Reflecting Jewish roots Liz Rosenfeld: Last Family Photo

Family Portrait Liz Rosenfeld
© Liz Rosenfeld

Artist Liz Rosenfeld reflects on her Jewish roots, her identity and how moving to Berlin allowed her to unexpectedly find a new family. The journey into her past begins with a photo.

This photo was found about 15 years ago in an attic of a distant third or fourth cousin who lives in Munich. At the time, I don’t think any of us knew we even had cousins in Germany still, but I am also sure that is my revisionist memory at work. Somehow our Munich- based family tracked down my Mom in New York City to send her the original copy.

A faded Caption

My Oma stands in the centre of the photo, about age 19. She is the only one who is not looking directly at the camera. She is smiling, slightly bent over amongst her parents and extended family, as if this portrait is marking an important family gathering or celebration. On the back of the photo reads  “Letztes Familienfoto” [Last Family Photo]. As far as I can remember there was no date indicated. Just the simple faded handwritten caption. If memory serves, at that time, my Oma was not alive anymore, so we could only imagine that this was the last photo taken before she and her family left their Berlin home in 1934, at least I think it was 1934. My sister says 1936, and my father has no memory, but swears she left alone with her first husband, a pianist, to London where they studied music during the war.

In my vague memories of growing up living in the same building as my Oma and Opa in New York City, I was told little firsthand about their individual stories of leaving Germany under the Third Reich, while simultaneously made to feel guilty that I never experienced the hardships that they went through. German was my Mother’s first language, and was only ever spoken around my sister and I when they didn’t want us to know what was going on, which felt like a lot of the time.

The only German I remember being taught as a child was when I was 8 years old and my Oma told me to call the girls who were bullying me at school an “Arschloch.” She also told me that the only person my Opa ever punched was a Nazi.

“We fled twice”

My Opa was part of “the resistance” in Munich, when his parents got visas to leave he decided to stay. His best friend, a Non-Jewish German radical, was tipped off the day before the borders closed and managed to get him out of Germany and on his way to Jerusalem, where he eventually reunited with his parents. However, my Opa’s best friend, was deported to a concentration camp days later as a political prisoner. He was tattooed #1, and lived to write a book about it.

I called my sister the other night for what I thought was going to be some light fact checking. Kathy is 8.5 years older than me and apparently has been living with completely different versions of these stories her entire life. We both swear that we can recall the exact time and place each of our versions were told to us, who told us and when. My Aunt Didi, recalled this exact story to me about both her Mother and Father a few years ago when I had dinner with her in London. She passed away this year, and was the only living person left with any kind of vaguely factual story from my mom’s side of my family.

“We fled twice,” my Oma used to say. Once with her family, the people she is surrounded by in this photo which was taken in the Garden of the first house my Great-Grandfather, an architect,  built and designed himself. And then they fled, together, a second time from a newly established ‘Jewish State,’ once a united Palestine where my Grandparents met and gave birth to my Mother. “We always fled twice,” she would say, placing an emphasis on the word “fled,”  to dramatically punctuate the story of how my grandparents and Mother made it to the United States.

Move to Berlin

Stopped at a traffic light, my father turned and  said to me “You can’t be serious about making a life for yourself in Berlin.” It had been a year since my Mother’s death and I had just announced to him that I was going to make the move, and that I would be applying for my German citizenship. I can’t remember what he said next, but I can remember that he was very distressed by the notion that as the daughter of two Jews, who had also spent her life living with and being brought up by Jewish German Immigrant Grandparents, to even consider living in Germany, was turning my back on some cultural commitment. “Go to Berlin, get it out of your system. Mourn. But you will be back. This is your home.”

This month marks my 9th year living in Berlin. For most of my Berlin life, my father and step-mother have been very hesitant to visit me in Berlin. Both my Dad and my Step mom, American New York Jews and children of the McCarthy Era, say “ We just don’t feel comfortable in Germany.“ I always insist that this kind of xenophobic attitude is dangerous. I grew up in Manhattan, an epicentre for progressive Jewish Culture. My family went to synagogue because that is what their Jewish friends did to feel seen by each other, but  it was never a religious indoctrination of any sorts.

Coming Out

In my lifetime, Jews in America have always been part of a dominant White population. They never thought that anti-Semitism could actually touch them, let alone be clustered together by White Supremacists under the nebulous umbrella of race. I blame this partly on the disgraceful way in which American History ignores its own genocide, while prioritizing white bodies, as well as the fact that the good upper-middle class American Jews, like my Dad, really believed that anti- Semitism was an exclusively European notion. In September 2016, my father told me that he was worried about me living “so close to terrorism.”

Two months later, he finally admitted to me that getting a German passport was one of the best decisions I ever made. It took an openly racist far-right wing business mogul to dismantle America and the Judicial system my father had believed in so whole- heartedly for 50 years, to make him realize that even though he was protesting racism and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, and was front and centre at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “ I Had Dream Speech,” violent hate runs deep and it is not just in Germany.

Searching for a Jewish Diaspora

It wasn’t hard for me to come out to my parents as a queer, because, I never felt I needed to. Even though there is a romantic part of me that has always longed for a coming out story to share, my queerness, much like my Jewishness, has never been an essentialist identity. Rather, both have informed me more regarding the way in which to navigate life. When I was an MFA student at The Art Institute of Chicago, my professor Gregg Bordowitz once said “ Queerness is about how you touch the world, and the world touches you back.” This memory, about 15 years old now, unlike my vague family stories, has stayed crystal clear in my mind. Somehow I feel I have clear queer memories, rather than Jewish ones. My queer memory does not exist to remember a past, but rather is in a constant state of  flux, absorbing and making sense of the present.

In my work I rely on history as a tool to move through time, to inform present day bodies that we are carrying not just the past of our blood family, but also the histories of the identities we align with. I came to Berlin to find a Jewish Diaspora I never had, but what I found instead was a Queer one. Berlin is my home- base, not because my blood line brought me back to its roots, but because I discovered my own queer family there, and built a life for myself surrounded by the people who really see me.

Holding onto Stories

I always had a dream of re-staging this photo of my Oma and her family in their Dahlem Garden with my friends in Berlin. I have thought about it a lot, and even wrote to the people who live there regarding this possibility, but never heard back. The idea of gathering my Berlin-based family of friends has become a memory that never really happened.

Perhaps, much like my longing for a coming out story, I have decided to hold on to the stories that I have always known to be true of my grandparents exit from Germany because I need those narratives to evoke a political romanticism. I need to  believe that my Oma drove the family car over the boarder with all their valuables sewn into the upholstery and that the only man my Opa ever punched was a Nazi. In this present- day political climate where people who were born and often lived their entire lives in a country that ultimately asks them to “go back” to where they came from” because of the cultural histories,  I question what home even is.