MONTVILLE, NJ – What started as a Facebook message has grown to lasting friendships and a town coming together to face what happened there before and during the Nazi era.
Towaco resident Nancy Stanton Tuckman played host to three German high school graduates the week of July 14, whom she had met by traveling to Germany because they had done research on her grandfather and two relatives. The research was part of a senior year project that started because the mayor of the girls’ town – Lichtenfels – had found an envelope containing 13 driver’s licenses and given them to a teacher at the girls’ school. The teacher assigned the 14 students in his history class to research the names on the licenses and find out what had happened to the owners. The reason the licenses were in a drawer? The owners were Jewish. The licenses had been confiscated by the Nazis.
Thus began a year-long process during which the students, including Luise Aumüller, Clara Aumüller and Victoria Thiel, who visited Towaco, conducted internet research about the driver’s license owners.
“A breakthrough came when Clara found the Jewish Museum of Baltimore,” Luise told TAPinto Montville. “They had a lot of information and documents.”
Using research from Ellis Island, they gained more information and began to contact ancestors – via Facebook.
“We contacted a few with the same name until we found the right ones,” Thiel said with a smile.
Tuckman’s second cousin Debbie November-Rider received a Facebook private message from Thiel, explaining the project and why she was writing.
“We were stunned, incredulous and intrigued to receive the Facebook message,” November-Rider’s sister Lisa Salko said.
When the students’ research on Tuckman’s grandfather, Alfred Marx; her great-uncle, Sigmund Marx; and Sigmund’s wife’s brother, Alfred Oppenheimer, had been assembled, floor-to-ceiling banners were created, and the ancestors – including Tuckman and her mother, Inge, who had escaped at age 9 – were invited to Lichtenfels for a special presentation of the research.
Inge Stanton said she was surprised to be invited to Germany for the presentation, and the family members discussed the invitation before accepting – it was not an automatic “yes.”
“I had visited Lichtenfels two years ago but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,” she said. “But we decided to honor our ancestors and went for that reason. Three generations of the Marx family went to Germany. But the students’ work, and these girls’ work, was amazing. We made good friends over the course of the week we were there. We were treated so well and hit it off.”
What the group did not expect was the presentation reception in November of 2018.
Salko, speaking at a lecture that the German youths, Inge, and she gave at MetroWest on July 18, said that there were about 500 people at the gathering in Germany, including media representatives.
“The group of ancestors of the 13 driver’s license owners ranged from 18 to 89,” she said. “Some were not found. Some wanted nothing to do with Germany so they didn’t come. Our decision to come put us on a path towards understanding.”
Salko said she was very moved by how reverently the students spoke of the 13.
“Each presentation was fascination – we could see the depth of sorrow on their faces, and every person in that audience was transfixed,” she recalled. “The students humanized those faces – they became empathetic. Our family members became their family members.”
Salko said that the town commemorated Crystal Night, the Night of the Broken Glass (Nov. 9-10, 1938), by singing Jewish songs and parading in the streets in memoriam.
While Inge recalled for the MetroWest audience hiding in her home’s attic on the actual night, and her parents’ tenant lying to the Nazis to make sure she was not harmed, she called the 2018 parade “amazing and wonderful.” She still shutters when a glass breaks by accident, she said.
Tuckman said there are no more Jews in Lichtenfels, and this was the first time the students were meeting Jewish people. The synagogue there is a community center after being restored nine years ago.
Tuckman recalled with emotion the “stumble stones” that were laid for her relatives. They are the artwork of Gunter Demnig and are a commemorative plaque that notifies passersby that a Jewish person lived nearby.
As is the case with most Holocaust stories, not all endings were happy. While Tuckman’s grandfather, mother and great uncle escaped, Oppenheimer was murdered. But the reaching out by the students and the relationship between the three youths and the Stanton family is healing.
“We’ve developed a relationship with these students and the story is still growing,” Tuckman said.
“I’m not able to forgive the older generation,” Inge said, “But I don’t hold the younger generation responsible.”
“This project opened our eyes,” Thiel said. “We now have family in the U.S.”
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