So one morning not long ago, I found myself in a conference room at the Rockville Hilton with two dozen putative relatives, listening to a woman named Irmgard Schwarz talk about the estimable history of the Plitts. Irmgard, one of a half-dozen German Plitts who had traveled to Maryland for the reunion, is the keeper of a massive tome that traces the family's lineage in meticulous detail back to the early days of the Renaissance. That rich a genealogy is highly unusual in Germany, where a number of armed conflicts, such as the Thirty Years' War (1618-48), destroyed many tax records and church archives.
Throughout the morning, Irmgard helped a number of American Plitts figure out how they were related, but there were a handful of attendees who had found no connection to the original Biedenkopf clan. Some of them were Jews who traced their origins to Bessarabia, or modern-day Moldova. Their ranks included an architect named Joel Plitt, an author named Jane Plitt and my mother, brother and me. We jokingly called ourselves the Lost Tribe of Plitt, and as the four-day gathering progressed, the mystery surrounding us seemed only to grow. "I hold on to the belief that there is a connection between the families," one of the gentile Plitts told me over lunch. "But it's just a feeling."
Until recently, the German Plitts had had no idea any Jews shared their last name. In 2002, at the previous international Plitt reunion in Maryland, Jane Plitt became the first Jew to attend—only she didn't tell anyone that she was Jewish. "I was totally intimidated," Jane told me at the Rockville Hilton. One Plitt, she said, "asked me five times what church I attended. I never told him. I was very adept at changing the conversation." But Jane also befriended Irmgard at the 2002 reunion and, weeks later, broke the news to Irmgard in an e-mail.
Jane couldn't have picked a better confidante. "When I was 14 or 15 I began reading all of these books about Jews, and I built up a small library on Judaism," Irmgard later told me. "Very often, during this time I thought, I would like to be Jewish! Which is silly, because if I were Jewish, my family wouldn't have survived the war."
According to Irmgard, who was born in 1947, Germans still weren't talking much about the Holocaust when she came of age in the early 1960s. Her interest in this dark chapter of history was unusual, and she says that it became an "obsession." Many times, she said, she questioned her own parents about how they had spent those years, and she never accepted their claims that they had been powerless to challenge the edicts of the state. As an adult, she made five trips to Israel, and she entertained the fantasy that her son would marry a Jewish woman and provide her with Jewish grandchildren.
At the 2003 Plitt reunion, which was held at an ancient German monastery in Eltville, Irmgard stood up and announced, matter-of-factly, that there were Jews in the family. She even suggested that the entire family might originally have been Jewish. She left unmentioned the possibility that the Jewish and gentile Plitts were unrelated. On some level, Irmgard says, her intent was to rattle some of the older and more conservative family members. This she did.
"People were shocked," recalls Brian Plitt, a gentile Plitt from Washington, D.C. "You could see it on their faces—they were like, Holy Moly! There were some older people there who were in their 80s, and you could just see them shaking their heads: no, no, no."
In 2005, Jane Plitt went to Germany for that year's reunion. At the banquet that marked the high point of the gathering, the German Plitts chanted the Hebrew song "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem," whose ancient lyrics go: "We bring peace, peace, peace upon you." Jane was both surprised and moved. "I guess they had time for the idea to sink in," she told me.
By the time we Plitts had gathered in Rockville, any communal shock seemed to have subsided and been replaced by a pressing curiosity: Were we really related? And if so, how?
During a seminar devoted to those questions, Jane and Irmgard offered two possibilities. The first, dubbed the "romantic theory," proposed that a young gentile Plitt had departed Biedenkopf, married a Jewish woman in Bessarabia and converted to her faith. The second, the "practical theory," held that the family's patriarch, Jacob Plitt, had converted from Judaism to Christianity or descended from someone who had.