Monday, May 27, 2024

Author Bonnie Suchman shares her family research for her novel, Stumbling Stones #HistoricalFiction #NaziGermany #1930s @BonnieSuchman @cathiedunn

Stumbling Stones

by Bonnie Suchman

*Finalist for the Hawthorne Prize 2024*

"Alice knew that Selma sometimes felt judged by their mother and didn't always like it when Alice was praised and Selma was not. Alice glanced over at her sister, but Selma was smiling at Alice. In what Alice understood might be Selma's last act of generosity towards her sister, Selma was going to let Alice bask in the glow of Emma's pride toward her elder daughter. Then the three shared a hug, a hug that seemed to last forever."

Alice Heppenheimer, born into a prosperous German Jewish family around the turn of the twentieth century, comes of age at a time of growing opportunities for women.

So, when she turns 21 years old, she convinces her strict family to allow her to attend art school, and then pursues a career in women's fashion. Alice prospers in her career and settles into married life, but she could not anticipate a Nazi Germany, where simply being Jewish has become an existential threat. Stumbling Stones is a novel based on the true story of a woman driven to achieve at a time of persecution and hatred, and who is reluctant to leave the only home she has ever known.

But as strong and resilient as Alice is, she now faces the ultimate challenge - will she and her husband be able to escape Nazi Germany or have they waited too long to leave?

Stumbling Stones is based on the true story of Bonnie Suchman's husband’s great Aunt Alice, a woman born into a prosperous German Jewish family around the turn of the twentieth century. Alice was a woman ahead of her time, pursuing a fashion career and ignoring the growing Nazi threat to Jews. She could not imagine a Germany where simply being Jewish was an existential threat. But when she could no longer look away, she faced the horrifying realization that it might be too late to escape?

Researching Alice Heppenheimer and this Period in History 

My research into the life of Alice Heppenheimer and her family actually began as a genealogical exploration of my husband Bruce’s family, who lived in Germany before World War II. After three years of researching, I published a non-fiction book that traced the family back to around 1700. But after the book was published, I decided I was not finished telling Alice’s story. To provide a fuller and richer story, I chose to write a novel.

In doing genealogical research, most people start with, and that is where my search began. But that was only the beginning for me, and my search led to the archives of a number of German states, as well as the archives of relevant museums and organizations. Finding one document often led me to another source, and this is where my background as a lawyer proved extremely useful to be able to follow the trail.

In terms of researching Alice’s life, one of the most useful sets of documents related specifically to her efforts to escape Nazi Germany. In order to receive permission to leave, a German Jew was required to receive a tax clearance certificate from the Finance Office. In Alice’s file, I found hundreds of pages of documents describing the many issues she was experiencing in clearing her tax obligation. Alice’s business records also contained numerous documents describing her life and the problems she and her husband were experiencing as Jews working in Nazi Germany. At times, I could almost hear her voice in reading the various documents, pleading for a chance to escape.

I was fortunate in having family members who shared with me photographs of family from the period, or stories they were told from parents or grandparents. Among the photos shared was the following, showing Alice (holding the umbrella) at the Norderney beach resort with her family in 1923.

Records created after the war also proved extremely helpful to my research in painting a picture of Alice and her family. For example, family members who filed for reparations were required to include detailed information regarding their lives, their professions, even their possessions. I learned much of about the Heppenheimer family through these reparations requests and other relevant records.

I was able to take advantage of the extensive records preserved by German universities and organizations, as well as international Holocaust organizations. For example, Germany’s Goethe University in Frankfurt has created a searchable digital collection that contains all of the Address Books in Frankfurt (an annotated telephone book that included occupational information), as well as most of the Jewish newspapers published before World War II. I found a wealth of family information in those archives. I also discovered family records in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute (both at the Center for Jewish History in New York and on their website).

But researching Alice’s life also presented an emotional challenge I wasn’t expecting. In researching the family, I was to discover that many of the records I was reviewing were actually preserved by the Nazis, to be used in order to prove who was a Jew. Some records were lost only because they had been in buildings bombed by the Allies during the war.

As an English language speaker, one significant challenge I had was the language barrier. While I took German classes at the Goethe Institute, Google translator became my constant companion. And when that tool proved inadequate, I retained the services of translators. One translator was located in Germany and was able to locate records hidden in dusty archives and could translate records that were written in old German script.

I wrote Stumbling Stones as a novel, but tried to make sure that everything in the book was factual. For example, in Frankfurt in the summer of 1937, Jews were only permitted to visit one of the Frankfurt bath resorts. Since Jews were limited in places they could go in that summer for relief, I assumed that Alice and her family would have visited this bath, although we will never know for sure. Frankfurt’s Institute for Urban History has created an extensive archives of the history of the Holocaust period, including a detailed description of the one Frankfurt bath resort Jews were permitted to use in 1937. I relied upon that research for that section of my novel. In addition, I read extensively of the period, so that I could understand why Alice made the decisions that she made through the 1930s. This was particularly important in understanding why Alice, like so many other German Jews, did not leave when the Nazis first came to power, and why it was a challenge to leave when Alice finally realized that she needed to leave.

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Bonnie Suchman

Bonnie Suchman is an attorney who has been practicing law for forty years.

Using her legal skills, she researched her husband's family's 250-year history in Germany, and published a non-fiction book about the family, Broken Promises: The Story of a Jewish Family in Germany. Bonnie found one member of the family, Alice Heppenheimer, particularly compelling. Stumbling Stones tells Alice's story.

Bonnie has two adult children and lives in Maryland with her husband, Bruce.

Connect with Bonnie:

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