Survival and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Last month I received two letters that brought back memories of a love story with the Holocaust as background but, for once, not with a tragic ending.

A resting motorcyclist above the three Lakes Gosauer in Austria around 1935. Imagno/Getty Images.

A resting motorcyclist above the three Lakes Gosauer in Austria around 1935. Imagno/Getty Images.

Observation
Dec. 8 2016
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, was released in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.


Last month I received two letters from a person previously unknown to me that brought back memories of a distant past. Concerning the fate of a motorcycle, the letters evoked a heartwarming love story with the Holocaust as background but, for once, not with a tragic ending.

The story begins in Breslau in the year 1938. Earlier that year, as one in a tiny group of “non-Aryans” who had somehow been overlooked by the authorities, I graduated at the age of seventeen from a German—and, by that time, wholly Nazified—gymnasium. It was the last season of peace in Europe. Even at my tender age, it was clear to me that war was coming and that I must leave the country of my birth as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, emigration to foreign countries had become virtually impossible unless one possessed a great deal of money and knew a way out of Germany. Lacking those assets, I found myself working in a Silesian textile factory in the city of Reichenbach (known today as Dzierżoniów, Poland). The factory belonged to a Jew. My work, which of course led nowhere, lasted for about three months until the local authorities discovered my ethnic-religious-racial origins and insisted that I leave the premises within the hour.

These months had in any case hardly been the happiest of my life. There were many indications that great trouble was ahead and that Jews would be in the greatest possible danger—and here I was, trapped. But there had also been a few redeeming factors. For one thing, I was able to see at least a dozen French movies, then still being shown even in small German cities. For another and much more rewarding thing, I was able to join my friend Wolfgang Neisser, who worked in a nearby textile factory, on nightly motorcycle trips through our immediate environs.

Wolf was about eight years older than I, but we had belonged to the same Jewish youth movement and he probably regarded me as something of a younger brother, a brother equipped with strong opinions but very limited life experience. For miles around, the two of us were the only ones of our generation and of similar background.

The area around Reichenbach, the Eulengebirge (Owl Mountains; in Polish, Góry Sowie), held many attractions, historical and otherwise. It had been one of the early centers of the German textile industry, and the weavers employed in that industry had been very much exploited, resulting in frequent uprisings. Heinrich Heine had written a poem about the dismal labor conditions; the weavers’ plight had also been the subject of a play by Gerhard Hauptmann that helped him win a Nobel Prize.

By the time of our nightly excursions, the surrounding villages had lost their formerly miserable look, although they were still far from affluent. The landscape was hilly and dotted with many forests—and of course there were the mountains, the highest of which, Hohe Eule, rose to over 3,000 feet. Of traffic there was virtually none. What with the plentiful deer visible from the roadside, the hooting of distant owls, the clear skies, the brilliant stars, and the enlivening fragrance of trees and vegetation—I had always been a great lover of forests—ours was an adventure of a lifetime.

What do I remember about the motorcycle and its owner? If I had to guess, I’d have ventured it was probably a Zuendapp or another of the many brands produced at the time in Germany. It was black in color and had a powerful engine, though I’m not sure I ever knew one all-important statistic for bikers: the engine’s exact size or cubic centimeters of displacement.

We rode along a big reservoir and through the deserted centers of villages where the fabled vixen Kunigunde and other denizens of medieval horror stories resided. We visited Schweidnitz (now Świdnica), a town where both of our families had lived before moving to Breslau. Wolf’s extended clan was well-known there, the Villa Neisser being one of the local sights and a half-dozen prominent physicians bearing the family name being still in residence. One of them, Walter Neisser, was world famous for, among other things, having discovered the bacterium that causes gonorrhea.

During those early spring nights of 1938, Wolfgang and I became fast friends. But in May he suddenly disappeared. At the time, this was a not infrequent occurrence, especially in the case of young people obsessed with leaving the country as soon as possible. Opportunities usually arose without advance notice and vanished just as quickly.

I knew that Wolfgang was planning to emigrate to Latin America together with his girlfriend Eva Berwin from Breslau, whom he had been dating for some time. But whether he managed to escape in time, or to take with him the girl he loved—of this I had no idea. All of us were deeply depressed and preoccupied with our own situations and prospects. After a few weeks, I almost forgot about Wolfgang and his motorcycle.

Then my own prospects suddenly changed for the better. After the economic crisis of 1929, followed by the Nazis’ boycott and oppression of Jews, my immediate family had become quite poor. In this situation my mother showed greater initiative than I by turning to her younger brother for help.

A physician practicing in another German town, and a bachelor, my Uncle Curt happened to be languishing in prison for the mistake—by now, a major crime—of bedding his Aryan office manager. The lady in question had tried to blackmail him; having failed, she then denounced him to the Gestapo.

Luckily, the presiding judge in the case turned out to be a gentleman of the old school who especially disliked blackmail. Uncle Curt, a highly decorated officer in World War I, was given the minimum sentence, and retained the right to dispose of his property while in prison. My mother asked him to give or lend us the money that would allow me to apply for study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he willingly complied.

I left the country on November 8, the day before Kristallnacht. Neither of my parents survived.

 

In later years, memories of those nightly excursions in the Eule Mountains returned, and I often asked myself what had become of my friend Wolfgang. In those pre-Internet days, I could find no information of his whereabouts, or his fate. But in a memoir of my “journeying years” titled Thursday’s Child Has Far to Go (1992), I had occasion to mention the great joy of our nocturnal wanderings, and a few months later I received a letter from Eva Berwin-Neisser, a travel agent in Vineland, New Jersey. She wanted me to know that my friend Wolf, her late husband, had indeed made it to Peru, and eventually to the United States.

This was indeed great news; but only recently, thanks to the letters I mentioned at the outset of this reminiscence, have I learned the whole story. The letters were from Wolf and Eva’s son. His mother, he informed me, died a month earlier, but his parents had talked frequently about Wolf’s young friend in Reichenbach who had become a historian, and he thought I’d be interested in some pertinent details.

It seems that Wolf and Eva became engaged at the main railway station of our hometown in Breslau before he departed for Peru. Eva’s own family managed to leave soon afterward for what was then Palestine, and thereafter migrated to the United States. For the duration of World War II, there was no way for the two of them to join. But in 1941 they became married by proxy through the American consulate in Lima, Peru, and at war’s end they finally succeeded in beginning their married life together, first in Peru and later in the U.S.

As for the motorcycle, miraculously it, too, had survived—all the way from Reichenbach and Breslau, through Peru, eventually to its new home in New Jersey. And now from my friend’s son I also learned its true maker: DKW, at the time the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles; after the war, its design drawings went to Harley Davidson.

Without any doubt, Wolfgang must have had an unconquerable attachment to that machine; transporting it over the continents and the seas would have cost him a fortune. But, as I said at the start, this is a Holocaust story with, for once, not a tragic ending.

More about: History & Ideas, Holocaust, Nazis, Poland, World War II