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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 7th Tale (Munich Holidays)

Anna Pultuskier

Oktoberfest Beer Tents

In 1986 I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair as I did many years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. On the Saturday that the Fair closed, I decided to pay a visit, as my then Senior Editor, Perla Karney had long encouraged, to her mother in Munich. I had not previously given much thought to the trip or I most certainly would have called her earlier; but on the very morning I was planning to set out on that journey, I now telephoned, asking whether it might be possible to visit her.

Anna Pultuskier, I was soon to discover, was a very accommodating woman, and it must have seemed impossible for her to decline the visit of her daughter's employer. She did admit, however, that she was planning a large dinner at about 2:00. Could I possibly reach their home by then? "You know, it's a holiday, Rosh Hashanah."

I was embarrassed for my inconsiderateness. "No," I admitted, "I had not known. Please, let us get together another time when you are not so occupied."

"No, no, you must come! We would love to have you. It would be a real treat to have you join us."

"But I feel like I am severely intruding," I admitted. "I have celebrated a great many Rosh Hashanah's with my companion's family," I stated, trying to help her to understand it was not my religion that was holding me off, "and I know how difficult such large events are. I'll visit you next year, and let you know beforehand."

"No! Please, you must come. It will be a great celebration for you to be there."

So, I was soon on my way to Rosh Hashanah.

Perla had told me a few things about her mother and about her experiences during and after the war. Her mother, a Russian, escaped the concentration camps; however Anna's sister and family were murdered by the Nazis as they advanced into Russia, while Anna and fourteen other family members evaded the advancing forces. With the fall of Germany, Anna, with her second husband, himself a escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto (Anna's first husband was killed as a soldier on the Russian front), became displaced persons in refugee camps in The Soviet Union (where their son Josef was born in Uzbekistan) and, ultimately in Austria and Germany, where Perla was born in Pocking, Bavaria in 1947. The family spent a year or so in an American wartime camp after liberation for protection against the German citizenry.

Their new home might be seen as anything but welcoming. In 1910 the Jewish community in Munich was at its highest level, with approximately 11,000 members. Nine years later, with the rise of anti-Semitic propaganda, the Jewish congregation, as it was called, increasingly began to fear for their lives, and in 1923, in the context of Hitler's failed coup d'├ętat, several Jewish businessmen were taken hostage. Yet, as late as 1932 there were still as many as 68 Jewish clubs and associations throughout the city. Between 1933 and 1942 more than 7,500 Jews were forced to emigrate, while within the city synagogues and Jewish-run businesses were destroyed. In 1939 alone, for example, Jewish businesses fell from 162 to 27 at year's end. In 1942 and 1943 approximately 3,000 were murdered in the camps and en route by German soldiers. By 1944 the city claimed only 7 remaining Jewish citizens.

Despite these tragic events, so Perla told me, there was now a small, but growing Jewish community in Munich, at whose center, it appeared, was her mother, Anna, proclaimed by many to be the "Jewish mayor." Suddenly, I realized that I was speeding towards that religious center, and I was excited to have the opportunity to meet them.

I arrived relatively on time, and took a taxi to her house. I was greeted by Anna at the doorway and quickly whisked upstairs to the dining room. "We have been waiting," the slightly overweight but still beautiful woman whispered in my ear as I entered the large dining room around whose table sat 30 to 40 individuals. There were three or four children playing about the floor.

I was immediately seated at the center of this group and introduced. The whole community seemed overjoyed by my presence; perhaps they were just hungry and glad I had finally arrived. Throughout the meal, however, they seemed jovial and questioned me on my work and Perla, who I could unabashedly claim, I adored. The meal shared much in common with the ones I'd celebrated on Rosh Hashanah in Baltimore, with gefilte fish, lamb, sweet potatoes with prunes, and challah. The lamb was particularly delicious, with several small bones from which, evidently, one sucked the fat. I put one I had finished on a side plate, only to hear my host complain: "What's the matter, you don't like?" I laughed, seeing no evidence on the bone of any meat or fat remaining. It was a joyful afternoon, and one could feel the special love and devotion among all the guests, with particular attention to the few children in their midst. This was the beginning of a new generation.

Anna had seated me next to a kind gentleman who worked at one of the consulates. Over the course of the meal he told me of the group's history, of their hopes, of their plans. I felt that I was suddenly at the center of a new world, a world of possibility after so many years of despair. Most of the people in this room had had to leave, returning after the war, and they could recall all of the suffering of their families and friends.

After dinner and more wine, I was introduced to Anna's son, Perla's brother Josef, who had arrived after the affair to meet me. Josef, so I had been told, was a very successful businessman, who had bought and sold shopping centers even in the US. He was, in short, a "new German Jew," rather handsome and self-assured. For his part, he could not comprehend why his mother went to so much trouble by inviting so many people into her house. "Why couldn't she make it easier on herself? I don't like such events," he observed.

He asked me whether I had ever been to Munich's famed Oktoberfest which the city was currently celebrating. For a moment I couldn't even answer: I had forgotten about that holiday as well. "No," I admitted, about to add, "and I don't think I care to see it."

Fortunately before I had time to utter the last phrase, Josef interrupted, "I must take you there, of course!" And off we went.

It was a strange experience, fascinating to see the gigantic tents, which looked less like makeshift structures than alien-built buildings. But walking between these leviathan-sized constructions was also a slightly alienating experience, with few people to be found outside. "Here, all around, is where the drinkers come to vomit," Josef pointed out.

He explained that over the course of the several days of Oktoberfest he had to visit it several times with his employees. It was an unspoken requirement.

I couldn't determine, as we moved toward one of the largest of the tents, whether he found the event a pleasurable one or a necessary nuisance.

Suddenly we were within the large center room. Like something out of World War II movies, there was a gigantic platform filled with drinkers, with large steins of beer crashing into those of their fellow singing celebrants. A huge rotisserie stood to one side, roasting gigantic cow knuckles, while all around bosomy women carried the steins to the various rows of tables. Josef suggested we sit in another room, slightly off to the side. Was this so that we wouldn't have to encounter to slightly obnoxious scene? Was it a place of class elevation or ostracization? Or perhaps simply a quieter place to be. I couldn't read the situation or comprehend Josef's true feelings. The dinner had been so clearly revealed; this was confusing and, even, a bit frightening. I love beer and beer stubes, and German beer is among the world's very best. Inexplicably, I was uncomfortable here, and perhaps my face showed it. For a few minutes we sat in quiet.

"You know," Josef suddenly interjected, "at this moment there is also an international fashion show going on in Munich, an event attended by some of the most sophisticated figures in Europe. Would you like me to take you to a popular bar in the old center of the city?"

"Yes, I'd very much like that," I brightened.

We were soon in a very pleasant bar filled with beautiful young people, whose dress and conversations seemed light years away from the Oktoberfest. Was he happier here? I never did come to know. I had the feeling, however, that we had both been dragging along the other: he in an attempt to provide me with what any German might imagine a normal American might want to see, me in the fear of rebuffing, even recoiling from one of his city's most noted events. We both seemed to be, on the other hand, more at home in this small bar than in the gigantic shell from which we had just escaped.

Finally, I had the feeling that this highly successful new German might never completely feel at home in this city, wherever he went, while his mother, Anna, had rightfully claimed it as her own.

I encountered Anna once again on the occasion of Perla's daugher Anessa's wedding in Los Angeles. The "Jewish mayor" of Munich died in that city in 2003.

Los Angeles, Rosh Hashanah, 5764 (2003)

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