Last Sunday, May 10, 2015, I set out, together with my husband, brother and sister-in-law, on a “roots” trip to Germany.
I was feeling rather ambivalent about the whole trip as I always swore to myself that I would never set foot in Germany after what happened to my family and of course to the Jewish people as a whole.
To understand the background of my family history, read my family history page here. In short, my mother had 3 older brothers who were sent on a Kindertransport to Holland for safety in 1938 after Kristallnacht, but the Nazis invaded in 1943 and shipped them to Sobibor where they were killed on the day they arrived, while my grandparents and their daughters eventually made it to safety in England.
The people of Michelstadt, my mother’s home town, issued a memorial book last year, and kindly invited us to come out and visit. Despite my ambivalence I felt it is important to accept their efforts to “make good” towards the Jewish community and they have been extremely gracious towards us.
Following is a diary of sorts of our trip.
From the air Germany is a beautiful country, green fields neatly laid out, glittering rivers and straight roads, even the forests seem orderly in the way the trees grow!
As I admired the country from the air I felt guilty for even allowing a positive thought to enter my head about this country with the terrible history. And then I considered that so many other countries have a blood-soaked history with the Jews, and if it’s OK to entertain the thought of visiting Holland, France, Belgium, not to mention the former Soviet Union or the Baltic states, then why should Germany be any different, especially considering the efforts of the German government as well as so many German individuals to atone for the sins of their fathers.
As we were taxiing towards the arrivals building in Frankfurt airport, our El Al plane was accompanied by a German police hummer travelling alongside the whole time. The thought struck me that a mere 70 years ago the sight of one of these vehicles would have struck terror into any Jewish heart. Today it merely comforted me and made me thankful that we were being provided by excellent security from the German authorities. How the wheel of history turns!
Our Amazing and Courageous Hosts, Otto and Heidi Haag
At our beautiful hotel in Michelstadt we finally met our hosts, Otto and Heidi Haag and their friend Klaus Schimmel, face to face for the first time and we had a warm and emotional welcome.
The Haags have been working for decades to research the history of the Jewish community of Michelstadt and bring it to the attention of the city fathers. They are amazing and courageous people, and very resourceful in their methods of research and in their initiative to get the town to commemorate their lost Jewish community, sometimes against some objections from the locals.
Our first full day in Michelstadt included a fascinating visit to the town’s 14th century library built by Nicolaus Matz, a priest, theologian and philosopher who travelled around the area. You can read more about what we saw at the library here.
What followed was the main reason we had come to Michelstadt.
As we walked to the Haags’ house, Otto pointed out another project that they had initiated: the laying of Stolperstein – “stumbling blocks” – outside the houses of each Jewish citizen who had been murdered in the Shoah. These stumbling blocks are in fact small plaques inscribed with the names of the murdered citizens, and they are inlaid into the pavement right outside their houses.
The stones with my mother’s brother’s names are inlaid outside the synagogue. Even these small memorials have proven unpopular with certain elements and have occasionally been plastered over with antisemitic or anti-Israel stickers.
It is gratifying to note that the local police take these incidents very seriously. The “stumbling blocks” project started elsewhere in Germany and has been spreading throughout the country, a very blessed initiative.
Inside the synagogue we were guided by the visiting chazan (cantor), Roman Melamed, who showed us the interior of the shul where our grandfather used to pray.
Again, the enormous sense of history combined with the surreality of finding myself in the very spot where my grandfather once stood combined in my mind with a swirl of emotion which I and my brother are still trying to work through.
The shul is mainly a museum now, though as the Chazan Melamed explained, there is a Shabbat service once a month, though usually without a full minyan, which is really very sad.
Opening The Torah Scrolls
In the Aron Hakodesh, the Holy Ark, there were 2 Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). One was not kosher for use any more but the other one was brought over by the Rabbi of Leipzig some years ago. The Chazan and caretaker agreed to take out the Torah scroll on condition it was read from, so David and my husband readily agreed.
We were all quite emotional as the Torah scroll was opened and we saw that the passage it landed on was the Ten Commandments. How appropriate! Surely this was a sign from Heaven? David duly read the piece while we looked on, and once again experienced the acute hand of history on our shoulders as we remembered that our grandfather had stood on this very spot and read the Torah right there.
