Postscript: Dumb sheets during his life on his parents, but in death keep them close | Guest columns
Avalonia Land Conservancy, in a recent statement, said it had saved “a property of ecological and historic significance” in North Stonington by acquiring the 86-acre Herman E. Sheets Family Forest, which is part of the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, which includes Laurel Glen, “one of North Stonington’s original historic villages” and also provides habitat for an array of wildlife and birds.
I knew Dr Herman Sheets, who lived at Mumford Cove in Groton and died at the age of 97 in 2006, over the many years we sat together and talked in the sauna at the former Mystic Community Center (now part of the Ocean Community YMCA) and which I also featured as part of a journal series on active seniors. Despite having severe arthritis, he swam regularly at the community center.
In the 1950s, Sheets was responsible for research at Electric Boat in Groton and was also an inventor, engineer, university professor and consultant, and in his youth was a decathlon champion in Saxony, Germany, in 1929.
However, as I interviewed Sheets about his life, we found ourselves at a dead end when talking about his youth in Germany and the plight of his parents. He was reluctant to revisit this part of his past. I had learned from Holocaust research organizations that his parents had died at the hands of the Nazis.
His wife, Paulann Sheets, widely known in Groton for her years of environmental advocacy and her seat on Groton City Council, protected her husband’s health and his reluctance to talk about his past. She asked me not to discuss his parents’ fate with him. Other family members echoed his concerns.
It was agreed that when Sheets died I would be able to tell this part of her story, which I eventually did. Since then, I have learned more about his father and mother, Dr Arthur Chitz and Gertrud Chitz.
What I also learned recently is that there is a memorial bench with their name next to Herman Sheets headstone in Elm Grove Cemetery in Mystic.
According to the online site Music and the Holocaust, Arthur Chitz was born in 1882 in Prague to a German-speaking Jewish family and in his youth studied composition, violin and piano in Prague, Frankfurt and Vienna, and obtained a doctorate. in 1905. Two years later, he married Gertrud Stern, artist, singer and pianist.
Chitz moved to Dresden to study engineering, but rather than continue in the family chemical business, he decided to devote himself to music. “As a musicologist,” says this Holocaust resource, “he made important contributions to Beethoven’s early music scholarship, uncovering hitherto unknown scores in Beethoven’s papers. One was a sonata written for mandolin and harpsichord.
Enlisted in the German army during World War I, he received the Saxon Silver Cross.
After the war, his career as an interpreter, accompanist and arranger flourished. He toured Europe and worked as a musical director and composer of stage music at the Schauspielhaus Dresden (State Theater), and as a harpsichordist in a church in Dresden, and also conducted in Berlin in 1932.
But a year later, after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, anti-Semitic laws restricted all aspects of Jewish life in Germany.
Two decades earlier, Chitz and his wife, assimilated Jews in Germany, had converted to Protestantism, perhaps, it is believed, to improve Chitz’s musical career and allow his appointment as conductor at the theater. from Dresden.
Their two children – Herman and his sister Hilda – were born in Dresden and raised Lutheran. They left Germany for Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, where Herman pursued a doctorate.
The conversion to Christianity of the parents who remained in Germany did not deter the Nazis.
“Chitz was banned from giving two concerts in Dresden in April 1933, and he was forced to retire from all aspects of musical life in May,” the Music and the Holocaust report states. “Nonetheless, Chitz chose to stay in Germany, despite sending his children to Prague. Letters from his daughter suggest that Chitz tried to leave Germany, but it was already too late. Arthur and his wife were unable to find transportation outside the country.
The following, also from the Holocaust report, was sadly typical and ultimately fatal:
“In 1938, Chitz was arrested and taken to Buchenwald. After a month he was released and Chitz and his wife were ordered to give up their apartment in which they had lived for 30 years. They were prohibited by law from selling or donating their property, which included books, instruments, sheet music, and his wife’s paintings (although he appeared to have arranged for some of his sheet music and piano be kept by a friend.)
“In 1942 the couple were transported to a ghetto near Skirotava in Riga. After its liquidation in November 1943, the survivors were transported to Riga-Kaiserwald, a concentration camp. It is likely that Chitz died in this camp in 1944. His wife later died on a death march from Riga to Dresden in 1945.
I spoke with several of Herman Sheets’ six children (he was also the stepfather of two) before his funeral in April 2006. “Our father didn’t want to talk about the pain of the past when we were younger.” , said two of his sons, Lawrence. and Michael Sheets. “Herman asked his father to accompany him to America. His father told him, “I am an old man. I am retired. They won’t bother an old man. Our grandparents probably thought that America was not a cultivated place, a little wild and woolly. They thought they would be left alone.
The children also said their father never denigrated Germany to them, although he could never forgive himself for not convincing his parents of the need to leave Europe.
His wife, Paulann, recalled that she had heard him sing, in his decidedly unmusical way, what sounded like verses in German while shaving in the morning, and thinking it was out of her ear.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime journalist and columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected]