A Nazi-Era Survivor Goes Home
THE call came out of the blue in 1934: Report to the principal's office. When she got there, Carola Domar was told, "We want our school clean of Jews, and we don't want you to come back."
"It was such a shock," Mrs. Domar recalls. Because she was a champion swimmer and class president, the 14-year-old Jewish girl had not previously felt the lash of Nazi anti-Semitism. Then she was unceremoniously booted out of a school she loved. "There was no preparation for that," she says.
In April 1992, Domar entered the hallways of Elizabethen Schule, a Frankfurt high school, for the first time in half a century. She was there under a city program that brings back former refugees for a brief visit to their hometowns.
And this time, Carola Domar was welcomed with open arms.
Students and teachers not only greeted her warmly but also were eager to hear her story. When she talked to a class of 14- and 15-year-olds about her experiences in the years before the Holocaust, Domar found she had touched a nerve with her young audience.
"Two girls directly in the front of me were crying almost the whole time," Domar recalls, sitting in the study of her Concord, Mass., house. "It made me realize how important it is for young people to hear what went on. It made me very satisfied."
Domar was only one of thousands of former Jewish refugees who have visited Frankfurt since 1980 under a city-sponsored program. Every year, Frankfurt invites 140 people to visit the city they fled in the late 1930s. About 80 to 90 of the visitors are former Jewish residents; the others are spouses, friends, or relatives. The $800,000-a-year program was launched in 1980. Domar sought out the program after hearing of it from a cousin in New Jersey.
"They are people who were born here or lived here for a long time. We want to show them we have not forgotten them and that they are welcome," says Rainer Sagel, one of the two Frankfurt city officials who run the program. "We also want to show them that Germany today is no longer what it used to be," he adds. Many of the visitors say they had initial qualms about visiting the land they had fled amid so many horrors, he says, but virtually all later tell him they felt it was a positive experience.
Berlin, Cologne, and several smaller cities are also organizing similar visits by former residents who fled Adolf Hitler's regime. All the programs have long waiting lists; older applicants are given preference.
Although the Frankfurt program looked enticing, Carola Domar at first was not sure that she wanted to go back.
She and her family had fled Germany in 1939, just before World War II started. Her father had spent a month in a concentration camp, and both her aunt and uncle had died in the Holocaust. Domar had not returned to Frankfurt since a brief visit in 1953.
Then in December 1991, the Boston-area social worker learned that her application had been accepted.
"I did a lot of soul-searching. I was not sure I could take it," Domar says. Before she left on April 27, she recalls, "I was a nervous wreck. What am I doing to myself? How can I spend two weeks there? All the memories, and many memories I had repressed completely, came out."
When she finally got to her hotel room in Frankfurt, Domar adds, "I sat down and cried. And I cried the rest of the afternoon. I couldn't stop myself. There was all this emotional buildup, and I was terribly tired."
There were plenty of moving experiences during Domar's two weeks in Frankfurt. The emotional high points of the journey were visits to her former school and to her birthplace.
Early in her stay, Domar paid her first visit to the house where she was born. The former residence now houses an advertising agency and an architect's office. She couldn't bring herself to go in. "I just stood in front of the house and took pictures," she says.
The day before she left Germany, Domar visited her old school. Then she returned to her birthplace. This time, she walked inside and found that the house had not changed much at all.
"I wasn't crying then, but I was pretty uptight," she says.
Domar concluded her trip by visiting Frankfurt's Jewish Museum, where she found the names of her aunt and uncle inscribed in a book of Holocaust victims. She couldn't bring herself to look for the names of other relatives or friends. It would have been too painful, she says.
"I'm very glad I made the trip," she concludes. "At no time did I regret it. It helped me to say goodbye in a different way. It helped me to reacquaint myself with German culture. It also helped me to see that most people now are feeling quite strongly that what was done [in the 1930s and 1940s] was wrong."
She pauses, then adds: "And it helped me with the feeling that I have done my share to let them [today's Germans] know about our experiences."