Here is the video (apologies for the poor quality and sound):
We all had the strong feeling that our grandfather was watching down on us from Heaven. We hope so anyway.
The Jewish Cemetery
From the shul we moved on to the old Jewish cemetery in Michelstadt where the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh (Seckl Lob) Wormser is buried. The Baal Shem was regarded as a miracle worker and healer not only by the Jewish community but by all the locals as well and his grave has become a site of pilgrimage for prayers.
We all stood there and prayed for the health and well-being of various family members and friends, and recited some Psalms.
We were extremely moved to see a flower and a stone on every gravestone in the cemetery with a message in Hebrew: “We apologize for all the evil that we did to you”. No one knows who carried out this initiative but it is clear that they wanted to apologize and show respect both according to Jewish custom – by placing a stone on the grave – and according to their custom by placing a rose.
On our third day in Michelstadt we saw the historic town center and local sites as regular tourists, and you can read about it all and see more photos here.
Guests of Honour
At the end of the day we were the guests of honour at a reception at the town hall attended by the Mayor and other local dignitaries, and we saw a short presentation of the Stolperstein, “stumbling stones” project, how they were placed, and their “inauguration ceremony”. Afterwards we were hosted at a dinner at our hotel.
We were extremely touched by the warm welcome given to us by the locals, and the genuine interest shown both in our family history and the history of the lost Jewish community. You can see pictures from the presentation and read about the reception and dinner here.
Our last two days in Germany were the most intense and personal for us. On Wednesday Otto, Heidi and Klaus accompanied us to Frankfurt where the family moved to after leaving Michelstadt in 1937. It was also from where my mother’s family fled just before the Holocaust, and was also the hometown of my father-in-law.
We had a short guided tour of the Jewish Museum, and it was horrifying to learn of the anti-Jewish laws which began way back in the Middle Ages and even before, and then how the age of enlightenment and emancipation eased their lot, followed by the renewal of the evil anti-Jewish laws under the Nazis.
At the museum there was a huge display board with the names of all the Jewish Frankfurt residents who had been killed in the Shoah where we found the names of our mother’s brothers.
After a wonderful lunch at the kosher restaurant in the Jewish community center (where, in a sad sign of the times, the security was so strict we had to present our Israeli passports in order to enter) we visited the site of the Hirsch Realschule where my father in law and his siblings studied. There is now a modern state school standing on the site, but there is a memorial plaque both outside and inside recalling that this was once a Jewish school that was destroyed during the war.
We also had a short chat with one of the teachers and a couple of her students, and the teacher informed us that she was leaving that night with her class to Krakow in Poland. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed that despite these trips not being compulsory or funded by the government, most schools do go on these Holocaust education trips.
Tears for My Mother’s Three Brothers
Back in our minibus we passed by the places where my grandfather and my father-in-law once lived. In both places, neither the houses nor the streets themselves exist any more.
After seeing the Westend synagogue, a beautiful new modern thriving community, we concluded our trip with a visit to the Old and New Jewish cemeteries.
The walls of the Old Cemetery are embedded with tiny stones with the name, birth date, and date and place of death if known, of every single Jew from Frankfurt who was killed in the war.
It was the first time that I shed any tears in Germany and am still processing all that I saw and felt.
It has been said that 6 million deaths is a statistic but one person is a tragedy.
Seeing those stones, and finding the names of my mother’s three brothers, was a personal emotional jolt, yet seeing the hundreds of yards of stones along all the walls of the cemetery, going round the corner and then again, emphasized the sheer numbers, the statistics, the magnitude of the Holocaust. It is a very powerful memorial.
The cemetery itself looks almost empty, with large expanses of grass and trees, and strange looking monuments dotted around. It took a few minutes to realise that the “monuments” were piles of gravestones that had been found after the war (whether destroyed by the Nazis or by the Allied bombing), and since no one knew where the graves were any more, the gravestones were simply piled together in different arrangements.
Graves of Our Great Grandparents
We continued to the new cemetery (over a century old itself) where we looked for – and eventually found – the graves of our great-grandparents, David and Miriam Strauss, the parents of our grandfather Leopold. The gravestone on Miriam’s grave was in very good condition, but sadly the stone on our great-grandfather David’s grave was crumbling and barely legible.
