Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone!

I am still on my blogging break for the next week or so, but wanted to reach out and thank all of you for reading my stories this year and especially to all of you who helped me by providing researching suggestions, translating documents, and commenting on my posts.  The support I’ve received is very much appreciated and makes this project so much more enjoyable and fulfilling than if I had to do it all alone without feedback and support.

As I look back on 2017, it wasn’t my favorite year in many ways, but in terms of family history, it was a wonderful year. Visiting Germany and getting to see where my ancestors once lived was an incredible experience; what made it particularly special was getting to spend time with my cousin Wolfgang and his family and with my cousin Ulrike and meeting in person some of the many people who have helped me with my research—Dorothee, Beate, Hans-Peter, Ernst, Julia, and Aaron.

In terms of research, 2017 was the year of the Katzensteins, and what a fascinating family they were and are. Visiting Jesberg made all that research come to life as I imagined my great-great-grandfather Gerson walking those streets along with his siblings and cousins.  And connecting with so many of my Katzenstein cousins made this research particularly rewarding and exciting. I have newly-found cousins from all over the US—Oklahoma, Texas, California, Massachusetts (!), Delaware, and so on. I cherish each and every one of the new leaves I’ve been able to add to the family tree.

As I venture into 2018, I look forward to learning the stories of my Goldschmidt ancestors and relatives.  Every family line I research brings me new insights into Jewish history and into my own story. Every new line teaches me how interconnected we human beings truly are—how we have unique personal stories but also share universal stories of love and hate, success and loss, courage and cowardice, creativity and inventiveness, peace and war, sickness and health.

Let us all hope that in 2018 our leaders and our world also recognize our interconnectedness, our need for each other, and our need to help each other. We cannot exist without each other. We are all part of one big family tree.

Walking in Their Footsteps by Jennifer Spier-Stern

I am honored today to share with you an essay written by my fourth cousin, once removed, Jennifer Spier-Stern. Jennifer is the great-granddaughter of Minna Ruelf and Isaak Spier, about whom I wrote in my last post. When Jennifer shared this essay with me, I was so moved that I asked her if I could post it on my blog. She graciously agreed to let me do that, and I hope that you also will feel the way I did—that I was with Jennifer in her footsteps as she walked in the footsteps of her family in Rauischholzhausen, Germany.

Walking in Their Footsteps

by Jennifer Spier-Stern

I was transformed back in time as we drove through the narrow streets of the town called Rauischholzhausen.  We passed old homes with beautiful flower baskets hanging from windows and well manicured gardens. The narrow street was paved and there was even a sidewalk. I wanted to absorb every corner, every home into my mind so I could never forget these images.  I know that 70+ years ago it was not as pristine. I have thought of this day for so many months. Each and every time I envisioned this part of my trip I cried.  The tears were for the people that were no longer here to tell me their tales. My father wasn’t with me to show me the way, to tell me about his memories and to stand with me in front of the home where he was born. To walk with me to the Schloss (castle) and show me the places where he ran, where he played, to show me where his family lived and where the synagogue was.

View of Rauischholzhausen with arrow pointing to synagogue

The reason for this trip started many years ago. My father was born in Rauischholzhausen in 1922, a small town a few minutes drive from Marburg.  Growing up we heard all the stories of Holzhausen and of the early childhood of my father and his four siblings. We used to roll our eyes and laugh with yet another story of “home.” As young adolescents we didn’t appreciate all that he told us.  I wish I had documented everything, but like most young adults, I didn’t.   My father always promised my brother and I a trip back to his roots, but that was never going to happen, he passed away in 1998.  Since my father’s passing I had fleeting thoughts of going to Germany but not until recently did this strong urge possess me that I had to go and see for myself.

Without going into full details of the history of our family, my father’s brother returned to Germany with his wife and son and settled in Bielefeld in 1959.

