My Jewish roots in Germany

Reluctantly and without a plan, an American uncovers his family's poignant past.


Robert L. Strauss
September 18, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

For many years I thought about traveling to Germany. My father, who died
when I was 3, and my mother's second husband, the man who brought me up,
were both German Jews. Although curious about their roots, I had an ingrained
hesitation, an aversion to Germany and things German that kept me from
traveling to their ancestral homes. It was only when my wife Nina became
pregnant that we decided it was time to learn about the past before starting a
new future. When we crossed into Germany, the border was nothing more than a
small creek on a small country road: no guards, no passport inspection,
nothing but a welcoming sign. The skinheads we imagined lurking behind every
corner were nowhere in sight.

My grandmother, Hannah Eichenbronner Strauss, came to America from Germany as
a teenager in the 1890s. Her only child -- my father, Fred Strauss -- predeceased
her in 1959. Three years later, my mother married Henry Levinstein, my
father's best friend. It was Henry whom I came to know as Dad and came to think of as
my father. Unlike Fred Strauss, who had been born and raised in New York City,
Dad had been born in Germany, in a little town called Themar that wound up in
East Germany. Dad died in 1986, never having spoken a word about his first 14
years in Germany. Neither did his mother, Nanette, who lived more than half her 101
years in Germany and left there only in 1941.

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I don't know that my mother or two brothers ever asked much about their experiences. I knew that Dad's father, Moritz, had died in Germany in the late 1930s. I
remembered conflicting stories, that he had died in a concentration camp -- or
perhaps not, but that he had been in a concentration camp. After Dad died I
found a few postcards in an old desk. Some were from Moritz, from Buchenwald,
making it clear that he had at least passed through a camp.

My wife and I left for Germany equipped with very few pieces of information
to guide us. One was the name of the village where my grandmother Hannah
had grown up. Weisenbronn is much too small to appear
in most atlases. I found it on a tourist map given to me by an old friend of
my father who knew a little of the family history.

The other piece of information we had was a photograph of Dad as an infant.
There was almost nothing to give away the location of the picture except that
the uppermost part of a building could be seen in the background. In the
photo, Dad couldn't have been more than 2 years old, so we imagined it came
from 1922 at the latest. The picture could have been taken in Themar or in
some other town; we had no idea. By the time we decided to visit Germany,
there was no one left who could tell us.

As we drove deeper into rural Germany, Nina and I were surprised how much it
looked like the Germany of fairy tales. The dark dense forests. The
villages, perfectly nestled in the folds of soft hills, each with its narrow
church steeple. The ancient houses, spotlessly maintained, no window without
flowers. We found ourselves making fewer comments about skinheads lurking
behind each bend and more about the natural beauty of Deutschland Mitte, as our
map called the country's midsection.

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"Do you have a plan?" Nina asked me for the dozenth time as we approached
Weisenbronn. I didn't. I supposed only to go to the cemetery and see what we
might find. It wasn't actually until we passed Rvdelsse, a neighboring
village, that the name Weisenbronn finally appeared on one of the directional
signs that were set at every crossroads, pointing to all the tiny villages in the
area.

Weisenbronn was one of those tiny villages. It sat in the melded laps of a
few low hills and seemed almost to be smug, solidly content in its beauty and
long history. There were no large signs welcoming us to town. No drive-through restaurants. Very little that proclaimed itself loudly or garishly to
be modern or hip or new or improved.

Fields of corn, hay, sunflowers and grapes extended in all directions until
interrupted by the red roofs of neighboring villages. From the
summit of a large hill above Weisenbronn we could see half a dozen such small
farming towns, each with its church steeple and gingerbread Rathaus (town
hall). It was easy to imagine winter smoke rising from hundreds of chimneys,
fueled by the endless cords of stacked firewood that crisscrossed the area
like hedgerows. But we arrived in summer, on a warm, sunny Saturday
afternoon. A cluster of crosses on the village directory marked the Friedhof,
the cemetery. It took just a few minutes to walk there.

