Heinz and Manfred Mayer spend their childhood in Hoffenheim, Germany, near Heidelberg, until the Nazis, under the local leadership of a man named Hopps, expels them from their house and starts them on a journey that will lead their parents to Auschwitz, Heinz to Palestine/Israel and Manfred to UCLA.
The brothers led very different lives, and had no contact with each other, although they were apparently aware of where they each were living. Manfred (now Fred), the older of the two, had kept the letters their mother had sent them from the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy France (before their transfer to the death camp), but was downsizing and asked his brother, Heinz (now Menachem), if he wanted them. This led to their first correspondence in almost 60 years, to their collaboration on a book based on the old letters, and finally to this documentary, where they not only met for the first time since the mid 1940s, but traveled to their hometown, to Gurs, to the orphanage where they were sent from Gurs, and finally so Auschwitz. Then, they brought their entire families from Israel and the United States to Germany sponsored, believe it or not, by the sons of the the very Hopps who evicted them from their family home in 1938.
The movie is called ‘Menachem and Fred’, directed by two Israeli film makers, and is moving, instructive and well worth watching. The DC premier was held last night at the DC JCC before a large and responsive crowd, who first heard a wonderful presentation by a representative of the Germany embassy and by a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum researcher.
The brothers’ reunion was very emotional, but they did not seem to be ready to be best friends. They still have resentment against each other. Their mother told Manfred to take care of Heinz. When Manfred, then in France, had the opportunity to come to the United States in 1946 (at age 16), Heinz (at age 13) then in Switzerland said that he did not want to, that he wanted to go to Palestine. Manfred said “OK”, and left his 13 year old brother in Europe. Clearly, this bred guilt, and resentment, and confusion.
Heinz, now an Israeli professor, living in Jerusalem, is leading a fairly religious life, and his two children and their families are West Bank patriots, still fighting a war. Fred, a retired space engineer, also has two children, each of whom has left Judaism and embraced Christianity (having married Christian spouses).
In one sense, both Fred and Menachem have made a success of their lives; in another sense, their lives seem confused and empty. I would not want to change places with any of them, at any generational level. The movie ends with: what would have happened to these brothers if Nazism never had occurred? And concludes with: you can’t answer such a question. That’s true, but it is interesting to think how different their lives would have been, but also to wonder if their personalities and peculiarities would have been any different at all.