German Bar Mitzvah
(Note: A number of persons, with varying degrees of interest in our trip, asked for a report on the German bar mitzvah. Rather than preparing tailored reports, we decided to do one fairly comprehensive one and leave it to readers to skip those portions of no interest to them.)
A bar mitzvah ceremony was held in Korbach, Germany on June 20, 2003. The last known bar mitzvah, that of Manfred Isaac Goldwein, was conducted in April 1937. On November 8, 1938 the synagogue in which Manfred’s bar mitzvah was held, along with the Jewish school and the residence of the rabbi were destroyed as part of the Nazi orchestrated Kristallnacht. The rabbi was Fred’s father, Moritz; and he and his wife Rosa were later moved in a series of deportations that included the Thereisenstadt concentration camp and finally the extermination camp at Auschwitz where they were both killed. One of the two bar mitzvah participants in the 2003 ceremony was Eric Goldwein, the great grandson of Moritz; and the ceremony was held on the exact site of the destroyed synagogue which is now a children’s daycare center. In brief this is the story of the intervening years and of the people, the organization, and the officials who made this latter ceremony possible.
Recognizing the increasing danger to the family Moritz and Rosa with help from relatives and organizations in the United States arranged for Fred to travel by train and ship to Wilmington, Delaware where he was welcomed into the household of Dr. and Mrs. Morris Greenstein and their two sons, David and Richard. Fred became the boys’ brother in all but the legal sense. Meanwhile Rosa’s brother, David Snellenburg, worked to establish a synagogue in Dover, Delaware where Moritz would serve as rabbi and ritual butcher, satisfying U.S. immigration requirements that all adults fleeing the Nazis have a job waiting for them. Both U.S. State Department and German officials repeatedly found “problems” with Moritz and Rosa’s papers, and in mid-1939 Hitler reversed the policy of encouraging Jews to emigrate to one of no emigration and forced relocation. With devising of the “final solution” in 1942 the policy became one of relocation leading to mass execution to achieve a “Juden Frei” (Jewish Free) world.
Meanwhile Fred entered the Wilmington public school system and was graduated from high school in 1941. When the U.S. entered World War II, Fred found himself technically an enemy alien and unable to enlist. He discovered, however, that he could volunteer for the draft and become a citizen shortly thereafter. Fred volunteered and was part of the North African invasion force and then onto Italy and eventually at the end of the war serving in France. In keeping with army policy Fred was assigned to the medical corps, as there were concerns about former enemy aliens being assigned to combat arms. Fred opted to be mustered out in France and to serve as an army civilian so that he could return to Korbach to learn the fate of his parents. This he did in February 1946 where he learned of their deaths and received the diary that he had written on his journey to the U.S. In the back of the diary were separate farewell letters from Moritz and Rosa. Fred was instrumental in having a memorial erected in Korbach in memory of all the Jews of Korbach who perished in the Holocaust.
Fred returned to the U.S., entered college and graduated with honors from the University of Delaware in 1950. In 1949 He married Margaret Sluizer, the beginning of a 50-year marriage. Fred then attended the University of Vermont medical school where he graduated at the top of his class in 1954. After serving his internship there, he and Peg along with two children, Ruth and Michael, moved to the Philadelphia area where he had accepted a residency at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. That assignment began a very successful career as physician and teacher lasting until his retirement in 1997. Meanwhile a third son, Joel, arrived. Fred’s health declined, and he died in December 1999. Peg, suffering from an incurable illness, died less than four months later.
In time all three of Fred’s children married, and he lived to see six grandchildren. Joel followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a very successful physician. One of Fred and Peg’s most proud moments was when Joel received an honor in his late 30’s, one which Fred did not receive until his late 60’s. Joel had always been interested in family history and with the death of Fred started to do more research. When his youngest son Eric was nearing the age of bar mitzvah Joel decided that following the usual ceremony in Philadelphia that it would be fitting to have a second ceremony in Germany on the site of the Korbach synagogue. With much work and patience and the help of the Emet weSchalom Congregation in Gudensberg and city officials and volunteers in Korbach the idea became a reality. Eric’s close friend, Charles Baron who was a bar mitzvah the same weekend in Philadelphia, participated with Eric in the second bar mitzvah.
Attendees at the Korbach ceremony, which was conducted by Debbie Tal-Ruttger the lay leader of Emet weSchalom, included the mayor of Korbach, the minister of culture, and a citizen volunteer who has written a book on the Jews of Korbach, and several adult members and children of the congregation. Unfortunately there are no Jews in Korbach or the surrounding area. In addition to Joel and Marlene Goldwein and their other two children, Marc and Rob, Rick and Madeline Baron and their daughter Lizzie were Richard and Doris Greenstein, Stanley and Cynthia Amberg, all from the U.S. and Martine Wolff from the Netherlands. Following the ceremony there was a bar mitzvah reception at a hotel and Debbie Tal-Ruttger entertained with a rendition of familiar Yiddish and Hebrew songs.
The trip also provided time for the Goldwein, Greenstein, Amberg, and Wolff families to visit the places where their relatives had lived. In Korbach the Goldweins and Greensteins visited the Jewish cemetery where the memorial Fred had been instrumental in having erected stands. As is traditional Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was recited for all in the cemetery and all Jews who died in the Holocaust. Prior to the cemetery visit the group met with two volunteer archivists at the Korbach city archive. Debbie Tal-Ruttger traveled an hour from Gudensberg to help in the translation as the principal archivist of the Jews in Korbach and the author of the book on Korbach Jews speaks no English. Most striking were the newspaper pictures and stories of the destruction of the synagogue and Jewish school on Kristallnacht. Apparently there was no destruction of Jewish owned businesses as most Jews had already left Korbach.
