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Maxwell's Suitcase

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"Who knows only his generation remains
always a child."
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My Story

Peter discovered a stack of frayed letters bound with old shoelaces inside a forbidden suitcase, hidden for forty years at the bottom of his father's closet. They compelled him to make an appointment with his past.


The letters sparked Peter's journey to family haunts in Germany and Poland and inspired his memoir, Maxwell's Suitcase.


The author lives with his wife in Atlanta, where he teaches English at a local community college. He holds a Masters of Arts in Professional Writing.  Peter plays the clarinet and enjoys klezmer music, which he claims resonates with the memories of his Jewish ancestors.

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Maxwell's Suitcase

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A letter that lived in the suitcase, Geoffnet, opened by the nazi censors and the American censors.

A letter that lived in the suitcase, Geoffnet, opened by the nazi censors and the American censors.

My father's watch


My grandmother was murdered in the concentration camp at Belzec, Poland

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The Stolperstein for my grandmother.

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A telegram to my father, November 1938

I will never forget this picture of my grandmother.

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A letter written by my father to my grandmother, returned to sender.


A Dance With the Past

I didn’t know much about my inheritance, even though it was buried just down the hall from where I slept. My father hid it at the bottom of his closet for forty years in a brown leather suitcase. But my father’s old suitcase was off-limits. Only he could dig it out of that closet. Only he could open it. Only he could take anything from it.

During the forty years my family lived in our Brooklyn apartment, I must have passed that closet ten thousand times. I didn't realize that inside, another time loomed. It was in my father’s old hats, in his old suits, and in his old ties. In that dark closet, the past mingled with the present. My father’s old clothes had been worn by the past, his shoes had walked there.

Even though we had lived together for so long, it seemed I didn’t know much about my father. He didn’t talk much about his past and was silent about where he went when he drifted off into a daydream, while sitting right there in front of me. Maybe it was the forbidden suitcase that made me think there was something about him I didn’t know. I wondered what he had locked up inside.

I didn’t hear my father speak much about himself, which was common for men of his generation, and especially common for those who had outrun the Nazis. But occasionally, when he pulled out his old pictures, he let us peer behind the curtain. He called them his pictures from home. The more I learned about him, the more surprised I was that the place he called home was Germany.

He kept his old pictures in that suitcase, hidden in his closet in our upstairs apartment. It was the same suitcase he carried on Kristallnacht, when, as a young man, he fled from Leipzig, Germany. Kristallnacht was the state-sponsored Nazi riot against the Jews of Germany in November of 1938. That closet was in the hallway, just twenty feet from our kitchen, where breakfast was served with a juicy helping of the Yiddish Radio Hour.

 I remember one morning, waiting for my father to take his seat at the head of the breakfast table. We didn’t start eating without him, and he was in the bathroom, shaving. My father shaved with a five-cent, double-edged razor blade and used a shaving brush to make lather. He’d stir the wet brush into the mug filled with a round cake of white soap and paint the foamy froth on his face. Then he would clean the lather from his mouth with a backwards motion of his thumb, like he was zipping his lips.

The radio, a rectangular, plastic box with a glowing orange eye, played in the background. A deep voice said, “This is WEVD, 1050 on your radio dial, the station that speaks your language. And now the news.”  My father took his seat at the table just as the newscaster said in Yiddish, “A  hartzik goodmorgin.” [A hearty good morning.]

Even though I didn’t understand the words spoken in the Yiddish broadcast, I listened. Somehow, those words meant something to me. I could recognize their beginnings and endings, and I could pick out the sentences. Some voiced concern, some voiced happiness, and some just reported the news. I liked the sound of the language, a sweet guttural music, like warm chopped liver, paté to some. My parents called it “mama loshen,” the mother tongue.

And after The News came The Music.

A song came on the radio, and my parents jumped out of their chairs. My father motioned for us to get up. And as if by invisible signal, my mother looked at my father, and they lifted the kitchen table from its customary place in the middle of the room and put it down against the wall. Quickly they moved the chairs aside. They came together in the middle of the room and began dancing, their shoes inches apart, whirling and twisting across the linoleum floor. The room shook. I looked down at my feet and they were tapping to the rhythm, out of control, as if they belonged to another body. My parents put out their hands toward me.

 “Come dance. We’ll show you how,” my mother said. But I was embarrassed. I was ten years old. I didn’t know how to dance, so I stood and watched.

 The music ended and my parents were breathless. My mother wiped her forehead with a tissue that she took from under a rolled-up sleeve.

 “Peter, the story of our Jewish people is in that music,” she said.

My father said, “That’s klezmer music, Jewish soul music. You’ll know I’m dead when you play it for me and I don’t get up and dance.”

That music held something for me. It said something to me, but I couldn’t understand the message. It was hidden. But from that moment, I was addicted to klezmer.

Klezmer music was wild. It dipped and soared and cried and pleaded. Klezmer was sweet, but could stampede like wild horses.  It could be drunk and funny, or like lace on a wedding cake. I listened to the riot rushing from a clarinet, cutting the air with a steely ribbon of sound that reminded me of something I never knew.

Excerpt from "Maxwell's Suitcase" © Peter Bein, 2018

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