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Monday, October 5, 2015

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Letter from Wurzburg

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The Johanna Stahl Center for Jewish History and Culture in Lower Franconia is named in honour of an accomplished Jewish woman from the southern German city of Wurzburg.

Stahl, born in 1895, was one of the first females in Wurzburg to attend university. Then, as a journalist, she wrote for a daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung. In her spare time, she fought for the rights of women. During the Nazi era, she was a social worker in the besieged Jewish community.

By the early 1930s, Lower Franconia was home to 8,500 Jews, of whom 2,200 resided in Wurzburg, a centre of Germany’s wine industry. One of its Jewish residents, Ludwig Pfeuffer, Hebraicized his name to Yehuda Amichai after immigrating to Palestine and establishing himself as a major poet in Israel.

The remainder of the Jews of Lower Franconia could be found in the towns of Schweinfurt and Aschaffenburg and in villages like Arnstein, Thungen, Obbach and Rimpar (from which the ancestors of the Lehman Brothers banking family in the United States originated).

With the Nazi takeover in 1933, everything changed, observes Wurzburg’s current mayor, Georg Rosenthal (who is not Jewish). “They became subject to systematic isolation and disenfranchisement, administrative arbitrariness and harassment and state-tolerated violence, all of which culminated in the pogrom night of Nov. 9, 1938,” says Rosenthal, who last year invited former Jewish residents living abroad for a week-long visit to Wurzburg.

During Kristallnacht – a pogrom wholeheartedly supported by the Franconian Nazi leader Julius Streicher, a radical antisemite who published Der Sturmer – the synagogue was set alight, homes and businesses were looted and demolished, and four Jews were killed. Almost immediately afterward, 300 Jewish men were arrested and imprisoned in the Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps.

From 1941 until 1943, 2,063 Jews from the area who had not emigrated were sent away in five deportations from Wurzburg and in one transport from the nearby town of Kitzingen, says Rotraud Ries, a 56-year-old historian from the state of Hesse and the director of the Johanna Stahl Center for Jewish History and Culture in Lower Franconia.

On June 17, 1943, three months before the community was officially liquidated, Stahl herself was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the final deportation, says Ries, a Protestant whose interest in German Jewish history was aroused by Leon Uris’ novel Exodus.

Thirty to 40 Jews married to Christians, plus some children of mixed ancestry, were allowed to remain behind.

At the Shalom Europa Jewish Museum, an annex of the Johanna Stahl Center, the names of local Jews murdered during the Holocaust are etched into six glass panels. I jotted some of their names in my notebook: Frieda Heinemann, Norbert Fulder, David Benjamin, Lina Altmann, Wilhelm Reinstein and Gretchen Lewald.

Eerily enough, the persecution and deportation of Jews were an echo of the past. Jews, having settled in Wurzburg about 900 years ago, were subjected to violent antisemitism during the First Crusade in 1096. Further pogroms erupted in 1298 and 1349. In the early 15th century, Jews were permitted to return to Wurzburg. When they were persecuted yet again in the 17th century, Jews gravitated toward villages in the countryside.

In 1576, Wurzburg’s local ruler, a prince bishop, built a hospital on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery. The tombstones were removed and used as building materials.

Construction workers discovered them in 1987, and today, most of the 1,435 headstones are stored on shelves in a locked room in the basement of the Shalom Europa Jewish Museum, constituting the world’s single largest collection of medieval Jewish tombstones. A few of them are displayed in glass cases in the museum, which opened in 2006.

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that Jews were permitted to resettle in Wurzburg. Yet in 1819, in the so-called Hep-Hep riots, which broke out in Wurzburg and spread to other cities, Jews were verbally and physically abused. Nonetheless, Wurzburg developed into a hub of Orthodox Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham Bing.

 At the end of World War II, a trickle of Jews began returning to Wurzburg, which was heavily damaged by a massive Allied air raid in March 1945.

In the mid-1950s, Julius Schuster and his son, David, who hailed from Brueckenau, a town some 80 kilometres north of Wurzburg, returned to what was then West Germany.

In 1938, before the advent of Kristallnacht, the Schusters were taken to Buchenwald and incarcerated there for seven months. In exchange for giving up their properties, they were released and given permission to leave Germany in December 1939. 

Bound for Palestine, they settled in Haifa. In 1954, David’s wife gave birth to a boy, Josef. Meanwhile, having been given back their German properties, they left Israel and settled down in Wurzburg.

“They couldn’t manage the properties from Israel,” said Josef Schuster, the current leader of Wurzburg’s Jewish community – a title he inherited from his father – as well as president of the Congregation of Jewish Communities in Bavaria.

Now a physician specializing in internal medicine, Josef Schuster was raised in a German milieu and felt comfortable growing up in Germany.

“My parents gave me the feeling we were here to stay in Germany. We were not sitting on our suitcases. They told me all about our history.”

Schuster’s wife, Jutta, comes from a similar background. Born in Berlin, her mother was a “submarine” during the last phase of the Nazi period, surviving underground in hiding.

By the late 1980s, only 200 Jews, mainly of eastern European origin, lived in Wurzburg, whose population stands at around 130,000 today. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tens of thousands of Jews streamed into reunified Germany.

Hundreds arrived in Wurzburg, bolstering its Jewish population by a considerable margin. “We welcomed them with open arms,” says Schuster, who’s also vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the chief umbrella group of Germany’s national Jewish community.

These days, 950 of the estimated 1,100 Jews in Lower Franconia live in Wurzburg and its suburbs. And as in the rest of Germany, where there are 110,000 registered Jews in 105 communities, Soviet Jews comprise at least 70 per cent of Lower Franconia’s Jewish population.

As might be expected, elderly immigrants have not really adjusted to their new surroundings. They have not mastered German and are dependent on social welfare payments. But their children have acclimatized themselves to Germany and form the backbone of Wurzburg’s reconstituted Jewish community.

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