On the day before the ceremony the Ambergs, Greensteins, and Martine Wolff, an Amberg relative, visited Arnsberg where Richard Greenstein’s grandmother, Stanley Amberg’s aunt, was born. First stop was the Jewish cemetery where the volunteer caretaker, Karl Forester, age 88, met the group. The graves of several generations of grandparents have been restored. The only desecration by the Nazis was to bury slave laborers on the site. There is only one Jewish resident of Arnsberg, now 93 who has permission to be buried in the cemetery which is otherwise closed because of ground contamination concerns. Also visited was the house in which Richard’s grandmother and Stanley’s father lived. Their father was the tax collector as well as a butcher. It is very large house that originally had a butcher shop and smoke house on the first floor and living quarters above. It is now an apartment building. Jews in Arnsberg could not until the 19th Century own real property. There is a record of the family first being given permission by the Bishop of Arnsberg to live in a Christian owned house in the year 1700. Stories told about the family coming from Strasbourg appear to be inaccurate and perhaps an effort to make them more socially prominent than butchers and tax collectors.
On the day following the ceremony the entire group except the Barons went to Neheim, the home of David Snellenburg (Schnellenberg), Richard’s grandfather and Rosa Goldwein, Fred’s mother. They were from a family of nine sons and one daughter. The group was met at the Neheim synagogue, built by Martine Wolff’s great grandfather Noah Wolff and which is now the quarters of a hunting club. Club officials and members of the press were present, and champagne and orange juice were served in observance of the group’s visit. As in Korbach there are no Jews in Neheim. A flood destroyed all records as well as the Jewish cemetery when the British bombed and destroyed a nearby dam. A toast was made in memory of those who perished or escaped later to die in a foreign country. The group then went to a large wine shop, which prior to 1938 was a china shop operated by Jacob Schnellenberg who lived with his family above the store. Unlike Arnsberg Jews had for a much longer period been permitted to own real estate. Noah Wolff established a needle factory and in1835 established a fund for his employees for their retirement, almost a century before it was common practice. Sadly, when David Snellenburg pled with his brother Jacob just before Hitler’s election as Chancellor to emigrate to the U.S. Jacob refused, believing that as a decorated veteran of World War I and a prominent businessman that he had nothing to fear. He and his wife were forced to give up the store and their apartment and eventually they were relocated and died in one of the extermination camps.
Against all of the horrors of the period 1933 to 1945 is the reestablishment of Jewish institutions in Germany where the percentage of growth of the Jewish population is second only to that of Israel. In actual numbers it is estimated that there are now 120,00 Jews, which of course is significantly less than the 600,00o before 1933. Much of the growth comes from the immigration of Jews from the states of the former Soviet Union as well as the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These immigrants speak no German and for the most part know little or nothing of Jewish beliefs and customs and the Hebrew language. Many were given papers to sign affiliating them with German orthodoxy. It is believed that they receive no Jewish education as there is no instruction or material in Russian, the only language they understand. There has been a rebirth of the Liberal Jewish movement in Germany, and there are now 14 congregations. Because there is no formal recognition from the government they receive no financial assistance. Liberal Judaism is more traditional than German Reform, which continues not to observe many of the rituals and traditions.
Congregation Emet weSchalom is one of those 14 Liberal synagogues, and its primary work is with what is loosely termed the “Russian immigrants.” It is eight years old and has between 35 and 40 members, representing 22 families, of which 25 speak German and 15 Russian. Only seven families are capable of providing financial support. It occupies two rooms in an office building, has a small library, conducts weekly services, and has Hebrew classes every Wednesday. Debbie Tal-Ruttger, who has no formal rabbinic training, conducts the services, and teaches both Hebrew and music classes. All printed material is produced by Debbie with assistance from Russian speaking members and is in three languages, Russian, German, and Hebrew. The Gudensberg synagogue building houses a Red Cross office and is used for a number of civic and social activities. It and the adjoining school building escaped destruction on Kristallnacht, as any fire would have probably destroyed the entire block of buildings. The congregation is permitted to use the synagogue five times a year for major holiday services. Emet weSchalom does pay for a rabbi from the Leo Baeck Institute who visits four times per year as he does with other Liberal congregations.
The needs of this small congregation are many. Highest on the list are a social worker to work with the immigrants and a van to transport them to and from the camp where they live until they can find more permanent housing. Next is a Torah. The one Emet weSchalom has is of doubtful origin and not in the best of condition. Its website which Debbie has established also solicits twinning with congregations in the U.S. and Israel. As a result of all the contacts in preparation for the bar mitzvah, Temple Solel of Bowie, Maryland has taken all of the formal steps to establish a twinning relationship and communication between Rabbi Steve Weisman and Debbie Tal-Ruttger.
Certainly no one should forget the horrors of the Holocaust or those who perished or suffered at the hands of the Nazis. At the same time to ignore the resurgence of Judaism in Germany and not support congregations such as Emet weSchalom would be to have allowed Hitler and the Nazis to have prevailed in their objective of a Juden Frei Germany.