As I wrote in my last post, many of the descendants of Rahel Katzenstein and Jacob Katz were still living in Germany when Hitler came to power. One of those was Manfred Katz, son of Karl Katz, grandson of Meier Katz, and great-grandson of Rahel and Jacob. Fred, as he is known, is my third cousin, once removed, and he was a young boy in the 1930s.
Before I left for Germany, I had a long conversation with Fred. Years ago he had written a memoir about his years in Jesberg and his family’s experience after the Nazis came to power. I asked Fred if I could reprint his memoir on my blog. Fred graciously granted me permission to post his story. In addition, he and his family have provided me with some wonderful photographs, some of which are included in this post, and others will be added to those to come.
Fred’s story is very moving, and having now been to Jesberg, I can visualize this young boy growing up in the small village with a beautiful brook running through it, surrounded by his brothers and cousins, his parents, and his aunt and uncle. It should have been an idyllic boyhood, but as you will see, it was not.
Please read this and remember what happened to innocent children like Fred:
My Childhood in Germany
By Fred Katz
I was born [in] 1929, in Giesen, Germany. My parents actually lived in Jesberg, a small village in the state of Hessen, with a population of about 1000, of which about 70 were Jews. …. Since there was no hospital in Jesberg and my mother was 40 years old, she opted to go to Giesen, where she lived with her sister until it was time for her to go to the hospital to deliver me. She took me to Jesberg when I was a week old to meet my two older brothers, 9 year old Walter and 8 year old Max.
We lived in a large two story house with an attached barn. We lived downstairs and my uncle, aunt and son lived upstairs. My dad and uncle were partners in a very successful cattle business.
I was told that the winter of 1929 was one of the coldest and longest on record. My brothers always told me that they had to go every morning to a small stream, the Gilsa, in back of our house, to break the ice with an axe and bring buckets of water for use in the house and livestock in the barn since all the water pipes in the house were broken.
I actually have very pleasant memories of my childhood until I started the 3rd grade of public school. My playmates up to that time included non-Jewish and Jewish. I enjoyed being with my older brothers when they did chores, and especially harvesting potatoes and making hay. It was great riding home on top of a load of hay being pulled by a team of horses.
I fondly remember all the festivities associated with my brothers’ Bar Mitzvahs. We had a small synagogue with about 20 families in 1934. I always went with my father and brothers to Friday evening and Saturday morning and afternoon services, as well as all holidays. We had a religious school that must have been rather informal because I can remember tagging along with my brothers when I was surely no more than 3 years old. My exposure to religious school ended when I was 8 years old, but by that time, I knew most of the Bible stories and could read prayer book Hebrew.
Starting in 1934, the number of Jewish families in Jesberg slowly decreased as they emigrated due to the ever more severe restrictions being imposed by the Nazis. I started first grade in 1935. There were 3 teachers in the Volkschule [public school]. One for the first 2 grades and one each for grade 3 through 5 and 6 through 8. My first teacher was not a Nazi and I had no problems in his classroom or in the playground.
However, the 3rd through 5th grade teacher was a real Nazi who instructed the students in Nazi doctrine while 3 of us Jewish students had to stand outside of the classroom as long as 2 hours, while they were supposedly discussing Christianity. There were only 3 of us left in 1937 because others had already emigrated with their families or had been sent to Jewish schools in large cities. My memories of the 3rd grade and part of the 4th that I attended until the 9th of November 1938 are not very pleasant. I don’t know what hurt more, the taunts being thrown at me or the stones. …
We, my parents and two brothers, tried to immigrate to the United States already in the fall of 1935. We traveled by train to the American consulate in Stuttgart, but they refused to give us a visa. We tried again a year later, and this time they were willing to give my parents and myself a visa, but not to my brothers, who they claimed had tuberculosis. My parents did not want to leave without my brothers so they declined the visa. On the return from Stuttgart, we stopped in Frankfurt so my brothers could be examined by a specialist, who found no trace of TB.
Shortly after that, my father had a severe cerebral hemorrhage. His entire right side was paralyzed, and he could not speak. He slowly regained some ability to speak and move his limbs while under a doctor’s care in our home in Jesberg. About 6 weeks after he had the stroke, it was recommended that he be moved to a Jewish rehab hospital in Frankfurt. He made good progress there so that when he came home about 6 weeks later he was able to speak clearly and walk with the use of a cane.
After my father had the stroke, mother decided to get separate visas for Walter and Max. Walter went by himself to the American consulate, and they issued him a visa. He left by himself in the fall of 1937 for Stillwater, Oklahoma. Then Max went to the American consulate, and they granted him a visa. He left for Stillwater in the spring of 1938. [Stillwater was the home of Jake Katz, brother of Fred’s father Karl and by that time a very successful business owner in Oklahoma, as discussed in earlier blog posts.]
