Leslie Mait­land is the author of Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time: A True Sto­ry of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In 1989 I accom­pa­nied my par­ents and broth­er on my mother’s first vis­it back to her birth­place of Freiburg im Breis­gau – a charm­ing medieval city in the Black For­est region of south­west Ger­many. My mother’s fam­i­ly had fled from their home there in August of 1938, just three months before the ter­rors of Kristall­nacht, and her return trip, more than a half-cen­tu­ry lat­er, was sparked by news that the city was reach­ing out to Jew­ish for­mer cit­i­zens. Host­ing a series of annu­al reunions, Freiburg invit­ed Nazi-era refugees to return for a week of meet­ings and events aimed at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and remem­brance. At the time I was a cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times and, in writ­ing about our vis­it for the paper, forged what would become a last­ing friend­ship with the city’s press sec­re­tary, Wal­ter Prek­er.

About fif­teen years lat­er, Wal­ter informed me that a Ger­man artist, Gunter Dem­nig, had launched a remark­able nation­wide project in which he was embed­ding memo­r­i­al mark­ers into the side­walks of city streets. Dem­nig was plac­ing so-called Stolper­steine, or stum­bling stones,” out­side the homes where Jews had lived before the Holo­caust so that cur­rent res­i­dents and passers­by would be con­front­ed on a dai­ly basis with stark reminders of Hitler’s vic­tims. Each met­al-cov­ered stone” was engraved with the name, birth year, and fate of the for­mer inhab­i­tants of the loca­tions where the stones were set, and Wal­ter won­dered whether I would be inter­est­ed in arrang­ing for Stolper­steine to be placed in front of my grand­par­ents’ Freiburg home at Post­strasse 6. He sug­gest­ed it might be nec­es­sary to obtain per­mis­sion from the cur­rent own­ers, still the same fam­i­ly, my grand­par­ents’ for­mer neigh­bors, who had pur­chased” it from them at a gross­ly under­val­ued price in 1938.

Through work on my book – Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time: A True Sto­ry of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed – I had devel­oped a good rela­tion­ship with their grand­son, Michael Stock. His fam­i­ly had divid­ed the hand­some build­ing into five apart­ments, such that he con­tin­ued to live there with his moth­er, along with sev­er­al ten­ants. When I called him to broach the issue of the Stolper­steine, Michael raised no objec­tion, and so in 2005, Gunter Dem­nig memo­ri­al­ized my grand­par­ents, Samuel Sig­mar Günzburg­er and Alice Berta Günzburg­er, in the side­walk before the home from which they’d fled. (View pho­to gallery of Dem­nig’s Stolper­steine here.)

The fol­low­ing year, the Stolper­steine proved use­ful in an entire­ly unex­pect­ed way. A French busi­ness­man from Lyon, on an extend­ed stay in Freiburg, stopped in sur­prise when he noticed a famil­iar name inscribed on two Stolper­steine on the side­walk where he was strolling. An avid geneal­o­gist, he had ded­i­cat­ed a great deal of time and ener­gy to trac­ing fam­i­ly his­to­ry, and he imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized Sig­mar Günzburg­er as a rela­tion. Indeed Sigmar’s father had been the broth­er of his own great-grand­fa­ther, which meant that we were cousins. Thanks to the artist’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Freiburg, my enter­pris­ing cousin prompt­ly got in con­tact with me – recon­nect­ing branch­es of the fam­i­ly sep­a­rat­ed in the Dias­po­ra of the Nazi years.

In 2007 he host­ed a fam­i­ly reunion in Paris, and he gra­cious­ly insist­ed that my son go to vis­it him in Lyon while study­ing in France in his senior year of col­lege. Mean­while, my cousin proved inde­fati­ga­ble in his con­tin­u­ing research. He dis­cov­ered and financed the pub­li­ca­tion of Hebrew ser­mons writ­ten by a com­mon ances­tor, an esteemed eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Alsa­t­ian rab­bi. He orga­nized a fam­i­ly expe­di­tion to Freiburg and its envi­rons. And made a pil­grim­age of sorts to Gurs, the French deten­tion camp near the Pyre­nees to which the Nazis in 1940 deport­ed all the Jews who still remained in Freiburg and oth­er regions near the Rhine. Sup­port­ive of my book research, he gen­er­ous­ly sent me pho­tographs and doc­u­ments and details of famil­ial roots and shoots on an almost week­ly basis.

Shock­ing­ly, I would learn that as chil­dren in France, his moth­er and aunt had been turned over to the Nazis by their own school prin­ci­pal. Both girls had been deport­ed to a camp, my cousin told me, and his aunt had per­ished. Then came a rev­e­la­tion that, after all our pre­vi­ous dis­course, some­how proved more shock­ing still: as a very young man, he had con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. His wife was Chris­t­ian, as were his sons.

He made this known to us one day when, vis­it­ing with my moth­er in her sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton, D.C. apart­ment, he asked her for a copy of the Bible and read aloud the vers­es that pre­dict­ed the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah. If the Jew­ish sacred text antic­i­pat­ed His arrival, our cousin chal­lenged us, how was it that we failed to rec­og­nize that He had already come?

The moment proved awk­ward, as I strug­gled for an answer, and my moth­er gaped in dis­be­lief. What had led this Holo­caust survivor’s son, so devot­ed to Jew­ish fam­i­ly his­to­ry, to spurn the faith of the fore­bears he revered? Was my new­found cousin, grap­pling with a painful past as I myself was doing, reject­ing an iden­ti­ty that had spelled dan­ger for many cen­turies? While trac­ing the branch­es of our tree, it seemed he was deny­ing our com­mon ground. His ques­tion lay between us like anoth­er sort of stum­bling stone, but because I’d come to love him, I chose to step around it. 

Leslie Mait­land is a for­mer award-win­ning reporter and nation­al cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times who spe­cial­ized in legal affairs and inves­tiga­tive report­ing. Her newest book, Cross­ing the Bor­ders of Time: A True Sto­ry of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, is now available.
Leslie Mait­land is an award-win­ning for­mer New York Times inves­tiga­tive reporter who cov­ered the Jus­tice Depart­ment. A grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and the Har­vard Divin­i­ty School, she spent a decade research­ing this book, trav­el­ing to every loca­tion involved to plumb archives and inter­view wit­ness­es. She appears reg­u­lar­ly on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR to dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture. Leslie Mait­land is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.