Pearl of the Ruhr: Unearthing a Jewish community in Werden, Germany

It still is an uphill battle in a town that, indeed, did restore the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery after the windstorm Kyrill wreaked havoc in 2007.

A postcard of Werden in 1916. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A postcard of Werden in 1916.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
"IF YOUR family had been Christian, they would have been given a memorial in the center of town,” says Marc Mülling. “But this town prefers to blot out the Jewish contribution to its past.”
Mülling has spent the past 17 years researching the history of the erstwhile Jewish community in his German hometown, Werden, now part of the city of Essen. Early on, he discovered that the founders of the big wood manufacturing company W. Döllken & Co., established in 1887, were Jews. As it happened, they were my forefathers, the Simon family. Marc Mülling contacted me more than a decade ago. Since then, we correspond, talk by phone and meet frequently.
Döllken employed hundreds of people in its heyday. Privately and through their factory, the Simon family was active in a broad variety of social and charitable causes. Quite unique was their privately funded medical care for the pregnant women, young mothers and babies in their town, especially notable because only 0.5% of the population was Jewish.
The Nazi regime finished off my family’s contributions to society. A crowd marched past the villa of my great-uncle and aunt, Ernst and Else Simon, in Werden, singing “When Jewish blood splashes from my knife, life is truly wonderful.” Some in that crowd may have owed their own or their mother’s life to the free medical care given by the Simons’ health center, directed by Else.
Werden is situated on the hilly banks of the Ruhr River in the industrialized western part of Germany. Its beauty earned it the nickname “Pearl of the Ruhr.” Though incorporated into the city of Essen in 1929, Werden retains its intimate medieval character, a palpable reflection of its 8th century origins around the imposing abbey church. In the woods on a hill overlooking the river, one finds the Jewish cemetery with some 65 gravestones.
“As a child, I played in the woods and once saw that mysterious, derelict garden with gravestones that had been vandalized in 1966. I did not understand what it was, but I never forgot the sight,” says Mülling. “After returning to live in Werden in 2000, I went back to the cemetery on Pastorats Hill and wondered why isn’t there any other sign of Jewish life in this town that obviously was once home to a Jewish community? Who were they? What happened to them?”
These questions ignited an expedition into the past that simultaneously turned into a long and stubborn fight to give the Jews their rightful place in the local collective memory. Fifteen years of diligent research have borne fruit. Mülling now knows virtually every Jew and where he or she lived in Werden, starting from the early nineteenth century when Jews first received permission to settle in the town.
“The Jewish community never numbered more than 80 people, usually around 60,” he says. “In the 1920s when your family’s company employed over 600 people, there were some 12,500 people living in Werden.” Today, no Jews live in the town.
Founder of the Jewish community
In April 2016, the district council of Werden voted in favor of a proposal, drafted by Mülling, to name one of the streets in a new neighborhood after Joseph Herz. A cattle trader and butcher, Herz, in 1808, became the first Jew to settle in Werden. Virtually no one in Werden today had heard of him.
The high-quality documentation Mülling put together created a Joseph Herz of flesh and blood and introduced his townsmen to a lost episode of their town’s history.
Until Napoleon established the Code Civil in the French occupied territories of Germany in 1808, the town’s regulations had forbidden Jews to settle. Herz, who lived in a nearby village, visited Werden beginning in 1795 to sell meat. When he and his family applied for citizenship, the mayor of Werden wrote in his recommendation that Herz “was known as someone who had always behaved honorably.” Soon after, his younger brother, Alexander, secured citizenship, as well. Others would follow, among them, in 1821 my great-great-greatgrandmother, Bella Kahn, along with her second husband, Isaac Baruch, together with the children she had with her first husband, the deceased Salomon Simon.
Herz fared well, moving with his butchery and stable to bigger houses. He founded the Jewish community, which organized its first religious service in 1816. Herz repeatedly functioned as its chairman. In 1830, he got permission to buy a piece of land for a cemetery, the same one Mülling would see some 140 years later.
Mülling’s documentation continues with the Herz brothers’ descendants in Werden, up until the very last ones. Herz and his sister Bertha were forced to move to the “House for Jews,” the Werden version of a ghetto, where they lived with Sophie Baum and her step-daughter Ruth. From there, the last four Jews of Werden were deported in 1942 to Izbica and Minsk. In the Yad Vashem database, all four are listed as victims of the Holocaust.
