Revisiting family roots in Germany

It has long been my husband’s contention that antisemitism in Germany’s rural areas was less onerous initially than it was in the cities. Details that emerged during our visit tended to dispute that.

 Herr Zeller pulling a wagon with a small suitcase and knapsack. (photo credit: SURA JESELSOHN)
Herr Zeller pulling a wagon with a small suitcase and knapsack.
(photo credit: SURA JESELSOHN)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

I find myself grappling with the knowledge that the 2022 commemoration of Kristallnacht in the Jeselsohn ancestral southern German village of Neckarbischofsheim might have been the most important day in my husband’s life. After so many years and after so many words and so much pain, it is hard to imagine that there is something new to be said or felt.

Nothing about the Holocaust is understandable or forgivable, yet many members of the Jeselsohn family were the guests of the town of Neckarbischofsheim on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It has long been my husband’s contention that antisemitism in Germany’s rural areas was less onerous initially than it was in the cities. Details that emerged during our visit tended to dispute that.

They include the fact that his grandfather recognized many of the men who destroyed the synagogue, and Jewish belongings were auctioned across from the courthouse right as the Jews were being deported.

Antisemitism in rural Germany during the Holocaust

My husband’s elderly grandparents, Samuel and Maile (Amalie) Jeselsohn, fled Germany shortly after Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the British Mandate of Palestine. Having been forced to turn over the keys of the synagogue to Nazi thugs, my husband’s grandfather saw his beloved shul completely destroyed. He and his brother Theodor sold their two businesses, their homes and their fields. Although they were allowed to take their belongings and furniture with them, they were not allowed to take any money out of the country. Possibly the money from the sales of property was converted to goods that accompanied them.

Their three sons had already left Germany. My father-in-law, Sigmund, the middle child, was a lawyer. He became a partner of Ludwig Marum in Karlsruhe, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1933, paraded through the streets and subsequently died in a concentration camp. My father-in-law fled over the rooftops and left Germany immediately, eventually making his way to Palestine. 

 Stolpersteine for Samuel & Amalie Jeselsohn. (credit: SURA JESELSOHN) Stolpersteine for Samuel & Amalie Jeselsohn. (credit: SURA JESELSOHN)

The eldest son, Albert, had left in 1936 and settled in Haifa, where he was part of the textile industry. The youngest son, Ludwig, had become an apprentice to the metal trading firm Aron Hirsch Kupfer at a young age. He started working in Halberstadt, then Berlin, was transferred to Amsterdam, and in 1937 finally immigrated to the United States.

These grandparents, Samuel and Maile, landed in Tel Aviv and lived in an apartment in the same building in which their middle son Sigmund and his wife, Lina, lived. Sigmund and Lina (Li, as she was known) had four children. In birth order, they were Aryeh (my husband), David, Eliezer and Leah. The influence Samuel had on his oldest grandchild, Aryeh, was enormous. Retired but otherwise active, he had the time to interact with the older grandchildren in a fashion that he could not when his own children were young. And he had an eager audience.

While the trauma of events in Germany was not openly discussed, Samuel told his grandchildren endless stories of his beloved Neckarbischofsheim. They internalized an idyllic village, knew the names of locals and their professions. They learned the local geography, about the community’s shul, the location of the brook where the women would go to toivel (ritually cleanse in water) new kitchenware. They knew the names of other nearby villages and the rhythms of life. 

I have been part of the Jeselsohn family for over 50 years, and during that time we have made numerous pilgrimages to Neckarbischofsheim. Today there are slightly over 4,000 inhabitants, but all of the Jeselsohn history is largely confined to a few blocks where their former homes still stand, where the shul was, and where the homes of the other Jewish residents stood.

When I first started going there so many years ago, it was strange for me to see how many townspeople recognized my father-in-law as a Jeselsohn. Sometimes they were not sure which Jeselsohn he was, but the family resemblance was strong. People were leaning out of windows, stopping him on the street, greeting him like a long-lost relative.