Four women were working in the cemetery tidying up. Not a blade of grass was
out of place, no stone unpolished. Every grave was blanketed with plants
and fresh flowers. We said our "Guten Tag" to the ladies and began looking
around.

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"You know, there aren't going to be any Jews in this cemetery," Nina said,
pointing out what perhaps should have been obvious to us right away. There
was no Hebrew, no Stars of David, on any of the stones.

"Bitte," I said to one of the ladies. "Meine Obermutter, Eichenbronner, aus
Weisenbronn," I explained, using up all the broken, incorrect German I had
absorbed. The ladies shook their heads. They didn't know Eichenbronner.
They didn't know Strauss either.

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Sometimes Nina and I travel well equipped, with guidebooks and dictionaries
and phrasebooks. This time we had decided to go without. In Germany we wanted
to force ourselves to interact with Germans, to question them and depend on
them. We arrived in Weisenbronn speaking no German, with no guidebooks and no English-German dictionary.

"Why don't you ask her?" Nina suggested, gesturing to an older woman who
stood a few feet away.

"Namen?" she asked. Strauss and Eichenbronner, I told her. Hearing
Eichenbronner, the older woman said to her younger friends, "Hebrdisch"
and "J|discher."

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Immediately I became apprehensive. I had no idea how people would react to
interloping Jews poking around their towns, their cemeteries, their history.
I as much expected to be told to go away as to be helped. But the ladies did not seem the least bit uneasy. I went ahead.

"Ja," I said while pointing to Nina and me, "J|discher." I can remember as
a kid thinking it better not to identify myself as a Jew, and even telling
people that, yes, Strauss was German but that my family was Lutheran. Once I
told my mother that I didn't feel Jewish at all. "Tell that to Hitler when he
comes back," she said with uncharacteristic bluntness. And here we were, in
Germany, telling complete strangers, the fathers of whom did who knows what in
the war, that we were Jewish.

The older woman said "J|discher Friedhof in Rvdelsse, nicht in Weisenbronn."

Before heading back to Rvdelsse, we took a quick walk around the town. Weisenbronn itself was as tidy as the cemetery, immaculate homes and perfectly
clean, smooth streets that hardly seemed in need of the repaving that was
going on. In the center of the village were two inns, a convenience store and a
bank with an ATM that would give us money from our account in San Francisco.
And not 50 feet away were half a dozen homes that had barns right behind
them filled with pigs, and front and back yards piled high with Misthaufen,
neatly kept heaps of manure. Everything in Weisenbronn was the stereotype of
German precision -- except the air, which reeked, almost burned, with the smell
of fermenting pig waste.

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"Do you have a plan?" Nina asked again as Rvdelsse came into view.

"We'll go to the cemetery," I told her.

"I can't believe we came to Germany without a German dictionary," she said.

We didn't have to enter the Rvdelsse cemetery to know we were in the wrong
place. Beyond the gates were only crosses. Three women sat outside, keeping
company. We greeted them and asked, "Bitte, J|discher Friedhof?"

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This inaugurated a prolonged discussion in which the women clearly disagreed
about the least complicated way to find the Jewish cemetery. One of the women
finally decided to show us. In the car she chatted continuously, in German,
while directing us through town. (A characteristic of all the Germans we met
was that even after it was completely apparent that we did not speak German,
they would just keep prattling along.) "Schl|ssel," the woman kept saying.
We arrived at the tidy home of a pig farmer. "Moment," she said before going
into the house.

She came back a few minutes later. In her hand she carried a small canvas
bag the form of which clearly outlined a book. "Juden Freidhof" was written
on the canvas. She turned it over and out slid a key. "Schl|ssel," she said.

