First Stop on Our Trip to Germany: Mainz

We spent our first day and a half in Germany in the beautiful and ancient city of Mainz, a city with a population of about 200,000 people and a city that was once an important center for Jewish learning and culture. Our visit there created some cognitive dissonance for me as we experienced such incredible beauty and also memories of such horrific ugliness.

We flew into Frankfurt Airport on May 2 and found the train to Mainz.  Once on the train, we were not entirely sure that we’d gotten on the right train.  Despite a full year of learning German online, I could not make out one word of the train announcements.  Fortunately, a very kind man sitting across from us realized we were confused and reassured us that we were on the right train and that he would tell us when to get off.  From the start, we were favorably impressed with the people in Germany.

Our hotel, the Mainz Hilton, was right on the Rhine; it is a large American-style hotel with large rooms and all the amenities.

The Rhine

We were exhausted after the overnight flight and took a short rest before meeting Wolfgang at 1:30.  And the adrenaline kept us going. I had so anticipated meeting my cousin Wolfgang.  We had been emailing each other for over two years on a regular basis, at first mostly about family history, but as time went on more often exchanging current information—about our families, our lives, politics, German and English, and life in general.  Meeting him in person for the first time, I felt as if I must have already met him and spent time with him. The connection was immediate, and he was just as I imagined based on his emails.  A warm and open person, sensitive and kind, intelligent and perceptive.  And with a delightful sense of humor.

My cousin Wolfgang and me

Wolfgang had planned a walk through the sights closest to our hotel and then a tram tour around the city to see some of the sites that were further out. We strolled along the Rhine for a bit.  The weather was rainy and quite cool, but it did not put a damper on my spirits. We passed a sculpture reflecting the division of Germany after World War II and its reunification in 1990.

We walked past a 15th century watch tower known as the Holzturm (“wooden tower); it was destroyed by bombing in World War II but reconstructed and restored to its original appearance.

Then Wolfgang showed us the house where Johanna Seligmann and Alfred Bielefeld had lived.  Johanna was my first cousin, three times removed.  She was the daughter of Hyronimus Seligmann, brother of my great-great-grandfather Bernard Seligman.  Alfred, her husband, was a wine merchant in Mainz.  Both were killed in the Holocaust.  They were deported to Terezin first, where Alfred died in 1945; Johanna was then sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed in 1945.  Their children, Hans and Lily, survived and lived in the United States.  I wrote about Johanna and her family here and here.

Johanna Bielefeld nee Seligmann

Bielelfed house in Mainz

Just around the corner from where the Bielefelds lived was the so-called “Jew House” where the Nazis moved Jewish families before deporting them.  Although the house itself no longer exists, this is where it was located:

We then visited a beautiful 18th century church, St. Augustine, with an elaborately decorated interior:

St Augustine church in Mainz

Perhaps my favorite spot in Mainz was the Kirschgarten—a small square framed by several half-timber houses, some now restaurants.  This little square captured exactly what I expected an old German city or town to look like—something out of Hansel and Gretel or some other fairy tale. The oldest house in Mainz is located in the Kirschgarten:

Kirschgarten in Mainz

Everywhere we turned there were beautiful half-timber buildings, sometimes right next to a post-war building.

We then visited the Dom, or cathedral, a large Romanesque sandstone structure located on the main market square in Mainz. The cathedral’s oldest sections are a thousand years old with later additions over the years.  It was damaged by bombing in World War II, but restored afterwards.  The cloister is a peaceful place for contemplation, and the high vaulted ceiling in the main part of the cathedral forces you to look upwards.  It is an impressive and inspiring building.

Mainz Marktplatz

Cloister at the cathedral in Mainz

At this point we caught the little tram that took us on a tour around other parts of the city, passing the Rathaus (town hall), the Schloss (a palace more than a castle), the new synagogue, and the building where the Gestapo was housed during World War II. I couldn’t get any photos of these sites as we were moving too fast, but I was glad to be seated and not walking at that point. I asked Wolfgang if we could come back the next day to see the synagogue.

As I wrote here, our first stop on Wednesday was our visit with Wolfgang’s mother Annlis, a time I will never forget.

Then we continued our tour of Mainz.  We passed the location where Fritz/Fred Michel once owned a store.  Fred Michel was the son of Franzeska Seligmann and the grandson of August Seligmann, Wolfgang’s great-grandfather and another brother of my great-great-grandfather Bernard. Fred and his wife Ilse came to the US in the 1930s and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  I wrote about Fred, his mother, and his family here.

