I just viewed a remarkable documentary film entitled “The Flat” which was written, produced, and directed by Arnon Goldfinger. It started out as somewhat of a home movie but advanced into a full-blown mystery which kept my interest through every moment. It highlights events that occurred before World War II which remained hidden from the descendants of a Jewish family who were sheltered from facts which they had a right to know, but were totally unaware of until the death of the elderly matriarch of the family.
Star of David - Wikimedia
Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, had just died at the age of 98. The flat that she lived in for the past 70 years in Tel Aviv was full of memorabilia that her descendants were responsible for distributing or discarding. Gerda and her husband Kurt had left Nazi Germany in the 1930s and immigrated to Palestine. They were part of a large group of people known as Zionists, who embraced a movement among Jews and the Jewish culture that supported the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Seventy years of hoarding possessions required the removal of 60 garbage bags per day after family members sorted through drawers filled with gloves, jewelry, purses, shoes, and scarves, plus bookcases filled with the classics of Goethe, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and many other authors.
Swastika - Wikimedia
It was fun-filled, especially to the younger third-generation descendants of Gerda Tuchler; that is, until they came upon a medallion with the Star of David on one side and a Swastika on the other side. If that wasn’t puzzling enough, they also unearthed several copies of a 1934 pro-Nazi newspaper edited by Joseph Goebbels and called “Der Angriff” (The Attack). One of the issues had a headline entitled “A Nazi Travels to Palestine,” telling the story of a Nazi party leader named Leopold von Mildenstein who visited the Holy Land with his wife and a pair of dedicated Zionists, Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, who were Arnon Goldfinger’s maternal grandparents. Von Mildenstein had contributed the article, and Arnon Goldfinger learned later that he was an SS officer and the predecessor of Adolf Eichmann, the war criminal. He was responsible for recruiting Adolf Eichmann to work in his department. Von Mildenstein encouraged the Jews in Germany to emigrate to Palestine to solve “The Jewish problem,” and proposed the idea to Hitler and Goebbels.
It was discovered that even after the war ended, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler retained their close friendship with the von Mildensteins, traveling to Germany often to allow people to know that they had not been expelled. Arnon had few recollections of his grandfather Kurt since he had died when Arnon was 15 years old.
Some Secrets are Suppressed
Arnon Goldfinger’s mother Hannah had never heard the story of her parents’ friendship with the SS officer and took the stand that “what’s past is past.” An historian remarked to Arnon that only the third generation in a family becomes interested; the second generation has repressed their memories. Surprising truths are often swept under the rug for the sake of shielding loved ones from unpleasant recollections.
Concentration Camp - Wikimedia
The Holocaust Became Personal
Another unmentioned fact came to light when it was learned that Arnon’s great grandmother (Hannah’s grandmother), who was named Susannah and was married to Paul Lehman, was forced to leave her home in Germany and report to a Ghetto. She was then moved to a camp where she was murdered. Arnon and Hannah could not understand how Hannah’s parents could return to Germany after what had happened to Susannah in Berlin in 1942. It was simply repressed.
A Quest for the Truth
Still, Hannah agreed to accompany her son Arnon to Germany to try to learn more about the secrets that had been kept from them by Gerda and Kurt for so many years. An envelope in Gerda’s belongings had the address of Edda von Mildenstein in a small German town. Edda was the daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein. Arnon and Hannah were greeted cordially by Edda who denied that her father was ever a member of the SS. She presented him as a man with no Nazi past. Even after Arnon showed Edda a document in her father’s handwriting which revealed his propaganda work with Joseph Goebbels, she would only admit that it peaked her interest. She remembered the Tuchlers very well and knew that they corresponded often with her parents. They had good times together. She had pictures to show Arnon and Hannah of the two couples together. Hannah told Edda that Gerda had given Edda’s mother a jade necklace which Edda was able to produce.
The National Archives Had the True Story
Arnon later checked with the National Archives. The documents had survived. Von Mildenstein had been an SS officer in 1935-1936. He was promoted within its ranks less than a year after the last time he had seen the Tuchlers. Either Edda had repressed those memories or she had lied to Arnon and Hannah.
An historian explained to Arnon that meetings between certain Jews and Germans were common, especially among professional people who were prosperous, educated and friendly, and on the same intellectual level. The mention of Nazis or of murder would violate the taboos of the time.
Joseph Goebbels Wikimedia
A Visit to the Graveyard
The last thing that Arnon and Hannah wanted to do before leaving Germany was to visit the grave of Paul Lehman which they learned about from Lehman relatives living in Germany. Even though it was pouring rain, they scoured the overgrown flora in the cemetery but were unable to find Paul Lehman’s grave. This ending to the story was poignant in that it sent the signal that we may never learn all that we would like to learn about the past. Too many secrets need to remain buried.
“The Flat” won the Israel Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011. I found the film to be engrossing and filled with suspense. Some of the cast speaks in English but there are English captions also since many cast members speak in German or in Hebrew. I did not find that distracting.
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