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EXCERPT: Stumbling Stones

I was raised hearing all about World War II. My father was a veteran of the US Air Corps in the Pacific and my Mom worked hard during those years, helping her widowed mother make ends meet. However, it wasn't until I was a teenager when I began reading more and learning about the horrors of Nazi Germany. In college, I played Mrs. Frank in the Diary of Anne Frank and that play led me to research more accounts of the Holocaust.


Here, on my blog, I make it my policy never to address politics. However, in light of the present state of affairs, I will state unabashedly, that I am disgusted and frustrated at the actions of American activists and their stances on the Israeli war in Gaza. In fact, I am not ashamed to say that I STAND WITH ISRAEL.


That being said, I'd like to welcome Bonnie Suchman to Brook's Journal, sharing an excerpt from her novel Stumbling Stones. Bonnie, you are welcome here and I applaud you for digging deeper into family history to tell another story from the "greatest generation". May we humble ourselves, value the history of our forebears, and NEVER allow prejudice to lead to such terrible bloodshed, ever again.


Read on, everybody!



EXCERPT FROM STUMBLING STONES

By Bonnie Suchman


PROLOGUE, April 2018


Our early morning flight out of Tel Aviv took off an hour late and failed to make up any time on the way to Frankfurt. We only had forty-five minutes to catch our connecting flight back to Washington, D.C. Plenty of time, we said hopefully to each other as we quickly descended the stairs of the plane. We ignored both flight attendants, who told us that there was no way we could make our flight, given that the terminal was on the other side of the Frankfurt airport. We ran across the tarmac to the bus that would take us to the terminal, and then waited another fifteen minutes for the bus to leave. We jumped off the bus as soon as it stopped, raced through the doors of the terminal, and ran to the gate. I looked at my watch. We still had five minutes left. But as I looked up, I saw that the door to the plane had already closed. The airline employee gave us a sympathetic smile when we asked whether they were still boarding and then looked at her screen for the next available flight to Washington. A few taps later, she informed us that there was nothing available for another twelve hours. Twelve hours! We had been in Israel for two weeks on vacation and were eager to get home. But what else could we do? So, we told her we would take those seats, and then sat down to catch our breath and try to figure out what to do for the next twelve hours.


My husband Bruce is never one to wait at an airport and twelve hours is too long a time, even for me. But first, I needed some caffeine. I got up to buy myself a cup of tea and when I returned, Bruce immediately said to me, “Let’s go to Frankfurt. We can get something to eat and walk around the city. It will be fun.” I took a sip of my tea and said, “Sure. Let’s go.” And so we checked our carry-on bags at the airport, hopped on the train, and went to Frankfurt.


We had been to the city once before, also because of a missed flight. That time, we spent about four hours roaming the city. This time, we had more time to kill. It was a lovely spring day, and so we decided to try to explore more of the city than we had on our previous visit. We started in the center of the city, crossed and re-crossed the Main River, and walked around some of the residential neighborhoods.

Bruce’s father Curtis was born in Mannheim, about an hour south of Frankfurt by train. He had lived there until he had fled to America in 1937 at the age of 17 to escape the Nazis. Bruce knew almost nothing about his father’s life in Germany, since Curtis rarely spoke about that period. Bruce’s mom Millie had more of a connection to her family – also Jewish refugees from Europe – and she had made it her mission to try to stay connected with some of Curtis’ family, but Bruce only knew that the people he had visited were “cousins” of his father. As Bruce and I walked the streets of Frankfurt, Bruce said he believed that some of his family had also lived in Frankfurt, but he couldn’t remember who. The only thing he knew was that they, too, had been forced to leave because of the Nazis.


As we were walking through Frankfurt, Bruce and I began to notice brass plates on the sidewalks. We read the plates and saw that they identified Jews who once lived at the addresses, but had been persecuted by the Nazis. I took out my phone and did a quick search and discovered that these were Stolpersteine, or “Stumbling Stones” in English, and that they had been placed around many cities in Europe to remember those who were either murdered or forced to leave their homes during the Holocaust. Given our recent visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, I was curious about these memorials.

The Stolpersteine website had a list of stones in Frankfurt, so I scrolled down the list as we walked through Frankfurt. I stopped when I came to the surname “Heppenheimer.” This was my father-in-law’s surname before he shortened it after he left Germany. Two women had this surname. I showed Bruce my phone.