Fred Michel and Franziska Seligmann Michel
Courtesy of the Family of Fred and Ilse Michel

Location of Fred Michel’s store in Mainz

We then walked up the steep hill to St. Stephen’s church, where there are a number of windows designed by Marc Chagall.  The contrast between the thousand year old medieval structure and the gorgeous blue Chagall windows is striking. Like so many other buildings in Mainz, this church was damaged by bombing during World War II.  According to Wikipedia, the priest at St. Stephens, Monsignor Klaus Mayer, was a friend of Marc Chagall and approached him in the 1970s to design new windows. This is the only church in Germany for which Chagall designed windows, and he saw it as a way of expressing his hope for peace between Christians and Jews.  To see the work of a Jewish artist and his depictions of figures from the Jewish bible inside a medieval Catholic church was very moving.

St Stephen’s church in Mainz with Chagall windows

We then walked back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and Wolfgang drove us to see the new synagogue.  I knew before coming that Mainz had a long and very important history as a Jewish community. According to several sources, Mainz had a Jewish community at least as early as the tenth century. Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, known as “the light of the diaspora,” was an early important leader of the Mainz Jewish community, and his codification of Jewish law was accepted in many other communities in Europe as well.

The Jews, however, were expelled from the city in the eleventh century; they returned later, but then a thousand were killed during the first Crusade during the twelfth century.  Later, many died from the Black Death and from persecution. For several centuries there was not much of a Jewish community in Mainz. The community began to grow again in the 18th and 19th centuries. Synagogues were constructed, and Jews for some time lived in peace in the community. By 1900, there were 3000 Jews living in Mainz, according to JewishGen.org

On November 9, 1938, the Mainz synagogues were attacked as part of Kristallnacht and burnt and in some cases destroyed; there were over 200 synagogues at that time in Mainz, including the largest synagogue, Neue Synagogue, which was completely destroyed. Most of the Jews who remained in Mainz, including my Bielefeld cousins, were eventually deported and killed.

But today there is hope.  A new synagogue was built on the site of the former Neue Synagogue in 2010, and it is an imposing structure.  As this article describes, it was consider a symbol of hope for the revival of Jewish life in Germany. Outside the synagogue stand pillars from the original synagogue, a permanent reminder of what had existed and what was destroyed. The city now has about a thousand Jews who are affiliated with the synagogue as well as many others who are not.

The website of Manuel Herz, the architect who designed the new synagogue, provides a great deal of information about the history and about the reasons for the choices made in naming and designing this new building.  The synagogue is called Meor Hagolah, which means “Light of the Diaspora,” the name used to refer to Gershom ben Judah because of his wisdom and his broad-reaching influence on the practice of Judaism. The Hebrew words on the door to the synagogue are translated as “Light of the Diaspora Synagogue Mainz.”

Meor Hagodah Synagogue Mainz

The building’s shape is supposed to evoke the Hebrew word Kedushah, meaning holiness and referring to one of the sections of the Amidah prayer. I must admit I could not see the letters no matter where I stood outside the building, but I like the concept. The building overall is quite imposing and, in my opinion, not very welcoming.  It looks more like a fortress than a house of prayer.  Maybe that is in part the point: that this is a safe place that will not be destroyed again.

We stopped at the historic Mainz cemetery on our way out of town.  I have no known family members there, and we could not go inside, but the age and number of the gravestones there are another reminder that there was once a large and important Jewish community there.

Mainz Jewish cemetery

Mainz is truly a beautiful city, and despite all the damage inflicted during the war, it retains its charm, its character, and its architectural beauty. It is hard to imagine, amidst all that beauty and all those churches, how the Jewish community that lived there so long could have been destroyed.  But it is also important to look forward. I left the city feeling hopeful, knowing that a new synagogue and a growing new Jewish community exist in the city of Mainz.

 

 

Why Germany?

Before we left for Germany, we received many strange reactions when we would tell people we were traveling to Germany.  Some people were quite blunt: how could we visit that country after what they did to the Jews in the Holocaust? Others were more subtle and just shrugged and said, “Why would you go there?” Others simply looked bemused.  Some people said, “Just Germany?” I know if we were going to Italy or England, no one would have reacted that way.  Germany just did not seem to be an appealing destination to many of the people we know.

