The email arrived out of the blue: Dr. Friedemann Stengel of Halle-Wittenberg University in Halle, Germany, was inviting me to a memorial service for 43 professors who had been expelled from the university between 1933 and 1945, during which time “non-Aryans” and other “undesirables” were forbidden employment in Hitler’s Germany.
My father, Hans Rothmann, was one of those professors. Here’s how he described his dismissal several years later: “In the middle of my clinical and scientific activities, on April 7, 1933, I was as a result of the new political order in Germany suspended and eventually dismissed from my job because I was a Jew.”
That’s how I came to fly to Germany for the Nov. 27 ceremony, as a guest of the university that had forced my father from his position. With me were my wife, Ellen, and our sons Samuel, 21, and Joel, 15.
It was a difficult journey to undertake. I was filled with conflicting emotions. As a Jew, a trip to Germany can only be described as a journey to a haunted land. It is true that a new Germany has risen from the ashes, with a population that was not alive during the years of Hitler’s Third Reich. It is also true that Germany is haunted by the memory of those not-so-distant days.
The journey also was a chance to connect the dots of our family history. We went to the Schoenhauser Allee Jewish cemetery to say Kaddish at the graves of my grandfather Max, my grandmother Anne and two of their children, Otto and Hedwig. Neither my wife nor my sons ever knew my father or these other Rothmanns who called Berlin their home.
From Berlin we traveled to Halle. The morning before the commemoration, I was invited to visit the university archives. There on the table was my father’s file. As I held it in my trembling hands, I read the final dismissal document from the National Socialist headquarters in Berlin, dated March 1, 1939, three years after my father arrived in the United States. The document reads, “Hans Rothmann — Jude.”
The night before the commemoration, Dr. Stengel asked if I would speak briefly at the ceremony. It was not an easy request to fulfill. To be honest, I was concerned that my emotions would get the better of me as I spoke. I went over and over in my mind what words I could summon that would convey the conflicting emotions that welled up in my mind and heart.
Some weeks earlier, I had responded to written questions from the university’s magazine. I explained that one cannot correct the injustices of the past, but one can and must remember what happened. I expressed the hope that this generation and future ones would learn what hate, vituperation and intolerance can lead to if there is no immediate, emphatic resistance.
On a very personal note, I explained that I wanted to express my feeling that what the university was doing was important. It was especially vital for me that Samuel and Joel understand what happened to their grandfather. I made clear that it was not just his dismissal that was wrong. It was the silence of his colleagues at the university and of that generation of Germans. The acceptance by the university community, and Germany as a whole, of these horrific laws and actions within weeks of the very start of the Third Reich was the beginning of the tragedy we now know as the Holocaust.
That explanation of my thoughts was in writing — this would be in person. I knew what I wanted to express, but how to do it effectively was the challenge. After a sleepless night, a lot of anguish and tears and the support of my wife, I composed the following:
It is a simple word in Hebrew — Zachor — Remember. That is what we are doing here today. My father, Dr. Professor Hans Rothmann, wrote that he was “suspended and eventually dismissed from my job because I was a Jew.”
Today as one community, we remember.
To Dr. Friedemann Stengel we say thank you for arranging this commemoration. In Hebrew there is an expression that fits exactly, kol ha kovod. All honor to you and to this university for this commemoration, the first of its kind in Germany.
This program is for those of us assembled, but it is also for those among the 43 who have no descendants. We remember them.
In Hebrew we say, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. This day is for my father’s grandchildren Samuel and Joel, who are here today to witness. Equally important it is also for Friedemann Stegel’s three young children, especially for his son Levin, age 13, who is here today. It is for this generation and future generations of students and faculty at this university who always remember.
Together we must resolve that nicht vorgessen, we will never forget. Together, we here assembled must resolve that never again will we permit silence, acceptance, indifference, fear and terror to triumph over good.
What began on Jan. 30, 1933 throughout Germany, and on the campuses on April 7, 1933, led to the ultimate horror, the Shoah, the Holocaust.
Today we stand united, Jew and German, Christian and gentile, old and young, to say with one voice, “Never Again!”
I stand before you today, my father’s son, who affirms with you the ultimate triumph over that evil. Am Israel chai! The people of Israel live!
Those words were for everyone in the room. But above all, they were for my sons, to help them understand what is beyond understanding.
John F. Rothmann is a San Francisco native whose father, Dr. Hans Rothmann, was a physician in San Francisco from 1940 until his death in 1970.