In 2010, I received a peculiar friend request on Facebook from a man named Frank Hecker. The lone photo on his profile was a headshot of a middle-aged white man, eyes squinting under rectangular frames against the sun, on a background of pine trees and spring flowers. He had no other visible posts, and a total of 19 friends, one of them being my father. I considered declining it, accepted it, and immediately forgot about it.
Eight years later, I found myself walking with my dad and discussing my grandmother, who had lived in Beierfeld, Germany, and traveled across Europe and Asia to escape the Nazis and take refuge in Ecuador. This was not exactly a novel topic of conversation for us—it is the kind of story that gets repeated again and again within a family, each iteration bringing a new color or detail, the sum total painting a haphazard collage. Countless times I’d heard about the Christian family that had shown bold and radical kindness, standing by my grandmother and her family in the aftermath of Kristallnacht and helping them to eventually escape the country. On that day, my father explained: “And so the Heckers lived in what would later become East Germany.”
With that utterance, I felt a distinct sense of comprehension. The Heckers. Frank Hecker: the strange man on Facebook who would like my travel photos and write me happy birthday posts each year in stiff but gracious, European-tinged English. I had always figured he was one of my dad’s close friends from childhood. And though I would later learn they had met only twice, he was a kind of friend.
* * *
In my second semester of college, I showed up in the dimly lit basement of the student commons to watch the State of the Union at what I thought was a meeting of College Democrats. It struck me as odd that most people there were covered in piercings and tattoos and stepping out periodically to chain smoke cigarettes. I was downright shocked, however, when they started spitting curses at the T.V and decrying Obama as an “imperialist war criminal” while both parties stood and applauded his “steadfast commitment with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.”
I had unknowingly walked into one of the last remaining chapters of Students for a Democratic Society, the radical anti-war organization founded in the 1960s and rebooted in 2006. Though scandalized, I was also fascinated and came back the next week and the one after that. Before long, I had been politicized into the anarchist sensibilities of the post-Occupy milieu.
Encountering a leftist analysis of capitalism felt like meeting a fast friend. I found something I had been inchoately grasping at for years, a confirmation of that nagging sense that our entire society– from the structure of the economy to our relationship with the rest of the natural world– was inexplicably and fundamentally haywire.
Since 2014, I’ve devoted my life to organizing, working professionally as a union organizer, and throwing myself into various social movements. With each passing year, I’ve become more aware of the ills of capitalism–white supremacy, global empire, patriarchy, and ecological destruction. The more I learn, the harder it is to pause and reflect on it all, lest I slip into the nagging anxiety that the world, to put it bluntly, is on a steady march toward doom. It has felt easier to just keep sprinting to the next campaign or project, not stopping for long enough to let despair grasp me.
But as many socialists have likely experienced, leftist organizations and movements are not always sites of healing, joy, and hope. Oftentimes, the spaces that ideally would serve as places of comfort and safety are instead wrought with suspicion, cynicism, and intense bitterness, which can be easily misdirected at our comrades or the less-engaged people we should be bringing into our movements.
In September 2020, in response to the growing threat of a Trump coup, an informal network of antifascists emerged in the Boston area. About a week after the November election, during one of our strategic calls, I asked for support from this broad network on an action I was coordinating, demanding the governor certify election results immediately. Before I was even able to ask for help in filling action roles, someone on the call broke in, demanding “Are you one of those groups that use police liaisons?” The call rapidly devolved into a theoretical discussion on whether interacting with police was akin to collusion with the enemy. No successful action was planned, and an urgently needed coalition quickly fell apart.
Then this past spring, due to COVID restrictions, and the machinations of a vicious, well-resourced boss enlisting a high-powered law firm to intimidate their workers, I watched a campaign I’d helped build from the ground up for over six months fall apart in six days. I hit a mental rock bottom and left my job with no clear plan for the future.
With two shots of Pfizer in me and a clear schedule for the first time in years, I was overwhelmed with possibilities. There were so many places I could go, but I felt a pull from outside, directing me to something that transcended my latest crossroads: a trip to Germany to visit the Heckers, something I had been yearning to do for years.
* * *
When some Jews arrive in Germany, their first act is to spit on the ground. Others weep, never having imagined they would safely return to the blood-soaked soil. For my own part, I had dreamed about traveling to the country for years, to hold my part in uncovering and continuing family history. In my childhood, there was inexplicable seductiveness to the trip. The promise of a triumphant return to the homeland of my ancestors went right along with the Zionist machismo taught to me in Hebrew school and summer camp. Since then, my perspective has deepened. And given the current moment of multiplying climate disasters and COVID variants, I certainly wasn’t planning on feeling any notion of victory when I arrived at the end of July 2021.