Five years ago in 2017, a group of about 20 Jeselsohns from different branches of the family visited. This time, we had a local person act as our guide. Walter Zeller – and his wife Ute – have picked up the mantle of history. Years earlier, another local, Schuldekan Peter Beisel, had taken it upon himself to research the history of the local Jewish community, which can be documented from the early 1500s, although there is mention of Jews living in the general area already from the 1300s. But Herr Zeller, as has happened in other places, noticed as a youngster, the gaps in local history during the Nazi period. The houses of the locals are generally called by the names of the occupants, and when he could not understand how there were so many houses with names such as Jeselsohn and Bloch without inhabitants of those names, he started digging. He probably knows more about the community that was forced out or deported than anyone else today.

Another city of importance that the Jeselsohns visited in 2017 was Frankfurt. That was the first time that I had ever seen a stolperstein (stumbling block) set into the sidewalk. Frankfurt was filled with them. Each stone is part of a “decentralized memorial” to those murdered by the Nazis. 

Conceived by German artist Gunter Demning in 1992, these four-inch brass squares are affixed to stones set into the sidewalk. As of 2019, some 75,000 stolpersteine have been placed in countries throughout Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Austria and Lithuania. While most of the stolpersteine memorialize Jews, there are stolpersteine for other Nazi victims such as the Roma, the disabled, and members of the Social Democratic Party.

Demning had particular requirements: Each stone must be made by hand, each must begin with “Hier Wohnte” or “Hier Lebte” (Here Lived) to establish immediacy, then it records the person’s birth date, the date of deportation, destination after deportation, and date and location of their murder, as well as other safer destinations or places of refuge for those who escaped with their lives. While 14 stolpersteine were laid several years ago in Neckarbischofsheim, it did not include one for Aryeh’s grandparents.

In 2022, Neckarbischofsheim decided to lay 15 additional stones, including one for each of my husband’s grandparents. There were family discussions about who would attend the ceremony and the logistics involved. In the end, all of the children were present, in addition to two daughters-in-law and several grandchildren.

The commemorations of Kristallnacht, now renamed Pogrom Night by Germany, was composed of three parts: the laying of the stolpersteine; a memorial at the site of the erstwhile shul; and a town meeting in the evening at which several of the Jeselsohns spoke, as well as various town functionaries.

The laying of the stones commenced at around 2 p.m. Herr Zeller pulled a small wagon containing the stones, as well as a small suitcase and a knapsack representing the condition of the Jewish deportees, who were told they had one hour to take whatever could fit into such small valises before they were herded into trucks. A high school student read an original researched biography of the person(s) memorialized. Finally, a yahrzeit candle and a white rose were laid beside each stone. This process took over two hours, and for the entire time a silent, dignified group of about 30 locals accompanied the procession.

After a short break, we went to the site of the shul, where a small memorial had been raised several years ago, possibly at the behest of my father-in-law, Sigmund Jeselsohn. This crowd was even larger, possibly 60 people. Yiddish songs were performed, as well as many speeches delivered.

Finally, we all returned to the town hall. Again, speeches. There also were photos and documents exhibited for each person who used to call Neckarbischofsheim home. The mayor spoke, decrying rising antisemitism and voicing the need for Germany, in particular, to fight against it.

Of course, the final question is “How should we view these events?” Even so many years after the end of World War II, nothing is simple. It is true that no one present was responsible for the atrocities and the madness, but the Jewish community suffered grievous and enduring harm. I believe that the townspeople saw the Jeselsohn presence as a form of re-engagement, and it also underlined the loss to Germany of productive and loyal citizens. For my husband, it closed the circle. His beloved grandfather, a man deeply involved in the civic, as well as the Jewish life of Neckarbischofsheim, finally is recognized by the town that he loved and which abandoned him.  ■

Sura Jeselsohn is author of A Habit of Seeing: Journeys in Natural Science and can be contacted at