Austin Family Helps Build Peaceful Future Through 13 Driver’s Licenses
Thirteen driver's licenses, confiscated by Nazis in 1938, were returned to descendants in 2018. Courtesy of the Schlesinger family.
By Tonyia Cone
An Austin family recently traveled to Germany to connect with their past while helping a younger generation forge an open-minded future.
While digitizing records in 2017, a staff member of the district offices of the town of Lichtenfels, Germany, came across an envelope containing 13 driver’s licenses the Nazis took from Jewish citizens in 1938.
Instead of turning over the licenses to the state archives, District Administrator Christian Meißner forwarded them to the local high school headmaster, asking for students to document what happened to the licenses’ owners.
High school history teacher Manfred Brösamle-Lambrecht took over the project, thinking it would be a perfect fit for his students at Meranier-Gymnasium, “for the detective work of investigating, for the personal connection they would feel with the people they investigated, and for the ethical implications and dimensions of the project,” wrote Austinite Suzanne Schlesinger in a photo book she created.
When he assigned the project, Brösamle-Lambrecht placed the licenses on a table and each student selected to participate chose one person to research. Clara Aumueller picked Suzanne’s grandfather, Alfred Marx, and Victoria Thiel chose Alfred’s brother, Sigmund Marx. Alfred Oppenheimer, Sigmund’s brother-in-law, was also included in the project.
The Schlesinger family learned of the project when the students and Brösamle-Lambrecht tracked them down through cousins via Facebook and asked for help with their research in May 2018.
After months of corresponding via email, the class invited the Schlesinger family to visit Lichtenfels for a special opening presentation of their “13 Driver’s Licences: Thirteen Jewish Lives” (sic) project Nov. 5. The exhibit opening was followed by a ceremony in the former Lichtenfels’ synagogue, now a community center, on November 9, the anniversary of the November 9 pogroms, also called the Night of Broken Glass.
“At first, we were not sure if we should go since we had visited there just two years ago,” said Suzanne, who in 2016 had visited the town where her mother, Inge Stanton, was born in 1930.
Alfred Marx’s daughter and the remaining member of her family who witnessed the Night of Broken Glass, Stanton still remembers the sound of glass breaking that night. Her family left behind everything they owned in Germany and went to England, then the United States.
When Stanton, who now lives in New Jersey, agreed she would return to Germany to take part in the 2018 exhibit ceremony, her daughters, Nancy Stanton-Tuckman and Suzanne Schlesinger, and her granddaughter, Ellie Schlesinger, decided to accompany her to Lichtenfels.
“It was the best decision and we cannot imagine what we would have missed if we had not gone,” said Suzanne, who formed close personal connections with those involved with the project.
While in Germany, the family spent time with Brösamle-Lambrecht and the students, and toured Lichtenfels with local historian Guenter Dippold, Brösamle-Lambrecht, the students, and the other descendants who were there for the “13 Driver’s Licences” ceremony.
The group also went to the town hall where they signed the Golden Book, a ceremonial task reserved for special dignitaries and special events. That night, they viewed the project exhibition at the Meranier-Gymnasium, which included large banners with the research on each of the license holders. Information included their biographies, details of their lives in Germany, what became of them and photographs.
Many people, including Stanton, gave speeches at the ceremony.
“My personal memories are still very strong of our departure from Germany to the safety of England. I was eight years old when I experienced Kristallnacht and was unable to remain in the second grade because of the mistreatment by a Nazi teacher. I observed and understood what was happening in Germany in spite of my youth,” Stanton said in her speech.
Stanton explained that she was honored to be part of the celebration of Germany’s examination of its history and “its commitment to build an open, safe and potentially satisfying life for all its people.”
“I applaud the present generations for their open-hearted actions to aid so many from around the world,” she told the audience of about 300 people.
After the students presented biographies of those they had studied, the driver’s licenses were returned to license holders’ descendants, who came from Argentina, Israel and the United States. Five of the licenses were returned at the ceremony.
Suzanne’s daughter, Rachel, was unable to make the trip, but a film she made, “Inge,” about the family’s previous trip to Germany, was shown on a loop throughout the evening. The film has been screened at SXSW in 2017 and some Jewish Film Festivals, including the Austin Jewish Film Festival. Rachel also received Scholastic Art Awards for the film in 2017.
The only descendant at the ceremony who had lived in Lichtenfels in 1938, Stanton was interviewed by multiple television stations and newspapers.
“Everyone wanted to meet her and talk with her,” Suzanne said.
After a few days of sightseeing, the family returned to Lichtenfels for a Nov. 9 event, a Stolpersteine ceremony the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht in front of the Marx home and several other Jewish family homes.
Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” is a project created by artist Gunter Demnig in 1992. Stolpersteine are commemorative brass plates installed in the pavement in front of the last address of Holocaust victims’ choice. More than 70,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in more than 610 places throughout Europe.
On his website, Demnig cites the Talmud, "A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten." He explains that the Stolpersteine keep alive the memory of those who once lived there.
Suzanne said that the stones, each stating “Here lived,” are placed in the ground so those reading the stones must bend over as a show of respect to the victims.
That evening, their last in Lichtenfels, the family went to a remembrance in front of the town’s old synagogue, attended by many local citizens and clergy members. The event included music, prayers, and a candle lighting ceremony.
“Candles were lit and extinguished to remember the atrocities of November 9, and then relit to symbolize peace and hope for the future,” Suzanne wrote. “The sight of all the candles lit in the cold, dark evening was overpowering. We were overwhelmed with emotion. The people showed us so much love, acceptance and respect.”
Stanton told the Jewish Outlook, “What was important was to see the big changes in the population of Germany from when I was a child and to the generation of today.”
“My feeling on the trip was I was ready to go forward with Germany. I haven't forgiven them. I haven't forgotten them. But I'm open and ready to accept them as they are today,” she added. “The other thing is that I was able to take my family to Germany. Here I am, the mother and grandmother of a thriving family, when all Hitler wanted to do was to stamp us out. He didn't succeed.”
Suzanne explained that the family left Germany with feelings of love.
“It was an emotional journey filled with incredible memories but also remembering the sadness of past times. Mostly it will be a trip remembered for the people we met, the reuniting with our cousins and the special time the four of us had together,” she said.
Rachel explained that as the first generation that will have to tell the story of the Holocaust without the survivors, the students clearly felt an obligation to keep the dialogue going.
“Yes, Jewish people are the victims. We also have to give people the opportunity to be forgiven. That’s why I felt we needed to go. We need to show them that there can be peace. Even from the most horrible parts of history, we can overcome that,” said Rachel, who convinced her mother that it was important to make the trip.
Her sister Ellie added that the project gave those involved an important opportunity to connect and try to make sense of the tragedy together.
“We both were just so desperate to connect. Something like this doesn’t make any sense but it’s such a harsh, brutal part of reality and it seems so surreal. You just want to connect to have some ground in this mess,” she said. “It was so emotional. It was just a relief.”
The exhibition is now traveling through-out Germany, and Brösamle-Lambrecht explained efforts are being made to transfer it to the United States and Argentina. ■