At the edge of town she told us to stop. She was going to her garden and
would not accompany us any farther. Over and over she repeated the directions
to the cemetery -- in German. Left, then right, then right again. We nodded
our understanding, but in front of us there was nothing but farmland and open
country. The road wound into the fields and disappeared from sight.

At the first left we curved around a field of blossoming sunflowers. The
first right took us among vineyards and stacks of firewood. The next right
and we were off the pavement, heading into what seemed to be nothing but open
fields. "Oh my," Nina said softly.

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Ahead of us a Star of David, silvery in the shimmering heat of the summer
afternoon, rose above a small building that formed one corner of a large,
walled compound. Inside we could see countless gravestones, most of them hip- or even shoulder-deep in vegetation.

With only the name of a town, we had flown across nine time zones and driven a
day and a half. A twist of the key and the lock on the gate popped open.
Each link of the heavy chain rattled as I pulled it free. We went in.

The weeds in the cemetery were not forgiving ones. Wild roses with
stout shoots and thick thorns grew entangled among flowering purple thistles.
Each step was like breaking trail in the brambles of a fairy-tale thicket.
Flowers bloomed everywhere. Butterflies and bees swarmed, busily at work,
unused to intruders.

Many of the stones had sunken so that only the tops, carved as crowns, were
visible. Those still high above the ground were mainly obscured by weeds.
Only by stamping could we see the engravings. Within minutes Nina had to stop; the bristles of the overgrowth had already made dozens of small cuts on her bare legs.

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The weeds weren't the only obstacles. Termite mounds hidden in the thick
grass gave way like rotten floorboards. My ankles caught on the rusting
andirons and chains that outlined decaying plots. The jagged edges of broken
slabs raked my shins. It was very slow going. Before I had made my way
through the first row, Nina called out, "Did you see over there?"

The cemetery was large, perhaps three acres or more. Nina pointed to a far
corner I had not yet seen where there were hundreds of graves. It seemed
pointless. Many of the stones were corroding, with large fragments flaking
away as if from pieces of stale pastry. Only the marble markers were legible. Yet
many of those were in Hebrew. It would have taken us forever to decipher
them. Nina, pregnant, impatient with the improbability of it all, waited
uncomfortably. My "plan" was not working. I finished the first row having
found nothing. There were Rossmans, Sterns, lots of Sondheims and one
Einstein. But no Eichenbronners and no Strausses.

From beyond the cemetery walls, fields rolled down to red-roofed Rvdelsse.
The cascade of a church carillon spilled over the cemetery. It was a gorgeous
afternoon. My jeans were damp with sweat. Pollen caked my hands and neck.
My every pore itched with the heat. I began the second row of 30 graves.

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It took me 45 minutes to work through the first two rows. I thought I would
plod through the next four and then take a cursory look at the hundreds of
other stones. A few graves into the third row I stepped on the overgrowth and
saw "Samson Eichenbronner" clearly marked in black marble. The year of death:
1923. Next to Samson was Louise Eichenbronner, died 1926. I had never heard
either of those names. Were these my great-grandparents? The grimy sweat
that had soaked my jeans turned chill with the discovery. I continued
looking.

We spent two more hours in the cemetery, finding no more Eichenbronners. As
I looked, Nina read through the visitors' book that we had been given with the
key. There were excerpts from German books on Jewish cemeteries and hundreds
of signatures, mainly in German but many in Hebrew and a few in English. As
we left the cemetery an ultralight plane flew overhead. A hot-air balloon
rose not far away, perhaps on a late afternoon tour of the vineyards. I leafed
through the visitors' book and although I could understand almost nothing of
what was written, I was overcome with a sense of connection and deep sadness.
Here were dozens of people who had come to this out-of-the-way cemetery,
trying to make sense of a senseless past. It felt as though history was
washing through us even as it had ignored and abandoned these hundreds of
graves.