My aunt, uncle, cousin and his wife met us at our beautiful hotel and drove us to the house that was 16 Lerchengasse. 16 Lerchengasse was the house where my father lived. The house that bore the name I Spier (Isaak Spier) above the front door frame. We parked the car and walked that last few steps down a cul de  sac.  I had the vision of the house from few photos that survived the war. 

My uncle stopped in front of the house and said, “This is it. This is the house where we were born.”  I looked up at this large home, the home of my great-grandfather, grandfather and father. My hands were shaking and the tears rolled down my face.  I heard my father’s voice, I heard his stories, I saw him walking up and down the front stairs. I saw him running around the courtyard with his siblings. I haven’t felt my father’s presence as strongly as I did at that moment.  I wish I could have knocked on the door and introduced myself. I so wanted to go inside, but I know it is far different than the house my father left on November 9, 1938.  I looked at the surrounding homes, and they too were lovely with their planters filled with flowers and lace curtains in the window. Later in the week Hajo (My hero guide) posed the question to me, “Can you imagine this town 65 years ago?”

Spier home in Rauischholzhausen
Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

The next stop was the Jewish cemetery. We picked up the key at the caretaker and then we walked the grass soaked path towards the cemetery. The rain started and the path became very muddy. The land to the right was a beautiful pasture for grazing cows who seemed very curious and walked over to the fence. It seemed surreal.  As we walked my eyes were looking down at the path, knowing that my grandparents and many other ancestors walked here to enter the cemetery. They came here to bury. They came here on the holidays to remember those that passed. They came here to say Kaddish. I was walking in their footsteps.  

My grandfather Abraham Spier buried his parents, Isaak Spier and Minna Rülf neé Spier. One of the oldest stones in the cemetery is Nathan Spier, my 3rd great grandfather (1792-1866). We stepped into the cemetery where 80% of the graves are family ancestors. I had my dear friend Hajo Bewernick photograph every stone for me. I’ve looked at the photos numerous times and now, I stood before them. I stood there and cried.  Emotions flooded my body that I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to touch every stone and place a rock, I wanted to pray. In years to come how many will walk through the gates to pray for all the souls? However, all I could do was cry. Later on I found out that my husband said the Mourner’s Kaddish, (a Mourner’s Prayer) as he stood over one grave, but he said it for all.

Gravestones of Minna Ruelf Spier and Siegfried Spier in Rauischholzhausen

I walked in their footsteps. I was thankful that my family who live in Germany were able to share this experience with me.  Special thanks to Hajo Bewernick who took the time from his busy work and home life to show my husband and I Marburg. I can never thank you enough for explaining the history of your beautiful town as well as showing us the many historical sites and to our many insightfully deep conversations.  You created a three dimensional image for me  of my grandparents, my Oma and Opa, by showing us where they would have been, where they would have walked and the buildings from where they were deported. I do not recall the name of the street corner. Hajo was specific in pointing his finger.

Through my research I have come across generous people who devote their time and efforts to the history of the Jewish people. To everyone we thank you for all your hard work. Special thank you to Barbara Greve for always being there with the answers.

One more person I need to thank with all my heart is my husband, Effy. This trip wouldn’t have happened without him. He knew how important this trip was for me and I am glad he shared it by my side.

I never felt closer to my family and my ancestors as I have during these few days in my family’s home town.   I know I’ll keep these stories alive with my family and I hope they will continue the legacy.

Another Year Gone By, Another Year Ahead

Tonight at sunset Rosh Hashanah begins, bringing hopes for a sweet and happy new year. We will dip apples in honey and taste that sweetness, inviting in good thoughts and wishes for all our family and friends.

By Gilabrand (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In many ways this has been a wonderful year, but in other ways it has been a troubling year.  The world is filled with so much danger, hatred, and division. Hurricanes and floods have reminded us how fragile the planet is and how much we human beings have used and abused it. We’ve lost trust in so many of our institutions, and the meanings of “truth,” “justice,” and “honor” have become more and more elusive. Even basic principles of civility seem to be disappearing.  Often I can barely read a newspaper or watch the news because of the sadness and anxiety it causes.

