A Day in My Ancestors' Hometown of Stuttgart
On the first Saturday of the New Year, I sat on a Deutsche Bahn train in Munich, Germany, watching nervously as a never-ending stream of passengers found increasingly creative ways to stow their ski bags on the crowding luggage racks. While most of them were headed back to their homes after the winter vacation, I was headed to a different kind of home, Stuttgart, the city of my paternal grandmother’s family.
My grandmother’s family lived in and around this southern German city until they were driven to immigrate to the United States in 1937 because of the Nazis and their increasingly brutal anti-Semitic government.
Although I took German in school and have been to Germany several times, I never really thought about visiting Stuttgart until this past year. While my grandma spoke about her time growing up there and had even been back to Germany years later, nobody in my family talked about visiting her former home. I hadn’t (until recently) questioned the fact that I do not know much about my family’s past in Europe, unlike American friends who still have relatives in their family’s country of origin.
Then, 1.5 years ago I applied for German citizenship, a pathway available to German Jews who left during the Third Reich as well as their descendants, like me. After I applied (I’m still waiting to hear), the gravity of becoming a citizen in another country started to hit me — especially a country that my family had fled.
At a period of searching in my own life, I longed for clues to where I came from and who I was. As a Jewish American, this is hard. My other three grandparents were all born in the United States, and I have only a sketchy idea of their family’s life in Europe (Russia on my maternal grandparents’ side, somewhere in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire on my paternal grandfather’s).
Turning to genetic testing websites felt hardly sufficient. What I longed for was to see where my family grew up, what streets they walked every day, where they went to work, how they spent time with family and friends, their traditions, whether they passed their German Jewish cultural traits down to me — in order to have a better sense of myself. Germany remains my best opportunity to try to understand at least a little where my family came from.
I decided to visit Stuttgart at the end of my trip over winter break, thinking at the very least, I would pass by my great grandmother’s childhood home. My own grandma had spent time with her grandmother there right before her family departed for the United States. My aunt had given me the address, though warned me the original building was likely not there anymore.
My day in Stuttgart
The apartment I stayed in, found on Airbnb, felt crammed but organized and well thought out. The host was reserved but friendly. The common area had black and white linoleum floor, a wood piano in the hall, and a map of Europe hanging above the sturdy wood dining room table. My bedroom’s built in shelving was stocked with cute linens, and the room was decorated with large movie posters: Deliverance, Rebel Without a Cause, Dr. No, and A Clockwork Orange. The placement of the latter over the bed, with Malcolm MacDowell grinning lasciviously, felt like a recipe for nightmares — very German.
On that rainy, damp evening, I had dinner at a busy Vietnamese restaurant near the apartment called Noodle One. Everyone else at the restaurant besides me was a couple or a group of friends, but the waitstaff was very friendly and appreciated my feeble efforts at German. The neighborhood fit with what I had heard of Stuttgart — that it is a prosperous, yuppy-ish city where residents work for one of the many companies with German headquarters like Porsche, Daimler, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard. The block also had an Italian restaurant, a pub called Einstein, a sushi place, and a chill looking bar.
Approaching my Airbnb after dinner, I saw through the window my host sitting in a big desk chair across from another woman looking like they were in the midst of some kind of important meeting — on a Saturday night.
A rebuilt city
I started my quiet Sunday in Stuttgart walking around the center of the city, Mitte. Because Stuttgart — like many German cities — was heavily bombed during World War II (60 percent of it), it looks not much like what we Americans think of when we think of Europe.
A lot of the architecture is boxy glass buildings. In the city’s main central square, Schlossplatz, sits one holdout, the Neues Schloss, a grand former home to the dukes of Württemberg that was heavily damaged during the war but restored in the 1950s and 60s. It occurred to me, as it would through the day, that I was looking out on a very different city than the one my grandma would have seen in her day.
A peek at Stuttgart 21, the city’s ambitious new train station
On my way to the address I had for my great grandmother’s childhood home, I came across a giant open house for Stuttgart 21, the city’s ambitious but also much-maligned rebuilding of its main train station or Hauptbahnhof. It is a monumental attempt, as Deutsche Welle puts it, of “transforming and burying an entire train station under a functioning city.”
This opportunity for the public to walk around, view, and read information about Stuttgart 21, was clearly the most popular thing going that Sunday. I went on a tour of a water plant, which I barely understood. It was interesting nonetheless to observe how engaged the other visitors were in this project which seemed truly massive. After, I bought gluhwein, or mulled wine from a stand nearby, observed the food offerings (wurst of some kind) and headed in the direction of my great grandma’s old home.
My great grandmother’s house no longer
Stuttgart’s center city is in a valley surrounded by hills with many of the residential neighborhoods. Walking its sloping streets feels a bit like San Francisco. The location of my great grandma’s home in the northeast was a climb. I walked up stairs and through a blocky modern skywalk and plaza of an Intercontinental Hotel and continued up sloping streets with residential highrises.
The neighborhood was quiet except for one café with a mid-century sign that was doing brisk business. I arrived at the address, Werfmershalde 12, now a multi-story building, modern enough that it was clear, as my aunt had said, it was probably not around before the war.
I thought about ringing the bell to see who lived there, but I was too nervous. Instead I stood in front of the building for a few minutes, studying the recycling bins, the graffiti on the mailboxes, the balconies, not believing members of my family once had lived here, so far away from everything I had known in the United States. I took a few photos and started walking downhill, toward the center city thinking about the life my ancestors might have had here and wondering what it had been like to have to leave.
Learning about Stuttgart’s immigrant history at its Stadtmuseum
I went to Stuttgart’s free Stadtmuseum of the city’s history, a beautiful building with a polished Art Deco interior. The museum chronicled the history of the city’s immigrants. In the years after the war, Stuttgart has welcomed even more residents from abroad than the average German city. Today, 40 percent of its residents are immigrants — 60 percent of those under age 18, according to a 2015 New York Times article, and the city has the highest percent of immigrant entrepreneurs in Germany. Unlike cities like Paris or Rome, Stuttgart has made an effort to integrate immigrants across the city rather than segregating them into areas just outside.
There was also an exhibit about the Jews of Stuttgart, who had grown to about 4,500 by the 1930s. Before Hitler’s government came to power, the city, like much of 1920s Germany, was a friendly and prosperous place for Jews. Half of that population left Germany during the Third Reich.
You can’t go home again
In some ways it was an anti-climactic day. I didn’t see the true buildings my family had lived or worked in—they were long gone—nor had I visited my grandma’s hometown of Ludwigshafen about an hour away by train. But I had seen where she had lived, a modern, changed city.
The day reminded me of a quote at the Staatmuseum’s exhibits about Jews in Stuttgart: “Do you still want to be a Stuttgarter when you tear the domestic bliss out of the door frame and flee? Do you still want to be a Stuttgart citizen when you have to go from Stuttgart to a foreign country to save your life? Is it possible to be a Stuttgart resident in Israel or the USA if the family died in concentration camps?”