The Jewish cemetery houses a dozen graves of Herz family members. Joseph’s own burial stone is lost. But Mülling is happy that the Joseph Herz street sign mentions him as the founder of the Jewish community in Werden. For the people living in the neighborhood and the children growing up there, it will be common knowledge.
Ugly past
Without Mülling’s commitment to its rescue, the history of the Jews of Werden would have disappeared from the town like the Jews themselves. Obviously, the urge to forget the Jews was strong.
“Next to the Simon Company, the Rindskopf family employed 200 people in their apron factory. So, at least 800 people were employed by just two Jewish firms in a town of 12,500,” says Mülling. “People did their shopping in Jewish shops, greeted them in the street. Small in numbers, the Jews of Werden were very well-known. Then, with equal ease, they were publicly abused, their shop windows smashed, and were dispossessed of their property. The townspeople were witness to these brutalities, maybe participating.”
Besides having to overcome the suppression of the ugly past by local politicians, media and civic organizations, Mülling had to deal with a regional historiography that was in short supply and sometimes twisted. The history of Werden, being a small town, has not been given adequate scientific attention. Mistakes, sometimes manipulations and omissions, have found their way into publications and the public consciousness.
In the immediate surroundings, however, researchers and journalists have worked on reconstructing the lives of individual Jews or their communities.
“A few years ago, Susanne Mauss published “Nicht zugelassen” (Not admitted), a 600-page study with biographies of the Jewish lawyers in the Düsseldorf juridical district who were ousted from their professions by the Nazi regime in the 1930s,” says Mülling. “We were able to help her with information on those who were born in Werden, your father’s great-uncle Gustav Simon, year-long head of the Bar in Düsseldorf and your father’s uncle Emil Simon a practicing lawyer and, like his uncle Gustav, the Döllken company lawyer.”
“Another impressive book that came out recently is Claudia Flümann’s “…doch nicht bei uns in Krefeld” (...but not with us in Krefeld), a wide-ranging study of the vicious dispossession of the Jewish population of Krefeld with a lot of biographical data.”
He continues, “Compared to these nearby cities, the city of Essen, to which Werden belongs, is a woeful exception. Research should come from ‘The House of Jewish Culture’ [better known as the Old Synagogue], which in the past collected a lot of valuable material on Jewish life in the region, including among others, taped interviews. But the Old Synagogue no longer has any scientific interest, let alone scientific standing.
“Jewish history is treated with caution. One of the reasons might be that the Old Synagogue is part of the establishment in the city, which wishes to hush up the Aryanization [TS: the forced removal of Jews from the German economy] of the erstwhile biggest Jewish manufacturing company in the Essen area, the Simon family’s company, Döllken. The company, which still has the same logo and exists to this day, had its main office in Essen-Werden until 2000 when it moved to Gladbeck.
Just as the Simon family had previously been, the new ‘Aryan’ owners became part of the local industrial and political establishment and, therefore, are keen on obliterating the prewar story of how they got the ownership of this Jewish company.”
The Döllken wood-manufacturing company was founded in 1887 by my great-grandfather Leopold (Jehuda) Simon, when he was 46. His partner was the Roman Catholic furniture maker Wilhelm Döllken, who unexpectedly died the following year.
“Leopold was a good businessman,” says Mülling. “In the 1860s, he expanded his father’s textile shop, J. Simon, into a flourishing business. In 1872, he became the first Jewish town councilor in Werden, reelected every time until his death in 1906. He was also one the founders of the civic society dedicated to the beautification of the town and its surroundings, and he was the longtime chairman and benefactor of the Jewish community. On his death in June 1906, the local newspaper Werdener Zeitung eulogized his deep commitment to the wellbeing of his town and its people.”
Leopold’s eldest son, Ernst, joined the company’s management in 1892 and was later joined by Leopold’s fourth son, Otto. Under their leadership, Döllken developed rapidly. After the remaining shares held by Wilhelm Döllken’s widow were bought, Leopold and his remaining six children were shareholders. One of them was my grandfather, Hugo, a family doctor and pediatrician who had moved to Berlin.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, W. Döllken & Co., Sawmills, Woodworking and Art Molding Factories, grew to be a frontrunner in German wood manufacturing that was internationally known for its art moldings, furniture moldings and ornaments, picture frame and wallpaper moldings. It won medals at European exhibitions; regular contacts with artists guaranteed the quality of the designs. The factory occupied 80,000 square meters and had its own railway tracks. Timber was imported from the four corners of the world, arriving at the company’s harbor in the Rhine River at Düsseldorf.
