A Poet Discovers a World of Complexities in
By Avital Louria Hahn
Section 13LI; Long Island
The New York Times
Late Edition - Final
Page 10, Column 1
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,
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
The New York
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.