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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Echoes of the Past Mishpacha magazine 2010

Echoes of the Past

By Debbie Shapiro

"It all started out when my nearly deaf uncle, Karl Shapiro, learned how to use email. It opened up a whole new world to him -- and to me." I was sitting across the supper table from my husband, Dovid Shapiro, listening to him describe the amazing chain of events that was to culminate in our traveling to Berlin, where we were to attend an official reception to honor five German gentiles.

My husband, Dovid, is, among many other things, an amateur genealogist. He has succeeded in tracing one branch of his family tree back to the year 1620. Whereas other people relax with the latest copy of the Mishpacha, Dovid unwinds by piecing together the many different puzzles of his family history.

Dovid continues, "Although my paternal grandmother, Henrietta nee Shulman, was a third generation American, she was extremely proud of her German-Jewish roots. She spoke a fluent German and stayed in close contact with her extended family in Germany. After the Nazis rose to power, she succeeded in bringing several distant cousins to the United States, and they were much more familiar with our family history. Many years later, a distant cousin informed me that the names of my grandmother's great-grandparents (my great-great-great-grandparents) were Yosef Loeb and Pessl (daughter of Bessl) Shulman (nee Winter).

"But that's as much as I knew, until my uncle Karl informed me (via email, of course) that the Shulmans had lived in Wassertruedingen –a town in Middle Franconia, which, for those of us not familiar with German geography, is a section of Northern Bavaria and has a prominent spot on the Jewish map. Known by the Jews as Wassertrilling, the Chida even mentioned it in some of his books. Although the puzzle was beginning to take form, huge chunks were still missing.

"Several years later, I saw a notice that the Nuremberg Genealogical Society had prepared a CD of the Jewish metrical (census) records of Middle Franconia. Although Yosef Loeb, was not listed for Wassertruedingen, he was listed in the nearby village of Moenchsroth (I later learned that his wife was born in Wasssertuedingen). All the pieces fit; he was the approximate age of my great-great-great grandfather and he had two sons, Heinlein and Lazarus who immigrated to America. Heinlein, my great-great-grandfather, Americanized his name to Henry, and Lazarus, great-great-uncle used the name Louis. With more research I learned that the Jews of Moenchsroth, together with the Jews of Wittelshofen, Feuchtwangen and Dinkelsbuehl all buried their dead in the Schopfloch Cemetery.

"Close to a decade later, a colleague told me about Angelika Brosig, a German woman living in Schopfloch, who was posting the German inscriptions from the tombstones on her website. Tombstones contain a wealth of information – date of birth and death, name of father, and, very often, names of spouse and children - so for me this was like finding a goldmine! I contacted Angelika and offered to transcribe and translate the tombstones' Hebrew inscriptions, assuming (and correctly so) that the Hebrew would contain additional information that would help me to piece the puzzle together as well as tell me about my family's positions in the Jewish community.

"Angelika sent me photos of over one hundred tombstones. In addition, another German gentile, Mr. Rolf Hofmann, who is researching the Jewish communities of Schwabia, including Wallerstein, where part of my family had once lived, shared crucial information that helped me figure out how many of the people whose tombstones I was deciphering were related to me.  Although I have yet to find my great-great-great-grandparents graves, Angelika has yet to renovate the old part of the cemetery, which is the section where they are probably buried.

"I was – and still am - amazed at how this gentile woman basically adopted the Schopfloch Jewish cemetery. She paid for the stones that were completely covered with lichen to be professionally cleaned and repaired. Those stones that were beyond repair, she hired a stonemason to create new ones. She researched family trees and posted the results on her website. She contacted survivors from Schopfloch, as well as their descendents, to tell them about the results of her research. In addition, she gives guided tours of the cemetery and lectures to the local population about the once thriving Jewish community of upper Bavaria. She even built a model of the Schopfloch Shul that was exhibited in the museum in Cronheim."

Dovid's excitement is contagious. It's amazing to him—and to me—that a German woman would give so much of herself to make sure that the Jews of her home town – my husband's ancestors -- are not forgotten.  "And that's exactly why I nominated her for the prestigious Obermayer Award; to encourage her to continue. It's my way of showing kavod hameis."

What is the Obermayer Award?
It all began in 1997, when Dr. Arthur Obermayer, a well-known philanthropist who made his fortune in high-tech, made a pilgrimage to Southern Germany to research his family's roots. In almost every town he visited, he was assisted by citizens researching local Jewish history. In Fuerth, for example, he met Gisela Blume (who later converted to Judaism and is shomer Torah and mitzvos) who devoted eight years of her life to restoring the Jewish cemetery. On Obermayer's previous visit to Fuerth, thirteen years before, the tombstones had been piled to one side of the cemetery, unconnected to their gravesites. Blume used pre-Holocaust photographs and plot plans to figure out where each stone belonged. She even interviewed families and learned Hebrew so that she could read the tombstones herself.
When Obermayer told fellow genealogists about his experience, he discovered that it was not unique. "I was amazed at what these people were doing. They were giving so much of themselves, yet no one was doing anything to pay tribute to their contribution, which is why, in the year 2000, I established the awards."

Over the last ten years, The Obermayer Foundation has awarded fifty German gentiles with the Obermayer German History Award for their work in preserving local Jewish history. In addition to official recognition and a framed certificate, each of the awardees receive a cash prize. Almost all of the recipients have used the money to further their work for the Jewish community.

Nominating Angelika

Rabbi Shapiro continues: "I realized that nominating Angelika would be a wonderful way to express my appreciation for all she had done for my family. So I contacted several other people who had also been helped by her research, as well as Germans, both Jewish and gentile, who had worked together with her, and asked if they would be willing to support her nomination, which they were all more than happy to do.

"One of the people I contacted put me in touch with Mr. Phillip Urwin-Smith of England, who, thanks to Angelika's research, discovered that he was Jewish. Although he is not yet religious, today he identifies himself as a Jew and is very proud of it. For me, this really underscores the importance of Angelika's work and of this type of research in general."

Dovid explains the nomination process: "After answering a lengthy questionnaire and collecting newspaper articles describing Angelika's work, I forwarded everything to the Obermayer Foundation and waited to hear the results. Two months later, the seven judges, all experts in Jewish-German history, notified Angelika that she was one of the awardees.

"On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, Angelike sent me the following email: '…it was Mr. Obermeyer calling me personally to congratulate me as the first to get the Obermeyer-Prize and that they were all impressed about my work -not only for the cemetery but for the people!  YIPPIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE:-))))))))))) So our work in the cemetery will be secured for 2010!!!!'"


That's how, several months later, my husband and I ended up in -- of all places -- Berlin. Berlin! It was there that the leaders of the ”Enlightenment” embraced a foreign culture; it was there that Hitler announced his plans for the Final Solution. It was one city – one country – that I had always said I would never tread on its blood-stained soil. Yet, as I descended the commuter plane's steep staircase and gingerly maneuvered my way across the icy tarmac to the airport shuttle, the enormity of the moment was lost to me.  I could only focus on the mechanics of leaving the airport. I was numb with exhaustion -- we had spent the last eight hours trying to see as much of Prague (where we had a lengthy layover) as we possibly could – and desperately in need of the hot meal and the comfortable beds that were waiting for us at the Berlin Chabad Center.

Forty-five minutes later, as our car parked in front of Berlin's Chabad Center, reality hit me. The large, imposing building, with its concrete posts strategically spaced to stop a car from plowing into the structure, and its high chain-linked fence to prevent trespassers from entering, appeared more like a fortress than a synagogue. The small booth marked "Polizei" placed in front of the entrance and the two guards, stamping their feet and rubbing their gloved hands to keep from freezing, confirmed my suspicion that this could not be something as innocuous as a Jewish center. But the wonderful Jewish couple who had met us at the airport and drove us to the Center just laughed at my shocked expression and said, "Get used to it. This is Germany. There are policemen posted in front of every synagogue."