At the house where we had picked up the key it took a minute or two for the
old man to answer his door. Thirty steps away, 50 pigs clustered at the barn
gate. The smell was overwhelming. I handed him the book and the key.
"Danke," I said. His face and hands were rough, hard-worked. He took the
things from me and said nothing. I had no idea who he was or why he was in
charge of the key. I had no way to ask.

We sat in the car as I jotted down some notes. The old man came out of the
house and slowly, stiffly, walked over. He leaned down and put his head in
the window. Somehow we signaled that our visit had been worthwhile. He
hung around for a few minutes as though he expected that we would learn German just from his presence. But we didn't. He nodded, and went back to his house.

We had dinner that night at the only place that was open in Weisenbronn. Our
waiter suggested what type of wurst we should have and what type of local beer
I might try. We told him that we were looking for family roots.

"You forgot one small detail," Nina said as the waiter went to the kitchen.
I hadn't told him we were Jewish, still nervous about how that "small detail"
might be received. The waiter came back and told us that no one in the place
knew any Eichenbronners. That's when I told him we were Jewish and that there
hadn't been anyone in the town for a long time. "Obviously," he said, quietly.
In a word that might have been cynical, he somehow combined his limited English
with melancholy and compassion. I explained that as far as I knew the
Eichenbronners had left before Hitler. "Anyway ..." he said, as though that
fact should give very little consolation.

A while later he returned with a name and number. We should contact the
Burghermeister, Herr M|ller, who knew all the local history and spoke English
fluently. He would be able to help us.

The next morning I tried to call Burghermeister M|ller. But the pay phone
wouldn't take coins and, on a Sunday morning in a small town in Germany, there
was no place where I could buy a phone card. Plus Nina was anxious to
move on. We had found the cemetery. We had found names. Perhaps that was
enough.

"Let's at least drive around town before we leave," I said. In the car it
wouldn't take long to cover Weisenbronn's few streets.

We could have missed it just as easily as we saw it. In the first block one
of the homes had a signboard with the name M|ller carved on it. As we passed,
a man came out the front door.

"Herr M|ller?" I asked.

"Ja," he said.

"Burghermeister M|ller?" I asked to make certain.

"Ja," he said.

"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" I asked.

"Nein," he answered.

With my crippled, elemental German, I explained about "Meine J|discher
Grossmutter aus Weisenbronn."

"Moment," he said gesturing for us to wait as he left the house.

Ten minutes later he reappeared with an elegant, 60ish woman. She had
short gray hair and a chiffon scarf draped over her red jacket, which seemed
very fashionable in a town whose every corner smelled of animal waste.

I again explained about Meine Grossmutter Eichenbronner and Frau Hoffman
answered, in very good English, that she knew "a great deal" about "your great-grandfather," Samson Eichenbronner. "What would you like to know?" she said.

It was 10:30 in the morning. We spent the next five and a half hours with
Frau Hoffman.

On the patio behind the Burghermeister's home, Frau Hoffman told us of Samson
Eichenbronner's service in the Prussian-French war of 1870-71 and how he had
started the local veterans' club after the German victory. She explained his
cattle-trading business: buying them in Rhvn, an impoverished area far
away; shipping them by train to the railhead a few miles north of town; and
then hiring local boys to drive them south to Weisenbronn.

Frau Hoffman then took us down Kobaldstrasse and showed us the Eichenbronner home.
She told us how the Jewish community leader, Herr Herbert, had resisted on
Kristallnacht, the night of breaking glass, when the Nazis ransacked his house,
and how he never returned after being taken away.

I still wasn't entirely certain that Samson Eichenbronner was indeed my
great-grandfather. From the pay phone on the corner, I called AT&T Direct and
was talking to my mother in New York in seconds. "How many brothers and
sisters did Grandma Strauss have?" I asked her. It was early in the morning
in New York, and it took Mom a while to wake up and gather her thoughts.

"Oh I don't know. There were a lot," she said. "Maybe 10 or 12. I
think only three or four came to this country." Frau Hoffman had said there
had been eight children.