A very strange thing happened during that search. The weather had been cloudy but warm, but as we progressed through the cemetery it became darker and a gentle rain began. The rain got heavier as we neared our great-grandparents’ graves, and as we got there a short sharp downpour began. We stood in the rain and recited a few prayers and psalms, and as we concluded our prayers, the rain eased off. When we left the sun came out. Now that might have been coincidence but we have a different theory…
We returned to Michelstadt exhausted physically and wrung out emotionally, but we were all very glad we had made the trip and accomplished so much. It left us all a taste for more.
Fuerth, near Nuremberg in Bavaria
The next day, we travelled to Fuerth, near Nuremberg in Bavaria, my father’s hometown, where my grandfather worked as the Direktor, the Principal, of the Jewish school. (Henry Kissinger was a student of his…).
We started out at the Jewish Museum whose director, a delightful young American woman named Daniela Eisenstein, served as our guide throughout our visit and she had prepared our itinerary meticulously. After seeing the museum’s exhibits (the museum is supposed to be expanding in the coming months) we saw the house where my father lived which was also in the same complex as the school where my paternal grandfather taught, and that in turn was next door to their shul.
We were pleased to note that the building still served as a Jewish community center, and in the courtyard outside, we looked up and saw our father’s old bedroom window! It could be identified by a fault in the wall where there once was a balcony.
A plaque on the wall commemorated the Jewish soldiers who had fallen in the First World War (fighting for the Kaiser) – including our grandmother’s brother Heinrich (Chaim) Heinemann.
Another plaque commemorated Dr. Isaac Hallemann, the director of the orphanage in Fuerth who, like the famed Janush Korczak, chose to accompany his 30 young charges to the concentration camps rather than use his exit visa to get himself to freedom in Palestine. His children did escape, and his daughter was a member of our synagogue here in Petach Tikva until she died very recently at a very old age.
We also went by the house where my father’s grandparents lived. They were lucky enough to escape to Brazil with their daughter, our grandmother’s sister, and thus survived the war.
We proceeded to the town square (now an underground train station) where my father’s family was marched to on Kristallnacht, (see the story of my father’s experiences) and then to the library, which is now a theater, where my grandfather and the other men were taken to after the initial “assembly”, to be beaten by the Nazis. Again, it was shocking to actually see the places, and to absorb how innocuous these sites seem to be today.
We continued to the Old and New cemeteries to find graves of long deceased relatives, and then finished with a visit to the Schulhof, the square where 4 synagogues once stood together. The synagogues were all burnt down on Kristallnacht, and all that is left now is a rather ugly monument, and a modern housing estate around the square.
My father recalls asking his mother “why is the sky red?” as they returned from their forced march to the square on Kristallnacht, and his mother saying “Quiet! Don’t say a word!”. I’m trying to imagine his trauma as a 9 year old child, and cannot fathom it.
We left Fuerth rather subdued at the depressing memories and the sight of the rather grim-looking town and went further back into history.
Schopfloch – The Holocaust Even in this Tiny Village
We continued our journey to the little village of Schopfloch – which I used to think was a made-up name 🙂 – an altogether happier affair, where we saw the village where our paternal grandmother grew up.
We had imagined a little dumpy town but it is in fact quite a pretty little village. Our great-grandparents Heinemann owned a knitting factory there, and the building still stands though it is now residential. We met a couple of locals who remembered the factory and the family name, but none of them could speak Lachoudish – the curious mixture of Hebrew and German (not Yiddish) that became the local dialect amongst both Jews and Gentiles.
Even in this tiny village of 2,000, the Holocaust did not pass over the Jews and we found the memorial plaque in the memory of those murdered. You can read my report of this day in more detail here.
An Overload of Emotions
This intense and emotional day concluded our roots trip to Germany, and left us with an overload of emotions to work through.
From reading this diary you might get the impression that the Jewish experience consists of memorial plaques and graves, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. But there were the positive things too.
I’m glad we made this trip and found that the “bogeyman” isn’t so scary after all, and that the Germans are making sincere efforts to atone for the sins of their fathers.
Sadly with the rise of the new antisemitism, we must remain eternally vigilant to combat this vicious disease.
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