Receiving Reconciliation? Invitations from German Cities to Jewish Refugees of National Socialism in the United States

Lina Nikou

Nina Likou was Harry & Helen Gray/AICGS Reconciliation Fellow in 2013, during which she worked on her PhD project, focusing on how Holocaust survivors and emigrants in the United States experienced the official invitations issued by their cities of origin in Germany. The aim is to conduct an exemplary study on the reception of German reconciliatory efforts, which have thus far been analyzed, due to the scarcity of source material.

With funding from the ZEIT-Foundation Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius, Ms. Nikou’s PhD project, titled ‘Invitations to the Old Hometown’, examines how German cities since the 1960s invited mostly Jewish survivors and emigrants back to their former hometowns for a one- or two-week stay. These invitations took place all over Germany, particularly since the 1980s. Dölling und Galitz published Ms. Nikou’s monograph “Zwischen Imagepflege, moralischer Verpflichtung und Erinnerungen” in 2011, which represents the first case study on such an invitation program and focuses on Hamburg. Her PhD project compares how the invitations developed in Munich, (West) Berlin and Hamburg from the 1960s until today.

The comparative study closes several voids by contrasting local culture of remembrance in the long term, a field that has mostly remained understudied. The research compares the development of the programs in the three cities mentioned above and examines the governmental role, looking at local specifics and similarities. In addition, the correspondence between program organizers in Germany and former citizens abroad opens the unique possibility to analyze the sphere of interaction and approaches between German officials and Jewish emigrants – an otherwise difficult to capture dynamic. Therefore, in addition to the invitation programs and their reception, the work also examines transnational German-Jewish relations after 1945.

Since 2010, Ms. Nikou has worked toward her PhD at the Research Center for Contemporary History in Hamburg (Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg) after finishing her MA in history, political science, cultural anthropology and management of museums at Hamburg University. Ms. Nikou also worked at an oral history archive for several years, which is one of her main fields of interest, as well as culture of remembrance and Jewish history.

“I don’t have anything to do with Germany anymore, other than the few times that I went there. And that’s very funny, because the first time, my friend who went before me, the first time, to Würzburg, he came back and he says: ‘Herby, you don’t have to go there. There is nothing there for us anymore.’ But he went five times afterwards. […] And I feel the same way, you know. We walk around there and we look—we look for something, which we can’t find anymore.”[1]

Herbert Mai was born in Würzburg in 1929. He and his parents were deported to Riga in November 1941, when he was only twelve years old. Though his parents perished in the Holocaust, he went on to survive several concentration camps. After he was liberated, Herbert Mai moved to Washington Heights in New York. His statement illustrates the ambiguous relationship of many former refugees and survivors of National Socialism toward Germany and, in this case, toward Würzburg. In 2012, after he had asked the city to issue invitations many times before, Mai was invited back to his city of birth.

He is not alone: other emigrants also requested invitations and financial support to visit their former German hometowns. While Munich had already started to issue invitations to former refugees of National Socialism in 1960, and some cities followed this example over the years, other cities, like Würzburg, did so only much later, if at all.[2] This hesitation to issue invitations did not mirror the emigrants’ wishes and many waited wistfully for decades to be invited. In this case, Herbert Mai had been to Würzburg several times before he finally received an official invitation and he mainly hoped for official recognition. Partly, his example shows why the German initiatives were well received among many emigrants, despite their mixed feelings toward their country of origin. Interviews with participants in the invitation programs, like the one with Herbert Mai, as well as memoirs and letters of guests of the cities offer the unique opportunity to address the reception of reconciliation. Particularly because sources are few, the question of how reconciliatory initiatives were received by their recipients has seen little scholarly analysis. Hence, this paper focuses on how invitees from the United States reacted to the invitation programs as well as on the German motivation to initiate these visits.

Germany and the Jewish Community in the U.S.

