In September 2019, staff from the AFS-USA Development and Alumni Affairs team visited Penelope B., a US Returnee originally from Milwaukee, in her charming apartment on the 5th floor of a historic, 1888 built, townhouse in Greenwich Village. Together with Penelope was one of her German host sisters, Beate, the youngest of the four Hotop sisters—they all lived together in Hamburg for six weeks during the summer of 1955.  Thanks to a local organization named Women International the Hotops family had first heard about AFS—“our house was always open to the international community… AFS enabled us to have contact with students and young people from abroad and to learn the language,” said Beate.

Penelope and Beate now call each other sisters, as they did then. “The influence of that summer (on my life) was greater than I was consciously aware at that time,” said Penelope. Below is the story, in Penelope’s own words, of how they re-established contact in 2011, 56 years after they shared a home in recovering post-war Germany.

A cross-cultural reunion after 56 years and over 6,000 miles–we never would have imagined it, not even remotely, when I lived with the Hotops in Hamburg as an American Field Service Exchange student in 1955.  But it happened. Here is how it started:

In 2011 I was planning to visit northern Europe and thought I could hardly do it without stopping in Hamburg.  I had lost touch with my family there, but the city itself would be worth seeing, this time as an adult, and it was hardly out of the way.

By chance, I had been able to reconnect with Fred, a German AFSer who had been my friend that summer, and when my plans coalesced, I asked him if he would be around and if he could get updated information about the Hotops.  The parents were long gone, I was sure; and the four daughters, being presumably married, would not have the name Hotop any longer.  Fred said he had no idea how to find them, so I suggested he might visit the house where they used to live at 2 Buurredder Strasse in a suburb of Hamburg.

No luck.  Fred tried many things. He had gone to the houses and had even rung doorbells on Buurredder Strasse to ask neighbors about the Hotops, but no one knew anything.

Oh, well, it wasn’t too surprising.  People move on. That’s how it goes. Fred took me around Hamburg, showed me much I never would have seen otherwise and treated me royally.  He was good company and it was wonderful to see him.  On Sunday, plans to go to a concert north of the city would take us right by Buurredder Strasse, and I asked if we could stop at the Hotop house just to look at it.  Now in a charming suburb with winding lanes and leafy trees, the street had changed a lot, and we pulled in near the beginning of it and parked.  As we got out of the car, I cried, “There it is!  That’s the house!”  It was practically unchanged.

We walked up the steps to the front door, and there were two bells.  Downstairs, Hotop–it seemed like a miracle after 56 years–upstairs, Solinger.  No idea who that was.  We rang the downstairs bell.  No response.  Again.  Again.  Rang the upstairs bell.  No response.  Again.  Finally, after five minutes of this, it was time to give up, so with great regret, I said to Fred, “I’m just going to go around to the back of the house and see what it looks like now.”

Fred objected, but I started off, wondering whether the henhouse was still back there and the dirt yard where chickens scratched and the scrubby vegetable garden grew. I walked around the side of the house, my sneakers silent on the paved walk swept clean of snapping twigs. When I got there, the hen house was gone, and there were trees, plants, and flowers in abundance.  In the garden, almost hidden by greenery, sat a gray-haired, slim woman facing the sun, the back of the house and me.  Her eyes were closed as she lifted her face to the sun.

“Excuse me, please,” I said in German.  “Are you Hotop?”

She opened her eyes.  “Ja.”

Again, in German, “I am the American student who stayed with you in the summer of 1955.”

She stood up, opened her arms and walked to me.  “Penny!” she cried.

We embraced and stood there talking in a combination of German and English, until finally Fred, no doubt curious beyond caution, came around to the back and joined us.

 

That was Lotti, or Charlotte, the eldest of the sisters and at this time probably 75.  She had been a sturdy young woman; now she was fighting cancer.  She invited us for tea on Tuesday, the day before I was to leave for New York, and said she would also ask Ingeborg who lived not far away and whom I used to call Inge.  Ati, now known by her whole name, Beate, lived in Wuppertal, too far away to be able to join us.  And Bärbel?  Lotti didn’t know where she was.  They had lost contact.  Bärbel is the sister I had been closest to.

Tea was sumptuous and Ingeborg looked a lot like she had as a child.  She laughed when I told her so. Bärbel lived they knew not where, was doing they knew not what, except that she had been a teacher.  Unsure whether Inge did email, I gave her my address and left the next day for home.

To my great surprise, when I got back home to New York there was an email from Beate Schöne, my youngest German sister.  Her English was far better than my German, and we began a correspondence that resulted finally in plans for all of us except Lotti, who was too ill to travel, to meet in Berlin in October, 2013.  Beate arranged everything. She knew the city well, reserved hotel rooms for each of us and would plan the four-day visit, what to do, where to go.  Even Bärbel would be there.

When you think what a disaster such a reunion could be–meeting each other after so long, having spent only two months together years ago, having lived a whole lifetime apart and without contact, having loved and lost, having married and brought up children, having argued politics and doubted old truths…  I don’t know what this visit did for world peace, but it did a lot for us.  It was a complete joy.  Talk, talk, talk, laugh, laugh, laugh.  It was enough to sweep anyone from the deepest gloom. We kept at it for hours during the four brief days we were in Berlin, doing tourist things as an adjunct to our real reason to be there–to close the years behind us and bring us together as sisters again.  It was astonishing.

Fast forward to 2019, and I receive an email from an Alexander Schoene, who was coming to New York for a visit.  He suggested he might offer Beate, his mother, an airline ticket to New York.  What did I think of that?

I thought it was wonderful, she could stay with me.

That’s how it happened that Beate and I were sitting in my living room chatting with Luisa Gui and Jonathan Gross of AFS one morning in September 2019, where and when these pictures were taken.  Sixty-four years had gone by since that AFS summer.  Mutti and Vati had died a thirty years before, Lotti in 2013. The other two Hotop girls were not in good health, and Beate and I were no longer the active young girls we had been that summer when she was nine and I was sixteen.

But we were still sisters.