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German Historian Seeks to Save Memory of Jewish Neighbors

November 26, 1993

WITTLICH, Germany (AP) _ With its cobblestones and cafes, its bright but unspectacular shop fronts, Wittlich’s market square offers the quaint solidity characteristic of German towns.

Wittlich is a typical German town in less comforting ways. Of the 300 Jews living here in 1933, a third perished in the Nazi death camps.

The survivors got away to Palestine or the United States and never returned. There is no sign in the square that half its shops once belonged to Jews.

Germans are constantly confronted with their ″vergangenheitsverarbeitung,″ the coming-to-terms-with-the-past that sometimes seems like an endless project.

But historian Angelika Schleindl has gone beyond soul-searching to searching for details. She has mapped out the life and death of Wittlich’s Jewish community, house by house and family by family, and put that research into ″Jewish Life in Wittlich,″ an exhibit that opened this month in the refurbished 1910 synagogue.

Schleindl stands in the center of the market square and points to Marktplatz 1, a department store bedecked in early Christmas tinsel and evergreen.

This used to be the clothing store of Emil Frank - volunteer fireman, district election registrar, upstanding citizen and Jew.

The Nazis seized all of Frank’s property in the 1930s, but he stayed in Wittlich until 1941, when transports to the death camps began and the Gestapo was on his trail. In America, Emil Frank peddled shoelaces. He died in 1954 in Utica, N.Y., an impoverished and angry man.

A thread was dangled into Frank’s past in 1988, when Cologne journalist Ursula Jung produced a peculiar documentary about the history of her armoire.

Frank had given the piece to Jung’s aunt, an employee, in lieu of payment, after the Nazis took his property.

Jung found that many Wittlichers couldn’t remember having any Jewish neighbors. That moved Mayor Helmut Hagedorn to hire Schleindl to document the Jewish history of the town.

Many Germans feel it is time to end Germany’s collective atonement for its history.

But Schleindl, 36, is one of those Germans who ponder whether the thousands of right-wing attacks since Germany reunified three years ago are the rebirth of something that slumbered but did not die.

Schleindl grew up in the Mosel valley not far from Wittlich and has spent 11 years researching Jewish life in the vilages and towns of southern Germany. She describes it as a search for vanished neighbors.

These rural Jews lived not in ghettos but among non-Jews. They were patriotic Germans; eight Wittlich Jews died fighting for the Kaiser in World War I.

How small, friendly communities like Wittlich suddenly were convulsed in hatred is something Schleindl finds particularly horrible.

In a 1929 photo, Wittlich factory owner Alfred Ermann sits in shirtsleeves at a beer garden table, smiling business partners at his side.

Four years later, jack-booted stormtroopers stood in front of Ermann’s shop on the market square with a sign reading, ″Not a cent for the Jewish dogs 3/8″

Yet the exhibit contains signs of forgiveness, too, like this letter from 86-year-old Arthur Feiner, who fled Wittlich in 1938 and lives in Denver:

″Regarding my journey from Germany over Shanghai to America I can only give a few impressions. I have neither the strength nor the ability to recall all the details, and I don’t want to taste the bitterness of those years, nor to punish the children for the sins of the fathers.

″But perhaps, when you walk from the synagogue to the marketplace, you will feel that I am standing with you and you’ll see the names of the old stores: Wolff, Schiffman, Ermann-Bach, Bender, Frank and Saenger.″

The synagogue exhibit is a permanent one, Hagedorn said, a painful truth embedded in the heart of the town of 17,000.

His greatest fear, he said, is that a skinhead will spray a swastika on the synagogue door some day. It would bring shame on the town, he said, ″but I can’t post police outside the door 24 hours a day.″

In 1991, about 80 former Jewish residents returned to attend Wittlich’s 700th anniversary celebration. But none came to the opening of Schleindl’s exhibit. One survivor said the right-wing violence in Germany kept him away.

″It’s the same old story,″ said Ralph Erman, a 69-year-old architect living in New York City. ″Add a little unemployment and it’ll start up like the 20s again.″

Erman, born Rolf Ermann, is Alfred Ermann’s son. Before his parents were deported to the death camps, they sent him into the woods to hide.

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