Part of that anxiety comes from studying the past. I’ve spent this year focused on my Katzenstein relatives. Their stories have at times left me devastated. Too many suffered because of the Holocaust, too many were killed. I have a better understanding of what hate can do, and so watching politicians play on hate and fear against “the other” has angered and frightened me over and over. Hearing hateful chants and seeing hateful symbols from the marchers in Charlottesville was terrifying.

But studying the Katzenstein family has also given me some of my most uplifting and joyous times this year. Beginning in the 1850s when my great-great-grandfather Gerson arrived in Philadelphia up through the 1930s when many of the Katzenstein cousins arrived from Jesberg, Germany, my Katzenstein relatives have made many contributions to our adopted country: fighting in the Civil War (on both sides), establishing successful businesses in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and many other locations throughout the country, fighting in World War I and World War II for the US, and taking on community and charitable projects wherever they’ve lived.

I’ve talked to many of my Katzenstein cousins on the phone and met (so far) three of them; in addition, I’ve had email contacts with many others. All have been so generous with their time and their stories; all are so proud of the long and interesting history of their family. It has made me so proud to be a part of this large, growing extended family. Today my Katzenstein cousins are doing many interesting things—some are cattle ranchers as their ancestors had been in Jesberg, some are merchants just like their ancestors, and others are in businesses and professions that their ancestors probably never could have imagined.

This was also the year that I finally went to Germany and saw the many towns where my direct paternal ancestors once lived—the Seligmanns from Gau-Algesheim, the Schoenthals from Sielen, the Hambergs from Breuna, the Katzensteins from Jesberg, the Goldschmidts from Oberlistingen, and the Nussbaums from Schopfloch. I didn’t get to every ancestral town; I didn’t get to Erbes-Budesheim where the Schoenfelds lived or to Hechingen where my Dreyfuss ancestors once lived. But I walked in so many of the places where my ancestors once lived and on the sacred ground where so many of them are buried.

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

And I met many, many wonderful people in Germany—including Dorothee, Beate, Hans-Peter, Ernst, Julia, Ulrike—and most especially my cousin Wolfgang Seligmann and his wife Bärbel and daughter Milena.  That was a dream come true.

So despite the ugliness that colored much of this past year, I will look back on 5777 as a very meaningful and enriching year. My hope for 5778 is that it will be a year where people all over will pull together, work together, to prevent war, to stop hatred, and to take care of our planet and all its people who are in need. As it says in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), “”It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

May you all, whether you celebrate this holiday or not, have a sweet, happy, healthy, productive, and peaceful New Year! Shana tova!


Our Last Two Days in Germany—Worms and Heidelberg—and Some Final Thoughts on the Trip

Why did we go to Worms? Not for any genealogy reason, but for its significance to Jewish history generally and to German Jewish history more particularly. It is one of the so-called ShUM cities, the three cities (Speyer (Sh), Worms (U), and Mainz (M) where Jewish scholars and rabbis in the Middle Ages had a widespread impact on Jewish religious and cultural practices.  Some of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars studied and taught in the ShUM cities, including Rashi, who is considered one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time. Many of the melodies used even today in Jewish religious services were developed in the ShUM cities. It seemed that it would be wrong to go all the way to Germany and not see Worms.  (Speyer, unfortunately, we could not fit into our itinerary, and we had seen Mainz.)

Worms is a short train ride from Heidelberg, so it made sense to go there during one of our three days in Heidelberg.  On May 13, we took a morning train to Worms to meet our tour guide. [For various reasons we were not very pleased with this guide, so I’ve decided not to use her name in this post. If anyone wants to know why, I will be glad to share privately but not on the blog.]

The guide met us at the train station and showed us the reliefs sculpted over the doorways to the train station, one showing different modes of transportation and the other, the doorway used by the wealthy, showing kings and nobles.  The station was built in the early 1900s and, as the guide said, was considered a sign of modernity and of the status of Worms as an important city.