Despite its forbidding exterior, the Chabad House was warm and inviting. We spent the next few days alternating between luxuriating in its warm Yiddisheh cocoon and shaking our head in amazement at Chabad's many incredible accomplishments. Shabbos was truly an international celebration. At Rabbi Teichtal, the head shaliach's regal, prewar home, we shared the Friday night Shabbos seuda with a multi-billionaire from Florida, a factory owner from Montreal, two kashrus supervisors from Antwerp (who had come from Poland to spend Shabbos in the nearest frum community – Berlin), a teacher from Brazil, another teacher from Israel, a few Jewish students from the day school and Rabbi Teichtal's wonderful family. When Rabbi Teichtal's thirteen year old son was asked to give over a dvar Torah, he looked around at the many guests and asked, "But Tatty, which language should I say it in?"

The city of Berlin is cold and impersonal, yet –like the Chabad House – it is also bustling with activity. Everything is precisely organized, keeping to a perfectly synchronized timetable. Even the buses arrive exactly – and I mean exactly! -- on time! Although I was too busy to think beyond the polished, stainless steel veneer, every once in a while, when someone ever-too-politely opened a door for me or gallantly ushered me into a waiting taxi, I'd feel a chill of recognition. It was with this same exaggerated civility that the Jews of Germany were whisked away into black limousines, never to be heard of again. Danke schoen, bitte schoen; the words grated in my ears like a double edged sword.

With the Awardees

Sunday evening we took the UBahn, Berlin's incredibly clean and efficient subway, across town to the ultra modern Abion Spreebogen Hotel built on the edge of the Spree River, to meet Angelika for the first time. The moment we entered the hotel, frozen and dazed the walk from the subway station to the hotel, Angelika magically appeared and introduced herself. After a flurry of hugs (from me), nods (from my husband) and exclamations (from all of us) of “I can’t believe we’re actually speaking to each other!” she introduced us to Birgit Haehnlein-Haeberlein, the female stonemason who works together with her in erecting new stones. Haehnlein-Haeberlein's great grandfather worked as the cemetery’s previous mason until the Nazis forbade him from serving the Jews.

That night we also met the other four awardees:

Helmut Gabeli of Haigerloch: After discovering that the local supermarket had once been a synagogue, Gabeli succeeded – despite fierce local opposition -- in purchasing the building and restoring it as a National Monument and museum to educate young Germans about Haigerloch's Jews.

Barbara Greve of Gilserberg: In researching local Jewish history, Greve pieced together family trees, many of them going back to the seventeenth century as well as teaching her local community that, despite their desire to believe otherwise, a thriving Jewish community once lived in their midst.

Heidemarie Kugler-Weiemann of Luebeck: Kugler-Weiemann has spent the last 18 years researching Luebeck’s Holocaust history and then spread her knowledge through teaching, tours, exhibitions, forums, memorials, articles and books. In addition to impacting her community, she has developed very strong personal relationships with survivors from Luebeck.

Walter Ott of Muensingen-Buttenhausen: As a teenager Ott belonged to Hitler's Youth; today, he has spent the last three decades of his life telling local Germans – most who would prefer to forget this chapter of their past -- about the village's once-thriving Jewish community. In addition to establishing a Jewish museum, he has restored the town’s abandoned cemetery and made close contact with descendants of Buttenhausen’s Jews.

Our visit with Angelika was short; all the awardees, together with their nominators, were leaving on a chartered bus to attend a banquet. But although the organizers had offered to provide us with separate, kosher meals, we did not attend. The Jews who had lived in these small villages were frum, G-d fearing Yidden; their lives revolved around the community shul and we did not think it appropriate to sit at a table watching their descendants eat foods that they would have found abhorrent.

The following morning, Monday, we once again met the group at the hotel, this time to join them on a four hour bus tour of Berlin.   As the Israeli born guide pointed out the points of interest: the National Opera Building, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag, the Schossplatz, the Rathaus, the Victory Column, I stifled a yawn. The city of Berlin does not interest me; it's not part of me, it has nothing to do with who I am or where I came from. I did, however, feel a tinge of excitement as we approached the Brandenberg Gate, symbol of German's military might. This last Chanukah, at this historical site where Hitler celebrated the triumphs of his new regime, Chabad lit the menorah and thousands of Jews rejoiced in Am Yisrael's survival. Later on, when the guide pointed out Berlin's central train station, he added, "Each morning at exactly six o'clock a train full of Jews departed this station to Theresienstadt." I envisioned the long lines of Berlin Jews, numbed by the swift change of events, trudging along the ice en route to the train station. Tragically, many of them were still holding on to their belief that their ties to Berlin were stronger than their ties to Jerusalem.

