House Call: ‘Thrown Out’ of the Family Home

Folgenden Artikel fanden wir im Wall Street Journal vom 5.7.2013. Lesen Sie auch die Kommentare beim Originalartikel. Die Internetadresse ist als Quelle am Ende des Artikels angegeben.

There is a house I long for and yet never have set foot in. It is in Reichenberg, now called Liberec, in the Czech Republic, one hour north of Prague. It was taken from my grandparents in 1945, when the expulsion of Germans began.

Before my first trip there in 2002, I searched my grandfather’s papers and found a recounting of what had happened: “On July 9, 1945, a couple with the beautiful name Najemnik appeared with uniformed men and claimed my house; within an hour and a half I was rid of my house.” Perhaps the way you lose a house determines its emotional value going forward.

My grandparents never saw it again. When the Iron Curtain crumbled and my grandmother could easily have visited, she insisted, “I am not going back to where I was thrown out.” After being carted away on a freight train, my grandparents shared an attic with rats in the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany. I only knew them living in the one-bedroom social housing apartment they were allotted later. My grandmother never talked with wistfulness or bitterness about the lost house. She did talk about laying new copper pipes for central heating, or the kitchen garden where my young uncle used to trample absentmindedly through the lettuce. But she never lamented, like other refugees of our acquaintance, the “grand old times.”

Perhaps it was because those times hadn’t been that grand. My grandparents bought the house in 1937, a year before Hitler annexed their region as the “Sudetenland,” and Reichenberg became its capital. As the Nazi fervor mounted, my grandfather, a former city councilman for the Social Democrats, lost his position as principal of the girls’ middle school. Since his brother-in-law was Jewish, interrogations and a house search followed due to allegations that “Jewish money” had been involved in financing the house.

Not until I saw the house did I realize it was a small villa in the mansion part of town, up an incline from the Museum of Natural History, where Hitler stopped on his visit on Dec. 2, 1938. Their neighbors were Nazis, and my grandparents dutifully went to see Hitler arrive, lest they attract attention by not going. I have walked up that incline three times, and each time I worry that the house might not be there anymore. Thankfully its gabled roof has always appeared. Its façade is a monument in our family. We have our grandfather’s photographs from the 1930s, a cousin’s from the 1950s, my brother’s from 1988, and now mine.

Klaus Berndt
This 2002 photo shows Annette Gendler in front of her grandparents former house in Liberec, Czech Republic.

The house has essentially stayed the same. The wrought-iron flower-pot holder atop the garden archway is still there. We have a photo of our dad, 7 years old, in a cable-knit sweater, posing under it. The stucco above the windows that was almost dropping off in 1988 has been repaired. I always wonder what it would have been like to be a grandchild in this house, to snuggle into a window seat in the sun porch and read all day. With the amber glass in the entryway, it’s the kind of house I would have loved to have, and perhaps my 1920s style apartment in Chicago echoes that. But since my grandparents received compensation from the West German government, there is no claim to be made. And what would I want with a house in the Czech Republic?

On that first visit, my brother and I rang the bell, despite our fear to be met with a tirade against Germans who sniff around. A woman with a tired face came to the gate. We didn’t speak a common language, but when we showed her the pot holder picture she understood that our father had lived there as a boy. She let us in, motioning us towards the back. The yard, where Dad used to stretch out on the grass to watch the bombers fly by, was vast.

Our host summoned a neighbor who spoke some English and clarified that she didn’t want to let us into the house because it was a mess. But we were grateful just to walk the yard. How could this simply be someone else’s house? Couldn’t this woman see my uncle’s ghost trampling the lettuce in the kitchen garden? When we left, a sense of abandoning overcame me, as if I were forsaking the house.

Each time I have visited, I pace the sidewalk and snap pictures. There is nothing else to do. How do you greet a house? And how do you say farewell? Each time I leave, I look back several times as if I were waving good-bye to an old friend. And I know that sometime soon I will travel thousands of miles again to spend five minutes staring at a house.

Annette Gendler writes literary nonfiction and this essay is an excerpt from her memoir manuscript.


Veröffentlicht in Aktuelles, Aus dem Heimatkreis Reichenberg, Historisches Reichenberg.

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