The disappearance of his great-uncle Samuel during World War II has shaped the life of the young university lecturer, Shmulik Kaplan. As part of his Master's Thesis on the history of Germany between the wars, he sets out to try and discover what happened to his uncle - an outstanding athlete who managed to leave Germany in 1935, and yet incomprehensibly, returned to Berlin, and then vanished without a trace.
From his book lined office at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to Berlin and to Mont St. Michel in France, and through the dusty WW II archives of the German army, the quest takes him on a rollercoaster journey of personal discovery and emotion. The search uncovers events and materials that no-one had ever heard of before, or seen, since the days of the German occupation of France.
Onkel Samuel, as he was known in my immediate family, was an integral part of my childhood even though I never knew him, and he was presumed to have been dead for many years already (he was actually my great-uncle). I was given his name – Shmuel (Shmuel is the Hebrew version of Samuel, Shmulik is the diminutive nickname) and from an early age, heard stories of his athletic prowess and saw his picture prominently displayed in our house, dressed in his athletic gear. He had been a champion shot-putter in the Maccabi HaTzai’r (Young Maccabis) sports club in Berlin, had even taken part in the Second Maccabi Games in 1935 in Tel Aviv, and for some unfathomable reason had returned to Berlin at the end of the games.
My grandfather Ethan Kaplan, Samuel’s (fraternal) twin brother, had accompanied the Maccabi HaTzai’r team to Palestine as a journalist, but had chosen to stay and make his home in Jerusalem, where he met my grandmother, who was also from a German-Jewish family. Their elder brother Nathan Kaplan had left Germany already in 1934, having seen the way things were going and having understood earlier than the rest of the family that it was time to get out. He had somehow managed to get an immigrant visa for Canada (though the Canadians were not very helpful about letting Jewish refugees in, to say the least), and went to live in Montreal. My great-grandparents – the parents of the three brothers – had both died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and we had Red Cross certificates to prove it.
The contradictory character of the Yeckim (as the German Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust are locally known) was well in evidence in our home. On one hand, no German-made products were ever bought (including cars), no one would ever travel to Germany unless forced to by circumstance (government service was forgivable, business dealings were frowned upon), and no chance was ever missed at bad-mouthing the German people (dead or alive) or the present German government. On the other hand, the mother tongue in my parents’ house was German. Both my father and my mother were children of German immigrants, and the first language they knew and learned was German. It was only natural for them to speak German amongst themselves, especially as a way of communicating so that the children didn’t understand what they were saying! We (my sister Naomi and I) learned a basic level of German at an early age, in self-defense. In our family (and I dare say in most other German immigrant households), culture was considered a German monopoly: no one composed classical music of any value except for German composers, Goethe was the greatest writer in history (far better than Shakespeare or Tolstoy) with Schiller coming in a close second, and the German countryside was the earthly reflection of the Garden of Eden.
It was an unspoken assumption in our house that I would become an athlete and so it was. I joined the local HaPoel sports club in our neighborhood at the age of eight and after trying various sports, decided on wrestling. Not exactly what Onkel Samuel had done, but close enough. My parents and grandparents came to every meet, every competition, and would shout encouragement from the side - Oma and Opa in German, my parents in Hebrew. This continued for years, through High School and up until the start of my military service. I wasn’t, however, good enough to be an “Exceptional Athlete” and spend my three years wrestling for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) team, so I went along with some of my high school friends and served in the Artillery. My wrestler’s arm muscles came in very handy though, when carrying artillery shells that weighed upwards of 45 kgs each.
The army, however, has a way of changing things – for better and for worse – and by the time I had finished my three years in olive green, wrestling was no longer the focus of my life. I had decided to study History and was accepted at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Perhaps because of my family background, I concentrated on the period between the two World Wars, and long before the time came for me to do a Master’s Thesis, I knew exactly what it would be on.