Where our families come from: Jewish Holocaust history

On a July morning, I found myself with my six Israeli daughters in a tiny German village outside of Bad Mergentheim, Germany (where I lived until the age of four).

 BERTA FROEHLICH, matriarch of a prestigious German Jewish family in Bad Mergentheim, with the youngest of her 12 children, Geta, pre-World War II.  (photo credit: Courtesy Leah Abramowitz)
BERTA FROEHLICH, matriarch of a prestigious German Jewish family in Bad Mergentheim, with the youngest of her 12 children, Geta, pre-World War II.
(photo credit: Courtesy Leah Abramowitz)

At a certain point in life, we sometimes get an urge to check out our ancestors – where we came from and who is responsible for our gene pool. 

Several months ago our middle daughter, Naomi, got bitten by the genealogy bug and infected me and some of her siblings. That’s how, on a July morning, I found myself with my six Israeli daughters in a tiny German village outside of Bad Mergentheim, Germany (where I lived until the age of four), enchanted by an ancient Jewish cemetery dating back 500 years.

Few people visit this site today. The graves in Wenkheim are in various states of decay, half standing, half returning to the earth. The stone walls and gravestones are overrun with jungle-like greenery, but we were able to discern that of my paternal grandfather and some of his brothers. I even found the grave of a sister-in-law who died at the age of 29, leaving two orphans, one of whom became the first beauty queen of Israel.

In preparation for the trip, much groundwork was carried out. This included contacting guides in communities which we planned to visit, who were also experts in the pre-war Jewish history of that community. From them we were able to glean information about those residents who were annihilated by the Nazi government. 

Some of these guides were just ordinary German citizens who had never met a Jew before. They offered their services free of charge to returning family members – people like us searching for their roots.

 EACH MAGEN David in the Massbach museum memorializes a Jewish citizen of Massbach persecuted by the Nazis. (credit: Courtesy Leah Abramowitz) EACH MAGEN David in the Massbach museum memorializes a Jewish citizen of Massbach persecuted by the Nazis. (credit: Courtesy Leah Abramowitz)

The generosity of strangers

Dieter Janitz, his wife Ora, both retired school teachers, together with Hartwig Behr, took us around Bad Mergentheim. They showed us the homes and businesses of my father’s family, where they went to school and the site of the burnt-down synagogue. We also soaked our feet in the mineral baths after which the town got its prefix “Bad.” Some places, for example the Kurgarten and the huge park behind the castle, even appear in some of my childhood black-and-white photographs. 

For us, the most depressing spot was the site from which the remaining Jewish residents were evacuated. From there, some, like my father’s sister and her six children, were taken “east” to places like Riga, where they were shot on arrival. Others, like my two grandmothers and my grandfather, were transported to Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp, where inmates were either executed or slowly died from starvation and disease.

We learned a great deal about my family from our guides, one of whom, Behr, has written a book in German about the Jews of Mergentheim. He devotes a whole chapter to my family, Froehlich. Extracts have been translated into English. 

Through our guides, we discovered that we originally came from a smaller, nearby village called Untersaltersheim, where my grandfather, David, started a cattle and slaughterhouse business, and my father, Max, the oldest, was born. 

After moving to Bad Mergentheim, where the rest of my father’s 11 siblings were born, the David Froehlich & Sons Export butcher business really took off with my father at the head. The firm prided itself on being very modern and even had a telephone and the first automobile in town. They also boasted that they paid the most taxes of anyone in the town. This, however, along with my father’s service in World War I, did not help once the persecution began in the late 1930s. 

Our host – the mayor

We were hosted by the mayor in the magnificent old city hall in the town square. Currently serving the second of an eight-year term, the mayor was more interested in bragging about the town’s growth and development under his leadership than what brought a family of seven women from Israel to his town.

But the dedication of our guides and their helpers during our trip was another story altogether. They belong to the Stolperstein movement which places Stolperstein gold-colored cobblestones, engraved with the names of those who were killed by the Nazis, on the streets in front of their homes. We decided there and then to have a stone engraved in front of our grandmother Berta’s house.

From Behr’s meticulous research, we learned how our magnificent family matriarch, Berta, ended her life. As the wife and mother of a large, well-to-do German-Jewish family, Berta was the center of the Froehlich clan. The family gathered at her home every Friday night – sons, daughters, in-laws, grandchildren and guests. 

By the end of her life, however, she was left almost alone and had been forced to sell both her business and her home. Having received a precious certificate to enter Mandate Palestine, she preferred to give it to her only remaining and unmarried daughter, Geta, who didn’t want to leave her mother. Berta insisted that she go, as by then the regulations were quite harsh. 

All of the younger generation had gradually immigrated to Palestine and the US. My father was the last to leave in November 1939, having finally realized that the Nazi regime was not a passing phenomenon. This fact alone is the reason that I’m here to tell the tale. We know that Berta, along with over a hundred descendants, perished in Theresienstadt, penniless, sick and alone.

Schweinfurt – maternal grandparents

We then turned to my maternal grandparents who lived in Schweinfurt, where they had a shoe store. We were totally unprepared for their dramatic stories. I didn’t know that my grandmother Meta, for example, was also one of 12 siblings from the Katzenberger family in Massbach, today a town of 4,500 residents. Our guides, Klaus Bub and Klaus Schweitzer, both retired teachers like in Mergentheim, were also connected to the Stolperstein movement.

