Cover Story

Holocaust Survivor Kurt Mayer’s Family—and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers—Adds Uniquely Insightful, Emotional Elements to PLU Group’s Study Away Program in Germany

By Sandy Deneau Dunham
ResoLUTE Editor
Kurt Mayer survived the Holocaust to become a fierce advocate for Holocaust education, and for the memory of those who did not survive. Even after his death in 2012, the man whose name informs one of PLU’s most distinguished programs remains an inspiration: for scholars, for students—and, perhaps most recently (and most poignantly), for a J-Term Study Away experience organized by Kirsten Christensen, Associate Professor of German and affiliated faculty in PLU’s new program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at PLU.

Christensen has led J-Term programs to Germany since 2006. Each year, the students explore many aspects of Germany’s past and present, including Jewish life and the Holocaust, all while staying with host families and speaking lots and lots of German.

As Christensen was planning this year’s program, though, Kurt Mayer came vividly to mind—and suddenly, “host family” took on a much deeper meaning.

About Kurt Mayer
Kurt Mayer was born Jan. 14, 1930, in Mainz, Germany, to Joe and Emmy Mayer. The family escaped to the United States during the Holocaust and settled in San Francisco.

“I thought, ‘I need to do a Kurt Mayer segment,’” Christensen said. “And I thought, ‘Why hadn’t I thought of that before, and why hadn’t I done that while he was alive?’”

Christensen had known Mayer personally—not well, she said, but very meaningfully, through her opportunity to work with him on the German translation of his memoir, My Personal Brush with History.

Christensen ran into Mayer’s son, Joe, at a Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education and asked whether members of his family might be willing to meet with the J-Term travelers before they left. When Joe’s sister, Natalie, a current student at PLU, heard of the program, she said, “We’ll go with you!”

“Suddenly we had the potential for a whole different encounter—for Kurt Mayer’s family to see students engaging with his life and the Holocaust and what he wrote, and for the students to learn more about Kurt through their interactions with his devoted family,” Christensen said.

And so on Jan. 2, Christensen and six PLU students—April Burns ’16, Natalie DeFord ’15, Lexi Jason ’18, Sophia Mahr ’18, Savannah Schneider ’15 and Frances Steelquist ’16—left for Germany. They were met later in the month in Mainz, where Kurt Mayer lived as a child with his parents, by three generations of Mayer’s family: his wife, Pam; his daughter, Natalie; and her son, Elliott. Together they spent a weekend visiting key places from Mayer’s childhood and, at each stop, pausing to read aloud relevant portions of his book.

It was an instructional and emotional experience—a series of them, actually, all marked by some rather remarkable coincidences. And through it all, the students kept a journal of their travels, their experiences and their insights.

“There is a 180-degree shift from learning about the Holocaust in a textbook to being in the places where it happened and hearing personal stories of suffering,” Mahr wrote. “I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could have personally met Kurt Mayer. However, meeting his wife, daughter and grandson was wonderful and inspiring. They are continuing his legacy and spreading his story. I did not realize how emotional and moving it would be to meet them and hear this story for myself.”

Here are the students’ reflections on each site, along with Mayer’s original writings that were read there.

Study Away Photo Contest

Check out the interactive map featuring the winners of PLU’s Wang Center for Global Education’s annual Study Away student photo contest.

Photo Contest


“My earliest recollection goes back to age six. My mother took me to my first day in school. We were no longer able to go to public school, so the rooms in the synagogue, which was two blocks from where we lived, were converted into classrooms. Our rabbi was head of the school. There were probably 10 or 12 children in my first- and second- grade classes. I only know of four including myself who survived.”

“The Mayers and our group attended a service at the Neue Synagogue,” Mahr said. “The original structure was bombed during Kristallnacht, where Nazis destroyed synagogues and other places that meant something to Jews across Germany. All that remains of the original synagogue is a beautiful arch. I think the renovation of the building was carefully thought out and holds a lot of meaning. Inscribed on the interior walls are prayer verses. Kurt Mayer ceremoniously helped lay the first of the new foundation.”

Christensen said the all-gold interior of the new synagogue is “very edgy and contemporary,” with acoustics so perfect, attendees were enveloped in sound the moment the rabbi began chanting.

(Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)The gold interior of the synagogue with prayer verses inscribed on the wall.+Enlarge Photo

Natalie Mayer Story and Video

The group’s time in Mainz was especially emotional for Kurt Mayer’s daughter, also a PLU student.

Read Story

At the synagogue’s Shabbat social hour, the group met with the head of the Jewish congregation in Mainz, who asked Natalie Mayer and Christensen to speak. Also in attendance was a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, which the group toured just a few days later.

“After the service, members of the community invited us to a reception in which Kurt Mayer was honored,” Mahr said. “I met a man, Adam, who was the sweetest. He was so willing to talk about his life experiences with us. When he was younger, he was not as fortunate as the Mayers and was sent to Sachsenhausen. I had never met a survivor of the Holocaust before Adam. The suffering that Adam had to go through because of his blood and beliefs is atrocious. It makes me very angry that anyone could hurt someone as nice as Adam.”

MainzThe Mayer Family’s First Apartment

“At the end of second grade, sometime in late 1937 or early 1938, my dad was suspicious of some kind of government action against Jews. We were living in an apartment house in Mainz and after I had finished the second grade, my folks decided to move to Wiesbaden.”

The next morning, the group visited the site of Mayer’s childhood home, which also was bombed in the war. A new home since has been built there, just a block from the synagogue, with the same house number.

(Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)From left to right: Kirsten Christensen, Lexi Jason, Pam Mayer, Frances Steelquist, Sophia Mahr and Natalie DeFord. The group is looking at the exterior of the apartment of Kurt's childhood neighbor, Helmut.+Enlarge Photo
“Early that morning, coincidences started happening,” Mahr said. “Natalie Mayer, Kurt’s daughter, told me that she knew her dad was with us, making things happen. At his childhood home, we were just looking at the exterior, as well as at the original outside of his childhood neighbor’s home, Helmut. We were under the impression that no one knew Kurt who lived there presently. However, a lovely woman popped her head out of one of the windows and joined in on the conversation. She turned out to be Helmut’s cousin’s wife!”

MainzApartment and Butcher Shop Owned by Mayer’s Grandmother

“The evening of my return to Wiesbaden is one of the most memorable of my early childhood. My grandmother talked about having been forced to sell her meat market and house, located at 8 Betzelsgasse, to a Nazi who had secured favorable government financing. My father said we must emigrate but my grandmother said she wanted to die in Germany and my grandfather said he was too old to emigrate. It was a tense time but also a good time. It was one of the few times in my life that I can remember when our entire family was together.”

“(The Mayer) family had owned a butcher shop that was taken over by Nazis,” Mahr said. “I am glad that these Stolpersteine (commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address) that are installed in front of the old butcher shop serve as remembrance of their lives.”

(Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)The commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of the Mayer family's last address are called Stolpersteine.

WiesbadenHiding Place of Mayer’s Father

“My father returned to Wiesbaden from Frankfurt since it was evident he could not hide with his cousins, but my Mom told him he could not stay because the Gestapo was looking for him. We had no Christian friends in Wiesbaden since we had not lived there very long, and in any event, people were afraid to harbor Jews because it would have been like harboring a criminal. An elderly couple named Bach owned a delicatessen. Their business and apartment were two doors up the street from Taunus Strasse 23, our rented flat. Mr. Bach had been an officer in World War I. Mrs. Bach told my Dad that she would hide him in the cellar, and although food was rationed, he would have plenty to eat and my mother could come to the store and get verbal signals on any changes in conditions. So my Dad went into hiding in the basement of the deli.”

The group observed and took a few pictures of the house from the outside, Christensen said, and certainly didn’t expect any interior access. But a woman who lived in the building and who arrived home just as the group was gathered agreed not only to invite everyone in, but also to open the cellar where Kurt Mayer’s father had hidden to escape the SS. Although she had lived there for many years, the woman said she had no idea a Jew had ever hidden there.

The group entered the cellar, while Pam Mayer, who uses a walker, stood atop the tiny staircase looking down, Christensen said. It didn’t take long before Mayer determined to leave the walker and descend the stairs to join the group.

“It was really moving to see the living conditions of the cellar. It was all exposed brick with lots of cobwebs. It was drafty, and the floor was dirt and uneven. But for Kurt’s father, this cold, lonely cellar was a haven,” Jason said.

(Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)Pam Mayer takes a look around the dungeon-like cellar after she successfully made her way down the stairs.+Enlarge Photo

Christensen said the cellar probably looks the same today as it did then—dark, dungeon-like and bare. .