Focusing on the United States is of special interest because, other than Israel, it is the country where most emigrants settled after 1945. Moreover, the overall attitude toward the Federal Republic of Germany within the Jewish communities in the United States after 1945 was rather hostile. Those who developed a positive attitude toward the country were the minority. And even though Shlomo Shafir describes a “new direct dialogue between organized American Jewry and the Federal Republic, which began in the early 1980s,” he also mentions that “the ‘Americanization of the Holocaust’ added even more urgency to the German efforts to improve relations with the Jewish community.”[3] Both individuals, like the founder of the American-German Institute and president of Johns Hopkins University from 1972 to 1990, Dr. Steven Muller, who was originally from Hamburg, and institutions worked toward positive connections between the two countries, but nevertheless that could not change the overall negative attitude in the American Jewish community.[4]

Germany was well aware of these negative attitudes and the compensation payments after 1949 were paid not least to improve Germany’s image abroad. The German embassy in the U.S. even hired a (Jewish) PR company in 1953 to support its activities.[5] The invitation programs can be seen as part of these efforts, with the difference that they were not arranged by the federal government but rather at the local level. They were meant to create a better image of the issuing cities abroad, with Israel and the U.S. being the main addressees. Thus, the first two charter flights hired by the West Berlin government, which had launched the largest invitation initiative in 1969, were welcomed from New York in 1971. Even the New York Times reported about this event, publishing the headline: “Ex-Berliners are Re-United in Free Program for Those Who Fled the Nazis.”[6] In later years, the media often accompanied the group visits in Berlin. Most programs, though, were initiated only when the Nazi past became a topic of extensive public concern in Germany in the 1980s; this public attention was thus connected to how a culture of remembrance developed.[7]

Contrary to the Jewish community, attitudes of German-Jewish emigrants in the United States toward their country of origin were ambiguous. While a few re-emigrated and often had to defend their decision, many former refugees visited Germany on a more or less regular basis.[8] They went there as American soldiers, to visit friends or family, to deal with compensation payments, to visit the graves of relatives, for business trips, or to study. The organized visits are part of these diverse contacts and travels of German-Jewish emigrants to Germany. Therefore, some frequently traveled to Germany and the invitations sometimes were the only possibility to afford a flight, whereas others avoided any contact with their country of origin and would have never gone back, even when they traveled to Europe. Nevertheless, they might at the same time have lived in a German-Jewish environment in the U.S., like Washington Heights in New York, and therefore never really left Germany, as the American historian and daughter of German-Jewish emigrants Attina Grossmann puts it.[9] Hence, one could argue that there are two “poles” in regard to visits to Germany, with many individual approaches in between.

Reception to the Invitations

In analyzing how emigrants reacted to cities’ invitations, we must consider the selectivity of the programs, as the circle of recipients was limited and only extended to people who were interested in traveling to Germany. The invitations only reached people in the U.S. who kept an interest in their country of origin and read German-Jewish emigrant newspapers, where the cities published their announcements, who had ties to relatives who were invited back or to the (German) Jewish community in the United States. That becomes clear with the example of Felix Rosenthal, who was born in Munich and emigrated in 1936 when he was eleven years old. He grew up in a very secular German-Jewish family and married a non-Jewish woman from Norway. He never went back to Germany, nor did he have ties to the German-Jewish or Jewish community in the U.S. Therefore, Rosenthal never heard of the possibility to be invited back to Munich before he received a letter about this study from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.[10] Rolf Grayson, in contrast, had read about the invitations in the newspaper Aufbau, published in New York by German-speaking emigrants. Therefore, he was invited back to Munich already in the 1970s. His experience, as well as the one of Miriam Merzbacher-Blumenthal from Berlin, should provide deeper insights into how the invitation programs were perceived.