We learned that many Jewish families lived in Massbach before World War II and were well integrated there. In the Jewish kindergarten and school, Christian and Jewish children learned together. Meta lived around the corner from Bernard Schwartzenberger, her future husband, and most of her siblings became businesspeople. Leo, one of the brothers, set up a chain of shoe stores in southern Germany, 24 in total. His siblings were also involved in the business.

Leo was also the head of the Orthodox Jewish community of Nuremberg around the time the Nazis came into power. His wealth and political standing made him a focus of special attention.

At age 70, Leo was accused of forming a romantic connection with a young 18-year-old Aryan girl, something which was forbidden under the racist laws. 

Having been convicted at trial by a Nazi judge, he was sentenced to death by guillotine in a huge show trial. His story has been turned into a film and features in at least two books. All the other surviving Katzenberger siblings, except for one, David, were evacuated to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in their old age, where they all eventually perished. Many of their children, however, managed to immigrate either to Palestine or the US.

We are now in the process, some 80 years later, of tracing these far-flung relatives.

But back in Massbach, we toured the sites connected to our relatives, their homes and their Jewish centers. We also saw the plaques set up by people like our guides, commemorating all those residents who were deported, never to be heard of again. 

As the synagogue was never destroyed, one of our guides, Klaus Bub, turned it into a Jewish museum, which is visited mainly by schoolchildren and the few tourists who go to Massbach.

Bub is an extraordinary individual. He engraved Stolpersteins for each of the Jews from Massbach, most of whom perished in Theresienstadt. Bub knew that the Nazis cremated these victims and threw their ashes in the river in order to destroy the evidence. With that in mind, he rode his bicycle to Czechoslovakia (a week-long journey) intending to lay the stones at the river’s edge. When the Czech authorities wouldn’t allow that, he ceremoniously threw all the stones into the water to join the departed and rode back home.

The only Katzenberger son to survive the ordeal was David. In 1944, when the war was almost over, he answered a call for volunteers to travel by train to Switzerland to be exchanged for German prisoners of war. Nobody in Theresienstadt wanted to take up the offer, since train rides usually took inmates to Auschwitz and immediate death. 

David Katzenberger declared, “What do I have to lose at the age of 69? If I stay here, I’ll die like everyone else; but if there’s a chance to live, I’ll take it.” Indeed, within two hours of leaving the camp, he was in Switzerland and a free man. He contacted his sons in Palestine who managed to get him a certificate. Consequently, he lived in Israel until 1966.

Theresienstadt – an emotional visit

There then followed an emotional tour of Theresienstadt which, to our surprise, was much larger and more gruesome than expected. We learned that the Germans took the trouble to “dress up” sections of the camp for the Red Cross and other international visitors so that the camp looked like a recreation home. 

We saw where inmates, like my relatives, apparently worked. We also saw the execution field, the infirmary and the crematorium that worked day and night. We brought memorial candles and an Israeli flag with us and held a spontaneous ceremony on the outskirts of the camp. 

Our week-long trip not only strengthened our family ties but also gave each of us an appreciation of Israel and, in particular, how essential the establishment of our state was. We left with a feeling of gratitude from on-High and the words “There but for the grace of God go I” ringing in our ears. 

The surprising Jewish museum of Massbach

Klaus Bub is a retired teacher who lives in Massbach. A pleasant, strong-minded individual, Bub belongs to the Stolperstein movement, which commemorates Jewish victims of the Nazi regime by paving streets and sidewalks with personalized cobblestones where the murdered lived. He also acquired the building that was once the town’s synagogue and turned it into an impressive Jewish museum, as mentioned.

Display windows on the ground floor show Jewish artifacts – a prayer shawl, tefillin, a menorah, shofar, ritual slaughtering knives and so on. In one corner there’s a photo of young girl hurrying home with her braids flying in the wind and a live chicken over her shoulder – on her way to the pre-New Year kaparot ceremony. Bub even knows the name of this 12-year-old girl who lived in the town. She survived the Holocaust and lives in the US. 

In the window on the other side of the entrance, newspaper clippings and public notices issued by the government, from the period leading up to the nationalistic regime, are displayed. There are also notices that the Nazis posted periodically containing ever harsher, new decrees for the Jewish population, culminating in the order to report for deportation, which included how much luggage was permitted and dire warnings for those who did not obey.

The third floor, which may have been the women’s section of the synagogue, is dedicated to Judaica, comprising prayer books, holiday symbols and even a Torah ark, rescued from a junkyard. The decorative curtain of the ark, the parochet, is a genuine antique dating from the 13th century. Bub managed to raise a large sum of money to purchase it. 

The parochet was pulled back to reveal a Torah scroll, which also had a story. Sadly, however, as Bub does not read Hebrew, it was up to us to inform him that the scroll, although authentic looking, was not kosher, as some of the parchment sheets were not connected in the right sequence or were missing.

Other rooms were also very moving. One was lit only by a memorial candle and a wall of illuminated Magen Davids, each one commemorating one of the residents who were expelled, by name, date of birth, address, profession and family status. Another contained snippets of Hebrew writing and remnants of holy texts on parchment or paper. These must have been stored, perhaps for centuries, in the attic or geniza where old and incomplete holy scripts are stored in every synagogue in the world. 

We also were able to identify a scrunched-up page from the daily morning Tachanun prayer, perhaps in my forefathers’ daily ritual. Another scorched strip of parchment formed part of the text found in the tefillin. Who had last handled these ritual items? Why were they abandoned in this museum in the small town of Massbach? We were very moved indeed. ❖