Last week, I received a letter from Bocholt, Germany. It was from the town’s mayor. I wasn’t surprised to receive the envelope, expecting it to contain the annual holiday greetings to the descendants of Jewish Bocholter families. But that’s not what was inside. Here’s how Google translates the contents:
Dear Ms. Stern-Frielich,
In the early hours of October 7th, Hamas carried out massive rocket attacks on Israel and attacked the Jewish state on other fronts. More than 700 children, women and men were brutally murdered by Hamas. More than 200 people are still held hostage by Hamas.
The new dimension of terror and brutality quickly became clear, and images of horrific and inhumane acts against civil society followed.
We are following the incredible events in the Middle East here in Bocholt with horror and sadness. We are also deeply affected by the antisemitic attacks in Germany. In this way, we citizens of the city of Bocholt would like to convey our solidarity to you as former fellow citizens of the Jewish faith.
Our sincere condolences go out to the families of the many murdered people and the numerous injured. Together we hope for the hostages to be released soon and for an end to the terrible war.
We condemn the terrorism and antisemitism that has now once again gripped Germany on a larger scale, and our thoughts are with you.
Thomas Kerkhoff, Mayor
I can’t express how deeply I appreciate this clear statement of support. October 7 is a date that will forever hold new meaning for Jewish people around the world. It is critical that the world acknowledge the horrors that occurred in Israel on October 7. It is essential that the global community stand up and speak out against increasing acts of antisemitism. In his letter, Mayor Kerkhoff expressed what I’d hoped to hear from my own non-Jewish friends and neighbors. While I feel the love and support from so many friends, I am also left empty and frightened to not hear more outspoken support.
Mayor Kerkhoff’s letter, in and of itself, is a source of hope.
And, I am equally moved by its contrast with a letter that was written 85 years ago today by another mayor of Bocholt. It was sent to my great-grandmother, Selma Herzfeld, on November 24, 1938, two weeks after she and her family had fled their Bocholt home to nearby Holland.*
That mayor of Bocholt, Fritz Emil Irrgang, responded to Selma’s letter requesting her household goods be sent to her in Holland. The mayor of 1938 Bocholt wrote:
I have received your letter from 21 of [November] and have passed it on to the responsible office. Your possessions are still available to you and I only put your apartment under lock and key to prevent unauthorized persons from entering.
It is your fault that you are without linens and so on. It is up to you to collect the key to your apartment from me personally.
My family of 1938 knew that to return to Germany meant certain arrest—or worse—of the men, and perhaps of the others as well.
Distanced by eighty-five years and three generations, the message and the actions in my family’s German hometown are as polar as can be. While I carry my family’s trauma, the letter I received from Mayor Kerkhoff gives me hope. Thank you, Mayor Kerkhoff. Thank you.
*Selma and her family fled Germany on November 10, the morning after Jewish homes, 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and 267 synagogues throughout Germany were vandalized and looted, destroyed, burnt to the ground.
For more about the letter of 1938, see Chapter 20: Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands in my memoir, Shattered Stars, Healing Hearts: Unraveling My Father’s Holocaust Survival Story.
More info about my book and events at www.shatteredstars.org.