Becoming politicized in the United States amid the double helix of established neoliberalism and a creeping neofascism have made the banality of evil feel present and close—certainly not a distant past whose overcoming can now be celebrated. While waiting for my flight in the airport I found myself scrolling through the New York Times app, thumbing through a series of dystopian scenes: a 45-minute documentary on the U.S Capitol being stormed by armed white supremacists; a human-interest story detailing patients in a Louisiana hospital denying they have COVID with their last breaths; a series of photos capturing smoke-soaked sunsets from coast to coast.
I made the kind of noise you might make if you saw someone stealing your bike and they just got out of shouting distance—a sound of seething dismay and powerlessness, like a balloon leaking air. As much as these unique events disturbed me, so too did their mocking inevitability. I looked up as a family of five hustled to their terminal. An oversized mask slid off the face of the smallest child staring back at me, his body bouncing on the hip of his jogging mother. A recurring, unwelcome question intruded: Is it fair to bring a child into this literally diseased world?
* * *
After 13 hours of wearing a mask and losing a night’s sleep on a red-eye, I surfaced from the U-Bahn feeling dazed. I stumbled out into pearly sunlight and into the sounds and smells of a Turkish market. My suitcase rattled violently over cobblestones as I pushed my way through the ubiquitous haze of cigarette smoke and affectionate haggling. This was Berlin.
On my first night there I forced myself to stay awake to beat the jetlag. I joined my hosts, Emet and Avinoam (two friends of mine from different walks of life who happened to be dating) for a Shabbat dinner. The guests included two friends who grew up together in a Yazidi community in Iraq. Their town had been overrun by ISIS and so their families fled to Germany. Another friend, a young woman from Croatia, was responsible for caring for her younger siblings and aging grandmother because both her parents were targeted dissidents. And then there was Julie, a German-born Jew who grew up in a religious household and split time between their divorced parents, one of whom had moved to the states.
We sat in the dim courtyard behind the apartment, in mismatched chairs whose wooden legs sunk into the damp soil. We were perched around two different sized tables, each overflowing with homemade challah and wine cups, various dips and oils, and a huge silver platter holding lamb tripe stuffed with tomatoes and rice. As the night went on we sang niguns (wordless Jewish spirituals) and learned about the lineage rituals of Yazidi priests. While throwing back shots of Raki, an anise-flavored liquor, we argued about love and whether it is something better chased or passively pursued.
At one point one of Emet and Avinoam’s friends from Iraq turned to me and took a long drag of his cigarette, its reddish glow winking at me mischievously. With smoke billowing from his nostrils, he asked why I had come to Berlin. I felt shy, unsure how the nakedness of my privileged return would land with people who were currently living in exile from their homelands. But the rest of the table nodded along with surprising enthusiasm and interest.
I explained that both my grandparents fled the Third Reich by way of Ecuador to New York City. My grandmother, Sophie Hutzler, and her family were aided in their escape from a tiny town in the east by their Christian neighbors, the Heckers. Over the years my grandmother had stayed in touch with the Heckers. My father visited them in 1976 under what was the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and after the wall fell, they came to New York in 1992, one of their few trips outside of Germany. Now it was my turn. I wanted to know what they knew about my family. To hear about their legacy of courage. To understand why their ancestors chose to risk so much for my grandmother and her family.
Toward the end of the night, still huddled around the tables, loosened by wine and fatigue, and feeling emboldened by the safe privacy of the bluish-black sky, I surprised myself by asking Julie if they would consider joining Emet, Avinoam, and me on our trip to visit the Heckers in my grandmother’s hometown in the east. The question hung in the air. Julie’s face, framed like a stage with open curtains—black wavy hair falling symmetrically on each side and with short, straight bangs across the top—betrayed a mix of skepticism and intrigue. “Are you sure you all want to spend three days with me?” they teased.
* * *
The next morning we picked Julie up in our rental car, a Ford Focus that felt European. It was smooth and sleek and quiet, and we set course in it, due east to Beierfeld. The drive took longer than expected and major traffic forced us off the main autobahn route and onto smaller country roads. We sailed through small Saxon towns with colorful homes nestled on green hills, often with one large, white church sitting like a crown at the highest point of elevation. Here there were no signs in English and as we approached Beierfeld our conversation slipped into a nervous restraint.
