Thursday, January 12, 2012
Anyone who's ever been to my house knows I love old trunks and hard leather suitcases. You know, the kind you see in old movies. Currently I have 2 trunks and 10 suitcases of varying size. I'm not sure exactly what the lure of suitcases is, but I like to imagine where they've been and what adventures they might have seen.
When we lived in Heidelberg, there was a flea market held once or twice a month within walking distance of our house and we went as often as possible. To my joy there were always suitcases, but I didn't buy them unless they "spoke" to me (that's right, I'm the Suitcase Whisperer). One little old man, Joseph (mid-late 70's), usually had 1 or 2 great suitcases that I would snap up. He often priced them too low and I would pay him more, just because. Silly, I know to argue with a bargain, but I couldn't just walk away paying so little. It got to where he started calling me the Frau Koffer (Mrs. Suitcase) every time he saw me. One weekend there was a 2 day flea market and I went both days. The first day he had a small brown suitcase (12"x21"x6") that appealed to me. I bought it for €8 (he wanted €5). He told me to come back the next day, because he had something special for me.
The next day, I wandered over to see what he had, and he pulled 2 small suitcases from under his table (12"x21"x6" and 10"x17"x5") that I had to have the moment I saw them. I had usually passed by all black suitcases, preferring brown, but there was something about these that made me want them. He offered them to me for €10 together. I told him that was too low and paid him €15, when he flat out refused to take the €20 I offered. I took the suitcases to my car (we had errands to run later, so we drove) and went back to look around more. When I passed by his little space again, he waved me over. He said he had a story his wife (who was always there) said he had to "tells" me, but didn't want to tell me unless I bought the suitcases so it wouldn't seem like he was just trying to sell them.
He proceeded with his story and I simply couldn't believe I was understanding correctly as his English was broken, my German wasn't much better and there was loads of gesturing involved. I had to know if I was hearing what I thought I was hearing and told him to wait a moment while I went to get a lady from another stall I was familiar with, and who I knew spoke both languages (don't worry, her husband was there to watch the stall so I wasn't taking her away from business). She happily came (probably because I'd spent so much money over the months at her stall) and translated the story he told and the questions I asked.
The suitcases had belonged to his wife's parents. His wife was Jewish. She had not been born when World War II happened, but her parents were a young couple, married in the mid-1930's. Her father was a tailor in a small town near Mannheim. We all know how safe it was to be Jewish during the years leading up to and during the war. In mid-1938, just a few months before Kristallnacht, her parents packed everything they could in those 2 suitcases and one other that he no longer had, and decided to flee to the Netherlands. They then went on to Denmark and finally to Sweden where they stayed until the end of the war. When they came back to Germany they found everything they owned had been confiscated by the Nazi party (and likely scavenging citizens) and the small tailor shop, with their apartment above, destroyed. With the exception of what they had packed in those very small suitcases they had nothing. With the help of the friends who returned, and Allied troops they rebuilt their lives, bought a small house outside of town (where Joseph and his wife live today) and the suitcases were put in the attic and forgotten until they were pulled out a few months back and hauled to the flea market. They were toted back and forth several times, before he decided they likely weren't going to sell. Until he got to know me that is.
I asked him if he was certain he wanted to sell them, thinking surely someone in the family would want to keep them. He said none of their children or grandchildren wanted them and he'd rather they be sold to someone who did, rather than toss them in the rubbish.
I thanked him for telling me their history and promised I would appreciate them and their brush with history. When I got home with my historical treasures I pondered what I would pack if forced to flee my home with only a few small suitcases. While there are wars raging across the world I feel confident knowing that there is an infinitesimally small chance that the choice this young couple made will ever be one I have to make and I'm grateful for it. The suitcases now sit stacked with a few other in my home where they remind me every day to be thankful for what I have and the relative safety and security I enjoy.