Uncovering My Family’s History—or a Clever Scam—75 Years After Kristallnacht
A woman in Germany claimed to have photos that could solve a mystery about my great-uncle’s death. But was she telling the truth?
I wrote her on the Monday she was supposed to ship the package and asked her to confirm the shipment and send me the tracking number. No reply. I wrote her twice on Tuesday, morning and evening, with the same question. No reply to either. I wrote her on Thursday that I preferred to believe she was having second thoughts or some sort of problem with her email than that she was defrauding me. I asked her to write back or call me immediately. No reply. On Saturday, still unwilling to admit I’d been had, I sent her one final email:
“I’ve read what you wrote over and over again. It gives the impression of being the truth and not an inducement to fraud. But I haven’t had a word from you in 10 days now. It would surprise and appall me that a German of today could be so staggeringly cruel to the Jewish descendant of a Holocaust victim. Can it be?”
I suppose I could point out a few moments in the story where it doesn’t look like Susanne was a thief. She didn’t pretend to have the thing I was actually looking for (the film). She asked if I could show up for the deal in person. She accepted my opening offer instead of pressing for more. And she kept writing to me for a couple of days after my money hit her bank account.
But the truth is that I put too much of myself into searching for something, believed someone when she said she had it, paid her for it without seeing it, and have nothing to show for it but disappointment and indignation.
I look back now and ask myself where my mistake lay. At the simplest level, it was in trusting someone I met through the Internet, but there’s more to it than that. My mistake was also in believing that my great-uncle Leo’s murder by German hands decades ago would protect me, his descendant, from hurt at German hands today. I thought this sort of cruelty would be outside the bounds of contemplation in German society. That is a mistake my family has made before.
One other possible mistake occurs to me, and that is the search itself. At the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht I continue to look for my great-uncle Leo. I continue to harbor the fantasy that if I can find him in a film or in a photo, it will help me know this man who is unknowable, and that by knowing him I will rescue him from his fate.
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