Sunday, April 2, 2006
When the phone rang that day, everything Barbara Principe thought she knew about her family changed in an instant. The daughter of a chicken farmer, she was a wife and mother who, when her kids were young, had worked the second shift at a box factory to make ends meet.
Then the lawyer on the other end of the phone launched into a fantastic tale; one of purloined wealth, Nazi savagery, a treasure hunt through dusty Communist archives and Berlin's vanished Jewish past. It was her story, the lawyer said. And her father's.
Sitting for an interview in her family room, Principe, 73, is open and friendly, the everymom in flats, khakis and a sweater with embroidered flowers. Her voice has the barest hint of a German accent.
She lives in the small red house where she and her husband raised their seven children in Newfield, a one-stoplight town cut through by railroad tracks in South Jersey farm country.
A small black-and-white picture of her father, Gunther Wortham, sits over her chair. He died 12 years after his arrival in America in 1941, from a heart condition aggravated by stress. She knew him as a man in dirty overalls, prematurely gray and worn by work and pressure, suffering from gout and other maladies.
Just a farmer, in other words.
The truth, she would learn, was that he had once lived a very different kind of life.
* * *
For many years after World War II, the nearby town of Vineland, N.J., was a destination for Holocaust survivors seeking new lives. Since it was founded as a Jewish farming colony in the 1880s, little synagogues with Stars of David cropped up amid the flat land and scrub pines; those that remain stand as a weathered testament to this area's historic past.
Principe knew little of this as she grew up in the rickety farmhouse where she and her brother toted 100-pound feed bags and broke the ice in the water troughs on cold winter mornings so the chickens could drink.
Her father worked seven days a week, struggling to master a trade that he knew nothing about. He struggled to care for the 5,000 chickens on the property, whose eggs yielded precious little cash. He had to quiz his neighbors when he wanted to plant corn. Evenings, he would collapse in a chair in the kitchen, rubbing his aching knees.