In many ways Jewish history is about one exodus after another. The Jewish story begins when God tells Abra(ha)m, “Lech Lecha,” or “Go, Go out.” He instructs him to leave his father’s land and go to a new land where his children would be as numerous as the stars.
There are many journeys throughout the Bible—Noah’s journey, Jacob’s journey, Joseph’s journey, and, of course, the exodus from Egypt led by Moses, which is recalled and re-enacted every year on Passover.
This Friday evening we will once again remember and re-enact that journey. We will read the story of the Exodus. We will drink wine, recline like free people, and eat matza to remember that our ancestors had no time to wait for the dough to rise before exiting from Egypt. We will eat the bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery, and we will eat the charoset—a mixture of apples, nuts, and wine—to embrace the sweetness of freedom from slavery.
But that exodus was not the last journey our people took to freedom. Over the centuries Jews kept moving from one land to another, either having been expelled or deciding on their own to seek freedom from oppression, violence, and hatred. They moved to Babylonia, to Spain, to eastern Europe, to Germany, to places all over the globe, including eventually to the Americas.
I have spent much of the year since last Passover studying the journeys of my paternal relatives from Sielen, Germany—my father’s maternal grandfather’s family, the Schoenthals. Although I still have a few more stories to share about my Schoenthal cousins, now that I have written about all the children of Levi Schoenthal and Henriette Hamberg, I want to spend this Passover looking back over the story of this particular family.
Levi and Henriette Schoenthal had ten children who survived to adulthood, all born in Sielen, Germany. Of those ten, eight settled permanently in the US, and all but one of those eight started their lives in America in western Pennsylvania—either in Pittsburgh or the town thirty miles away, known as Little Washington. Henry, the oldest son, arrived first in 1866, and by 1881, eight of the siblings were living in the US. Henry over the years was a book seller and a china dealer, but underneath was a deeply religious and well-educated man.
His youngest brother was my great-grandfather Isidore, who arrived in 1881, also settled in Washington, and also worked as a china dealer.
In between Henry and Isidore were four other brothers in the US plus two sisters. Over the years almost all of them prospered. Some moved away from western Pennsylvania. Simon ended up in Atlantic City, where he and his wife raised nine children, many of whom ended up in the hotel business there; Felix and his wife and two daughters ended up in Boston, where he became successful in the typewriter repair business. Julius lived in Washington, DC, worked as a shoemaker and had four children. Nathan lived in many different places. And even Isidore and Henry eventually left Pennsylvania, Isidore for Colorado and Henry for New York. The two sisters, Hannah and Amalie, stayed in Pittsburgh for most of their lives. Both were married and had children.
The next generations wandered even further afield, although many ended up not too far from where their parents had originally settled. My grandmother, who was born in Washington, PA, and grew up in Denver, spent her whole adult life in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Overall, the Schoenthals in the US prospered; most were successful business owners. Most of these people appeared to have full and happy lives, although there were some who struggled. Today there are numerous living descendants of those eight siblings, myself included.
On the other hand, the two siblings who stayed in Germany did not have as happy a legacy. Jakob died young, and his daughter Henriette was killed in the Holocaust. His four other children survived and, like their aunts and uncles, ended up in western Pennsylvania. Lee, Meyer, and Erna came before the war. But Johanna was deported to a camp in Gurs, France, during the war and did not come until 1947. From these five children, there were just two grandchildren: Helmut Levi, son of Henriette and Julius Levi, and Werner Haas, Erna’s son. Both grandsons made it to the US before World War II. Neither had children, however, so there are no living descendants of Jakob Schoenthal and his wife Charlotte Lilienthal.
And finally Rosalie, the youngest child of Levi and Henriette, after living in the US for a few years made the fateful decision to return to Germany to marry Willy Heymann. They had six children. Four survived the Holocaust. The three sons, Lionel, Max, and Walter, settled in Chicago before the war, where Lionel became a well-regarded photographer. One daughter, Johanna, who was widowed at a young age, followed her stepdaughter Else Mosbach to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to escape the Nazis.
The other two daughters, Helene and Hilda, were murdered in the Holocaust as were Helene’s two daughters, Liesel and Grete. From Rosalie’s six children, only one grandchild survived, the son of Max Heymann. I am still hoping to find him.
The Schoenthal story illustrates how one fateful decision can alter the future irrevocably. One decision to take a chance and leave what you know—to listen to the call of Lech Lecha, to venture out to a new land—can make all the difference. By taking a chance that the sweet charoset of that new land would outweigh the bitterness of leaving a land they knew, my great-grandfather and seven of his siblings changed their own fates and those of their descendants.
What if Jakob and Rosalie had left Germany when their siblings did?
And what if the other eight siblings had never left at all? This story would have a very different ending.
In fact, it never would have been written.