"What did Grandma Strauss' father do?" I asked. Mom said she thought he was
a Pferdehdndler, which is literally horse trader. But the German word is very
close to Fleischhdndler, or cattle or meat dealer. The numbers, the dates,
the occupations were all close enough. Samson Eichenbronner was certainly one
of the ancestors I had come to Germany never imagining to find.

We wondered why this elegant schoolteacher had become so interested in
local Jewish history. She explained that in 1982 one of her sons had begun a
history of the Jewish population of Weisenbronn as a school assignment. Many
people did not want to talk at that time, but one man, who had once worked for
Samson Eichenbronner, spoke so voluminously that the son grew tired and called
in his mother for help. Soon she became more interested than he. Now
retired after 40 years as an art teacher, she continued to research local
Jewish history. Nina asked her why.

As a teacher (and a German), Frau Hoffman was very precise with her words.
She told us that "bad things, evil things" had happened in Weisenbronn.

She thought people, particularly the younger generations, should know -- even if some did
not want to know. Frau Hoffman was also a religious person. She had been to
church that morning, and to the cemetery and to her garden as well.

She told us that there were things in her past, more precisely in her
parents' past, that made her feel guilty. It wasn't so much guilt, she
explained, but a sense of sadness and remorse. While she grew up
knowing that bad things had happened to Jews, she first believed as she had
been told: that they had only happened in Berlin and the other big cities. But
there was also the memory of smelling fire as a 6-year-old in her
home town of Nvrdlingen and then seeing the charred remains of the synagogue
the next day. And the memory of the first time she saw an adult cry,
when a Christian neighbor and family friend came to her childhood home after
his Jewish wife had been taken away. He sat there among his neighbors and
sobbed.

Over lunch at the Gasthaus, we talked about how thrilled she was when Germany
was reunified and how she had never believed it would happen, how she was certain
it could never happen and how her relatives from East Germany showed up at
her door the very day the border opened. I sensed that because of the
separation she had experienced in her own family, she understood why Jews
sometimes come back to Weisenbronn.

She explained that the Rvdelsse cemetery dated from 1432. "Can you imagine?
That's 60 years before Columbus," I said to Nina, trying to grasp the notion
of Jews, my ancestors, having lived in one place for 500 years. I have moved
nearly 20 times in the last 20 years. Here families once lived -- and some
still do -- in one place for half a millennium.

Nina asked Frau Hoffman why the cemetery was even still there. She figured
that the Nazis would have attempted to erase every trace of Jewish existence,
even that of the dead. Frau Hoffman explained that the local people have
always been deeply religious and even those who were the most ardent Nazis
would not disturb the dead. Somehow that transcended their idea of who should
live.

From her file, Frau Hoffman pulled out the Weisenbronn census. The Germans
had been very precise about record-keeping. In 1910 there had been 836 people
in town and 44 Jews. In 1925, the population had risen to 882 but the number
of Jews was down to 27. In 1939 it had fallen to nine. In 1942 the census
became more precise, enumerated monthly. In February of 1942 there were three
Jews left in Weisenbronn. In March, there were none.

Eventually there were no more questions to ask. It was time to go. We
thanked Frau Hoffman and told her as best we could that what she was doing was
a very good thing. As we left Weisenbronn, Nina said, "You know what she does is so
wonderful. And she's doing it just because it's the right thing to do." It
seemed to us that we had been guided to her. There had been too many
coincidences along the way for it to simply have been chance.

Had the gravestone been illegible, as so many were, perhaps we would have
driven on. Had we not seen Burghermeister M|ller's sign, had he not been at
home, had Frau Hoffman not been at her home when Herr M|ller bicycled over, we
would have left Weisenbronn with only memories of graves. There would have been no other pictures, because our camera battery had given out just after we arrived. In a little town in Germany, on a Sunday, there was no place to buy
a replacement.


Robert L. Strauss

MORE FROM Robert L. Strauss

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