Toy Electric Trains and the Holocaust


         

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City of Toys, City of the Reich

By Irene Reti © 2008

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"He was a butler and then an accountant for a furniture store. He was over sixty years old and did not speak English," I replied.

Her face was expressionless. No real conversation about the past was possible. While her back was turned I placed a pebble from the beach in Santa Cruz on a window ledge, just as traditional Jews put a pebble on their ancestors' gravestones. The Fleischmann factory is just one of the markers of my family's exile.

I want to understand how memory works, what we forget and what we choose to remember. My aunt, who remembered her childhood and was interviewed by a Holocaust oral history project, has kept few mementos of her past. My mother, who wanted to forget everything, never threw anything out. Artifacts became her externalized memory. She treasured letters from her parents, photographs, the autograph book from the Jewish school she attended in Nuremberg. And she kept the train set for us to play with. Only it was lost somewhere in the house, the train set. When my mother lay dying of lung cancer she said to my brother and me, as we sat on the very same scratchy blue couch we had played trains under as children, "I wonder where those trains are?"

Ten months after my mother's death, my brother unearthed the train set in the garage, hidden among decorations. The trains sat in the box they were shipped in that long ago summer of 1960, the customs label from West Germany still attached. The lost train set waited, abandoned, its little engines frozen, its tracks rusty. A friend lubricated the engines and sanded the tracks. The cars roared in a tiny circle around my friend's wide feet on the kitchen floor.

Trains—real ones and tiny ones. I traveled home on a big train, feeling like Gulliver as Amtrak crawled up dry hills past cows that resembled models. I returned home to the Internet and googled myself into the past, to discover that collectors treasure Doll Co.'s model steam engines. On my computer screen, three logos for Doll Co. materialized, the letters D and C tucked into each other. I was logged into John O'Rear's Model Steam Engine website in Kentucky. I clicked on the photo of a Doll steam engine and read:

    The Doll [Bein] family held out longer than most Jewish owned businesses, but finally sold out in 1938 to Fleischmann. Curiously enough, the Fleischmann family was also of Jewish origins, but managed to obtain an 'Aryan' certificate, whereas Doll did not. From there it appears that at least some of the [Bein] family did survive the war, either by leaving the country or possibly by hiding in Germany. I would still very much like to hear any other information regarding the family, especially what became of them after the war.

The Internet is a strange place. A software engineer in the hills of Kentucky was wondering what had happened to my family. And this was the first time I had heard that the Fleischmann family may have been of Jewish origin. Feverishly, I fired off an email:

    Dear John O'Rear:

    I was rather astounded to find your wonderful website. I am the granddaughter of Max Bein, who was the last owner of Doll Co in Nurnberg. I live in Santa Cruz, California and have been researching my family's history . . ."

John wrote back almost immediately:

    It is interesting where hobbies and interests can lead you. I was first attracted to the Nuremberg steam models for their elegance and Edwardian charm. As a non-Jewish person, I had been taught about the Holocaust but the sheer tragedy of it just didn't register. Who was it that said a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic? It was not until I learned the fate of the Nuremberg families that the true nature of the Holocaust became evident. It acquired a human face, quite a few faces. And this has led me to a quest, to find out what became of the Nuremberg families. For if this story put the Holocaust in human terms for me, it can do so for others as well.

John provided me with a possible clue as to the relationship between my family and the Fleischmann family. I do not know how unusual it was for the families who appropriated Jewish businesses to keep up a relationship with the Jews who had previously owned their property. Does the Fleischmanns' possible secret Jewish background explain this ongoing connection? In my mother's papers I found a letter from 1956 in which my grandmother writes about the dinner she cooked for the Fleischmanns when they came to visit Boston. They spent a hot May evening reminiscing about Nuremberg. And I think of the silver cookie tin we kept on top of the refrigerator. Like the train set, I did not know its true history when I was a child. This tin had been sent by the Fleischmans to our family, filled with gingerbread. My mother filled it with brownies made from Betty Crocker brownie mix. It rattled when I stole a brownie, giving away my secrets.

Cookies, train sets, dinners. Tours of the factory for my aunt and myself. (My mother never desired to return to Nuremberg.) Perhaps the cookies and toys are an expression of guilt, or perhaps the Fleischmanns have lived for sixty years in fear that we will sue them and try to get the factory back and think gingerbread and gifts will stop us. Or maybe Max and Horst and Emil were friends before the war and they sat out on the street on warm afternoons and shared sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, swapped stories about the business. Maybe the younger Fleischmanns are hidden Jews who, like my brother and me, did not grow up aware of their Jewish background.

I wrote to John O'Rear again and received an exquisite email detailing what was so special about my grandfather's steam engines:

    Dear Irene,

    Let me try to put into perspective the marvelous creations that your grandfather built. Around the turn of the century, Nuremburg was known as the metalworking capital of the world. The finest machinists lived there, and perfected techniques seldom used in the rest of the world. And only the best of the best were hired to build the high end steam models. What one finds in the better Nuremburg steam engines is the pinnacle of precision mechanical models, with a level of quality and finish that was unequalled in its day, and virtually unknown today. The models are very special, living examples of turn of the century elegance. You simply cannot find craftmanship like that today. These were not toys, nor were they simply a working model of a steam engine. In reality, they were a form of sculpture, one that stretched the limits of what can be done with metal.

What John has returned to me is not only pride in my grandfather and great uncle's artistry, but also a glimpse of the full lives they lived before the terror of the Nazi regime. I log on to ebay, consider purchasing one of my grandfather's steam engines from a collector. Can I buy back my history?

Finally I wrote to the Fleischmanns themselves, and asked them to share whatever information they could with me. Weeks passed. They did not answer. So many silences, silences between my mother and her two children, between two families, between Germans and Jews.

The underside of history seeps up though the gingerbread toy city.

The train set still waits in its box. My cousin Jacob is only three, not old enough yet to play with it. He is Max's great-great grandson. Unlike me, he knows he is a Jewish child. Unlike me, I want him to understand its history, what it is he is playing with.

~~~~~~~

from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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