“Roots” trip to Germany part 1

In September 2005 David and Dad went on a roots trip to Germany to revisit all the various family sites. Here are their reports:

FRANKFURT – Thursday, 8th September, 2005

 Thursday, the fifth day of our Roots trip, we woke up to another hot bright day, in our hotel at Karben on the outskirts of Frankfurt, having arrived there the night before from Michelstadt, my Mum’s birthplace.

The truth is, that when planning this trip we didn’t have much to do in Frankfurt. The only reason we were there was that our journey back to Israel started with a flight to Milan from Frankfurt at 6 pm, so we had until about 2pm free, till we had to set out for the airport.

So when planning the trip, we took advice, and I was told that there were two Jewish cemeteries worth visiting, one near the city centre, which had been largely desecrated and destroyed by the Nazis, but which still had some whole Matzeivos, including those of some Gedolim, eg: the P’nei Yehoshua (d.1745), and the other a bit towards the outskirts of the city, undamaged, where among others, the grave of HaRav Shimshon Refael Hirsch,ztz”l is situated. As I wasn’t interested in doing any regular tourism in Frankfurt, Dad agreed that that’s what we’d do.

We’d been told that in order to visit the City Centre Cemetery, which is kept locked, we could get the keys from the next-door Judengasse Museum (Jewish Ghetto Museum) upon depositing our passports, so off we set to the museum.

The museum was about to provide one of the climatic moments of our trip, but we didn’t know it yet.

The museum is situated on one side of a square, known as the Boernerplatz, where the Central Orthodox Shul stood until 9th November 1938. On Kristallnacht the Nazis burnt it down totally. It must have been huge, thousands of people could attend services there, and many photos and paintings remain showing scenes both inside and outside the shul.

The current name of the street where the museum stands is Karl Schumacher Strasse.

The square remained derelict throughout the war, and in the early 1950’s the City Authorities decided to build there the Hesse State National Insurance building, which is a huge edifice. When excavating the foundations, they came across the remains of a Jewish Ghetto street dating back to the 1700’s and in parts to an even earlier period – the 1400’s. So the authorities decided to preserve these relics, which are still in good shape, and incorporated this area into a side wing of the NI building, not developing anything above it – this is the Judengasse Museum.

The museum is well worth a visit, there are the remains of houses and two mikva’ot (one from the 1700’s and the other from the 1400’s), and one can walk about in them imagining life there 300 to 500 years ago. There are also interesting exhibits explaining about Jewish life in those times, including rituals, annual calendar and even economic life. Very interesting to me was the account, accompanied by documents, of the first German bond issue, underwritten by a Jewish family, to raise funds for the local German king !

Moving through the Museum, one is led to an external room which houses life-size photo mock-ups of the destroyed shul. Very small remnants, the odd bit of tiling or plaster, are attached to the photos, to give the viewer an impression of what once was. Very sad and also very angering.

As we were about to leave and collect the cemetery key, an Asiatic attendant (docent) asked us why we weren’t going upstairs to the second floor. We hadn’t even noticed the staircase, which wasn’t signposted, so asked her what was there to see. She simply shrugged her shoulders and said “some computer records”. Dad and I exchanged looks, we were falling behind on our schedule, but decided that we’d take a 5 minute look, perhaps there were some more displays about the shul.

This proved to be a fateful decision.

The computer turned out to be a database of names, presumably of people from the Frankfurt area. Dad said we should look up my grandfather, Leopold Strauss, who was after all a Frankfurter. There were 6 people of this name, but their biographies showed that they were not him – wrong dates and places of birth. Suddenly the penny dropped – this was a list of Frankfurt Jews who perished in the Holocaust. So we input one of my mum’s brother’s names – Herbert/Elchanan (the three of them had not survived) and to our great surprise, out jumped at us from the screen a long biography about his tragically short life. We read this together, with Dad translating from very official German as we progressed and discovered all sorts of information not previously known to us, including, stunningly, dates of death. Suddenly, after 62 years of uncertainty, we had a Yahrzeit ! We jumped around between the boys’ records and noted common points and the occasional discrepancy. Gripped with gooseflesh (it’s exceedingly hard to describe the emotion, astonishment, even shock at this moment – using even only a little imagination much of the information is chilling) Dad tore downstairs to the front desk to find out how to print off these pages. Amazingly, he was told that the database was for viewing only, there is no method to print off the data.

On the spot, we decided to write everything down, and the hell with our timetable.

So here is what I wrote (in note form) – my comments are in italics in brackets:

Herbert Strauss

Date of Birth 16.2.32, Michelstadt.

Last Frankfurt Address – Oberer Atzemer Strasse 6

Music Student (Who knew that?  Who gave this evidence? When? He was killed at age 11 so how could he have been a musuc student?)

Attended elementary school Samson-Rafael-Hirsch Schule (Heinrich von Gagern Gymnasium)

(It mentions that Leopold Strauss was sent in November 1938 to Buchenwald and emigrated to England in January 1939)

Towards the end of 1938 the three brothers were sent to Holland, Herbert was then 6 years old. He was sent with David and Uri Michael to the Hague (we always thought Amsterdam)

His address in the Hague was No 59 Amalia-van-Solms-Straat.

