When I was 20 years old, I crammed my most valued possessions into a big purple backpack and moved to Prague. This was in the mid-1990s, when the city was buzzing with American expats—writers, artists, musicians, bohemians—searching for the modern-day equivalent of Hemingway's Paris. The city's gothic, winding, Escher-like streets were bustling with energy, but when it came to Jewish life, the city was a ghost town. Late at night I would walk through the vacant Jewish quarter, with its many moss-covered tombstones shrouded in fog, and I would feel like the last Jew alive.
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One evening, I wandered into a dimly lit antiques shop behind Prague Castle and found a tray stacked with gold and silver rings bearing family crests. "What are these?" I asked the storekeeper.
"They are old family rings," she told me.
"Where did they come from?" I asked.
"From Jewish families," she answered curtly.
Eventually, as my loneliness and alienation mounted, I called my great-uncle back in the States and asked if we had any relatives left in Eastern Europe. "No," he said. "They all perished at the hands of the Nazis."
At that moment, and for a number of years afterward, I hated all things German. And so it came as quite a shock when I discovered, several months ago, that I might have relatives in the Old World—blond-haired, blue-eyed, gentile relatives in Germany.
This information came from my mother's cousin, a devoted genealogist, who had learned about a large clan in Germany named Plitt. This was news to me, even though my mother's maiden name is Plitt, and my full name is Jacob Plitt Halpern. Apparently, this clan even had its own Web site, which traced the family's roots back to one Jacob Plitt, who was recorded in 1560 as paying taxes in the mountain town of Biedenkopf in the state of Hesse.
As last names go, Plitt is pretty unusual: according to the U.S. census, it ranks 28,422th in this country—well behind Jagodzinski, Przybylski, Berkebile and Heatwole. I had never known a Plitt outside my immediate family, but on the German Plitts' Web site I discovered that they held a family reunion every couple of years. Typically these gatherings are held in Germany, but the next one, I saw, was to be held in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. A posting on the Web site noted that there would be special events featuring the Jewish side of the Plitt family.
In the coming weeks, I passed this information along to the other Plitts in my family. They took it tepidly. No one seemed excited by the prospect that our family tree might include a few gray-haired former Nazis who had been "rehabilitated" into Mercedes assembly-line managers. Yet, as much as I bristled at the thought of being related to this tribe of Germans, the thought of not attending seemed neurotic and provincial. Ultimately, I shamed myself into going. I even browbeat my mother and younger brother into going with me.