In 1933, Dr. Hugo Mendel, a successful Jewish lawyer, escaped Germany along with his family and moved to Tel Aviv. They were some of “the lucky ones” who made it out alive. Two decades later, he and his wife Lucie returned to Germany to take stock of all that was stolen from them: Hugo’s career and reputation, their country, their sense of belonging. A few months later, after returning to Israel, Hugo jumped to his death.
Now, Hugo’s grandson Emanuel Rosen retraces his grandparents’ fateful European trip and its aftermath in his memoir If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died (Amsterdam Publishers; March 22, 2021). With warmth, insight, humor, and compassion, Rosen tells his family’s story—their life in pre-war Germany, the new bitter-sweet life they established in Israel, their return visit to Europe, and Emanuel’s mother Mirjam’s legal fight to get the German government to accept responsibility for her father’s suicide even though it happened years after the war ended. The book offers a window into a family who fled Europe just in time, the diaspora they were part of (with all the evocative specificity of its culture and language and sensibility) and how they longed for the place that did nothing to save them and everything to destroy them.
Rosen’s book is at once a vignette-filled tribute to the strong, loving women who raised him, a personal and timely testament to the trauma of displacement, and a melancholy psychological detective story, as Rosen travels the world to attempt to understand how Hugo Mendel came to kill himself one afternoon in Tel Aviv almost 65 years ago. Learn more about what Emanuel Rosen has to say about his book in this special Let’s Chat! interview.
You spent a good chunk of your life not knowing the circumstances of your grandfather’s death or about your mother’s legal battle to hold Germany accountable for it. How did you find out? And how did you decide to retrace your grandparents’ steps and write about it?
Growing up, all I knew was that in 1956 my grandparents went back to Germany and that not long after they returned to Tel Aviv my grandfather died. Only in my late thirties, when I asked my mom about hereditary diseases in our family, I found out that my grandfather took his own life. She told me that five months after returning from that trip, my grandfather jumped from a building in Tel Aviv. Then, after my mother died in 1992, I found a box with letters that my grandparents had sent my mom from that trip, and I was hoping that these letters would explain why my grandfather did it, so I had the letters translated, and went to Germany to retrace their journey. On a visit to the city of Hamm (in Westphalia), where my grandfather had his law office until 1933, I was handed a thick folder that opened my eyes to the legal battle my mom initiated to prove that those who had forced her father out of his profession as a lawyer were responsible for his death.
Each generation in your family dealt with the Holocaust in their own way, from your grandparents who fled Germany before it began, to your mom who straddled the worlds of both Europe and Israel, to you who was a bit removed from its immediacy. Do you think your family is a representative example of how Jews of different generations relate to the Holocaust?
I think that it is true, at least for Israel. When I grew up in Israel, there was very little discussion of the Holocaust. Israel was a young state trying to construct the identity of the strong Israeli, unlike the survivors who were (wrongly) perceived as weak. Survivors had their own reasons not to talk. They wanted to integrate into mainstream Israeli society, and they focused on rebuilding their lives. The limited discussion of the topic was also true for my mom’s generation: Interestingly, both my mom and her brother dealt with the Holocaust professionally. My mom’s brother headed one of the Mossad’s units to hunt down Nazi criminals. My mom worked at a law office that dealt with restitution from Germany, so she certainly heard a lot of stories from survivors, but she didn’t talk about it either. I think that now, it is somewhat easier for my generation to research and talk about the Holocaust because we are somewhat removed from the trauma; we want to understand what our parents and grandparents went through, and we want to make sure their stories are told.
In many ways, this is a story about uprooting and displacement, and about the heavy, generations-long impact of finding oneself in a new country with a new language. Do you feel like your family’s experience has similarities to the experiences of refugees around the world?
Very much so. It is estimated that worldwide, over 65 million people are displaced by war, armed conflict, or persecution. Imagine that tomorrow morning you are forced to leave this country because of your religion or race and you find yourself in China. How will you manage if you don’t speak Chinese? If you do not understand the culture? If people there do not understand yours? Many immigrants, even people who left the country of their own will, face such situations, and everything is more difficult when people are forced to leave their homes. And the challenge isn’t only about language. Adjusting to the mentality in the new country is difficult too. Think about a woman who was brought to the United States without papers as a child and may face deportation. She’s an American and suddenly has to live in a foreign country. Uprooting can have devastating consequences as it did in my grandfather’s case.
Many books rightfully focus on first-hand accounts of survivors of the Nazi camps, whereas your book recounts a multi-generational trauma brought on by the Nazis without personally experiencing the camps. What do you think can be learned about the holocaust when you look at it through the lives of people who escaped the worst of it?
