What killed grandfather was a feeling he didn’t ‘belong anywhere’

Hugo and Lucie Mendel on the balcony of their Tel Aviv apartment prior to Hugo’s suicide in 1957.

Between phone calls from my son and daughters this past Father’s Day, I read a story in The Times of Israel that blew my mind, tugged at my heartstrings and brought me close to tears.  It was so powerful and timely on that day we celebrate fathers.

It came at a time when my PR firm is publicizing a new book by Dr. Eli Fischer and Lani Samson, “From the Rice Fields to the Holy Land.”   The book reveals the pain and suffering immigrants like Lani, a poor woman from the Philippines, have to endure when transplanting themselves in another country, in this case Israel.  The book is a must read for those concerned about immigration anywhere!

The story in The Times of Israel comes from a family memoir, “If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died,” in which Emanuel Rosen examines his grandfather Hugo’s tragic life and death in Israel.  Hugo emigrated from Germany after the Nazi persecution of Jews in the 1930s.

The story starts with of all things, a joke!  It was a stupid joke Emanuel realizes now.  He was a teenager when he told his mother: “You know that falling from a tall building won’t kill you?  It’s the contact with the sidewalk that does the trick.”  

Mirjam didn’t laugh.  The joke flopped like dead flounder. She looked pained.  A decade later, Rosen knew why.

At the time, his mother was enmeshed in a protracted legal battle with Germany to compensate the family for her father Hugo Mendel’s suicide in Tel Aviv in 1957. Mirjam had to prove his death was caused by persecution by the Nazis — specifically the stripping of his successful legal career and ensuing consequences.

In Israel, Mendel was incapable of culturally adapting, learning Hebrew, or continuing to work in the law. His attempts at business failed and he sank into a deep depression, until he finally jumped from a high staircase at a building on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street.

The book takes its title from what Rosen’s mother would regularly tell her children before taking her daily afternoon nap. It was a bit of black humor from a young woman who lost her military officer husband to a sudden heart attack, and then her father to suicide — all within a few years.

“When she won the case, she simply told me Oma (Grandma) got some money for the health damage they caused Opa (Grandpa). I remember she was so proud,” Rosen said.

Rosen’s mother offered to give him the folder containing all the documents related to her legal case against Germany, but Rosen — busy as an entrepreneur and writer, and raising his family — wasn’t that interested at the time.

Later, using documents and artifacts contained in a box he inherited from his mother, along with the legal folder, Rosen pieced together the puzzle of his grandfather’s suicide.

Rosen, 68, had been unaware of how hard his mother had fought for nearly a decade.  The herculean effort to prove the Nazis had killed her father, “as if they had killed him in the camps” began after the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961.

But a German court accepted psychiatrist Friedrich Panse’s opinion that there was no causal relationship between the events of 1933 (Mendel’s expulsion from his profession by the Nazis and subsequent departure for Palestine) and his death. (Panse reportedly sent mentally ill individuals to their deaths during Nazi period.  After the war he continued to review cases of people affected by Nazi crimes.)

Mirjam appealed. In her favor was a case decided in Germany’s highest court in 1965 that provided a precedent. It concerned a German Jewish pharmacist named Wolfgang Freund who escaped to Shanghai, China, and later immigrated to Australia. He died by suicide in 1954, and his family demanded restitution from Germany. The court sided with the family, stating that “the persecution [suffered under the Nazi regime] lowered Freund’s psychological resilience.”

From December 1967, Mirjam had Dr. Walter Ritter von Baeyer on her side.  The psychiatrist and professor at Heidelberg University was appointed by the court to provide expert opinion.

“Von Baeyer specialized in the psychology of persecution, and therefore, he could point out a case of depression that resulted from uprooting when he saw one,” Rosen wrote.

In November 1969, the court finally determined Germany was responsible and liable for Mendel’s death.

Despite Rosen’s better understanding of his mother’s legal fight, there is one part of the story that remains a mystery. In 1956, Hugo and Lucie Mendel made a long visit to Germany. It was their first time back since their forced departure in 1933.

The trip only reinforced for Rosen’s grandfather that “you can’t go home again,” as the title of the 1940 Thomas Wolf novel tells us. Already in his mid-60s, it became clear to Mendel that any dream of returning to Germany and working as a lawyer again had perished along with millions of Jews in the Holocaust.   

“I don’t know for sure why they went back,” said Rosen, who, in 2003, traced his grandparents’ steps from their return visit to Germany to better understand their motivations.  The trip only amplified Mendel’s feelings of belonging neither to his birthplace nor to his adopted homeland. A few months later, he killed himself.

Like his grandfather, Rosen ended up living in a country other than his native one.  He moved to the United States 38 years ago. Unlike his grandfather, Rosen feels he belongs to more than one place, and technology has made it increasingly easy for him to keep in touch with Israel. 

“What killed my grandfather was his belonging neither here nor there. He didn’t belong anywhere.”

Besides an inveterate blogger, Tom Madden is an author of countless published articles and five books, including his latest, WORDSHINE MAN, available this summer on Amazon.   He is the founder and CEO of TransMedia Group, an award-winning public relations firm serving clients worldwide since 1981 and has conducted remarkably successful media campaigns and crisis management for America’s largest companies and organizations.