Ernst Simon designed and patented woodcarving machines that were produced by the firm itself. The company used wood waste and chips that were sucked up by machines and used to fuel its own power plant. Döllken built houses for its staff, and had a reading room and a library of 3,000 books. It offered its own sports club and its fire brigade served the town. Free of charge, it built the auditorium and the enlargement of the prestigious high school, the Werden Gymnasium.
For the company’s 40th anniversary in 1927, Döllken published a richly illustrated hardcover book in German, English and Spanish about its history, products and production methods. Ernst Simon was a board member of regional and national industrial organizations. Like his father, he was a member of the town council in Werden and a benefactor of the town. In 1929, the Technical University of Brunswick bestowed an honorary doctorate on him and commended his company as exemplary for Germany’s wood industry.
Beautiful weather for a funeral
The first of April 1938 was a sunny day in Düsseldorf. Exactly, to the day, since its founding 51 years earlier, the Döllken company was sold far below its value to the non-Jewish company Kloepfer & Koeniger from Munich.
“That early spring day, Döllken fell victim to the ‘Aryanization’ ‒ in the German original, ‘Arisierung,’ says Mülling. “Ernst Simon, after signing the papers, looked out of the window and, according to a witness at the scene, remarked with bitter sarcasm, ‘Beautiful weather for a funeral.’ He was the last of the Simons involved in the business. Brother Otto had moved to Holland shortly after Hitler ascended to power. Of the three trainees who represented the next generation, Otto’s son Hans was with his parents in Holland, Ernst’s son Kurt and Hugo’s son Robert [TS: my father], had fled across the Atlantic with only some pocket money. When Ernst and his wife, Else, fled to Holland after the November pogrom of 1938 and the 10 days imprisonment Ernst had spent in the police station ‒ in so-called ‘protective custody’ ‒ they had to pay the huge taxes levied solely on Jews, effectively leaving nothing for them to take along.”
In the Netherlands, there were relatives who could help. At the start of 1939, the remaining four Simon brothers ‒ Ernst, Hugo, Otto and Emil ‒ and their wives lived in The Hague. Ernst and Else managed to reach the US. They survived by doing manual labor and babysitting. It exhausted Ernst, who died shortly after the war in August 1945. Hugo had died, a broken man, in July 1939; his wife Martha survived in hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Otto, his wife, Celestine, and their son, Hans, died in the death camps. Emil, a lawyer, and his wife, Marie-Frederike, survived in hiding. Some of their children and grandchildren survived; others were caught and killed. The one remaining sister, Luise Caroline, who with her husband had stayed in Berlin, was deported and killed in Latvia. All those of the extended family who had remained in Germany were murdered or committed suicide. Others managed to escape to countries like the US, Chile, the Dutch Caribbean islands, Uruguay, Australia, the UK and Switzerland.
Soon after the war, the Allied Administration ordered Kloepfer & Koeniger to give back a majority share of about 60 percent of the Döllken company to the Simon family. However, no one in the family able to lead the factory wanted to return to Germany. After painful negotiations, the shares were sold to Kloepfer & Koeniger, which had used every trick in the book against the dispersed family members. The outcome might have been even worse if some had not been represented by Gustav Heinemann, an old family friend, staunch anti-Nazi, later mayor of Essen, and eventually president of Germany.
The Simons’ factory
In the 1950s, the townspeople in Werden still called Döllken “the Simons’ factory.” But with the passing of time the urge to dissociate oneself from the past took on a life of its own. The bleak outcome came to the fore in the naming of two streets.
Shortly before she died in August 1956, in Los Angeles, Else Simon was informed that a street would be named after her in Werden to honor her longtime charitable social-medical work. It pleased her enormously.
She was spared the sorry outcome of the town’s final decision, however, which was to deny the street her given name “Else” and on July 15, 1957, a street was named “Simonaue” (Simon Alley). Then and now, virtually no one has a clue who this “Simon” in “Simonaue” may have been.
This half-hearted approach in the late 1950s served as a prelude to a decision of the district council some 50 years later. The plan was put forward to build houses and a new street on parts of the vast former Döllken property. Supported by the historical documents supplied by Mülling, the Simon family petitioned the district council to name that street after Döllken’s founder and the council’s first Jewish member, Leopold Simon. The council didn’t respond. After six months, in January 2009, it decided to cut the new street in half ‒ one named after Leopold Simon, the other after Wilhelm Döllken ‒ the non-Jewish man who gave his name to the company.