When we were less than ten minutes away Julie dialed Frank Hecker’s number. I had only heard them speak in English and their perfect German jolted me into realizing that we were no longer in a multinational city that could in some ways be anywhere in Europe. We were in Germany, driving into the very same hills that my grandmother used to climb a century earlier. My mind shot to the stories of her cross-country skiing across the mountains on the border of what was then Czechoslovakia. She’d make the trip with bands of cash packed between her winter layers, bringing them to an apartment she shared with her first husband in Prague. I was to later learn that, while my grandmother returned to Germany in the 1990s, she could never bring herself to visit her hometown of Beierfeld. I wondered if she had moved past some of these very trees as she fled in 1938, moving swiftly, quietly as she could, in the opposite direction that we moved now.
After a half dozen more switchbacks snaking through a forested corridor, we emerged at the top of the town. Halfway down a steep hill framed by cobblestone sidewalks there stood Frank, squinting at every passing car. He was tall, with a kind, leathery face and light feathered hair. As we pulled toward him I rolled down the window and waved my hand. He brightened, returning a hand signal and motioning where to park.
When I stepped out of the car Frank beamed back at me, his hands wandering at his sides, unsure what to do with themselves. He went in for a firm handshake, but I went for a hug. Our bodies met somewhere in between, our hands intertwined and our chests pressed together like a tortured statue. We broke apart and, after a beat, Frank spoke. I was startled by how unintelligible his words were to me. His accent was strong, in a somehow familiar Saxon dialectic, softer and more slurred than the harsher consonants I heard in Berlin. I realized that it reminded me of my father’s German, the handful of sing-songy proverbs and truisms he would always repeat to me as a kid. I turned to Julie, hapless and embarrassed. They smiled warmly and pointed up the hill behind us: “The house is just up this way.”
To the right of the tight entryway was a modest kitchen. On the table, which took up half of the room, we were greeted by a vibrant spread of berries, cherries, slices of watermelon dotted with shiny black seeds, slippery olives, gold and red cherry tomatoes, coins of Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced bell peppers, and an elegant assortment of deli meat and cheese sandwiches. Annette, Frank’s wife, broke our temporary stunned silence. “Kaffee?” she asked, expectantly.
I had prepared for this moment for weeks, but I found myself shaky. My heart quickened and my voice quivered, searching for where to start. Thankfully my entourage stepped in, with Emet helping to facilitate the conversation. We learned that Frank and Annette had met in the former GDR in their early twenties and had lived their entire lives in Beierfeld. They had left Germany only a handful of times, including their trip to New York City in 1992.
Each question and answer had to be translated by Julie from English to German and vice versa. I was moved by their gentle meticulousness. Any off-hand comment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, Julie translated, and not simply the meaning, but the tone, the untranslatable idioms, the subtle humor.
Frank relied not only on the oral history passed down by his family but research from a local historian. Putting on glasses with small rectangular frames, he read from pages printed from a website with a dated, maroon border. He explained that my great-grandparents, the Hutzler’s, were the industrialists of the small town of Beierfeld, owning a small metalworks factory that seemed to employ most people in town. When the SS came to deport my family, the town rallied around them. The mayor was able to cut a deal with the Nazi state—they would seize the Hutzler factory and home, but let the family leave Germany.
It wasn’t that the story I knew about my grandmother changed significantly, but that the fuzzy details around her and her family’s escape came into clearer focus. Frank pulled out large mud-red envelopes, which had “Hutzler” printed on the front in large black letters matted on a teal background, the color of the Statue of Liberty. With delicate precision, he opened the envelope to reveal photos of my grandmother.
My eyes widened. I had never seen photos of her so young before. In one she is beaming directly at the camera, in another her arm is wrapped around the shoulder of her Christian friend and housemaid Paula. I would learn that it was Paula who talked to the SS when they came knocking during Kristallnacht after my family had already been ushered out of the house for their own safety. The images were all from 1933 when my grandmother was just 17-years old. Frank explained that they were likely found by his grandparents after the Hutzler’s fled. In preparation for my trip, he had combed through his late father’s documents in the attic and discovered the photos.
I sat, overwhelmed by an awesome cocktail of melancholy and euphoria. It dawned on me that nothing I was experiencing or learning on this trip was inevitable. The facts weren’t just “out there,” waiting to be uncovered like ancient artifacts. The conversations we were having, the piecing together of bits and anecdotes, was a process of co-creation, of actively building history. That if I had not made the choice to come to Germany, these photos would still be lying dormant in the attic, perhaps never to be seen again.
