Twenty years ago this month I boarded a plane for Paris to embark on a timeworn rite of passage. With a small, rolling suitcase in tow and the typical, myopic worldview of an American youth, I spent the next several weeks touring eight European cities in five countries. It was, without question, a defining experience—an opportunity to see what lay beyond my upbringing and all I was taught, a chance to push against my edges and discover my boundaries along with my boundlessness.
Looking back it is unthinkable that I chose to skip Hamburg, my grandfather’s birthplace. No one in my family had returned to Germany, let alone Hamburg, since he left in 1931. Fate, however, refused to allow such a glaring omission from my itinerary. On the way from Vienna to Copenhagen, I was forced into a four-hour layover while changing trains at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. I resented the disruption in my plans, but used the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the city and to take some pictures for my mother and grandmother to see. At the time I kept a diary on tape, and as we chugged alongside the mass of brick warehouses known as the Speicherstadt, I whispered into the microphone that I spotted a river, but did not know the name. As I listened to that recording a few weeks ago in preparation for this blog post, I was stunned to discover I knew nothing about the Elbe, not even its name. For the past five years the Elbe River, the entryway to Europe’s third largest port and the lifeblood of Hamburg, has been at the center of my writing and research.
I regret how poorly I used those precious hours. I took the dubious advice of some Army cadets I met at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and hopped on an S-Bahn train to Reeperbahn. It took but moments to realize I was in the middle of the Red Light district. “I’ll never have another St. Pauli Girl beer now that I know what a St. Pauli girl is,” I breathlessly told my recorder as I walked back to the safety of the S-Bahn station. It was, of course, a slight exaggeration. I clicked the tape on again moments later with a truer sentiment: “How will I ever tell my mother what this city is really like?”
On returning to the Hauptbahnhof, the central station, I accidentally stepped off the train too early and landed in a shopping district I likened to New York’s Fifth Avenue. I wished I had found it sooner. But even with this somewhat better impression of Hamburg, the city still felt sterile, drab, lifeless. I felt no connection with the streets, the buildings, the people, the water. Surprisingly modern and somewhat disjointed, Hamburg possessed not the least bit soul or vital essence of the other cities I visited, and I was thankful not to have wasted even a day of my trip there.
Of course, I didn’t know then what a rich history my family had in Hamburg. It was years later that I learned the truth about my heritage and that my ancestors had been among the leaders of the Jewish community in Hamburg and Altona dating back to the 1600s. As I unearthed my family’s hidden past, I became especially surprised by the disconnectedness I felt during my brief stay.
My recent research has offered one possible explanation: Perhaps it was because the Hamburg my grandfather left behind in the 1930s was not the one I encountered in 1995. The soul of a city lives not only in its residents, but also in its landscape, its architecture. It’s embedded in the stone, the steel, the cement, the soil. During World War II, Hamburg was almost completely destroyed under some of the heaviest artillery deployed by the Allies at any point during the war. The week-long bombings, known as Operation Gomorrah, killed 42,000 people and wiped out more than half of the city. Hundreds of years of history were lost, replaced by new streets, new structures, and inevitably, new stories.
I’ve since checked maps of the wreckage. Among the ruins was the elegant, neoclassical apartment building owned by my great-grandparents. If ever I return to Hamburg—and I hope I will—visiting their former address will be one of the first items on my itinerary. Today a parking lot stands in that exact location. But the absence of any landmark, some trace of the past, is almost incidental. As I’ve learned over the years, even the things we can’t see or touch inevitably shape who we are and who we become.