“The deafening silence toward the Simon family was an insult,” says Mülling. “I don’t know a place in Germany where the descendants of a Jewish family that played such a role in its history were given a cold shoulder like this. But, let’s not exclude that it happened elsewhere, as well.”
For Mülling, the outcome was one more trigger “to fight the intentional ignorance.”
He used every opportunity to inform individuals and organizations about the erstwhile Jewish community. It took four years before his perseverance was rewarded. In September 2013, an exhibition on “Werden as seen by the cartographers” displayed the growth of the town in the age of industrialization. Three panels were devoted to “The Jews in Werden,” showing the information Mülling had supplied.
“A step forward, although they used the information I had given in a sloppy way. And from the press and politicians – no interest whatsoever,” says Mülling. Nonetheless, it was the first public event in which the prewar Jewish community of Werden was represented.
In 2015, the city of Essen, in cooperation with the Old Synagogue, published ‒ a first after many years ‒ the 78-page booklet “On Jewish trails ‒ bicycle tours in Essen and Mülheim,” illustrated with maps and photos and describing places where Jews had lived. Ten pages were on Werden. Most of the material was taken from the information Mülling had supplied to the Old Synagogue.
“The bicycle booklet has more quality than the panels at the exhibition. It mentions the dark period in Werden, the attacks during the 1938 November pogrom, the arrests of the Jewish men, the House for Jews and the final deportations,” says Mülling. “Next to the dominant presence of the Simon family and its Döllken factory, one finds the houses and biographical information of others, like Albert and Helene Levi, who owned a shoe store and of the Isaac family and Baum family and their grocery store.
“That being said, there are serious omissions and mistakes. The lack of scientific quality shows itself clearly. About the Rindskopf family with its textile factory and 200 employees, not a word – something that is unforgiveable! The dates of the first and last synagogue services, mixed up, which shows the editors didn’t have any understanding whatsoever of the independent Jewish community in Werden.
Publicity was almost absent and the little that was published and broadcast was twisted and of poor quality. Making use of the booklet to raise the general public’s awareness was not even attempted.”
In November 2015, new editions came out updating two books originally published in 1979 (“Streets of Essen”) and 1985 (“VIPs in Essen”). The books are considered standard works, so it was of great importance for Mülling to contribute to the upcoming editions. He wrote updated entries for the “Simonaue” and for “Ernst Simon,” which had appeared in the original publications. For the new Leopold Simon Street, he wrote an extensive entry. The results were mixed.
Much of what Mülling had written found its way to the books. For the first time, in the entry on Ernst Simon, the word “Aryanization” is used in how the Döllken company was acquired in 1938. On the downside, the editors left out Leopold Simon’s Jewishness. One can only wonder why.
At present, other researchers know how to find Mülling. He is involved with an academic biography on Luise Rainer, the first and only German to win two successive Oscars for best actress in 1936 and 1937. She was the daughter of Else Simon’s sister Emily, and closely involved with the Simon family. Recently, Mülling cooperated with a film documentary about the Expressionist painter and teacher at the Folkwang Art Academy in Werden, Joseph Urbach. Jewish families in the area had supported him. One of the people he portrayed was Otto Simon.
As he did with the Herz and Simon families, Mülling continues researching the extended families and offspring of those who formed the Jewish community in Werden. Step by step, their networks are being charted. Though still a collection of biographical index cards, the work will one day become the contents of a book. At the same time, Mülling unflaggingly pushes to raise his town’s awareness of the Jewish presence in its history. One of his successes is the new text on the website of the prestigious high school (Gymnasium) in Werden, in which the small Jewish community and the substantial support it gave to the town and the school itself is mentioned extensively.
But it still is an uphill battle in a town that, indeed, did restore the gravestones at the Jewish cemetery after the windstorm Kyrill wreaked havoc in 2007, and here and there has placed a stolperstein or “stumbling stone” for some of the murdered Jews but looks the other way when confronted with its erstwhile Jewish townsmen.
“Looking back at those 15 years of research gives me mixed feelings,” says Mülling. “When I started, I had no idea that when you come too close, bringing to life what once was in a people’s ‘backyard,’ they put up a wall. One runs into a deafening silence and sometimes angry looks. That goes for the politicians, the local media, church leaders, officials and so on. On the other hand, there have been achievements, and I will not let it rest here.”