“… It was uncomfortable to put myself in his position,” Jason said. “This cellar was pretty gross, but it was nothing compared to the horrors of a camp. Realizing the sacrifices that Jews (and other persecuted people) had to make in order to stay alive is always a reality check for me. Knowing that hiding in this cellar and getting a little food and human contact once a day was how Kurt’s father and many others lived is hard to stomach. It’s difficult to imagine now, but it was a reality for them.”

Bad NauheimJewish Boarding School

“At about 6.30 a.m. the morning of November 9, 1938, I was on the top floor of the boarding school in Bad Nauheim. As we were about to get up, we heard a lot of noise and we were told to go out on the street. We packed some clothes in suitcases, but we still had our nightshirts on and no shoes. It was cold and we were marched barefoot in a line of two or three by civilians with revolvers exposed and pointing at us. Cars driving adjacent to the sidewalk accompanied us for about one mile to the police station.


“We were held in the outside yard for several hours and I developed frostbite on my toes. Our male teachers were gone. That night we learned they had been taken to concentration camps. After what seemed an eternity, we children went back to the boarding school by ourselves. When we got back, the same men who had taken us to the police station were there and herded us around the schoolyard. We watched from the perimeter of the schoolyard as these same men gathered the prayer books and the Torah, poured gasoline on them and burned them in the center of the schoolyard. All the kids were confused and crying.”

In 1938, Mayer was 8, Hitler had come to power and laws that stripped Jews of their civil rights had been implemented. Forbidden to attend public school, Mayer went to a Jewish school in Wiesbaden and, eventually, because his father was in hiding and his mother in trade school all day, to a Jewish boarding school at Bad Nauheim.

Christensen said it took a bit of work to reach someone who could let them into the school, in part because its name had changed since Kurt Mayer’s day. It is now aptly named for Sophie Scholl, a courageous young resistor who lost her life for spreading anti-Nazi propaganda. But Patricia Koch, the administrator of Sophie-Scholl-Schule Wetterau, agreed to meet the group—even on a Saturday.

(Photo: )This historic postcard shows the boarding school before World War I.+Enlarge Photo

“I look back at that Saturday in January full of thanks that I was able to share in the story of the Mayer family and to get to know so many good, warm, open people,” Koch wrote to Christensen after the trip. “I was … profoundly moved to be able to be part this gathering.”

After gathering first on the school grounds near a small memorial for schoolchildren killed in the Holocaust, everyone went inside: first to the ground floor, where nursery-rhyme paintings from Kurt Mayer’s day still adorn the walls. They then went to the top floor, where Mayer and the other children had slept.

(Photo: John Froschauer/PLU)The window and view that Kurt Mayer had, with snow blanketing the ground.+Enlarge Photo
“Inside, we were able to see where Kurt Mayer had lived as well as what the view from his window would have looked like, snow included,” DeFord said. “We also saw some beautiful artwork, preserved from the time when Kurt Mayer went there and it was a Jewish boarding school.

“This point, for me, was the most emotional,” DeFord said. “The point when I learned a story of a very young girl (I think about 3 years old) [the daughter of the school’s director] who died because she had swallowed a barrette and not a single [doctor in town] would help her because she was Jewish.”

The school was especially emotional for the Mayer family, Schneider said, because they were able to see where Kurt Mayer had slept and what it had looked like, and better understand what he had experienced.

“At the school, Mrs. Mayer said that the book reading at the places was important because, ‘It helps us to imagine,’” Schneider said. “It was one thing to read and study and watch movies on history and to be in the place of that history. There is a different, more one-on-one personal element to reading, but there is an experiential element that can only be remembered at the place and vice versa. However, there is also the truth of never being able to actually remember something that is not ours to remember–not being able to experience what has already happened.

“That is why this stood out as so special to me that Mrs. Mayer said that. I don’t need to remember to begin to understand—I just need to be able to imagine.”

Barbara Clements
Sandy Deneau Dunham
Sandy Deneau Dunham has worked as a reporter, a copy editor and an editor and team leader for The Phoenix Gazette, The (Tacoma) News Tribune and The Seattle Times, and as Communications Manager for Town Hall Seattle. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has volunteered at the Washington Soldiers Home & Colony (and maintained the website since 2009.