Unlocking her past: Old photo of her mom sends El Cerrito resident on a 20-year odyssey

Dressed in an exquisite white silk evening gown and a glittering necklace, the stylish young woman in the early 1930s photograph was not the mother Mani Feniger had known while growing up in poverty in Queens, N.Y. The proud profile was the same, but little else.

“When I found that photograph in a dusty, old envelope [after her mother’s death in 1987], it literally took my breath away,” Feniger said recently. “The elegance and poise and comfort did not resemble the mother who was nervous and anxious and worried and, frankly, seemed to have disdain for beautiful gowns and femininity [and] for things that resembled wealth.”

Widowed in 1953, when her daughter was 8 years old, Alice Lewin Feniger became obsessed with practicality, said Mani Feniger, an El Cerrito resident. The woman in the photograph, she added, “wouldn’t have had the same outlook in life — or the same personality as the woman I knew … And I felt I knew my mother better than anyone on the planet.”

The photo that spurred Mani Feniger to investigate her family’s past shows sisters Erika (left) and Alice Lewin, her mother.

The photo, which shows Alice and her older sister, Erika, was taken in Leipzig, Germany, where the sisters grew up, daughters of a wealthy dentist. It propelled Feniger on a 20-year journey to uncover her mother’s past and claim her own legacy, financial and otherwise. It led her to Swiss banks that had no records, and to her grandfather’s confiscated apartment building in Germany.

And it spurred her to write “The Woman in the Photograph: The Search for My Mother’s Past,” a self-published memoir.

The book, which Feniger began more than a decade ago as a writing exercise in a memoir class, slowly took shape as family secrets came to light. Because Leipzig is in the former East Germany, Feniger’s early search for information (and for restitution) hit an Iron Curtain.

Complicating the situation, Alice had told her daughter very little about her earlier life — other than that she came from a wealthy family, she had hated her parents, her father had an unclaimed Swiss bank account (which she had tried to retrieve) and “she was lucky to get out of Germany early,” in 1935.

She never showed that photo to her daughter, nor to Feniger’s older brother, Thomas. She also never showed them the album showing the sisters on skis, on the deck of a cruise ship, on the beach in Belgium or behind the wheel of a Daimler.

As Feniger came across these photos, she kept asking herself: “Why wouldn’t [my mother] have wanted me to see her young and beautifully attired? Wouldn’t she have wanted me to know about this life? Wouldn’t this woman have had amazing tales to tell me? And why didn’t she?”

In an attempt to reconstruct those tales, Feniger traveled to the East Coast to interview elderly relatives and family friends, pored through archives and eventually traveled to Germany.

She discovered that her grandparents, Max and Nelly Lewin, did not die in the Holocaust, as she had assumed. Max perished in 1932 of a massive heart attack. Distraught after his death, Nelly jumped out of the apartment window some weeks later but lingered for nine months in a hospital before dying.

Mani Feniger

Feniger found out that her grandfather had been cruel to his daughters and her grandmother didn’t defend them. She also discovered that some of her relatives were killed in the Nazi death camps.

Perhaps as a survival strategy, Alice distanced herself from her past as if “that life belonged to another person and not to her,” her daughter said. Then, after her husband died in 1953, she put one foot in front of the other, learned office skills and conveyed an image of fortitude to the outside world.

But when Mom came home from work, Mani Feniger saw a woman who was “like a little child whom I tucked into bed and brought tea to … I heard her sighing and saw her suffering.”

Feniger said her own daughter, Tiburon resident Sarah Berger, 41, has fond memories of her grandmother but also clearly remembers her intense anxiety, clutching her purse and being wary of crossing streets as if she were on the lookout for trouble.

Coming to terms with her mother’s past was a healing process for Feniger, a therapist. It helped her to reclaim her own heritage. Raised by a mother who had little connection to Judaism beyond the Passover seder, Feniger became a spiritual seeker and a student of 1960s and ’70s counterculture guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, changing her name from Terry to Mani. Later, in a Berkeley meditation group, she met Michael Gardner, her husband.

These days, she attends gatherings of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), a monthly musical minyan in Berkeley. Her religious leanings are eclectic. “I can go to a meditation group. Honestly, I can go to a church and to almost any group … but I will admit the one [tradition] I had rejected [mainly due to lack of exposure] was the Jewish part. I’m happy to rediscover the spirit in Jewish Renewal, as much as I could find it in Indian chanting.”

Feniger’s journey culminated in her 2005 visit to Leipzig, where she lit candles and said a prayer of forgiveness on the barren site of the apartment building owned by her grandfather. The building, in the city’s music quarter, had been flattened in World War II.

Kneeling on the ground, she asked that the pain between her “mother and her family be put to rest” and “the trauma between German and Jew be acknowledged and brought to completion. From this day forward, no victim, no oppressor.”

Healing of a more material nature also took place. In 1997, Feniger and her brother received checks from the German government for the sale of the Leipzig property. That check enabled her to buy her home in El Cerrito. Then in 2006, they received $5,000 checks as compensation for the “plausible undocumented” Swiss bank account.

But beyond material compensation, Feinger said her odyssey “gave me back something. The missing piece wasn’t just [my mother’s] losses. The missing piece was my entitlement to let life be glorious.”

“The Woman in the Photograph: The Search for My Mother’s Past”
by Mani Feniger (231 pages, KeyStroke Books, $14.95)

Mani Feniger will discuss her book at 3 p.m. Aug. 12 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. (510) 655-1977 or www.afikomen.com. She will participate in a Litquake panel on writing memoirs at 6 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. www.paloaltojcc.org.

Janet Silver Ghent