The letter arrived for Peter Hirschmann with a postmark from Nuremberg, Germany, where he and his family had escaped from Nazis nearly 80 years ago.
The words, neat script in three pages, brought the 92-year-old resident of Maplewood, N.J., to tears. They were a message of remorse, sent by a German woman who began to investigate how her grandfather had acquired Hirschmann’s family home after it had been seized by the German government.
Doris Schott-Neuse, a 46-year-old civil servant, wanted to express her regret and ask Hirschmann for forgiveness, according to the Associated Press.
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“I am deeply ashamed for what us Germans did to yourself, your family and to your friends and relatives and to the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community,” she wrote. “It is hardly bearable to start thinking about the details — what a horror and nightmare it must have been to live through this.”
In an interview with the AP, Hirschmann recalled his old home on the outskirts of Nuremberg, an old Bavarian town where Nazis had created the Nuremberg Laws, a series of rules that deprived Jews of citizenship, in 1935.
Hirschmann’s father Julius was a businessman whose success was evident in the two-story, three-bedroom house.
“It was probably one of the nicer homes around according to the standards of the day,” Hirschmann said.
He remembers the changes his parents started to make after Nazis came to power and began implementing policies against the country’s Jewish population. After Jews were banned from using a local pool, his parents set up sprinklers for the children in their back yard.
“All of a sudden there was a sign up there: ‘Juden und Hunde Verboten,’ which means Jews and dogs not allowed,” Hirschmann recalled. The family fled Germany in 1939.
Schott-Neuse had begun to look into her own family history and how they came to acquire the house a few years after the Hirschmanns left.
Schott-Neuse, who lived in the house until she was five, dug through the city’s archives and found that Nazis had seized Hirschmann’s home. By 1941, Willi Muhr, her grandfather, was listed as its owner.
Schott-Neuse said her aunt, who inherited the house and later sold it when Schott-Neuse was five, told her that her grandparents had acquired the home after helping the previous owners escape to the United States. But Schott-Neuse said she had come to doubt the story about her grandparents after learning about the house’s history.
“I don’t know if I want to believe that any longer,” she said. “I thought he bought it directly from the Jewish owners but this doesn’t seem to be true.”
Instead, she has begun to assume her grandfather was connected to Nazis, given how nice the house was.
“That is what prompted me to write the letter, because I thought that the family also doesn’t know what happened and I wanted to say I’m so sorry, because it’s not done and over,” she said.
In her letter to Hirschmann, she wrote that the Holocaust and Nazi years were “lessons filled with numbers, data, and facts of the deeds of ‘them’ — the Nazis — and we felt that all that was something which was awful but that it happened in a faraway past. And I did not connect these history lessons to my family. My sister and I enjoyed a very happy childhood and connecting family with gruesome horrors did not work. I know that this was the same for my friends.”
The Hirschmann family was later paid restitution for the house that amounted to about a tenth of its prewar value, the AP reported.
Hirschmann and his family were able to flee Nazi Germany; his parents sent him and his brother to live with a relative in England in the hopes that Adolf Hitler’s time in office would be short, he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
But as conditions worsened for the Jews in Germany, Hirschmann’s parents were granted visas to come the United States in August 1939, just weeks before Hitler invaded Poland in what historians consider the start of World War II.
By the end of that year, the whole family was reunited in Newark, Hirschmann’s parents working menial jobs but happy to be living free. Hirschmann got a waiver to join the Army after his 18th birthday in 1942, even though he was still a German citizen.
An infantryman, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, the last major German offensive of the war, where he was captured along with other American troops. He spent the last five months of the war in a prisoner of war camp — he still remembers the dates, Dec. 16, 1944, to May 8, 1945 — telling his captors that he had learned German in high school to obscure his past and ethnicity.
“If he had found out my background, I would have been shot without any explanation,” he told AP.
Back in the United States, Hirschmann raised two children with his wife Merle, and had a successful career as an accountant and real estate broker. They have five grandchildren. He has been married for 55 years, and still goes to work at the office of the real estate company he owns just about every day.
He and his family had visited the home in Nuremberg decades ago during a trip to Germany, sitting down for tea with the young family that had purchased the place.
Then, decades later the house came back to him again in the form of Schott-Neuse’s letter, which was mailed to his office.
“How she got the address to my office, I don’t yet know,” Hirschmann said.
“I give her a lot of credit for researching and finding him,” his wife, Merle, said.
Hirschmann wrote an email back to Schott-Neuse, according to the AP, telling her that she was blameless and writing that he was touched by her letter.
“You had the option to ignore it and instead you confronted it,” he wrote. “My tears reflect the fervent hope that the humanity, dignity, and compassion you have shown is shared by others of your generation and the generations to follow.”