I recently received an email from a woman I do not know. But her out-of-the-blue communication connected me to the past and my family history with a jolt. A positive jolt. But a jolt nonetheless.
Christiana’s introductory words included two names, Lotte Schwarz and Hotel Comi in Zurich, Switzerland. I recognized both immediately. I thought, “OMG!” so loud I probably roused my father from his 19 year permanent nap and my mother from her four year one. Hotel Comi was where my father lived after he escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. Lotte Schwarz, a friend of my father, also resided there.
Lotte, according to Christiana, had begun writing a novel based on those times. She, however, hadn’t completed the book before her death decades ago, so Christiana, a historian, did what research she could and recently finished and published it. The book is Die Brille des Nissim Nachtgeist which means The Glasses of Nissim Nachtgeist. That oddly named character is my father. Nissim Nachtgeist was, I learned, a nickname, a pen name, and an alias of Dad’s during those years. “Nissim” is Hebrew for “miracle;” Dad may have known that and that may have played a part in the selection of that name. But I assume Dad picked it because it is a twisted version of Nussbaum. “Nachtgeist” roughly means night spirit, which could be a ghost or phantom. Christiana also informed me that my mother, too, is a character in the book.
Dad did not talk about his past a lot and I sensed as a young child not to ask more than he was willing to share; I understood, even then, there was pain and trauma involved in the life he left in Germany. What I did know was that he was born a few years prior to World War I and grew up in a small mountain town, Ellrich, in which the Nussbaums were one of two Jewish families. My grandfather was a businessman with connections to local politicians and this had been advantageous as Dad, as a young man, had gotten in trouble with the law on several occasions. His crime? Challenging the growing Nazi presence between the world wars. The local politicians interceded and dad got a pass.
I also knew Dad had attended several universities in Germany —that was the norm then, to attend more than one school to be exposed to different viewpoints and philosophies — on his way to acquiring a degree in German corporate law. But while a student, Dad wrote letters to cousins in Sweden condemning Hitler and the Nazis. The letters were confiscated at the border and Dad was arrested and jailed. This time the connections with Ellrich powerbrokers, it seemed, were of no use. He spent October through December 1933 in an early form of concentration camp. Surprisingly, he and many other political prisoners or dissidents—very few were Jews— were released in a Christmas Eve propaganda ploy. At first Dad thought all the prisoners had been released, but later learned only some had and wondered why he was one. Once home, Dad was informed he was to pack and leave town immediately. This caused him to suspect a deal had been made. Perhaps my grandfather had begged the local politicians to pay off the Nazis, buying Dad’s freedom, and they agreed provided he would leave the mountain village and cease his embarrassing, problematic activism. He fled to Hanover and relatives, and he never went back to Ellrich. He continued his studies, moving from college town to college town and in early 1937, as conditions in Nazi Germany worsened, Dad fled to allegedly neutral, safe, and welcoming Switzerland. He continued his education in Zurich where he studied Swiss corporate law and earned a PhD comparing it to the German system. My father technically then was Dr. Nussbaum.
I also knew that while in Zurich Dad was a man without a country; he could not return to Germany and he could not become a Swiss citizen. He lived a life in limbo, needing permission from the Swiss government for any work he did or pay he received. I also knew that Dad dabbled on the edges of show business as a film critic, comedy and political satire writer, and event emcee. He may have also performed on stage. Dad, I recall, often told tales of actors, artists, and writers with whom he shared life at the Hotel Comi and others with whom he socialized. Christiane has reminded of these names and taught me details I did not know. For example, I have learned the Swiss government did not regard my father fondly; because he was intelligent, articulate, and a law student and writer, they feared he would expose its questionable treatment of émigrés like himself. As a result, deportation back to Germany was a constant possibility. This may explain the creation of an alter-ego; as Nissim Nachtgeist Dad could hide in plain sight. Dad was, in fact, involved in a pending hearing as an opportunity for my parents to emigrate to America arose. It was resolved just before they left. Whether this was a legitimate resolution or “coincidence” will remain unanswered.
I look forward to learning more about my father as I read about Nissim Nachtgeist. The book is in German, which is problematic, and I will have to rely on my meager knowledge of the language, translation apps, and the kindness of German speaking friends and locals. But, bottom line, I will discover who Dad was before history, life, fate, and my complicated mother changed him.