Grandma (I didn’t note what name they used Doris or Daja) took them there and returned to Frankfurt to look after the younger siblings (This was a bombshell – we’d always been told they’d been sent by themselves by train).

On 30.10.42 he was sent to Westerbork Internment Camp and on 10.3.43 sent to Sobibor.

On the 8.5.45 confirmed (by, I think, the Red Cross ) that he was killed there on 13/3.43 (Upon our return to Israel we determined that this date corresponds with 6th Adar in the Jewish Calendar)

(By the way – more goosepimples – 13th March is Rina’s birthday, and 6th Adar is Dad’s ! My Aunt Liz in New York suggested that maybe this hints that Hashem sent Dad into the Strauss family to help comfort them over their loss – Hmmm – food for thought….)

Moving on to brother Uri Michael, whose date of birth was 27.4.33, the database says that he was taken care of, without his brothers, by Family Levisohn (Were they family? Why were they split up? Who looked after the other 2 boys?) and this family tried to avoid deportation illegally, so Uri was looked after by various different, unnamed, families.

He then tried, unsuccessfully to hide from the Germans. (What exactly does this mean? He was only 10, how did he hide? With who?)

According to the Dutch Red Cross he was brought on 6.3.43 to Westerbork and from there deported to Sobibor on 10.3.43 He was killed on 13.3.43 according to the Red Cross.

Turning to David Stauss’s record it says he also died in Sobibor and that his date of death was also fixed on 8.5.45 as being 13.3.43.

(Notice that the deportation and killings were on the same dates for all three boys. One of the questions that is tormenting me is would they have met up during this chaos and terror?… of course we’ll never know….  In connection with the same dates of death, Dad remembers hearing once that the Red Cross assumed that the Dutch Communities were always killed in Sobibor within 3 days of transportation, and it would be logical that all the community of THE Hague was transported on the same day, and that this would have been documented by both the Nazis and the Dutch Red Cross).

His date of birth was 28.11.30, (so even though he was the oldest he didn’t even make it to Barmitzva).

He attended the Israelitische Volkschule in Hoechst, in the Odenwald (we passed through there on the way from Michelstadt the day before without having any inkling of a family connection) in 1936/37, trhen the Samson Refael Elementary School in Frannkfurt (Like brother Herbert, known to us as Elchanan – see above).

Another address in the Hague is given here – No 66 Pletterijstraat.

On 6.3.43 David was brought to Westerbork and on 10.3.43 sent to Sobibor.

This is what I wrote down, and as I write it again now I can’t help thinking about 3 small boys living under Nazi occupation for nearly 4 years, far from their parents and sisters, being split up, hiding, running and then finally being captured or rounded up, transported in cattle trucks around Europe and finally meeting their awful fate, perhaps together, perhaps not, in a Nazi murder factory.

Alongside that, I also imagine 3 little boys going to school being cared for by foster families and in mail correspondence with their family in London.

And then I think of Grandma and Grandpa having to remake and continue their lives, while living with the awful consequences of their decision…….

(The truth is I was frozen by all this so personal information, and only really reacted hours later in the airport when I was telling the story to Rina on the phone (Dad was in the duty free) and completely broke down.)

Still in shock, we proceeded to the front desk, obtained the key to the adjoining cemetery and walked the hundred yards to the gate. The sign outside states that the oldest grave dates back to the 1200’s and the cemetery was closed in the 1800’s, being full.

It is a truly enormous area and is full of mounds of broken gravestones. In one corner stands a group of whole matzeivos and we found the Pnei Yehoshua and said a short tefilla there.

The perimeter of the cemetery must be over a mile in length, and on the entire length of its wall on the outside are columns (5 high) of marble tablets of names protruding from the wall. Each tablet is about 2 inches wide an inch high and an inch deep and records the name of a Jew from Frankfurt murdered by the Nazis. The tablets are in strict alphabetical order and the gate is in the area of letter H.

We decided to verify memorial tablets in the Strauss boys’ names and started walking in the direction of letter S. We must have walked about 7 minutes and the fact that the names are seemingly never-ending is heartbreaking. For example, when we came across the Surname Stern the tablets went on for about 60 yards – it’s mind-boggling. We finally located the Strauss “zone” and found the boys’ tablets. Of course, they’re yards apart from each other (due the alphabetical order of first names). The perimeter wall is surrounded by a gravel path, and people have put gravel stones on the tablets in the same way as is our minhag at a grave – this is the nearest thing approaching a grave these 11,000 plus victims will ever have. On two of the boys’ tablets we found one stone (who had been there before us?) and on the other one – none. (Why hadn’t that visitor seen his tablet or not known about him? Another mystery).

We places 2 stones on each tablet, took photos, stood there a quiet moment, and made our way back thoughtfully to the Museum, to continue our programme.

 David Prager

23rd September, 2005

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