I looked down at the black and white pictures, gleaming like rectangular portals. With wet eyes and shaky hands, I took out my phone to take my first snapshot. Watching me, Frank pushed the selected picture toward me. In English, he said softly, “For you.” Maybe I should have expected his response but I was moved by the trans-generational kindness all the same. A feeling of profound smallness crept over me. I felt like a leaf being whisked down a winding river that began long before me.
Frank took out one more set of photographs. Julie translated for him, “These are,” they hesitated, “not so nice.” At a glance, the gray images appeared unremarkable. They showed my grandmother’s serene, sun-lit home. But looking closer, I could see the shattered windows, their jagged blackness mixing with the shadows cast by the building across the street.
For a moment, I said nothing. Then I asked Frank, “Why did your grandparents choose to help? Why did they risk so much to do the right thing?” Frank thought for a moment. I had been subconsciously rehearsing on his behalf what he might say: That courage is unknowable; that his grandparents were heroes, people of unbreakable character who stood by Jews in the face of impossible danger; that he tries to live in their image every day.
But this is not what Frank said. He instead asked his own question. “What would you do?”
Frank reminded me the Heckers and Hutzlers (my grandmother’s family), were next-door neighbors for many years. Both our grandparents were the same age and were close friends. My family was well-liked in the town. Yes, Frank’s ancestors took a great risk supporting mine. Dissidents of any kind were routinely arrested or worse. But their solidarity didn’t amount to a superhuman act of courage or martyrdom. That solidarity, in fact, was somewhat ordinary, as were its motivations of everyday loyalty, camaraderie, friendship, or love. Their goodness was the kind of goodness many could find themselves embodying, neither pure altruism nor crude self-interest. Their risk wasn’t carefully calculated based on abstract principle—from what Frank described it did not even sound like a choice. Instead, something was drawn out of them by the simple strength of their relationship. It was a goodness at once beautiful and banal.
* * *
Later that evening I called my dad from the hotel to fill him in on the trip. His voice through facetime audio sounded startlingly present, as if he were next to me. As I explained what I had learned, new details and stories that had been tucked away came spilling out from him. He told me that when my grandmother first met my grandfather she didn’t want to have children.
I was caught off guard by this revelation. As the call ended, I released the tears I had been holding back. I cried like I haven’t in years. I thought of what it must have been like for my grandmother in 1946. Of course, it made sense that after witnessing and surviving the Holocaust my grandmother would be hesitant to bring children into the world. And it must have been impossible for her to imagine that less than a century later her grandchild would not only return to her childhood home but be welcomed with open arms.
The thought hinted at an antidote to a year of harrowing news, unsuccessful campaigns, and growing isolation and distrust. I had been at risk of falling prey to a dangerous insularity overtaking much of the left, a current that carries an implicit assumption that most people are bad and that it is only the righteous few who are good. It is so easy to be caught in a Twitter doom scroll, in rage and terror towards those who don’t already think like us. As others like adrienne maree brown, Jonathan Matthew Smucker, and Alicia Garza have argued, that mindset not only proves psychologically unsustainable but strategically self-destructive for those of us trying to organize for a better world.
My trip to Germany helped me realize that the existential fear and grief I have been experiencing is not unique or unprecedented, and in so doing helped me release some of it. But my experience also imbued in me a newfound sense of awe. It struck me that it wasn’t my ancestor’s relative wealth or special skills that saved them, but the strength of their relationships with the people around them. I reflected that at my lowest points that spring—stuck hopelessly behind a computer screen as the boss was swiftly crushing our union drive while smoke from fires 3,000 miles away brushed the skies an eerie charcoal gray—the future seemed like a hellscape. But I could go to hell and back with the right people. My grandmother did just that. I felt a sort of clarity: despite it all, I was so grateful my grandmother gave me the chance to be on this earth.
As I wept alone in my hotel room near the Czech border I closed in on a set of questions, brought on by my proximity to the simple dignity and integrity of the Heckers: What good already surrounded me? What future good could I not yet imagine, but would emerge amongst all the destruction in the world? And what can I do to ensure a future where that good is nurtured and allowed to thrive?
Miles Meth is a queer Jewish organizer, facilitator, and writer who volunteers with social movements for immigration justice and works as a professional union organizer.