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Chicago author’s new memoir tells her story of falling in love with a Jewish man in post-war Germany

A true tale of divorce, shifting identities and an unlikely romance spanning decades, generations and the Nazi regime

Annette Gendler image
Chicago author Annette Gendler

When Annette Gendler went to a friend's garden party in Munich in 1985, romance was the furthest thing from her mind.

The daughter of a German father and American mother who grew up in post-war Germany, she had no way of knowing the man seated next to her would not only become her husband-but by marrying him she would change the course of her life forever.

Jumping Over Shadows by the Chicago-based Gendler (She Writes Press) is her forbidden love story, woven together with her family's untold Jewish history.

"I always thought I knew the story of my family's past but it wasn't until I took a trip in 2002 to my grandparents' hometown of Reichenberg, the predominately German speaking region of Czechoslovakia, that I felt a lot of undercurrents," said Gendler.

It was there in Reichenberg where the town's synagogue was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) -- and where both her grandparents' house and the Café Post, a favorite meeting spot for her great-uncle and grandfather in the 1920s, still stand -- that she could almost feel their presence.

"I even called my aunt Herta [her great-uncle's daughter] while sitting at the cafe to say, 'Guess where I am?' And she surprised me by saying, 'Yes, my dad went there a lot until he couldn't go there anymore,'" said Gendler.

That got Gendler's wheels turning. As a non-Jew whose family, as far as she knew, also wasn't Jewish, she started digging deeper into her family's history.

By combing through history books and her grandfather's memoir, typed on a stack of onion-skin paper, she began to connect the dots.What she found was that, in the 1920s, her grandfather's sister, Gendler's great aunt Resi, married a Jewish man named Guido and they had two children, including Herta.

Soon after the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws in 1935, which stripped Jews of their rights, Resi and Guido divorced, but her grandparents continued to visit him in the sanatorium where he lived until his death because of ill health.

Whether the divorce was because of a true dissolution of a marriage or because Guido was Jewish will never be known for sure, but Gendler was able to find out that while Resi was classified an Aryan, her children would have been considered non-Aryan or half-Jewish, a classification which often led to being sent to forced labor camps.

By divorcing her Jewish husband, Resi was able to take over his business, support her children, and protect them from danger, according to Gendler.  As Gendler dug deeper she found more secrets, such as a potential reason for her great-grandfather's suicide in 1938. (You'll have to read the book to find out.)

In an ironic twist, nearly 40 years later, Gendler herself marries a Jew -- the Jewish man seated next to her at the party, Harry Gendler, and eventually takes on the full mantle of Judaism herself.

"My growing up in post-war Germany and deciding to become a Jew was a pretty outlandish thing to do. The Jewish community back then (in Munich) was very small, only around 5 thousand people in a city of 1.5 million. Harry was the first Jew I ever met. That we met was a needle in a haystack," she said.

In fact, theirs was an illicit love story. Growing up the child of Holocaust survivors in a very tight-knit Jewish community, for the three years that they dated, Harry had to hide Annette from his parents.

When the young couple finally decided to commit to each other publicly -- the full story of their romance is chronicled in the book -- her family's hidden feelings about being connected to a Jewish family emerged.

"There were a lot of things my grandmother never said to me. She never said, 'you shouldn't marry a Jew,' but the burden of that history was palpable," recalled Gendler. (This is the same grandmother who was devoted to her Jewish brother-in-law, Guido.)

Gendler had an Orthodox conversion at the time of her marriage and then the couple moved to Chicago in the late 1980s for Annette to attend the University of Chicago. They've stayed ever since, raising their family in Hyde Park and sending their children to Jewish day school. One child served in the Israel Defense Forces and another is serving now.

Writing Jumping Over Shadows, which all together took a decade, offers a deep sense of closure to Gendler.

"It feels really good to have put the past in order," she said. "There's a great sense of purpose in knowing about the experiences that shaped those who came before me because it shapes who I am. Their lives definitely frame how I go about my daily life." 

Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor.

"There's a great sense of purpose in knowing about the experiences that shaped those who came before me because it shapes who I am."

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