My husband had been teaching Giessen, a small city near Frankfurt, since June, so in July our daughters and I flew to meet him there. We would stay in Germany for two weeks, travel around a bit—including a visit to the town where my mother was born—then head north for a long-awaited bicycling holiday in Holland. I knew it wouldn’t be entirely easy, to be in Germany, but it seemed important. I thought I was pretty well prepared.
We landed in 99-degree heat, and on our first night in our stifling little apartment in the city a panic attack swooped down on me like a hot wind and rattled my bones: my heart banged in my chest, my breathing was shallow, and I was certain I was having a heart attack. It was the most scared I’d ever been, but even in the midst of it, I thought, Jewish lady lands in Germany and is overcome by terror: what a cliché I am.
It was awful, but I (eventually) got through it the way you get through anything: by breathing. Still, the panic stayed perilously close, ready to resurface. I told myself that I would process it all later, when we were back home in Milwaukee. I told myself: for now, just breathe.
A few days later, we drove to Langenlonsheim, the small city where my mother was born, where most of my grandmother’s family stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. A local man, a psychologist, and his family showed us around the town; this man, Karl, had taken it upon himself to maintain the historical record of the city. He was the keeper of the memories. He knew all about my family, where they had lived, what they had contributed to the town.
“Imagine what this trip would have been,” I whispered to my husband as we walked along a narrow street, “if history had been different. There would be people here to welcome us, relatives, cousins. We would stay with them in their guest rooms. It would be a celebration.”
I had never heard of the Stumbling Stones, the little gold bricks embedded in the cobblestones to commemorate the dead in front of the houses where they had lived, like tiny tombstones. Karl pointed them out to us. “Here is where your family lived.” The names engraved in the stones were familiar. They were Weisses, like my grandmother. I wrapped my arms around my daughters and imagined, for a second, how it would have been. “Come in, come in!” they would have said. “Welcome! Welcome home.”
I’m no stranger to this history. I grew up with it. I’ve done plenty of research. It doesn’t shock me anymore. But those small gold blocks knocked the wind out of me—those familiar names, how they weren’t just destroyed, but all the people who would have come after them, too, turned into nothing.
I looked down at the stones and studied them for a while. I felt my daughters leaning into me, our skin all sticky in the heat, our hearts beating, lungs taking in air and letting it out: every breath, amazing.
Lauren Fox is the author of the novels Still Life with Husband, Friends Like Us, and Days of Awe. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Parenting, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, and Salon.
- Leslie Maitland: Stumbling Stones
- Jessica Soffer: Learning to Breathe
- Leslie Maitland: Stolpersteine