From the station we walked a few blocks to the Jewish cemetery, which has existed since the eleventh century and is considered the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe.  We could not enter as it was Shabbat (Saturday), and the cemetery was closed.  But we could see the old stones and the very well-maintained grounds. The guide told us about some of the important scholars buried at the cemetery and how the cemetery is a pilgrimage site for Jews from all over the world.

From the cemetery we walked through a park where there was a statue of Martin Luther, for whom Worms was also an important city because, according to the guide, it was in Worms that his movement for Reformation became a movement adopted by the people, not just a theoretical idea. The guide also pointed out to us that the park we were walking through was where the moat had been located when Worms was a walled city in medieval times.  Once the wall was taken down and the moat filled, it became a ring of green space surrounding the city.

Martin Luther statute

We continued to follow the former moat towards the old Jewish quarter in Worms. Along the way we passed several stolpersteine, including one for Herta Mansbacher, who is considered an important heroine in the story of the Jews of Worms.  She was a teacher in a non-Jewish school until 1933 when she lost her job and took a teaching job in a Jewish school.  She then stayed in Worms to help the children and to encourage families to emigrate from Germany.  After the Worms synagogue was burned during Kristallnacht, Herta Mansbacher ran to rescue what she could and to try and put out the fire.  In 1942, she was deported and murdered by the Nazis.

Stolpersteine for Herta Mansbacher and others

Former home of Herta Mansbacher

A short distance past the home of Herta Mansbacher we reached the former Jewish quarter of Worms. Turning left on Judengasse it felt like we had entered not only a difference place but a different time. You could visualize what the quarter was like a hundred years earlier.

Judengasse in Worms

The Jewish quarter in Worms

There are two synagogue buildings in the Jewish quarter.  They are located at opposite ends of a small plaza in the center of the quarter. The Levy’sche synagogue is now a residential building.


Across from it was the other synagogue, the Old Synagogue—where there is a sculpture commemorating Rashi; Rashi studied at the yeshiva attached to this synagogue.  The building dates from the 12th century and is claimed to be the oldest synagogue in existence north of the Alps.   The building is today used for religious purposes and also for cultural events. There is a separate building where the yeshiva was located and also a mikveh on the grounds.   Behind the synagogue is a Jewish museum displaying Judaica and historical documents from the region; the most moving display was of the Torah scrolls and wimpels that were burned during Kristallnacht.  Perhaps these were the ones rescued by Herta Mansbacher, for whom there is a memorial plaque in the synagogue.

Old synagogue in Worms

Statue honoring Rashi

Interior of Old Synagogue

The synagogue was rebuilt after the war, but some of the original structure still was standing and is part of the building today.  Seeing the Jewish quarter allowed me to imagine in a concrete way how the Jews once lived in this section of the city.

After leaving the Jewish quarter, we stopped for lunch, and then the guide showed us Trinity Church, a very large Lutheran church built in the 18th century.  It was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and rebuilt in the 1950s.

Trinity Church

Interior of Trinity Church

Our last stop in Worms was at St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was built in the 12th century.  It is an impressive structure, and the altar is quite elaborate and beautiful.

St Peter’s Cathedral, Worms

Altar in St Peter’s Cathedral

We then walked back to the train station and returned to Heidelberg.

The next day, our last day in Germany, we were back on our own.  We took the funicular up to the castle that hovers over the city and can be seen quite dramatically from across the river.

We strolled around the grounds where the views of the river and the city of Heidelberg are stunning. Because you cannot get into the castle without a guided tour, we waited for the guided tour at 10 am.  Fortunately there were only three of us on the tour, plus the guide.  (There were hundreds of people wandering around the grounds being led by Viking Cruise guides, all with earplugs in their ears to listen to their guides, but they did not enter the buildings.)

