Memoir examines 70-year absence from German hometown

Returning to her hometown of Chemnitz seven decades after fleeing Germany, Gabriella Mautner learned that the locals have a nickname for the once-desecrated Jewish cemetery: der gute ort, or, “the good place.”

That was one of many discoveries during Mautner’s sojourn home. The Mill Valley writer found the 1998 trip jarring, particularly in how it opened long-buried memories of her middle-class German Jewish upbringing.

Once back in California, Mautner, 85, wasted no time writing her memoir, “The Good Place,” her first published work of nonfiction (she has several novels and volumes of poetry to her credit). “[The memories] just flooded over me,” she says. “I hadn’t planned it at all. It became a very spontaneous.”

Mautner divided the book into two parts: the first a remembrance of her Chemnitz girlhood; the second a chronicle of her recent visit. Part One is told through the eyes of a child, with Vati and Mutti (father and mother) looming large. Her father was a prosperous manufacturer, her mother a distracted artiste and tennis player.

Life in her east German town was carefree. Little Gabriella was a spunky child, teacher’s pet and avid reader. But with the rise of Hitler, even in Chemnitz, things changed. One day a gang of brown-shirted bullies roughed up Gabriella and her Jewish friend, shattering her sense of security forever.

Unlike so many other German Jews, Mautner’s father saw the writing on the wall — or, more precisely, in Hitler’s manifesto.

“My father read ‘Mein Kampf’ and was sure Hitler would do what he planned to do,” she said. “My mother’s brother was outraged that we wanted to leave so suddenly.”

But leave they did, first to Italy, then to Holland and finally Switzerland, where the family rode out the war. Mautner’s older novel, “Lovers and Fugitives,” is based on the family’s desperate flight.

Part Two stems from her later visit, sponsored by the German government. By then, Mautner was a long-time resident of the United States, married to a San Francisco Symphony violinist, a mother of three and a respected Bay Area author and writing teacher. Returning to Chemnitz, she found a town she didn’t recognize.

“All the people who told me their stories opened their hearts and minds, which is rare for Germans,” she said. “I met some really lovely people.”

Mautner got to meet the children and grandchildren of Chemnitzers she had known, and learned what happened to some former residents. Her beloved elementary school teacher had become an ardent Nazi; a Chemnitz youth who fought hard in Hitler’s army later devoted his life to art, tolerance and making restitution to the Jewish people.

Mautner is not a Jewish German expatriate who wants nothing to do with her former homeland. “You cannot judge a whole people because it could happen anywhere,” she said. “The whole idea of fighting, intolerance and stupidity is all over the world: Cambodia, Serbia, Bosnia.”

As for her Jewish life today, Mautner says she feels a “more universalist spiritual connection — a connection with the Jewish people, but not so much with religions. I find they are limited.”

Despite her age, Mautner remains active, writing, teaching and traveling. Last year she returned to Germany for the Leipzig Book Fair, where she gave a public reading of “The Good Place” from her own German translation.

It went well.

“A film director fell in love with [my book],” she recalled. “When I gave the reading, he said he wanted to make a film version.”

Unfortunately, as she has learned, the film industry in Germany isn’t so different from the mercurial one in Hollywood. “In the last three years the financial situation in eastern Germany has deteriorated,” she acknowledged.

The upshot? “He hasn’t been able to raise the funds,” she said.

“The Good Place” by Gabriella Mautner ($12.95, Replica Books, 189 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.