“Do you think it’s possible that these women were related to your family?”


“I have no idea. But we are just a few blocks from these stones. Let’s walk over.”


We soon turned onto Boemerstrasse. In front of the apartment building at Boemerstrasse 60 were three brass plates: “Lippmann (‘Leo’) Lewin, Selma Lewin born Heppenheimer, and Emma Heppenheimer.” Heppenheimer. We assumed that Lippmann and Selma had been married and that Selma was Emma’s daughter. But who were these people? Bruce was as curious as I – maybe Emma and Selma were distant cousins? I took out my phone and took a picture of the brass plates.


We had been walking nearly three hours and were tired and hungry, and so we stopped at a nearby restaurant and ordered lunch. We talked about what we wanted to see in the afternoon, but my mind kept coming back to Selma and Emma Heppenheimer. My curiosity was too strong, and Bruce knew better than to try to stop me. I pulled out my phone and began a quick search. I promised I would stop looking when the food arrived. According to the stones, Emma was born in 1861 and Selma was born in 1900. Curtis’ father’s name was Max, and Max had siblings. I opened up my Ancestry.com account and typed in names. I pulled out a piece of paper from my purse and began to make a crude family tree.


As much as I could tell from this limited research, Max’s father Joseph had two wives. With his first wife, Joseph had five children, including Bruce’s grandfather. After his first wife died, Joseph married Emma and had two daughters – Alice and Selma. I read off the names of Max’s siblings from the first marriage – Bruce vaguely knew who they were. But Bruce had never heard of Emma or Alice or Selma. After a quick calculation, we determined Max had been 6 years old when Joseph remarried and Emma became Max’s stepmother. So, essentially, she was his mother, and was Curtis’ grandmother. We both wondered out loud why my father-in-law had never mentioned this grandmother.


We knew that both Selma and Emma had perished in the Holocaust from the Stolpersteine. I continued to look on the Ancestry website, but could find nothing about what happened to Alice. I was not surprised, since a number of European countries had made access to records after 1900 a bit of a challenge. Even Selma’s death record was not on the site. This would take more research, perhaps a lot more research.


Since Bruce only knew about the children of Joseph through their children, who had emigrated to America, both of us wondered if it was possible that Bruce didn’t know about Alice because she had survived the war but had no children. Maybe she had moved to California. Or maybe she had moved to Israel. Maybe we had unknowingly walked past her descendants during our trip to Israel. I remembered reading recently about brothers who had been reunited many years after the Holocaust; neither had known that the other had survived. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover that Alice had also survived the Holocaust? But I had spent more time on my phone than the thirty minutes I had promised Bruce and our food was getting cold, and so I put my phone away. Still, throughout lunch and the rest of our brief visit to Frankfurt, we both kept coming back to the same question.


What had happened to Alice?




ALL ABOUT THE BOOK


~Shortlisted for the Hawthorn Prize 2024~

 

"Alice knew that Selma sometimes felt judged by their mother and didn't always like it when Alice was praised and Selma was not. Alice glanced over at her sister, but Selma was smiling at Alice. In what Alice understood might be Selma's last act of generosity towards her sister, Selma was going to let Alice bask in the glow of Emma's pride toward her elder daughter. Then the three shared a hug, a hug that seemed to last forever."


Alice Heppenheimer, born into a prosperous German Jewish family around the turn of the twentieth century, comes of age at a time of growing opportunities for women.


So, when she turns 21 years old, she convinces her strict family to allow her to attend art school, and then pursues a career in women's fashion. Alice prospers in her career and settles into married life, but she could not anticipate a Nazi Germany, where simply being Jewish has become an existential threat. Stumbling Stones is a novel based on the true story of a woman driven to achieve at a time of persecution and hatred, and who is reluctant to leave the only home she has ever known.

But as strong and resilient as Alice is, she now faces the ultimate challenge - will she and her husband be able to escape Nazi Germany or have they waited too long to leave?



ALL ABOUT BONNIE



Bonnie Suchman is an attorney who has been practicing law for forty years. Using her legal skills, she researched her husband's family's 250-year history in Germany, and published a non-fiction book about the family, Broken Promises: The Story of a Jewish Family in Germany. Bonnie found one member of the family, Alice Heppenheimer, particularly compelling. Stumbling Stones tells Alice's story. Bonnie has two adult children and lives in Maryland with her husband, Bruce.




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