Roots trip to Germany: Days 1 and 2

Day 1

Our flight to Germany was uneventful (besides my almost getting lost in Frankfurt airport, but getting lost is nothing unusual for me…) and we were met at the airport by a pre-arranged taxi which took us to our hotel in Michelstadt.

First impressions:

From the air Germany is a beautiful country, green fields neatly laid out, glittering rivers and straight roads, even the forests seem orderly in the way the trees grow! As I admired the country from the air I felt guilty for even allowing a positive thought to enter my head about this country with the terrible history. And then I considered that so many other countries have a blood-soaked history with the Jews, and if it’s OK to entertain the thought of visiting Holland, France, Belgium, not to mention the former Soviet Union or the Baltic states, then why should Germany be any different, especially considering the efforts of the German government as well as so many German individuals to atone for the sins of their fathers.

I did warn you that I was ambivalent about this trip…  This cognitive dissonance has accompanied me all day and I reckon won’t leave me throughout. But that has not stopped me enjoying the experience.

As we were taxiing towards the arrivals building in Frankfurt airport, our El Al plane was accompanied by a German police hummer travelling alongside the whole time. The thought struck me that a mere 70 years ago the sight of one of these vehicles would have struck terror into any Jewish heart. Today it merely comforted me and made me thankful that we were being provided by excellent security from the German authorities. How the wheel of history turns!

police car

We were highly amused by the wording on the taxi that met us at the airport, “mietwagen” sounding suspiciously like “meat wagon”. 🙂  (we do have a rather juvenile sense of humour).

meat wagon

At our beautiful hotel in Michelstadt we finally met our hosts, Otto and Heidi Haag and their friend Klaus Schimmel, face to face for the first time and we had a warm and emotional welcome.  The Haags have been working for decades to research the history of the Jewish community of Michelstadt and bring it to the attention of the city fathers. They are amazing and courageous people, and very resourceful in their methods of research and in their initiative to get the town to commemorate their lost Jewish community, sometimes against some objections from the locals.


We spent a very enjoyable evening getting to know the Haags and their friend, discussing our family histories, their work, and generally chatting.

Day 2

We started the day with a visit to the medieval library in the town center. It turned out to be far more interesting than I ever imagined. Our guide explained that the library was built in the 14th century by Nicolaus Matz, a priest, teacher and university professor who travelled from Michelstadt to Vienna to Speyer and beyond, but who eventually bequeathed his extensive library to his hometown.

The library contains hundreds of books, both manuscripts and early examples of printed books, of theology, philosophy and scientific subjects.

Nicolas Matz library

What was even more fascinating was the way that the ancient bookbinders would recycle ruined books to use as bindings. Thus a whole new science has developed, the study of book bindings! When the bindings are carefully pried loose one can see pages from other books, and it becomes a puzzle and a memory game to find matching pages used as bindings in other books.

Nicolas Matz library books

We were also shown an ancient Hebrew Bible with a short precis in German down the sides of the text explaining what was in the text.

Nicolas Matz library sidur

From the library we walked to the Haags’ house, and on the way, Otto Haag pointed out another project that they had initiated: the laying of “stumbling blocks” outside the houses of each Jewish citizen who had been murdered in the Shoah. These stumbling blocks are in fact small plaques inscribed with the names of the murdered citizens, and they are inlaid into the pavement right outside their houses. Even these small memorials have proven unpopular with certain elements and have occasionally been plastered over with antisemitic or anti-Israel stickers. It is gratifying to note that the local police take these incidents very seriously.  The “stumbling blocks” project started elsewhere in Germany and has been spreading throughout the country, a very blessed initiative.

The 3 “stumbling blocks” memorializing my mother’s 3 brothers David, Herbert and Uri who were killed in the Holocaust, outside their house in Michelstadt

It was a very strange, surreal and moving moment to stand there and contemplate that these 3 little stones were all that are left to commemorate that these three boys ever lived in Michelstadt.

After lunch we all proceeded to the local synagogue where services are only held now once a month, and even then there is not usually a minyan. We were guided by the visiting chazan (cantor), Roman Melamed, who showed us the interior of the shul where our grandfather used to pray. Again, the enormous sense of history combined with the surreality of finding myself in the very spot where my grandfather once stood combined  in my mind with a swirl of emotion which I and my brother are still trying to work through.

From the shul we moved on to the old Jewish cemetery in Michelstadt where the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh (Seckl Lob) Wormser is buried. The Baal Shem was regarded as a miracle worker and healer not only by the Jewish community but by all the locals as well and his grave has become a site of pilgrimage for prayers. We all stood there and prayed for the health and well-being of various family members and friends, and recited some Psalms.

These very intense moments were followed by a meeting with another friend and contact of David’s, Briggite Diersch, who has been of enormous help in our family research. She took us on a very pleasant tour of her hometown of Erbach, a couple of kilometers away from Michelstadt and explained how she herself had become involved in researching and commemorating the Jewish history of the area.

I have many more photos (and most likely quite a bit of editing) but this will be continued (hopefully) tomorrow or maybe even later. (Internet connection very slow, thoughts churning, hour very late).

