It was February 2012, my first time in Germany for two days on a stopover on my way to Israel. I had decided to stay at the Flemings Deluxe Hotel because it was centrally located, safe and it had a great view of a medieval tower that was opposite it.
There are two things I remember most about the hotel. The first was that when I ordered tea at the rooftop restaurant, it came with a little hour glass timer. When I saw the timer it reminded me of playing boggle with my cousins in Israel on Netanya beach. For a moment, I began wondering why the waiter in this Frankfurt hotel had assumed that I wanted to play boggle. Then I realized that I was supposed to turn the mini hour glass upside down and when the sand drained to the bottom, it meant my tea was ready. The waiter explained that my timer was set to mark exactly three minutes which is the perfect steeping time for tea. I had never seen such precision for making tea anywhere else I had traveled. I usually just look at the color of the water and guess when to take out my tea bag, and if I guess wrong I just plunk the teabag back in. The timer made this whole process very exacting - almost too exacting. For a split second, I thought of the fact that the Germans during the Holocaust were very precise - the trains to the death camps always arrived on time. However, at no time anywhere else in Frankfurt or during my subsequent two trips to Germany was I ever served tea with a timer. (On the internet, one can find several German companies that make these tea timers).
The second thing I remember most about the hotel was that it had a completely see-through shower with glass panels on all sides, something I have never seen anywhere else. I suppose this has its advantages-i.e. you can watch TV at the same time as taking a shower. And I remember wondering whether I would find a glass timer nearby, in case I wanted to time how long my shower took or play boggle in my head while I showered. And if truth be told, the very first night I showered in this see-through shower I thought about all the Jews during the Nazi period who had been told they were just going to be taking a shower when in fact they were gassed.
As I left the hotel to find something to eat that evening, I saw a poster on the street advertising some event called "Stille Nacht". As I read it, my mind automatically thought of the word "Kristallnacht", and then I began to wonder where the synagogues of the Jewish community that lived here before the war used to be - how near or far from my hotel. (I would later find out it was only about a 15 minute walk to the Borneplatz, the synagogue which was destroyed on Kristallnacht. I unexpectedly came upon the memorial of over 11,000 stone blocks, incorporated into the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery wall, listing the names of Frankfurt’s Jews, who were murdered.)
I slept very badly the first night in the hotel, as I was startled by the sounds of a siren when a police car went by. The sound of the siren was the same as I had heard in films about the Holocaust when the Nazis came - or so it seemed to me. Although this sound is the same in Germany as it is elsewhere in other European countries, such as Switzerland, it had been a long time since I had heard it, and it spooked me a bit.
In the morning I had a better look at the Eschenheim Tower across from the hotel, a landmark city gate that was part of the late-medieval fortifications of Frankfurt. The tower, which was erected at the beginning of the fifteenth century, is the oldest and most unaltered building in the city. This medieval landmark was neat to see, but I realized it harkened back to a time which was very difficult for the Jews of the city. During the outbreak of the Black Plague in 1349, the Jewish community of Frankfurt (like elsewhere in Europe) was completely massacred, and many Jews chose to burn down their own houses while still inside rather than face death from an angry mob. Jews were invited back into Frankfurt in 1360, but in medieval times they were forced to become moneylenders (since "usury" was prohibited for Christians). Although the government of the day took much of the interest that the Jews charged, the average person didn't know this, which only caused them to dislike Jews more. By 1462, the Jews were forcibly relocated to a ghetto which in German is called Juddengasse. Judengasse means Jewish alley (originally the Jewish Ghetto in Frankfurt was only one street).
When I originally encountered the word ‘Judengasse’ on my first day in Frankfurt, I was keenly aware that in English it was like saying ‘Jews-Gas’ and I couldn't help but think of the Germans gassing the Jews. Every time I read the word ‘Judengasse’ in a pamphlet or book, that was the automatic association I had and I couldn't change it even though I consciously tried. In Frankfurt, while the municipality was clearing land to build something in 1987, they happened upon the remains of a street in Judengasse, the Jewish ghetto. I did go see these archaeological ruins which are now part of the Judengasse Museum. They were amazingly intact, to the point where the names of the families who lived in this crowded, neglected ghetto could be identified. In the corner of the ruins there was a mikvah (a ritual bath), which enabled archaeologists to be certain they had uncovered the remains of a Jewish settlement. At the Museum (which had only two other visitors when I was there), I learned there was a major debate as to how much of the ruins the municipality was going to preserve. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the foundations of 19 buildings that were part of the ghetto were found (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-09-20/news/mn-8921_1_jewish-life). According to a guide book I bought at the museum (entitled Jewish Museum Frankfurt am Main) the city of Frankfurt decided to retain part of the excavations and incorporated them into the “Museum Judengasse”.
Later that night while sipping my tea, I had a close read of my Frankfurt City Guide written by Wolfgang Kootz (published by Kraichgau Verlag, Germany) which had a two page overview at the front of the book entitled "The History of the City of Frankfurt". The last entry in the overview that related to Jews was for the year 1864, which read, "The Jewish are given full civil rights." There was absolutely nothing in the overview that referred to what had happened to the Jewish citizens of Frankfurt during the Nazi period - how those "full civil rights" were completely taken away and how in 1945 only a very few Jews remained. (According to the Jewish Virtual Library, prior to the Nazi period, Frankfurt’s Jewish population numbered over 30,000 in 1933, but after the Holocaust there were only 620 Jews remaining.
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/frankfurt.html). Amazingly, the only entry for the war years in the overview at the front of my guide book written by Kootz was this: "1936 (-) 1944: Rhine-Main international airport is opened. The historic city center is destroyed in air raids."
When I did go to see the reconstructed city center, I remember noticing names I recognized as being Jewish surnames on stores or restaurants, reminding me that so many Ashkenazi names I am familiar with are Germanic in origin. I saw the Rosen pharmacy, a shop named Rosenthal, a restaurant in the historic Romerberg (town hall square) named Schwarzer Stern, and a store called Steinberger. The Romerberg, including the Old Church of St. Nicolas had been decked out with Nazi flags in Hitler's time.
At the Romerberg, stands the Fountain of Justice and as I later learned by surfing the internet, apparently a few steps away from the fountain there is a plaque in the cobblestones that commemorates the book burning by the Nazis in 1933. On my way back from the Romerberg, I noticed a little book about the Jews of Frankfurt on a discount bargain shelf at a bookstore for 2.99 Euros, a bargain price. And then I couldn't help but think to myself that it was no wonder the book was marked down, since who was going to buy it here?
From the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, I could see the old Opera house -"Alte Oper Frankfurt." I never thought much about this while I was in Frankfurt. It was only much later that I learned with a quick Wikipedia search that the Opera is full of Jewish history. During the 1920’s the Frankfurt Opera had more illustrious Jewish singers than any other company in Germany. That changed drastically with the Holocaust.
Today the Jewish population of Frankfurt is over 7,000, about half of whom come from the former Soviet Union. I didn't meet any of them, as they didn't live anywhere near my hotel. I thought I might come across a few Jews at the Judengasse Museum, but during the time I was there the Museum was staffed with German clerks, all non-Jewish and there was nary a Jew around.