Even when I explained that I was going to see the places where my father’s ancestors had lived and meeting cousins who live in Germany, people reacted strangely. So now that we are back, I can better explain why we went to Germany and why other people might want to go there as well. I will write about the specific experiences we had in the various places we visited in later posts, but first I want to put the trip in perspective and give some overall thoughts about what we saw and what we learned.

First, Germany is a beautiful country with so much to see and experience.  The Rhine River and the rolling hills and wide open green spaces are a delight.

On the Rhine from Bingen to Koblenz

Some of the cities and towns we saw are as charming, interesting, and historically and culturally rich as any we have seen in other places.  In particular, Mainz, Wurzburg, and Heidelberg are beautiful with storybook churches, elegant palaces, and inviting and exciting markets and squares.  The houses range from half-timber fairy tale houses to rococo-decorated merchant homes.

Mainz

In the smaller villages and towns, you get a feeling for how life has been lived in such places for centuries.  They are not like the small town where I now live.  There are clusters of houses around a central square with a church and town hall anchoring that common space.   Surrounding these clusters of homes and buildings are miles and miles of open land.

Countryside near Sielen

Second, people need to see and understand the damage that war can do. The places destroyed by the Nazis—especially the synagogues and cemeteries—are terribly heartbreaking to see, and there are constant reminders of the Jews who were deported and killed by the Nazis. You cannot go any place in Germany without being reminded that there were once Jews there and that they were persecuted and murdered.

Stolpersteine in Bingen

And some of the places we visited—Cologne, Kassel, and Bingen, in particular—were devastated by Allied bombing during the war.  They’ve been rebuilt, but quite often the new architecture is bland and boring. Often people would comment on how beautiful a city had been before the bombing. The Germans live with daily reminders of what their country did during the Third Reich and also what the war cost them.

A street in Cologne showing a Roman arch at the end of a post war street.

I can’t say that as an American Jew, I felt any guilt about the damage my country did to Germany in order to stop the Nazis.  But I also never once heard any of the many Germans we spoke to express resentment or hostility towards the Allies for the harm done to their country.  They seem to understand and accept that the Allied attacks were a necessary response to the aggression and genocide committed by the Nazis. Nevertheless, as the world continues to use violence and destruction as a means of settling disputes, we all should understand the consequences of war—not only in terms of loss of life, but also in terms of loss of culture, history, art, and architecture.

Which brings me to the third important lesson we learned while in Germany.  There are many non-Jewish Germans who are working with a true passion and commitment to preserve and restore the history of the Jewish communities that were wiped out during the Holocaust.  These people by and large are volunteers—good and dedicated people who were born either during or after the war and who are horrified by what the Nazis did.  We spent a great deal of time with six of these people in a number of different towns where my ancestors once lived.

Just a few of the good people we met in Germany (and my husband Harvey)

We asked all of them why they are doing this work.  Their answers varied; one said it was because she’d had a Jewish teacher as a child with whom she’d been very close; another said that it was discovering a former synagogue that had been desecrated; another mentioned that it was learning what had happened to the Jews in his small town that had motivated him to learn more.  They are all warm, thoughtful, and kind people. They became friends.  One man, with tears in his eyes, spoke about his gratitude to the US for the aid it provided to German citizens after World War II.  These people spent many hours with us and did not charge us one cent.  They just wanted to help.  They want Jews to know about the work they are doing; they want us to come and visit and reclaim our history.  They want to help us reclaim that history, and they want us to help them preserve it.

And that’s what I did in Germany.  I stood where my ancestors once stood.  I staked my claim as a person whose family once lived and thrived in the towns of Germany, as a person who is also a part of the history of that place.  I wanted to make a visible statement that Hitler did not win because Jews still exist; we survived, and we are as entitled as anyone to walk the streets of Germany.  By going to Germany and talking to those who live there, I was able to let them know that we have not forgotten what happened during the Third Reich, but we also have not forfeited our claim to our history in those places.

Standing at the graves of my 3x-great-grandparents, Scholum Katzenstein and Breine Blumenfeld in Haarhausen cemetery

I understand that not everyone will feel as I do. And it’s not my intention to change anyone’s mind.  I just want to explain my feelings to those who have asked and will continue to ask me with that skeptical look, “Why would you go to Germany?” Because we can.  Because the Nazis did not win.  Because we have every right to claim our rich heritage and our long history in that country. And because many people who live there want us to do just that.