By then, our father was able to get around fairly well with a cane but was not able to do any physical work. Uncle Jake knew one of Oklahoma’s senators, Elmer Thomas, quite well, and they were able to pull some strings at the State Department so that when my parents and I went back to the American consulate for the third time in early fall of 1938, we were granted a visa. Preparations were then made for us to leave Germany in the middle of December.
Alas, November comes before December, so I therefore experienced the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938. Not every German was a Nazi and an anti-Semite. The son of a neighbor who had the only car in the village and who drove some of the Nazis heard of the plan and told my parents. By this time, there were only 4 other Jewish families left in Jesberg, and my parents told them. All left their homes that night to hide in the fields except us.
My father still had difficulty walking in fields so we went to the house of a Jewish family who had recently sold it for use as a municipal building. We thought that we would be safe there, and this turned out to be the case. We heard the mob hooting and hollering as they ransacked our little synagogue, destroying the one remaining Jewish store, and then went on to our house.
The devastation we found on returning to our house in the morning was indeed sad. Furniture had been severely damaged, glasses and dishes broken, beds soiled with urine, and they also left behind a cat of 9 tails, which really scared me. However, I was also angry and decided to go by myself to the synagogue to find my wimpel, which I wanted to take with us when we left for America.
I am sure that most of you never heard of a wimpel since it is strictly a German Jewish tradition. A wimpel is about a 10 foot long linen sash made from the cloth from swaddling a boy at his Brit and is used to bind the two scrolls of the Torah together. It is made by cutting the washed swaddling clothes into strips about 7 inches wide and sewing them together. The child’s Hebrew name and date of birth are painted or embroidered into the cloth, along with a traditional blessing in Hebrew and, “May God raise him up to a life of Torah, a successful marriage, and good deeds, Amen.” Additional color images of animals, bride and groom under the Chuppa etc are also added.The synagogue was in terrible condition. Prayer books, prayer shawls, wimpels, Torah scrolls and mantels had all been thrown into a large pike and then set on fire. However, the fire only scorched some of the items before it went out. Searching through the rubble, I did not find my wimpel but found a Torah which had been torn apart at the seam, but was otherwise undamaged. I went home to ask my parents if I could bring this Torah home.
When I got home, there was an Army truck with a canvas cover along with about half a dozen SA troopers, the ones wearing the light brown uniforms, in front of our house. The doctor from our village was also there, and he told the SA leader that my father was in no condition to go with him since my father was still recovering from his stroke and that my uncle could not be taken because of his heart condition. We found out later that the men picked up in Hessen were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. They were all released over the next 2 to 6 weeks. None were intentionally killed or severely hurt. The idea was to scare the remaining Jews to leave Germany.
My uncle [Aron], who had been a soldier in the German army in World War I, had no intention of leaving, but changed his mind after Kristallnacht. He was fortunate that he and his wife got a visa and arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma in September 1939.
My mother gave her ok for me to take our hand wagon to pick up the two scrolls of the Torah. About a month later, the scrolls were packed with our household belongings into a large wooden box called a Lift and shipped to Stillwater.
So it was with this background that we left Germany for Hamburg on an American ship, the SS Washington, the middle of December, 1938. We came into NY harbor standing at the rail, looking at the Statue of Liberty. After a week in NY city, visiting with relatives, we left by train for our new home and life in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The Torah [scroll I had rescued] could not be used, being torn apart at the seam, so [it] remained unused until 1956, when my brother Walter brought it to his synagogue in Wichita, Kansas. There, it was repaired to make it kosher and useable. My niece, Ellen, Walter’s daughter, read from it at her Bat Mitzvah. Our son Harold brought the Torah to Tulsa, Oklahoma for each of our three grandsons’ Bar Mitzvahs, so they could read from it. Ethan, the oldest, … and I shared the same Torah portion, Terumah. The rabbi asked if I would like to read the first section, which I had read at my Bar Mitzvah, followed by Ethan reading the next sections. As you can imagine, this was quite an emotional moment for me.
I can’t even begin to imagine what that must have felt like, linking the generations, the traditions, and the places he loved.
Looking at those old family photographs and reading Fred’s story made it very clear to me how much was lost because of the Nazis. Here was a family, living a comfortable and happy life in a small town in Germany—a family where children grew up feeling safe and loved. All of that was stolen from them. Although they were among the very fortunate ones who were able to escape, it remains remarkable to me that they were able to rebuild their lives, continue their traditions, and create a place for themselves in a new country that they could call home.
More on that in posts to come. First, a look at what happened to the other Katz/Katzenstein family members who were still in Germany in the 1930s.
 I have done only a small bit of editing here, deleting some background on Jesberg already discussed in the blog and some personal information about birth dates of those who are still living. I’ve also added a few editorial explanations. I otherwise did not want to alter in any way Fred’s voice or the content of his story.