Kiddush cups: Loss and hope

Every family’s story can speak for all of us on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

THE SILVER Kiddush cup given to the writer’s late husband John on his birth by his grandmother Nanny Katten, who perished in Therezenstadt. The cup has been passed down to the couple’s son Adam. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE SILVER Kiddush cup given to the writer’s late husband John on his birth by his grandmother Nanny Katten, who perished in Therezenstadt. The cup has been passed down to the couple’s son Adam.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My late husband, John, inherited and treasured a number of silver kiddush cups from his father’s family. The cups are rooted deeply in the Katten family tree going back six generations.
John, whose birth name was Hans Gottfried, managed to escape Germany and the Shoah by arriving in Britain in March 1939. He came with his sister and their father, Rabbi Dr. Max Katten who, for the previous nine years had been the rabbi of the Bamberg Jewish Community; a prestigious appointment, as it also embraced being the rabbi of the surrounding areas.
Initially his mother, Vilma, remained behind. Her task was to settle her mother-in-law into a new home as she was unable to leave Germany. Grandma Katten had been widowed when her only son – John’s father – was eight years old. As a result, she had lived with the family as long as John could remember.
Vilma was the practical one of the couple. His father, John would say, knew only the direction of his study. Aside from being a learned rabbi, he spoke several languages, played the piano at the level of a professional pianist and painted the most beautiful watercolors. Vilma was tasked with finding a “parents’ home” where his mother might end her days in peace. Surely, they thought, no one – not even the Germans – would touch an elderly woman.
John was never quite sure why Grandma Katten did not come to England with the family. The sense was that she was unable to receive the obligatory exit papers. One can only imagine how hard it must have been for a son to leave his mother – especially one with whom he had lived virtually his entire life – in Hitler’s Germany.
Cup given to grandson Toby on the occasion of his engagement (Courtesy).Cup given to grandson Toby on the occasion of his engagement (Courtesy).
When writing his Shoah story for our grandchildren, John was reminded of the arguments between his parents that, he concluded, were because his mother wanted to leave Germany much earlier than his father, who must have found it exceedingly painful to leave his mother behind.
Vilma settled Grandma Katten into a pleasant home for those in their declining years. Tragically, however, her years ended horrifically; she was murdered by the Germans in Theresienstadt. (Readers might wonder why I do not use the name “Nazis” in place of “Germans.” This is what I learned from my husband, who believed that the usage of “Nazi” was an attempt to create another species removed from that of the Germans.)
Having settled her mother-in-law in an elderly people’s home, Vilma then traveled to Hungary to say goodbye to her own parents. It proved to be the final time she saw her mother and her father, Rabbi Dr. Michael Guttmann, who headed the prestigious Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. Talmudic scholar Guttmann represented the Hungarian Jewish Community at the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925, where he remained for a year lecturing at the Faculty of Jewish Studies; he died a normal death in Hungary in 1942.
Tragically, Vilma’s mother committed suicide when her son Henry (John’s uncle), his wife and young child Arieh were taken away by the Germans when they entered Hungary in 1944, culminating in the virtual elimination of Hungarian Jewry. Of the 709,000 Jews who lived in Hungary prior to the Holocaust, only 144,000 remained at the conclusion of the war.
Uncle Henry managed to survive by escaping from a synagogue in Budapest in November 1944, where he and other Jews had been herded by the Germans. His wife and young son Arieh were murdered in Auschwitz.
Vilma finally made it to England in August 1939 – literally days before the commencement of World War II. Somehow she managed to salvage and bring with her a few silver kiddush cups that had been in the Katten family since the 1700s.
John could trace his family back to the time the Kattens lived in the German state of Hessen in the small towns and villages around Marburg. Records begin with Sholam ben Simla, a Katten born in 1720. The cups that arrived in England had dates inscribed going back to the early 1800s.
FOUR YEARS ago, our youngest son, Adam, celebrated his 50th birthday. For this milestone birthday, John (Hans) decided to give him the kiddush cup which was given to him on his birth in 1928 and which he used to make kiddush every Shabbat and Yom Tov up until the moment he gave it to Adam.
The cup has two inscriptions: The first says “Gewidmet von der Leben Grossmutter 1891” (Dedicated to my dear Grandmother). The second inscription reads “Nanny Katten – zu mein liebe Enkel Hans Gottfried Katten, Gorlitz, May 1928” (Nanny Katten – to my dear grandchild Hans Gottfried Katten).
To celebrate the engagement of our London-based grandson, Toby, John gave to him and Emma, his lovely bride-to-be, one of his precious kiddush cups inscribed with the date September 9, 1853; initials A.K; and the beginning of the name Katten, which appears to fade after the Ka. Toby recently invited his parents for a Friday night dinner, reciting kiddush using his inherited kiddush cup. I found this very moving and hoped my husband was looking down, feeling, as I was, blessed to have a grandson who recited kiddush and valued the gift of the cup beyond that of a simple present.
While the survival of the family cups and their usage represents continuity, there can be no doubt that the greatest miracle of all is our survival as a Jewish people.
On January 27, many countries will commemorate International Holocaust Day and mark 75 years since the Soviet Army liberated 7,000 souls at Auschwitz – the majority of whom were sick and dying. Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz; more than 1.1 million of them were murdered.
Reflecting on the barbaric annihilation of six million of our brethren solely because they were Jews, we take stock. Hitler initially wanted to rid himself of the Jews, but there were too few countries willing to take in Jewish refugees. Hitler and the Germans were the prime murderers, but there can be no doubt that the free world played its part by closing its gates to Jews seeking refuge.
In light of the appalling rise in antisemitism worldwide, we, the Jewish people, face steep challenges, but compared to recent years, we are privileged. We are the generation blessed to have witnessed and benefited from the rebirth of Israel in our time. John’s grandmother, his uncle and cousin and countless others could have lived and flourished had the time gap between the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 UN Partition Plan enabling the modern State of Israel been 10 years shorter.
The kiddush cups have survived. Let us hope that their usage will survive, too. My prayer is that my grandchildren and yours will continue to pass on the kiddush cups and our traditions from one generation to another and be able to recite the kiddush in freedom
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.