A Poet Discovers a World of Complexities in His Background

By Avital Louria Hahn

Section 13LI; Long Island Weekly Desk

7 September 1997

The New York Times

Late Edition - Final

Page 10, Column 1

c.1997 New York Times Company

NORBERT KRAPF, a German-American poet and a professor of English, said he would never forget the day in January 1989 when he stood in front of a wall at an exhibition, ''The History and Culture of the Jews of Bavaria,'' at the German National Museum in Nuremberg and read the names of Bavarian Jews who had been deported to death and concentration camps.

Mr. Krapf, a Roman Catholic whose family emigrated from Bavaria to Jasper, Ind., 150 years ago, had long struggled to reconcile his roots with the legacy of the Holocaust. Knowing that both sides of his family were Catholic, he had not expected to find the name of Klara Krapf on the list.

''I was absolutely stunned,'' Mr. Krapf, of Roslyn, said. ''I began to wonder if there was a possibility of a Jewish line in my family.''

In an instant, his rage over the Holocaust was channeled into the life of a frail and elderly Jew who was deported to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp also known as Terezin, in Czechoslovakia, 40 miles north of Prague. Although it turned out that Klara Krapf was not a relative, her life nonetheless became as close to him and as personal as that of a family member.

That is how a new book by Mr. Krapf, ''Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany,'' received its last and most compelling group of poems. Published in the spring by Time Being Books in St. Louis, the book is part of a series on Mr. Krapf's origins, from small agricultural villages in Lower Franconia.

The book integrates his experience, from descriptions of his ancestors' lives as observed by him and as depicted by painters like Bruegel and Dürer to the Klara Krapf poems.

''Klara Krapf made it possible for the book to come full circle,'' said Mr. Krapf, who heads the Poetry Center at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University. When Klara Krapf came along, he said, the rage ''became deep profound grief.''

''One of the biggest enemies of German-Americans has been very bad German politics and the weight of Germanness on them for all the mistakes Germany had made,'' said Dr. Giles Hoyt, a professor of German and an associate dean of international programs at Indiana University who uses Mr. Krapf's poems in his courses. ''This is what Norbert Krapf is working on.''

''He has remarkable empathy and sympathy for a world that is gone, for the people who were there,'' said the president of L.I.U., Dr. David Steinberg.

Klara Krapf inspired 13 poems. The first, ''The Name on the Wall,'' has this section:

This familiar

yet strange name on the paper wall of

a replica of a train station in a museum

in the city where Albrecht Dürer walked

and worked has no voice to give

the details I need to hear, but raises

a chorus of questions I don't know

if I'll ever be able to answer:

Who was she?


After years of research Mr. Krapf reconstructed Miss Krapf's life, learning the name of her hometown of Wonfurt, the site of her family's house, the nursing home from where she was deported and the camp where she died. He also found out that her siblings had left for the United States before 1906 and that Klara had stayed behind, perhaps to care for elderly parents.

The book, which unfolds like a narrative, with 63 poems, of which 24 are about the Holocaust, was met with enthusiasm in Germany and in Indiana, where 1 of 3 people is of German descent. In Jasper the figure is 4 out 5.

For Mr. Krapf the culmination of decades of research occurred in the city's archives hall in Würzburg, Germany, where he heard his poems read aloud in German for the first time, to a large audience of young and old from around the region.

''There wasn't a sound of a chair, a swish of clothing or a move of a purse,'' Mr. Krapf's wife, Katherine, an English teacher at Manhasset Middle School, said. ''It was absolute stillness.''

Mr. Krapf read introductions in German to each of the poems that he had written. ''As I sat there,'' Mrs. Krapf said, ''I was listening to him read and thought of the years and years of work and learning to speak German, so he could stand up there and introduce his poems in German.''

Then a German couple read the poems in translation.

A man at the reading, Thomas Schindler, an archivist who specializes in the Jews of Lower Franconia, found a copy of Klara Krapf 's identity card, including a photograph, this summer.

But a most startling discovery was the proximity of Klara Krapf 's family to the Catholic Krapfs. They lived a few miles away from each other.