Mirjam Merzbacher-Blumenthal, born in Berlin in 1927, fled with her parents and her older brother first to Switzerland and England and then to the Netherlands. After the country was occupied by Nazi Germany, her brother perished in Mauthausen, and she and her parents were deported to Westerbork. Her father died, while she and her mother survived and immigrated to the United States after liberation. There she married a Munich-born refugee. In the early 1990s, they were invited to Munich and Berlin. Searching in her diary for memories of her visit to Berlin, she recalled a comment from a German volunteer in the visitors’ program: “The only thing that impressed, […] bothered me, is that Miriam, with whom I was even a bit friends, that she somehow said, I mean, I cannot remember the exact sentence, ‘in your old home.’ And I thought: ‘How dare you?’ Because that’s in no way home for me. And I also did not remember anything. Thus Berlin—it’s a, a foreign city to me, unfortunately.”[11] This episode is the main fact she remembered of her visit, nearly twenty years later. Nevertheless, Mirjam and Miriam became “a bit friends” and stayed in contact afterward, demonstrating the role locals from Berlin who voluntarily joined the groups could play, as they provided personal contacts. Mirjam’s negative perception of the term “old home” (alte Heimat), however, does only apply to some people who were invited, as the term was commonly used by guests and hosts alike. Her discomfort shows, however, the different assumptions that encounters between the former refugees and the city’s representatives could be based on.

Rolf Grayson’s account shows the unease some experienced returning to Germany. He was born in Munich in 1921 as a so-called “Ostjude” (Eastern Jew), like he recounts in his memoirs. In 1939, he immigrated to England where he married a woman originally from Leipzig. After the war, they went to the United States. Recalling his visit as a guest of Munich he wrote in 1996: “Mira and I went [to Munich] for a two week fully paid vacation. They accommodated us in a top hotel and gave us enough spending money for food and entertainment. We also received a few tickets to the opera and the theater. There was an official reception in the Rathaus (city hall) with the Bürgermeister (mayor). We had some open and frank discussions about our experiences and were met in a polite, almost friendly, manner by the city officials. Although the visit was nice, revisiting some of the haunts of my youth, and traveling through the beautiful Bavarian country and the Alps, was indeed a pleasure, but we could not forget for a moment what had happened here. We had a distinct feeling of discomfort, of being ‘ill at ease,’ which never left us. Especially Mira felt very uncomfortable, almost afraid, and although she speaks German, refused to utter one German word. We met a number of others who had also been invited, among them some friends and members of my family, which helped a little to overcome our unhappy feeling.”[12]

Several aspects are remarkable about this recollection. First, Rolf Grayson writes about “open and frank” discussions and this shows one of his aims during the visits: that his experiences would be officially acknowledged. Second, his wife’s refusal to speak German and to openly reveal her German origins shows her discomfort returning to Germany and meeting the people there. Similarly, Herbert Mai and his wife traveled mostly as “American tourists” who happened to speak German. Third, although uncommon in Munich, the group helped the Graysons overcome their difficult feelings, showing the value of a group experience, especially when old friends and relatives sometimes met for the first time in decades. Finally, Grayson calls the trip a “vacation,” which could be an attempt to emotionally distance himself from the experience.

Rolf Grayson’s memoirs end with a statement that is regularly repeated in accounts of emigrants in the U.S., reflecting on their relationship with the new country. Grayson, who became a citizen of the United States in 1953, put it this way: “We shall be eternally grateful to this country for the opportunities it offered, which cannot be equaled in any other country of the world.”[13] Herbert Mai expressed similar patriotic sentiments toward the U.S. That shows how much Grayson and Mai identify with the country they now live in, while at the same time their origin is present in their everyday lives, for example through their German accents.


The invitations to and encounters in Germany, where local governments and former residents tried to reconcile with each other, were not always harmonious. Often they were very formal and emotionally distant, as Rolf Grayson put it. Nonetheless, through these contacts and invitations, reconciliation on an individual and moral level was possible, because the former refugees had someone to address. At best, they felt their experiences were being taken seriously and official recognition played an important role for them. For the German officials, the invitations were often a learning process. They sought an “appropriate” way of communicating, as illustrated by the example of Mirjam Merzbacher-Blumenthal. In addition, some visitors developed private contacts to locals in Germany. Thus, some of the people who first came to Germany through an invitation returned to take part in the program again (covering expenses themselves) or to meet people they had encountered during their first visits.