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11 Responses to Roots trip to Germany: Days 1 and 2

  1. NormanF says:

    Fürth lies 7 km to the west of Nuremberg. Bavaria is mainly Catholic but for various historical reasons, Fürth remained predominantly Protestant and Lutheran since the end of the Wars Of Religion in Europe. Since the Middle Ages, Jews lived in the City and it has been known as the “Jerusalem Of Franconia.” The Jewish Community was destroyed during the Nazi Era. This is from Wikipedia:

    “There is a memorial to the Jewish community in the Geleitsgasse square, just off Königstrasse. Archaeologists discovered a Mikvah (ritual bath) in a house in the centre of Fürth. This building now houses the Jewish Museum of Franconia, which opened in 1998.”

    Much more to discover. Enjoy your travels in Bavaria and in Germany. Auf Wiedesehen!

  2. cba says:

    Thank you for your interesting and moving account. I look forward to the next update.

    P.S. Be kind to yourself. This is exhausting mentally (as well as physically).

    • anneinpt says:

      I’m just finding it hard to process all the new information and absorb it all together with the emotions it is stirring. But it’s fascinating and I’m so glad I decided to come.

  3. Aridog says:

    Anne … I amazed at how you are handling your “ambivalence” and I’m not sure I’d be tough enough to do the same myself. My family, like all families, has a history, dating back to our Revolutionary War, on the Rebel, not Torie, side which created this nation, up through the Civil War on the Union abolitionist side, and then through more travails and wars all the way to my war. However nothing we’ve experienced compares to the Holocaust, even slightly…with some dereference to the anti-slavery aspects of the Union side in the Civil War…but we weren’t the slaves, we merely fought to prevent the expansion of slavery…and eventually to eliminate it from our nation. To visit and stand in places where once your family stood, and perished, would be very hard for me to do without rancor. As CBA says: Be kind to yourself. And I assure you we all look forward to your updates.

    • anneinpt says:

      I really ought to mention more clearly in my posts that nothing bad actually happened to my family in Michelstadt. As my brother said today in a short speech to guests at the town hall, the years in Michelstadt were the good years. The trouble only started after my grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht, and by then they were already back in Frankfurt. The three boys were deported from Holland via Westerbork to Sobibor. Before that time they had been happy in a normal childhood in Michelstadt.

      But still, it’s the main starting point for our family research and our mother was born there so the history feels very much alive.

      I also believe that the people whom we have met so far are very sincere in their wish to atone for the sins of the fathers, and are doing their utmost not only to memorialize the dead Jews, but to make sure that this never can happen again, via education of the youth and adults.

      It’s been an amazing experience so far.

      • Aridog says:

        I’m glad to learn that at least a portion of this research and reconciliation journey is not all full of ghosts and horrors. I think you are doing something everyone with that history in family should do. Reconciliation in your own mind and heart is the most important thing…and sadly, something we in the USA have not accomplished amongst ourselves. Our history has some genocidal elements, beyond slavery, that I am certain are still hard to heal for those subjected to it as our expansion evolved. In my travels though our west I have been moved by what I have seen and the people I’ve met. In that respect it has reinforced my belief that Israel has had to do a similar thing on a smaller scale, but more existential scale none-the-less, plus nothing as genocidal as what we carried out in the settlement of the USA. …e.g., my belief that territory usually and should go to the most productive people, who in turn try, at least try to be civil to the conquered. Built due to that here there is some residual guilt that I cannot avoid.

        It bothered me during my war and forced my eye opening to the native people who fought us a half a world away, and to those who welcomed us [some of whom I remain in touch with to this day]…they both really had a lot in common and so did we. Post 1975 they set upon their own people genocidally, so our fears of that for them were not without foundation. When I hear fools call Israel genocidal It angers me because if it every happened it was minuscule to what we did here, and certainly is not happening now. I admire Israel because of its shinning example in so many fields, after diaspora Jews suffering the worst genocide ever carried out on such an industrial scale. Our conquest of the Navajo, though not direct killing, destroyed one of the most prosperous land use tribal groups by shear scorching of the earth and ruining their economy such as it was. They are only now recovering in any significant degree.

        My great grandfather fought as an officer with US [brevet] Gen Custer and his cavalry in the Civil War, but was fortunately not with his ill fated advances toward the Sioux and Cheyenne subsequently . Not many Americans realize that, in fact, Chief Red Cloud totally, following the Little Big Horn disaster for Custer, defeated the US Army on the Bozeman Trail. Somehow, in retrospect, I wish we could have found a better way to combine our peoples. So in my case I feel a twinge of guilt for how we played our hand, however necessary as it seemed at the time I am sure. It is the knowledge that we did some things wrong is what reinforces my sense of regret to this day and I’d hope they forgave my ancestors who participated….although I know that cannot be an easy task.

        You trip is one of courage and civility, a feature of Israelis that admire most.

        • anneinpt says:

          Aridog, I love how you analyze your history and ours and draw appropriate parallels. It helps to give context and proportion to our history. I admire you for how you face your own past, your family’s and your nation’s. Both our countries have a lot to learn from each other, and the world could be a much better place for it.

  4. Reality says:

    I feel quite choked up reading this.You are doing a great job explaining how you feel.Keep the blogs,pictures&information flowing

  5. Pingback: Roots Trip Germany | Holocaust | Sobibor | Anne Petah Tikva

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