It was an apology 80-years in the making.
Peter Hirschmann of Maplewood, New Jersey, received an unexpected envelope in the mail all the way from Germany. For the life of him he couldn’t figure out who it could be from; he hadn’t any contact with any in Germany since his family was forced to leave their home before the outbreak of WWII.
Sitting in his living room he opened the envelope and began to read the contents of a three page document, all neatly hand-written in blue ink.
It was a letter of apology from a woman named Doris Schott-Neuse; the two had never met.
He was astonished. “I teared up because it brought back to mind all of those memories of mine,” Hirschmann told the Associated Press.
Schott-Neuse wasn’t apologizing for anything she’d done personally, but rather what a grandfather she’d never met did. She grew up with fond memories of visiting her grandparents in a beautiful home, but some recent research she did uncovered a dark truth.
The lovely family home that Schott-Neuse’s grandmother lived and died in once belong to Hirschmann’s family until the rise of the Nazi regime forced them to flee to the United States.
Schott-Neuse knew little about the house itself. The only thing she’d ever been told regarding how the family acquired the house didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
“She told me there were Jews who were the owners, who were able to escape to the United States and my grandparents helped them,” she recalled.
“I don’t know if I want to believe that any longer.”
Schott-Neuse was fresh off helping a close friend cope with her own shameful discoveries about her past. It ignited the spark that led to endless research—and the realization that her family was likely involved in unsavory business. “I thought he bought it directly from the Jewish owners but this doesn’t seem to be true,” she said.
After Hirschmann and his family were forced to flee Nuremberg, the house was actually seized by the state. In 1941, German public records indicate that the house was owned by Willi Muhr, Schott-Neuse’s grandfather.
Schott-Neuse was unable to find a bill of sale or deed transfer anywhere in the public records.
In her letter she apologizes for the “horror and nightmare it must have been to live through this.”
In addition to an apology, she included several photos of what the house looks like now, many decades later.
“It was probably one of the nicer homes around according to the standards of the day,” Hirschmann said. “At the time it was a really lovely place.”
The two story, three bedroom estate boasts a lovely garden in a desirable suburban neighborhood. Even at the time of it’s occupation by Nazi Germany, the area was desirable and affluent. Hirschmann’s father owned the property, and was a successful local business man. He was forced to relocate his family to Newark, New Jersey after increased Aryanization spelled trouble for Jews.
After arriving at the local pool and seeing a sign that read “Juden und Hunde Verboten,” which means “Jews and dogs not allowed,” they knew it was time to leave.
His family were among the fortunate that were able to escape persecution and encampment. But shortly after turning 18, Hirschmann chose to participate in the US Army’s involvement in WWII. He was granted a special waiver that allowed him to enlist despite not being a US citizen.
He saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, considered by many to be the beginning of the end of Nazi dominance in Europe. He, like so many other US soldiers, was captured and taken prisoner. He spent the final months of the war in a Nazi camp telling guards that he learned German in school.
“If he had found out my background I would have been shot without any explanation,” he said.
The two have been in touch regularly through email since the letter, but have no plans of meeting in person. More than anything, Hirschmann wants Schott-Neuse to feel unburdened by her familial guilt.
“It is obvious that you, too, are suffering and it pains me to think of that — you, who are blameless.”
Schott-Neuse could have ignored the ugly in her past, but rather, chose to confront it head on. That is to be admired. Not only through exhaustive research to find answers, but through attempts to find the affected parties and offer a sincere apology. She wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of the universe when Hirschmann was displaced by her grandparents, and yet her compassion and humanity compelled her to reach out to this man whose family was wronged.
“I am deeply ashamed for what us Germans did to yourself, your family and to your friends and relatives and to the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community,” Schott-Neuse wrote. “That is what prompted me to write the letter, because I thought that the family also doesn’t know what happened and I wanted to say I’m so sorry, because it’s not done and over… there are Holocaust survivors still living.”