Mr. Krapf's ancestors worked the fields in the summer and weaved linen in the winter. They moved from Hesslar to Kreuzthal to Tugendorf before leaving for Indiana in 1846. His mother's family, the Schmitts, came from the nearby town of Lohr am Main, on the Main River, where the men worked on river boats. They arrived in Indiana in 1840.

Like other Jewish families in Lower Franconia, the Krapfs had to take on German names in 1817. They became Krapfs, and Mr. Krapf said he would like to ''give it a positive spin,'' and believe that they chose the name Krapf because the families had good relations and, perhaps, the Catholic Krapfs bought small animals that the Jewish Krapfs sold.

Mr. Krapf grew up in Jasper, which appears similar to Lower Franconia, with rolling hills, extensive forests and streams and fields of grain. Most people in Jasper worked in wood factories. The Holocaust was never discussed.

''It is typical of German-American families not to know their family history because of the two World Wars and not wanting to be associated with Germany,'' said Mr. Krapf.

His father, Clarence, who had worked in a factory that manufactured wood chairs and later in insurance, spoke and read German. Mr. Krapf's mother, Dorothy, spoke a German dialect that she learned on the farm, and his parents spoke German at the table until the four children could understand what they were saying.

When Mr. Krapf went to St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind., he began to learn German, which had not been taught in schools in Dubois since World War I, and which he was the lone family member to study. He was also the first in the family to attend university.

At first he thought of becoming an engineer. ''It was the Sputnik era, and that's what boys were supposed to do,'' he said. But he changed his mind and studied English literature.

After having completed his doctorate at the University of Notre Dame in 1971, where he had met and married his wife a year earlier, Mr. Krapf started teaching at L.I.U.

It was there, 1,000 miles from where his family had lived since 1840, that the Krapfs began to research their family roots. ''I always wanted to know where I came from, but it really deepened when I moved here,'' Mr. Krapf said.

''I remember sitting around the kitchen table at his mother's house with a large sheet of freezer paper,'' Mrs. Krapf said, ''and we began to write whatever genealogy his mother and his grandmother remembered.''

Mr. Krapf used three yearlong sabbaticals to research and write poetry. He accumulated letters, communion certificates, ships' passenger lists, birth and death certificates and other materials.

But before his first trip to Germany, in 1971, his father tried to deter him. '' 'What do you need to go to Germany for?' '' he recalled his father's question. He was German and didn't want to be German at the same time.''

But the resistance did not last long. In 1976, Mr. Krapf and his wife took the elder Krapfs to Germany, their only trip to their ancestral homeland. The Krapf children, Elizabeth, now a senior in Roslyn High School, and Daniel, an eighth grader in Roslyn Middle School, had not been born. The family visited the Dachau death camp, which later inspired ''The Name of a Place,'' a section of which reads:

Here the taste of ashes

that can never be swallowed

or washed away by wine or beer.

Here a wound still festers

and silence transcends language.

Here is no Octoberfest

where people link arms

and sway to the melody

of a folk song handed down

by father to son,

mother to daughter.

The Krapfs returned on a Fulbright fellowship in 1988, and in 1989 discovered Klara Krapf. In 1992, visiting her house in Wonfurt, Mr. Krapf learned that the Krapf families were not related.

An expert on the history of the Jews of Würzburg, Roland Flade, said there was no connection between the two Krapf families. But the visit had profound effects that led to 13 poems, written in a week.

''I wrote my heart out,'' Mr. Krapf said. ''The poems popped right out."

"'We'd like to think that our poems choose us rather than us choosing our poems,'' said William Heyen, a poet and a friend of Mr. Krapf whose book ''Erika: Poems of the Holocaust'' had profound effects on Mr. Krapf.

Mr. Krapf said he was hoping to find Klara Krapf's family in the United States and share with them what he had learned about their relative who died without a grave. ''Relationships,'' he wrote in a poem, ''run deeper than blood.''

Photo: Klara Krapf as she appears in her passport photograph.

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The New York Times


Video of the Holocaust Remembrance event in the Indiana State House April 13,2010 at which I read and spoke some 23 minutes from my Holocaust poems in Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany.  My reading begins at about 13:30 of the video.