“Of the making of books there is no end,” wrote the Jewish King Solomon. For a certain Jewish child’s curiosity about the contents of his father’s long forbidden suitcase, there was seemingly no cure. Or so says my new friend Peter Bein, author of “Maxwell’s Suitcase.” No cure, that is, except to open the suitcase after his father had died.
Bein teaches English at Chattahoochee Technical College. His professional career has been winding, though purposeful and interesting. How many college English teachers first “had a math brain” as Bein puts it, studied mathematics in college, spent 25 years in the computer field, taught math, returned to college to get a master’s degree in professional writing and then taught English?
“Maxwell’s Suitcase” is what the publishing world is now calling a memoir, not a full-scale researched biography but a remembrance or a focusing upon a period of time, a person, or as in Bein’s book, an object.
Bein’s object is a suitcase of his father’s, hidden for 40 years in a hall closet in the family’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Bein’s father made his escape from Nazi Germany in 1938 on Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), or the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9, when Nazi forces ransacked Jewish-owned homes, stores, hospitals, schools and synagogues, leaving streets littered with shards of broken glass.
Suitcase in hand, Max Bein fled Germany for the United States, leaving behind his mother and fiancée, Lola. In the suitcase, son Peter Bein would learn, were pictures and stacks of letters bound in old shoelaces, which became the inspiration for his book. The letters were to his father from Bein’s lost grandmother, who had been killed in a Polish death camp at Belzec during World War II.
It is one thing to read a history book about the Holocaust. It is quite another to talk to a friend who is not yet even 70 and who has such close connection to one of the greatest evils of human history. Bein’s connection to his past, particularly his grandmother’s death, is exquisitely described in his riveting book as is his childhood puzzlement over how his father could have fled Germany leaving his mother, Malka, behind.
When Bein was 10, his father said to him, “Come, I’ll show you my pictures from home.” It was one of those rare occasions when Max would open up the suitcase and “invite me to the past,” Bein writes. But not for long. When Bein was shown a picture of his grandmother, he asked “Where is she?” only to elicit a quiet “She disappeared” from his father.
The letters in the suitcase were written during WWII from Bein’s grandmother in Poland to his father in New York City. In 1996, living in Columbus, Georgia, Bein opened the suitcase after his father’s death. “That suitcase was the keyhole to my past,” he writes. Later, living in Atlanta, Bein secured the help of a friend who met him once a week at the Aurora Café in Atlanta’s Little Five Points and translated the letters aloud in English while Bein wrote feverishly.
This enterprise compelled Bein to “make an appointment with his past” as he traveled to Poland and Germany in 2008, 2009 and 2010 to “find his way back home” and learn about the fate of his grandmother as well as the reason why his father was so protective of the suitcase. The visit to Poland included finding and making a picture of the apartment where his grandmother had written the letters in the suitcase 70 years earlier.
Any movie maker seeking an interesting twist on Thomas Wolfe’s title, “You can’t go home again,” need look no further than Bein’s memoir. Its conciseness makes it as script-ready as a book could be. Malka’s letters to her son Max are heart-rending, her last one ending with “From your mother who loves you and wishes you the best.”
Today the Holocaust, like history in general, is being weaponized and trivialized. Using history as a bludgeon, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said the detention centers on our southern border ought to be called “concentration camps.” Little must she know about what people such as Bein’s grandmother Malka endured.
Cicero wrote, “Who only knows his generation remains always a child.” Author Peter Bein was not content to know only of his own era. Hence a suitcase was his teacher and his motivation to discover who he was. The suitcase, he writes, was his “museum in a box.”
Readers can find “Maxwell’s Suitcase” on Amazon and at PeterBein.com. From it they can learn to respect — and heed — history as Bein himself has done.