The highlight of our tour was Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind, where we heard the touching story of how Weidt had saved his workers from deportation. Our final destination (no pun intended) was Berlin's famous Holocaust Memorial, which consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged like tombstones over 4.7 acres of prime real estate. The somber black stones are coated with a substance to make them silky-smooth. The company that created this substance made their fortune from the gold teeth pulled from Jewish corpses. One of the company's subsidiaries manufactured the gas that was used in the gas chamber. To me, these somber black stones did not commemorate anything, other than ultra-modern architecture.

Our next stop was a press conference that the Obermayer Foundation had organized to give the German Press an opportunity to meet the awardees and their nominators. It began at exactly one o'clock (I was watching that second hand very carefully!) and, other than Dr. Obermayer's speech, was conducted almost completely in German! After the conference, my husband and I returned to our lodgings to get some rest before the award ceremony that was to take place later on that evening.

The Award Ceremony

The ceremony took place in the Plenary Chamber of Berlin's historical Abgeordnetenhaus, the present Berlin Parliament building. It was in this elegant building -- constructed in the style of the Italian High Renaissance – that, in 1933, the National Socialists – the Nazis – emerged as Germany's strongest party, signaling the beginning of the Nazi regime. In 1934, the building was used to house Hitler's kangaroo style "people's Court," and later on, from 1936 to 1945, Hermann Goring converted it into an elite officer's club. After the War, it became the seat of the East German government. Today, after the reunification of Germany, it houses Berlin's House of Representatives.

Speakers at the ceremony included Dr. Walter Momper President of Berlin's House of Representatives; Dr. Arthur Obermayer, President of the Obermayer Foundation; Sara Nachama, executive director of Touro College, Berlin, who read a letter of greeting from Charlotte Knoblach, president of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany; and Prof. Dr. Jutta Limbach former vice-president of the Constitutional Court of Germany and president of the Goethe-Institute. The speakers all stressed that the key to preventing future anti-Semitism lies in remembering Germany's past mistakes.  

Interspersed between the speeches, musicians entertained us with classical German music. The reception following the ceremony was extremely elegant, yet, as with the actual award ceremony, it lacked Jewish content.

We returned to our lodgings that evening with mixed emotions. Yes, we were grateful to Dr. Obermayer for giving us the opportunity to express our gratitude to Angelika, yet I felt as if the evening was commemorating dusty relics, mere "echoes of the past" (Journeys I).

The very next morning my husband delivered a shiur to a group of rabbinical students at Berlin's Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary (part of the Lauder Yeshurun Yeshiva), a living commemoration of the prewar seminary with the same name, and I sang Torah Tziva lanu Moshe with a group of energetic kindergarten children, vibrant flowering saplings with strong, eternal roots.



A retired social worker living on a disability pension, Angelika Brosig grew up in Ansbach, not far from Schopfloch. Her father was wounded during World War II while serving in the Wehrmacht.

Angelika became interested in the Jewish cemetery after accompanying a friend there. When her friend saw the state of disrepair, she began to cry, saying, "It's terrible, the stones aren't readable, the plants and trees are all overgrown." Angelika was surprised. It seemed natural for a cemetery to decay, but her friend argued that it's not good for the descendants. After that, Angelika started systematically documenting and photographing the worn tombstones, and then posting her findings on a website.
Why would a German woman devote herself to preserving a Jewish cemetery? Dr. Arthur Obermayer, founder of the Obermayer German Jewish History Award points out that many Germans born after the Holocaust resent being made to feel guilty for their parents' mistakes. They want to be judged individually on their own values and action, not by those of their ancestors. On the other hand, as German citizens they feel an obligation to preserve the history of the Jews who once lived there.
Angelika has made renovating the Schopfloch Cemetery her mission in life. Recently, she withdrew her life's savings from the bank and invested it in repairing and replacing worn tombstones. When we mentioned something to her about it, she wrote back, "I never married and I never had any children. The Schopfloch Cemetery is my life; this is what I am living for."

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