My family’s story illustrates that even survivors who managed to leave early suffered from uprooting, feelings of guilt, and shattered dreams. In my grandfather’s case the consequences were deadly: uprooting him from his profession and cultural environment eventually led to his suicide. My grandmother of course was affected by his suicide and felt guilty about it. She also blamed herself for letting her mother return from Tel Aviv to Germany in 1936. (Her mother was later deported to Riga, Latvia, and died there). My mother too felt guilty about her father’s suicide and possibly about her grandmother’s return to Germany. And then there are the shattered dreams. Growing up, my mother’s dreamt of becoming a lawyer just like her father, and this never happened because of the deportation and the family’s economic downfall. In a way, her legal battle to prove that the Nazis were responsible for his death was her way to close that circle.
Through the story of your grandfather, what broader truths about trauma and suicide were you able to access?
My grandfather’s story made me think a lot about two issues: friendship and a sense of belonging. I’m not a psychologist, but I know that there is evidence that social isolation can lead to suicide and I wish my grandfather reached out to people to build friendships. This is something that I’ve been applying myself: writing is an isolating profession and now I make a point of better maintaining my friendships. I’m talking about small daily choices like calling someone on the phone or having a cup of coffee with a friend. The second issue is a sense of belonging, and here too, we have choices. As immigrants (or newcomers to any group), we can try to integrate, or we can stay outsiders. I don’t mean to suggest that a newcomer should forget his or her old identity. One can belong to more than one world (and it’s becoming easier with technology). I feel that the danger is in not belonging at all, which is what happened to my grandfather. He didn’t feel he belonged in Israel and the trip to Germany made him realize that he didn’t belong in Germany either. He was left in midair.
Your grandfather Hugo was never able to adapt to his new circumstances after fleeing Germany and thus losing his career and the prestige that accompanied it, but your grandmother Lucie adapted to life in Israel. Why?
One clear difference between them was that my grandfather was less sociable than my grandmother who loved people, was very curious about them, and had many friends. She also had several cousins in the new country (her father had 10 siblings). It’s easier to adapt to a new environment when you have friends and a support system. Another difference is flexibility: My grandfather Hugo grew up with one schema of how things were supposed to be, and when he faced a new reality, he had a hard time adjusting. There is a saying. “The wind does not break a tree that bends.” Lucie knew how to bend. Hugo had a harder time doing it. They both had to deal with losing their social status and maybe it was more painful for Hugo who, as a man, was expected back then to be the main breadwinner. Lucie accepted new situations and tried to make the best out of them. She focused on us, her grandchildren, helping my mom raise us, and she did a good job: I had the most wonderful childhood.
Praise for If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died
“With sensitivity, love, and humor, Emanuel Rosen tells the story of his Yekke grandparents, their immigration and difficulties in the homeland of the Jewish people, and their journey in search of their roots and identity in Germany. An important and fascinating book that awakened in me deep feelings and a longing for a generation that is no more.”—Gabriela Shalev, former Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N.; Professor (Emeritus) the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
“I thought I’d take a quick look at this book, but then I kept reading all of it in a day and a half.”—W. Michael Blumenthal, Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and director of the Jewish Museum Berlin (1997-2014)
“From generation to generation, it becomes more difficult to write about the persecution of Jews before and during WWII as one’s personal past. Too much has been lost, and precisely because of that one wants to write about what can still be found. I respect what Emanuel Rosen did in this book, patiently and carefully exploring the past and guiding us through his findings about the story of his family.”—Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader
“This is a gripping and engaging exploration of a family whose lives were indelibly changed by Nazi restrictions, by immigrant life in Israel, and by a grandson’s search for missing parts of the stories.”—Martha Mino, Harvard Law School
“The mystery of why Emanuel Rosen’s grandfather killed himself haunts this book and keeps the reader gripped until the secrets of the past are ultimately uncovered and revealed. Suicide leaves a legacy of silence for those of us who are left behind and works such as this allows us to begin to understand how we are affected and start to heal. This book will greatly help survivors of suicide loss on their own personal journeys of discovery and hope.”—Carla Fine, author of No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One
About the author
Emanuel (Manu) Rosen is a bestselling author whose books have been translated into thirteen languages. He was born in Israel where he went to school, served in the army, and was an award-winning copywriter. After his graduate school education in the United States and a successful career as an executive in Silicon Valley, Emanuel turned to write. He is married to Daria Mochly-Rosen, a professor at Stanford. They live in Menlo Park, California, and have four adult children. If Anyone Calls, Tell Them I Died is his fourth book.