Annlis Schäfer Seligmann 1924-2017

We have returned from our trip to Germany, and I have many things to share about the experience.  It was a trip filled with many joyous moments as well as many sad and heartbreaking moments.  One of the greatest joys and definitely the saddest moment involved Annlis Seligmann, mother of my dear cousin Wolfgang.

Annlis and Wolfgang

When Wolfgang found my blog almost two and half years ago, it was the result of a family research project he was sharing with his mother.  Annlis was not born a Seligmann; she was born Annlis Schäfer on April 12, 1924.  But in 1965 she married Wolfgang’s father Walter Seligmann, who died in 1993, and she was fascinated with the history of his family.  When the Seligmann family discovered the “magic suitcase” that had belonged to Walter’s brother Herbert, Annlis and Wolfgang began to search through the documents to learn more about the Seligmann family history.  Because Wolfgang could not read the old German script, Annlis had to decipher many of the old records and documents for him.

At some point in this process, Wolfgang discovered my blog, and together the three of us—Annlis, Wolfgang, and I—all worked together to find many of the missing pieces of the Seligmann family.  We were able to figure out how many of the people named in those documents were related to us all.  Without their help, I would not have found many of the Seligmanns who died in the Holocaust or who, like my cousins Lotte Wiener Furst and Fred Michel, were able to escape Germany before it was too late.

So when I was planning my trip to Germany, one of my priorities was to meet not only Wolfgang, his wife Bärbel, and daughter Milena, but also his mother Annlis.  We arrived in Germany on May 2, and the first thing we were scheduled to do on May 3 was meet Annlis.  We went with Wolfgang to the senior residence where she was living in Mainz (like an assisted living facility in the US) first thing that morning. Annlis did not speak English, so I was able to test my baby German.  With Wolfgang’s help, we were able to communicate.

She and Wolfgang showed me some family photographs, and I shared with her photographs of my parents, children, and grandchildren.  We looked through the magic suitcase together (there are still hundreds of letters and postcards still to be translated). Despite the language obstacles, I felt a strong connection to Annlis and was sad to say goodbye when our visit ended.

Annlis had been in declining health in recent months.  Her vision had become so poor that she could no longer read and help translate the documents, but she remained very interested in the family history and, according to Wolfgang, had been very anxious to meet me.  After our visit, she expressed to Wolfgang how happy she had been to meet me.  I was so touched and, of course, felt the same way.

So you can imagine my shock when less than ten days later while still in Germany, I received a message from Wolfgang telling me that his mother had died.  I was stunned and so sad.  And heartbroken for Wolfgang and his family.

Annlis lived a long and full life.  From Wolfgang I know that she grew up in Mainz where she also lived for the last five years of her life.  During World War II, she was working in Bingen.  In September, 1944, she witnessed the murder of an American soldier, Odis Lee Apple, whose plane had been shot down and crashed nearby.  As described here by Wolfgang himself on the website for the radio station where he works, the caretaker for the building where Annlis worked notified the people in the office that an American soldier was walking on the street outside the building.

Annlis and three of her co-workers left the building and followed Apple, whom she described as a man with a friendly face.  Then suddenly the building’s caretaker rushed out onto the street in his SA uniform and shot Apple.  He did not die right away, but was suffering terribly from the gunshot wound.  At some point someone else shot him, and he died.

Street in Bingen where Annlis worked and witnessed the murder of Odis Lee Apple

After the war, the US Army investigated Apple’s death; Annlis provided testimony, and several people were sentenced to prison.  The caretaker, however, had died not long after the shooting during a bombing attack on Bingen.

According to Wolfgang, his mother never forgot this incident and was horrified by what she had witnessed. Even though at that point the US was at war against Germany, Annlis knew it was wrong to kill someone in cold blood like that.

Tribute to Odis Lee Apple at the spot where he was shot

It was not until twenty years after the war that Annlis married Walter Seligmann in 1965.  Together they raised their son Wolfgang in a neighborhood outside of Mainz in an apartment overlooking the valley.  She lived in that apartment until five years before her death when she moved to the building where I met with her on May 3.

Annlis Seligmann lived a good and long life; she had just turned 93 a month before her death.  I feel so privileged and fortunate that I was able to be a part of her life in the last two years and especially that I was able to meet her in person, share some time with her, and give her a hug.  My heart goes out to Wolfgang, Bärbel, Milena, and the entire extended family.  May her memory be a blessing.