The guide was delightful with a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor, and we all got a big kick out of him.  He entertained us with stories of political intrigue, romance, and wars to give us the colorful history of the complex of buildings that make up the castle.  The castle predated the city; it was originally built for strategic purposes with its towers and walls overlooking the valley below. Then, as medieval times moved into the Renaissance era, it became more a home for the local noble to impress his wife and entertain their guests.  Even Hitler used the castle at some point as a place to house soldiers.  I wish I could remember all the details of the guide’s stories, but suffice it to say he kept us interested, and he not only was amusing but very well-informed about the history of the region.

After returning to the city below, we spent our last afternoon in Germany wandering through the beautiful city of Heidelberg.  Unlike every other city we’d visited—Mainz, Bingen, Cologne, Wurzburg, and Worms—Heidelberg did not sustain any significant damage from Allied bombing during World War II, so it retains its architectural heritage as originally built.

The city has so much to offer—a world-renowned university, a scenic location on the Neckar River, a fascinating castle with gorgeous views, and churches and buildings that are rich in architectural detail.  The winding narrow streets and wide plazas, the youthful population, and the multitude of restaurants, bars, and stores make it an interesting and exciting place to visit. It made it all that much harder to pack our bags and head to the airport where we would stay our last night in order to catch our flight the following morning.

And so we said Auf Wiedersehen to Germany, land of my paternal ancestors, a country I had truly learned to appreciate during our stay, a place where the beer, the bread, the cities, the villages, the landscapes, and especially the people are just wonderful.  I was sad to leave, but ready to come home and have a chance to digest and remember it all.

Looking back on the trip now that we have been home for well over a month, it almost seems like a dream.  Was I really there? Did I really walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, see their gravestones, and meet my cousins, their descendants? Writing these blog posts has helped me remember and process everything we saw and experienced.  Looking at the photographs reminds me of all the people we met and all the beauty we saw as well as all the reminders of what happened during Hitler’s reign.

Much of what we experienced was bittersweet—bitter because of all the awful killings and destruction, sweet because of the kindness of the people we met and the hope they gave us for a future where people are tolerant and understanding and loving of each other despite their differences.  As I now return to the task of learning about and writing about my family’s history, I can better visualize where they lived and what their lives were like.  It will make what has already been a fascinating and rewarding journey that much more meaningful and satisfying.

Thank you for following me on this journey.







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.


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.

Pacific Street: Inspired by Facts and Love

Some of you know that since I retired two and a half years ago, I’ve been working on a novel inspired by my grandparents’ lives and the discoveries I’ve made about them and their extended families through my genealogy research.  Well, I finally put my “pen” down and decided to call it done.

Amy Gussie and Isadore

My grandparents, Gussie Brotman and Isadore Goldschlager, and me

It’s been an exciting process for me because ever since I learned to read, I’ve wanted to write a novel.  All through my career when I was writing long, boring articles for law journals, I wished that instead I was writing a novel. Novels have been my refuge all my life. I love being transported to different times and places and seeing into the hearts and minds of all kinds of characters.  I just wanted a chance to try to create some characters of my own.  When I retired, I promised myself that I would give it a try.

One friend reprimanded me when I said I was trying to write a novel.  She said, “Don’t say that.  Say you are writing a novel.”  I was and am insecure about the whole thing.  I never took a fiction writing course, participated in a writing workshop, or wrote any fiction at all, not since I wrote stories as a young child. What did I know?

My only sources of information about writing a novel were all the novels I’d read starting when I read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White when I was eight years old.  That book transported me in ways that changed the way I felt about reading.  I cried so hard (spoiler alert) when Charlotte died.  And she was just a spider! A fictional spider! How had the author made her so real and moved me to care so much?

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte’s Web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that I’ve written my own novel, I am even more in awe of the many great authors whose books have moved me so deeply. I am humbled by what those authors were able to do with words, and thus I feel presumptuous trying to promote my own book, despite my friend’s reprimand.

