If Any­one Calls, Tell Them I Died: A Memoir

September 1, 2020

In 1933, Dr. Hugo Mendel, a suc­cess­ful Jew­ish lawyer, escaped Ger­many along with his fam­i­ly and moved to Tel Aviv. They were some of the lucky ones” who made it out alive. Two decades lat­er, he and his wife Lucie returned to Ger­many for a cou­ple of months. Short­ly after return­ing to Tel Aviv, Hugo jumped to his death.

Now, Hugo’s grand­son Emanuel Rosen retraces his grand­par­ents’ fate­ful Euro­pean trip and its after­math. With warmth, insight, humor, and com­pas­sion, Rosen tells his fam­i­ly’s sto­ry‚ their life in pre-war Ger­many, their new life in Israel, their return vis­it to Europe, and Emanuel’s moth­er Miri­am’s legal fight to get the Ger­man gov­ern­ment to accept respon­si­bil­i­ty for her father’s sui­cide even though it hap­pened years after the war ended.

Grow­ing up, Emanuel did­n’t know about the sui­cide, the legal bat­tle, or the Nazi psy­chi­a­trist the court-appoint­ed as an expert wit­ness. In short, he did­n’t know much until he found some let­ters his grand­par­ents had sent from that trip and he went to Ger­many to retrace their journey.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Emanuel Rosen

  1. The author’s fam­i­ly had some pri­vate words such as the cake they called Darfish” or the name Dan­ny Kaye” they assigned to a wait­er who remind­ed them of the Amer­i­can actor, and nobody in the world (includ­ing the wait­er him­self) knew this was his name.” Why do fam­i­lies cre­ate such pri­vate vocab­u­lary? Does your fam­i­ly have these types of spe­cial words?

  2. Each of the four mem­bers of the Mendel fam­i­ly react­ed dif­fer­ent­ly to their uproot­ing from Ger­many: The father Hugo took his own life, the moth­er Lucie car­ried on and focused on her grand­chil­dren, the son Raphi head­ed one of the Mossad’s units that hunt­ed down Nazi war crim­i­nals, and their daugh­ter Mir­jam launched a legal bat­tle to prove that the Nazis were respon­si­ble for her father’s death. Which one of the char­ac­ters res­onat­ed most with you? Do you have a sim­i­lar sto­ry of how peo­ple react­ed to adver­si­ty from your own life or the lives of peo­ple around you?

  3. In many ways, this is a sto­ry about dis­place­ment and the heavy psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of uproot­ing. Are there peo­ple in your fam­i­ly who have gone through sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences as immi­grants or refugees? How did they cope? What can soci­ety do to help today’s immi­grants and refugees to integrate?

  4. Hugo was nev­er able to adapt to his new cir­cum­stances after flee­ing Ger­many, but Lucie adapt­ed to life in Israel. Why? Why do you think some peo­ple adapt more eas­i­ly to a new envi­ron­ment than oth­ers? Can gen­der roles explain the dif­fer­ence between Lucie and Hugo? What advice would you give a new­com­er that would make his or her life eas­i­er in a new community?

  5. A thick blan­ket of silence cov­ered every­thing.” In the first two decades after the Holo­caust, it was hard­ly ever dis­cussed in Ger­many or Israel. Why do you think this was the case? From your expe­ri­ence, how do Jews and Ger­mans of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions relate to the Holocaust?

  6. Part of the Denaz­i­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many after the war involved remov­ing for­mer Nazi Par­ty mem­bers from posi­tions of pow­er. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, many for­mer Nazis were hold­ing senior posi­tions in all areas of life. For exam­ple, the expert wit­ness in the legal case dis­cussed in the book, had served in the Nazis’ euthana­sia pro­gram, deter­min­ing which psy­chi­atric patients should be sent to die. The same man served in the mid-1960s as pres­i­dent of the Ger­man Soci­ety for Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­rol­o­gy. Why do you think it was dif­fi­cult to remove Nazis from posi­tions of influence?

  7. In 1952, Israel and Ger­many signed a repa­ra­tions agree­ment that gen­er­at­ed a fierce debate in Israel. Some Israelis vehe­ment­ly opposed accept­ing mon­ey from Ger­many, argu­ing that this would exon­er­ate it from its Nazi past. Oth­ers (includ­ing Hugo and Lucie) felt that accept­ing mon­ey for what they had lost was jus­ti­fied. What are your thoughts on this issue?

  8. In his let­ter from Zurich to his daugh­ter Mir­jam, Hugo wrote that there is no way to main­tain nor­mal rela­tion­ships with the Ger­mans. His wife Lucie nev­er went back to Ger­many after their 1956 trip, and his daugh­ter Mir­jam resist­ed vis­it­ing Ger­many for many years. Yet today, there’s a thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many and thou­sands of young Israelis liv­ing in Berlin. Can Jews main­tain nor­mal rela­tion­ships with Germans?

  9. He nev­er felt that he belonged in Israel, and this trip made it clear to him that he did not belong in Ger­many either. He was in midair. Nei­ther here nor there.” This is cit­ed in the book as the effect the trip had on Hugo which led to his sui­cide. What are oth­er pos­si­ble rea­sons Hugo took his own life?

  10. The direc­tor Fritz Lang once said this about the immigrant’s des­tiny: And when he returns, he is a stranger in his own land, and this I think is the real tragedy of immi­gra­tion.” Rosen says this about his grand­fa­ther: Hugo was com­plete­ly anony­mous back in Ger­many, and it hurts to be name­less in a place that used to be home. It’s like return­ing to a for­mer work­place and real­iz­ing that although you were sure you couldn’t be replaced, life does go on with­out you.” Does this idea res­onate with you? Have you seen it at work?

  11. Mir­jam and her moth­er Lucie first pre­sent­ed Hugo’s death as an acci­dent and the fact that he took his own life wasn’t known to the author for many years. Do you think this is typ­i­cal of the way fam­i­lies cope with the sui­cide of a loved one?

  12. Hugo and his daugh­ter Mir­jam shared a dream of her becom­ing a lawyer like him, but this dream was shat­tered by the dis­place­ment and by the death of Mirjam’s hus­band. Still, Mir­jam found a way to work in the law pro­fes­sion, help­ing sur­vivors receive their resti­tu­tion mon­ey from Ger­many. Do you think that she felt ful­filled? Do you know of sim­i­lar cas­es where a per­son need­ed to adjust their dreams and goals?