IGCS Event: Esther Dischereit


Esther Dischereit: Wer war Fritz Kittel?

Tuesday, September 19, 2023 in Ithaca, New York

On September 19, the Institute for German Cultural German Studies, together with the Department of German Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at Cornell had the pleasure of hosting the renowned German-Jewish author and public intellectual Esther Dischereit for a reading of texts from her latest project, the exhibition Wer war Fritz Kittel?

During the Nazi era, Esther’s mother, Hella, and her sister, Hannelore, were persecuted as Jewish women in Berlin and had to flee to Sorau in 1943. There, they encountered Fritz Kittel, a simple railroad worker for the Deutsche Reichsbahn. It remains unclear how they met or why they knew each other. However, when Fritz Kittel was relocated to Herring, he brought Hella and Hannelore with him, falsifying documents and registering Hella and Hannelore as his Protestant wife and daughter. They remained there until their liberation by the US forces on April 1, 1945. After the war, Fritz Kittel and Hella with Hannelore went their separate ways, never to see each other again. The women moved to Marburg, Heppenheim (part of the Jewish community in Bensheim), and later to Darmstadt, while Kittel established himself permanently and started a family in Heringen. Only a few years ago, when Esther Dischereit finally tracked down and decided to contact Fritz Kittel’s family, did she learn that he had never told them about his heroic actions.

In collaboration with Susanne Kill, historian of the Deutsche Bahn, Esther Dischereit conceived a traveling exhibition that focuses on the story of Hella and Hannelore’s salvation by Fritz Kittel, which was to be presented with documents such as the forged papers that enabled their survival, 17 literary pieces written by Dischereit, and documentary films. The multimedia exhibition also delves into the motives behind Kittel’s deed and addresses the role of the Deutsche Reichsbahn under National Socialism. It is complemented by documents and biographies of Jewish Reichsbahn employees Franz Bergmann and Paul Levy, Reichsbahn engineers and directors, who were deported and murdered, and Ludwig Homberger, the Reichsbahn's chief financial officer who managed to escape into emigration.

In the intimate atmosphere of the English department lounge, Esther Dischereit and Kizer Walker read translated excerpts from her texts that make up the exhibition. Walker read parts of the narrative that were told from her perspective, while Dischereit read the portions that narrated the reconstruction of Fritz Kittel’s actions. At the end of the session, after a brief spontaneous moment of silence that helped the audience to reflect on and digest the powerful story they had just heard, an intense conversation ensued.

Dischereit was asked whether the number of texts that she had written (17) was related to the number’s significance in the Kabbalah. She answered that this was not the case. Another question concerned her and her family’s relation to Buchenwald, which she had mentioned in passing during her presentation of the story. Moreover, what is the role of family in this story? What is the relationship between the Jewish and the Protestant notion of family? Between Kittel’s “false” and his “real” family? Between the knowing and the unknowing family? One of the most interesting and impenetrable aspects of Dischereit’s texts concerns Fritz Kittel’s motives. Dischereit emphazised that in all her inquiries, she had not discovered any ulterior motives, say, of a monetary or sexual kind. It was precisely this insight that ultimately led to Dischereit’s ruminations on moral responsibility and her reappraisal of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the resistance to evil.

Considering the intense debate that the story of Fritz Kittel triggered, it was no surprise that many audience members expressed a strong desire for seeing Kill and Dischereit’s exhibition on Kittel as well as the hope that it might make it across the Atlantic one of these days.

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Esther Dischereit presenting in front of audience
Photo credit: Nicolau Spadoni