But it was a labor of love—love for family and love for the magic of the written word.  I wrote this book for my children and grandchildren so that they would have a taste of what their ancestors’ lives were like. I had lots of help and inspiration from my family and friends, as I acknowledge at the end of the book.  And so despite this aching feeling of insecurity, I do want to share and promote my book so that others will also know the story I’ve created about my grandparents—grounded in fact, but expanded upon by my imagination.

I hope that you will be tempted to read it.  You can find it on Amazon both as a paperback ($6.99) and as a Kindle ebook ($2.99) at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1541170369

If you do read it, I’d love your feedback.  Thank you!

Season’s Greetings and Thank You

The winter solstice has passed, and so every day will bring more light.  We sure do need it this time of year.  The lights added by Hanukkah and Christmas—the candles and the trees—help us all to see beyond the darkness and the cold.  And so I wish for all of you a season of lights and a time to find joy and hope and happiness.

I also want to express my gratitude for all the help I’ve received this past year. I cannot express adequately how grateful I am to those cousins who shared family photographs and letters and writings so that I could see the faces behind the names I’d researched, read their own words, and get a real feel for the personality of the individuals whose lives I described.  Thank you to Ron, Steve, Sue, Lisa, Celena, Gordon, Ashley, Tracy, Ginger, Sharon and Ezra, Trisha, Maxine, and all the others who shared photographs, stories, letters, and memories of their family members.  I hope we all get to meet in person someday soon.

Empire State Building exhibiting decorative li...

Empire State Building exhibiting decorative lights for both Chanukah and Christmas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My cousin Wolfgang continued to discover and share with me information about my Seligmann ancestors and their families, which led me to the memoirs of Mathilde Gross Mayer, which inspired me to start learning German.  I am so looking forward to going to Germany and meeting Wolfgang and his family and testing my German.

I also am deeply appreciative for all the help I’ve gotten from the members of numerous genealogy Facebook groups and from my fellow genealogy bloggers.  Whether it’s helping with research or translation or reading and commenting (and finding errors) on my blog, the genealogy village continues to amaze me with its generosity and dedication.

Looking ahead to 2017, we must continue to do what we can to protect those who are most vulnerable in this country and across the world.  Looking backwards as much as I do, I’ve seen what small-mindedness, prejudice, selfishness, and greed can do to a person, a family, a society.  As we anticipate 2017, we still need to learn from the past so that we can ensure the best future for everyone and for our world.

On that note, I wish you all a joyous holiday season—whatever holiday you may be celebrating.  I find it particularly sweet that this year the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve coincide as if the universe is telling us we all came from one source and whatever rituals or traditions or beliefs we have, in the end all that matters is that we honor and respect and love each other despite those differences.  May 2017 be a peaceful and healthy and happy year for everyone!





No Genealogy Today

I can’t bear to talk about the past today because I am too filled with despair about the future.  I have spent the day mourning the election results and reaching out to others who shared my desolation.  I have found myself again and again in tears, sometimes tears of grief for what has happened to our country, sometimes tears of relief when someone has touched me with words of comfort or hope.

In the aftermath of the election results, my daughter shared this photograph of my grandsons.  It made me smile and cry.  It represents all my hopes and all my fears.


I have gone through at least the first few stages of grief—shock and denial, anger, and now depression.  (I skipped over bargaining, although I did find myself last night saying I’d accept a tie in the Electoral College).

Here’s what I posted on Facebook early Wednesday morning:

I am devastated. Don’t tell me it will all be okay. Don’t tell me to unite behind Trump. It won’t, and I won’t.

I am devastated for my daughters and all the women who believed that America would elect a highly qualified woman over an inexperienced and ignorant man.

I am devastated for all in the LGBTQ community who must see the progress of recent years hanging by a thread.

I am devastated for all people of color, all immigrants, all Muslims, who must feel even more frightened than I do.

I am devastated for those who will see their health insurance disappear.

I am devastated for our planet, which will now see nothing done about climate change.

I am devastated that nothing will be done about gun violence.

I could go on. But mostly I am devastated that my grandsons live in a country filled with so much hate and ignorance.

