“After 70 years, our families are finally reunited,” Andrea Trippen wrote to my mother four years ago.
Andrea is the granddaughter of Johann Trippen, a man who helped my mother’s family flee Hitler and his Nazi regime in 1939. My mother, Marlene, is now one of the last living Jews who ever resided in Rommerskirchen, a small German village about 20 miles from Cologne.
My wife and I spent this Passover in Germany with Andrea, her parents and her son, and with my mother and four of her grandchildren. We were there to honor the late Johann Trippen, a Righteous Gentile (although not recognized as such by Yad Vashem).
My grandfather, Otto Roesberg, was a successful cattle dealer in Rommerskirchen. He had proudly served in the Kaiser’s army during World War I. Johann Trippen, who was not Jewish, was a successful farmer in the same town; he was also a lawyer and a leader in his community. Otto and Johann were best friends.
The Roesberg and Levy families (my grandmother’s family) had lived in Rommerskirchen and the surrounding villages for generations. For more than a century, Jews had been an integral part of the community: They were shopkeepers and cattle dealers living side by side and doing business with their non-Jewish neighbors. Typical of small towns, the synagogue was located near the town square.
At the end of October 1938, Otto’s and Johann’s lives changed forever. On Oct. 30, Otto’s wife, Erna, died after a short illness. When Otto rose from shiva, he took the train to Stuttgart, home to the closest U.S. consulate, to have his wife’s name removed from the family’s U.S. immigration visa. He left his children (my mother Marlene, age 7, and her brother, Herman, 11) with relatives.
On Nov. 9, Otto was on his way back home. But Johann got a message to him, warning, “Otto, do not come back to Rommerskirchen! If you do, you will never get out of here.” My grandfather never went back to Rommerskirchen again. Johann saved his friend’s life — and my mother’s in the process.
After getting the message to my grandfather, Johann rushed to Otto’s home and boarded up the windows while the synagogue burnt to the ground across the street. He kept the marauding Brown Shirts away from the house, saying, “No one is home. Go somewhere else.” After they left, he found Otto’s father-in-law hiding in the hayloft. He put him in the back of his truck, covered him with hay and took him to a train station in a neighboring town where no one would recognize him. On that night, Kristallnacht, Johann Trippen saved at least two lives.
My mother landed in the United States on March 31, 1939, so the anniversary of her arrival often falls during Passover. For my family, Passover is a reminder both of the story of her escape from oppression and that many members of the family were not so lucky.
Johann saved other members of my family. Beno Berlin, another relative, was married to a non-Jewish woman, so they thought they would be safe staying in Germany. But by 1944, it was clear they were not safe, and so they went to Johann’s farm to find refuge.
By day, Johann hid them in the attic, but when the Nazis came, only a spot in the basement no bigger than a small cupboard was safe. They survived thanks to Johann.
In addition, each week Johann brought food to my grandfather’s sister, who had remained in Cologne. Each basket contained a slip of paper: “Next week we will meet you. Please come to us. We will hide you.” But my relatives did not want Johann to be in such jeopardy. Of course, they perished.
Johann risked his life and endangered his family to save members of my family and many others. When Nazis resorted to drafting 15- and 16-year-old boys, Johann pulled local farm boys off the trains, saying “We need these boys to work on the farms, to provide food for the Fatherland,” thus saving their lives.
After the war, Johann wrote to his dear friend Otto, asking him to come back to Rommerskirchen. Otto wrote back, saying, “Thanks for inviting me. I have resettled here in the United States, the country that opened its doors to me. I am remarried. I have never worked so hard nor been so happy. I am not coming back. But please do me a favor, don’t let anyone in Rommerskirchen know that you heard from me. You were the only one who was good to me and my family.”
Over the years they lost touch. Then, five years ago, Josef Wisskirchen, a Rommerskirchen area historian, wrote to my mother to say he was writing a history of the Jews of Rommerskirchen. Their correspondence ultimately led to my reconnecting with the Trippen family.
My mother and Andrea now speak almost every week.
This is truly a unique relationship, a 50-year-old German woman and an 87-year-old German American Jew, the descendant of a Righteous Gentile and a refugee. Andrea visited my parents in October to say goodbye to my father before he died. Getting to know Andrea’s family has helped my mother make peace with her past and with Germany.
Two months ago, with Josef’s help, we were able to go inside my mother’s childhood home. The memories flooded back. Here she had celebrated Passover seders. We went up into the attic and my mother told us, “I remember they smoked and dried sausages here and my brother and I would sneak up and steal a bite … Our extended family from all of the surrounding villages would be with us most weekends … My grandmother was Orthodox; I remember tearing toilet paper for her before Shabbat.”
As we sat around the Trippen dinner table in Johann’s home, Hans-Gerd, Johann’s son born after the war, said, “For over 150 years our families have been friends.” Seated at Johann’s table were the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of both families — 150 years of friendship in spite of Hitler. We were happy to honor Johann’s family by attending the first communion of Jakob, the youngest Trippen, at a beautiful, old Catholic church.
I share this story as we watch the rise of nationalism, anti-Semitism and racism around the world, here in the United States, and in Israel, Hungry and Brazil (just to name a few). We live in a world that at times feels like it is going back in history. Meeting the Trippen family and hearing their stories brings me hope in these dark times.