The invitations issued by Munich in 1960 started a process, which then pressured other cities to join. The knowledge about negative attitudes in the Jewish community in the United States added to this. Additional pressure came from the emigrants, who asked their cities of origin for invitations. Thus, many cities felt morally “forced” to issue invitations, even though at first they had not thought it would evoke so many reactions. Furthermore, the financial support enabled people to fly to Germany who wished to travel there and who otherwise would not have been able to afford a flight. Thus, the initial idea led to many requests, which led to the invitations, which then reached people who might have otherwise hesitated to go to Germany. Consequently, the invitations encouraged and supported travels of German-Jewish emigrants to Germany, even though these travels might have been accompanied by ambiguous feelings. While many invitations were received positively and the organized visits could provide spaces for encounters, the individual experiences varied greatly.

Lina Nikou was a Harry & Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow at AGI in August and September, 2013.

[1] Interview with Herbert Mai in Holland, Pennsylvania (USA), 7 September 2013, conducted by Lina Nikou.

[2] In my PhD project I aim to analyze the development of these organized visits, which took place all over Germany, and I will focus on the invitations issued by the three largest German cities: Munich, (West) Berlin and Hamburg: I also submitted a detailed study of Hamburg’s visitor program. Lina Nikou: Zwischen Imagepflege, moralischer Verpflichtung und Erinnerungen. Das Besuchsprogramm für jüdische ehemalige Hamburger Bürgerinnen und Bürger (München, Hamburg, 2011).

[3] Shlomo Shafir, Ambiguous Relations. The American Jewish Community and Germany since 1945 (Detroit, 1999), 293.

[4] Shlomo Shafir spoke of “a gap between American Jewry and Germany, which will presumably persist for a few more decades.” Shlomo Shafir, Ambiguous Relations. The American Jewish Community and Germany since 1945 (Detroit, 1999), 367.

[5] Shlomo Shafir, “Postwar German Diplomats and Their Efforts to Neutralize American Jewish Hostility: The First Decade,” YIVO Annual 22 (1995), 155-201, here 183f.

[6] “Ex-Berliners are Re-United in Free Program for Those Who Fled the Nazis,” The New York Times, 13 June 1971. See also Ellen Lentz, “Jews Who Survived Nazis Return To Berlin for Visits as City Guests,” The New York Times, 7 July 1979.

[7] Most recently, the foundation “Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft” (Memory, Responsibility, Future) published a study that documents over 600 initiatives of visitor programs for former Jewish citizens and for people who were exploited as forced laborers in Germany. Anja Kräutler, “Dieselbe Stadt – Und doch eine ganz andere,” Kommunale und bürgerschaftliche Besuchsprogramme für ehemalige Zwangsarbeiter und andere Opfer nationalsozialistischen Unrechts  (Berlin, 2006).

[8] Attina Grossmann recalls visits of Catholic relatives in Germany after the war and describes this as a phenomenon more common than often believed. Attina Grossmann, “Versions of Home: German Jewish Refugee Papers Out of the Closet and Into the Archives,” in New German Critique. Taboo, Trauma, Holocaust 90 (2003), 95-122, here p. 101.

[9] Attina Grossmann, “Versions of Home: German Jewish Refugee Papers Out of the Closet and Into the Archives,” in New German Critique. Taboo, Trauma, Holocaust 90 (2003), 95-122, here p. 121.

[10] Interview with Felix Rosenthal in Annandale, Virginia (USA), 4 September 2013, conducted by Lina Nikou.

[11] “Ja ich mein, ich war auch nicht, ähm, das einzige was mich eben be- beeindruckt respektive gestört hat, ist dass die ähm Miriam mit der ich sowie- sogar so ein bisschen befreundet war, dass die dann irgendwie gesagt hat äh – ich meine, ich kann mich nicht genau an den Satz erinnern, sie- es „in eurer alten Heimat.“ Und da hab’ ich mir gedacht „How dare you?“ Weil das für mich keinerlei Heimat ist. Und erinnert an irgendwas hab’ ich mich auch nicht. Also in Berlin – ist für mich eine, eine fremde Stadt, leider.” Interview with Mirjam Merzbacher-Blumenthal in Greenwich, Connecticut (USA), 27 April 2012, conducted by Lina Nikou.

[12] Rolf Grayson, My Memoire (1996), 37-38.

[13] Ibid., 74.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.