They say the next stage of grief is acceptance.  I won’t get to that one.  What I hope I can get to is action to fight acceptance.  We need people to unite against these forces of darkness, to work together to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable, to preserve our rights to choice and to healthcare, to work to protect our planet and the values of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination.  I fear we will instead drift into acceptance.

I admit that I have no idea how we start this movement.  I am hoping that someone with more skills and experience than I have will get us mobilized. Perhaps it will be some of those who felt the Bern, perhaps some of those who fought so hard for Hillary.  Or perhaps it will be someone entirely new.

I want to be a part of whatever it takes to make this country a place where those two little boys pictured above and all those who come after them can grow up without fear and filled with love and hope and acceptance of all people. Where everyone can, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, age, or disability.

As my husband said, our ancestors didn’t come here so that we could give up on our dreams.  We need to mourn first and then pick ourselves up and fight for what we believe.



The Work is Never Done

It’s time to move on to the next family line, although there is still so much to do on those I’ve started.  As my most recent discoveries about the Brotman line reveal, there is always more to learn, more to find. I still have collateral lines to complete in the Schoenthal family—the families of my great-great-great-aunts, Mina Schoenthal Rosenberg and Fradchen (Fanny) Schoenthal Goldschmidt. In fact, however, Fanny’s family is intertwined with the next family’s story as well.

Because now it is time to turn to my remaining great-grandparent—my father’s maternal grandmother, Hilda Katzenstein Schoenthal, wife of Isidor Schoenthal and mother of my grandmother, Eva Schoenthal.  Hilda was the daughter of Gerson Katzenstein of Jesberg, Germany, and Eva Goldschmidt of Oberlistingen, Germany.  My grandmother Eva was presumably named for her grandmother, Eva Goldschmidt.

Hilda Katzenstein Schoenthal

Hilda Katzenstein Schoenthal

Just over a year ago, I wrote about the crazy twist in my family tree involving Eva Goldschmidt, my great-great-grandmother.  She was the daughter of Seligmann Goldschmidt, a brother of Simon Goldschmidt, who married Fanny Schoenthal, my great-great-grandfather’s brother.


Marriage of Simon Goldschmidt and Fradchen Schoenthal HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 669, S. 11

Marriage of Simon Goldschmidt and Fradchen Schoenthal
HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 669, S. 11

In other words, my great-grandmother Hilda was a Goldschmidt, and her husband, my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal, was the nephew of Fanny Schoenthal Goldschmidt and thus had cousins named Goldschmidt.  In fact, one of those cousins, Simon’s son Jacob Goldschmidt from his first marriage, was likely the first member of the extended family to settle in Washington, Pennsylvania, where my grandmother was born in 1904.   More on the Goldschmidt family tree twist here. And more on the Goldschmidt family to come.

But for now I am going to focus on the Katzenstein side of my great-grandmother Hilda’s family. As I’ve indicated before, when I first started looking into my family’s history, this was the one line that had already been extensively researched by others.  Long before I started my own research, David Baron and Roger Cibella had posted their research on an old Geocities page.  And who even remembers Geocities!? Roger is my third cousin, once removed. I had contacted David and Roger years ago when I somehow fell upon their website (I don’t remember how), and was amazed that they were able to trace my family back to Gerson Katzenstein, my great-great-grandfather.gerson-to-me


And although I was fascinated by their research, I didn’t pursue it further. I hadn’t yet been bitten by the genealogy bug.

Isidore, Hilda (Katzenstein), and Eva Schoenthal

Isidore, Hilda (Katzenstein), and Eva Schoenthal

Then when I was first bitten in 2012 and started to explore genealogy on my own, I found a family tree on Ancestry that included some of my Katzenstein relatives, and I contacted the tree owner, a woman named Jennifer with whom I’ve been in contact ever since as we continue to find ways that our families overlap.  Back in June 2012, Jennifer put me in touch with an entire group of people with ties to the Katzenstein family, and from that group I also received a copy of the extensive report on the Jesberg Katzenstein family that had been done by a researcher named Barbara Greve.

