisco Women Artists, served on its board for many years, had many paintings and photographs exhibited in their gallery over the years, and became its president for two years as well. I am still a senior member, after more than 50 years, and they chose to feature a painting of mine in one of their most recent exhibitions.

My works were also exhibited in various San Francisco museums, both painting and photography, and while an active member of the Bay Area Photographers, I received numerous awards for photo montages in black and while photography.

In 1989, I joined CLIR, the Center for Learning in Retirement which is part of the University of California. This gave me the chance to attend excellent classes taught by University of California professors, in art, photography, and in how to use the computer to enhance the quality of photographs. I still attend lectures and events there which are intellectually stimulating both because of the high caliber of the lectures, and because of the quality of the other seniors attending, who have become friends over the years.

In my free time I still enjoy painting and taking photographs of subjects which capture my attention. I enjoy visits from my two daughters and sons-in-law, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. I also take care of my cat, Blackberry, and my garden both in front and in back of my house which I consider to be my personal, private paradise!

Today (October 28) In Neumünster, a wonderful exhibition of Stefanie’s life journey ones for edification of high school students. Pastorin Ursula Sieg, with the enthusiastic cooperation of my wife,, Vickie, and Stefanie herself, has put together this wonderful interactive learning opportunity. Vickie and I have already met with groups of students doing projects that center around the exhibition. As I write, Vickie is putting the finishing touches on her exhibit-opening speech, and soon we will drive to Neumünster for the event.

At home in San Francisco, Stefanie still is an active artist who lives independently. In a very real way, she has come back home to Germany triumphant over the forces of evil that inflicted years of pain and hardship on her and so many. It is a source of pride to her and all of us who love her that her life journey will teach valuable lessons to a new generation of Germans.