Barbara Greve was born in Berlin, Germany after World War II.  As an adult, she developed an interest in the history of the Jewish communities that had once lived in the Hesse region where she now lived and taught school. She began to research those communities and what had happened to the people who had lived in them, compiling extensive information and genealogies for those Jewish families, including the Katzensteins of Jesberg. In 2010, Greve received the esteemed Obermayer German Jewish History award.  You can read more about her here.

I was both awestruck and overwhelmed by Barbara Greve’s research.  At that point in time I was a total newbie and knew nothing about genealogy research or about my family’s history.  All I had done at that point was the fourteen day free trial on Ancestry, where I had randomly searched for any name I knew from my family’s history. She had traced the Katzenstein line back another whole generation before Gerson Katzenstein to Scholum Katzenstein, my three-times great-grandfather, and included not only Gerson and his descendants, but Gerson’s four siblings and many of their descendants.  Now I could trace the family back as early as 1769 when Scholum was born in Jesberg, Germany.


I had no idea that there were ancient records still in existence in places like Germany.  Seeing all those names and dates going back over 200 years was amazing to me.

My reaction to the Katzenstein research at that time in 2012 was—well, I guess it’s all done.  Nothing much left for me to do.  This was over a year before I started blogging.  I thought just collecting the names and dates was all I needed to do, and someone else had done it.  So I moved away from the Katzensteins and returned to the other lines where the research was not as complete.

And along the way I learned that genealogy is not just about collecting names and dates, although that is a big part of the work.  It’s also about trying to learn the stories of the lives of all those people behind the names and dates.  It’s about putting yourselves in their shoes and recognizing the legacy that we have all inherited from our ancestors.

HIlda (Katzenstein) Schoenthal, Eva (Schoenthal) Cohen, Eva HIlda Cohen, and Harold Schoenthal

HIlda (Katzenstein) Schoenthal, Eva (Schoenthal) Cohen, Eva HIlda Cohen, and Harold Schoenthal

Thus, I now return to the Katzensteins knowing that there is still work to be done.  There are stories to tell about these people, questions to ask, memories to honor. The work is never done.



Mark Twain on Learning German

I am continuing to try and learn German, studying about thirty minutes a day on Duolingo, and at times I feel like I have reached a plateau.  The more words I learn, the more I forget the ones I learned just a month ago.  All those words that end in –ung and/or start with ver- are getting too hard to keep straight.  And why are there at least two words for so many things?  Sure, I know that’s true in English also, but it was a lot easier learning English when my brain was young and flexible and everyone around me spoke it all the time.  Learning German at my age without some immersion is, to the say least, a challenge.

So I took great comfort in Mark Twain’s 1880 essay, “The Awful German Language.” Vera Meyer of the Facebook group “JEWS—Jekkes Engaged Worldwide” (“Jekke” or “yekke” has various specific meanings, but most broadly refers to a person of German-Jewish background) sent me a link to Twain’s essay the other day, and it made me laugh out loud several times over.

By Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) By Matthew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMark_Twain%2C_Brady-Handy_photo_portrait%2C_Feb_7%2C_1871%2C_cropped.jpg

Twain is one of my favorite authors, but I’d never before read this essay, and if I had, I would not have appreciated it before my own struggles with German.  You can find the entire essay here and I recommend it highly, but I want to quote just a few of my favorite passages.  Favorite because I relate so well to what Twain is saying.

This complaint is one that also gives me great frustration:

Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

And then there is the endless battle to figure out what is the gender of a particular noun so that you know what articles, pronouns, and adjectives to use:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. ….

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

And then finally, Twain’s overall lament about learning German:

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

Alas, at my age, if it really takes thirty years, it will take the rest of my life (if I am very lucky) to learn German.

But like Mark Twain, I will continue to muddle along, at least knowing that I am in good company in my struggles.