Schopfloch: A Lesson in Gravestone Symbols

The last ancestral town we visited on our trip was Schopfloch in Bavaria where my three-times great-grandfather John (born Josua) Nussbaum was born in 1814.  I wrote a long post about Schopfloch when I was doing my research of my Nussbaum relatives.  The town dates back to the 13th century, and there was a Jewish community there in the 14th century.  As early as the 17th century, there was a synagogue, a mikveh, and a school in Schopfloch. In 1867, there were almost 400 Jews in the town out of almost 2000 residents. Today Schopfloch is a small town of about 3000 people, about half the size of Gau-Algesheim and slightly larger than Jesberg, but four times the size of Sielen.  There is no Jewish community there now.

My 4x-great-grandparents, Amson Nussbaum and Voegele Welsch, died in 1836 and 1842, respectively, and I thought they were likely the last family members to have died in Schopfloch. Six of their eight children immigrated to the United States before 1860; there were two additional daughters for whom I had birth information, but no information as to whether they had married or had children or where or when they had died. I am still searching for the documents Angelika Brosig used to document this Nussbaum family.  But, as far as I knew, there was no one left in Schopfloch from my Nussbaum family after 1860.  Would I find anything relating to my ancestors in this town?

I had arranged for Jutta Breittinger, who works at the Schopfloch town hall, to be our guide; since Frau Breittinger said she did not speak English well, she had recommended that we also hire a translator. When we met Frau Breittinger, we were soon joined by the translator and his wife, whose names I never quite caught. They were all very helpful and very earnest in their desire to help us and inform us about the Jewish history of Schopfloch.

Our three guides told us the same thing we had heard in the other small towns we’d visited: before the Nazi era, Jews and Christians had worked and lived together without any problems. As described by our translator, Lachoudisch, the secret language developed in Schopfloch, is evidence of this co-operative relationship.  Most Jews in Schopfloch were involved in horse and cattle trading, and market day was on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish traders relied on their Christian neighbors to assist with business on Saturdays, using their “secret language” as a way of communicating with them in confidence.

Frau Breittinger told us that she and a number of other Schopfloch residents were now studying Lachoudisch to keep the language alive.  At the end of our visit, we purchased Lachoudisch Sprechen by Hans-Rainer Hofmann, a small book about the language which includes a list of Lachoudisch words and their German equivalents.  It was very interesting to see some of the Lachoudisch words—-some derived from Hebrew like yes (“kenn”) and no (“lou”) and night (“Laila”) and please (“bewackasha”), some from sources I can’t determine like “kiss” for the word “kiss,” which is neither German nor Hebrew for the word we use for kiss in English.  It’s all rather fascinating and also amazing that people in Schopfloch are trying to keep this language alive.

We walked around the corner from the Rathaus to what is now called Bahnhofstrasse but was once called Judengasse.  It was here that the synagogue once stood.  Here is an old photograph of Judengasse with the synagogue on the far right. Below is a photograph of a model of the way the synagogue once looked:

Judengasse before the Holocaust

Model of old synagogue

There is no building now where the synagogue once stood; it is essentially an empty lot between two other buildings.  A plaque marks where it once stood. As I wrote in my earlier post, this synagogue, like so many throughout Germany, was destroyed on Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and by then all the Jews had left the town.  The town, which once had almost 400 Jewish residents, had become “Judenfrei.”

Plaque marking the location of the former synagogue

Empty lot where synagogue once stood

Judengasse today (now called Bahnhofstrasse)

Across the street from the location of the former synagogue was the building which was once the Jewish school.

Former Jewish school

We then walked through the town and up the hill to get to the Jewish cemetery.  I was very surprised to see how large the cemetery was, given how small the town was (and still is).  There are almost 1200 stones there, making it larger than any of the synagogues we had seen in the Hessen region, but it served not just Schopfloch but also several other towns nearby.  The cemetery is actually quite beautiful.  There is a stone wall that surrounds the entire cemetery.

But sadly many of the stones, especially the older ones, are not at all legible.  Some are sinking into the soft ground or already have disappeared.  And the further back we went in the cemetery to reach the oldest stones, the harder it was to find stones that were legible.  The oldest legible stones I could find were from the 1880s, and thus I knew I was not going to find the stones for my 4x-great-grandparents who died before 1850.

Once I came to that realization, I decided instead to focus on the stones I could read, and there were some very interesting ones there. Several people had asked about the hand symbols in one of my earlier posts:

Scholem Katzenstein, my 3x great-grandfather, Haarhausen cemetery

As I explained, those are the symbols indicating that the person buried there descended from the tribe of the high priests, the Cohanim.  But there were other symbols in the Schopfloch cemetery that I’d not seen before.

For example this one shaped like a tree trunk, which symbolizes a premature death—someone whose life was cut short.

Or this one with a palm tree. I was unfamiliar with this as a Jewish gravestone symbol, so I asked the members of the Tracing the Tribe group on Facebook.  I got wonderfully helpful responses, including a translation of the text.  What we deduced from the text and from Psalm 92 (“the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree”)  is that the date palm is a symbol of righteousness; the man buried here was probably a rabbi, and the text refers to his philanthropy and his scholarliness.  He’s not my relative, but I am glad I looked into the meaning of his stone.  His name was David Ballenberger 1815-1881.

This one interested me because of the unusual way the Hebrew letters were carved. Notice also the two completely eroded stones behind it. Could those be the stones for my Nussbaum 4x-great-grandparents? I don’t know.

Finally, I found this one very interesting:

It has three symbols on it: a butcher’s knife, a shofar (the horn blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and a knife used for circumcision. I asked my friend Brett Levi to translate this for me, and he confirmed that the text indicated that the man buried there had been a shochet (kosher butcher), a shofar blower, and a mohel (person trained to do ritual circumcisions).

After visiting the cemetery, we walked back to town hall, where we saw the model of the former synagogue depicted above. After purchasing the Lachoudisch book, we said goodbye to our guides and headed out of Schopfloch.

We were excited to be going to our last stop, Heidelberg.  I have no genealogical connection to the city, and these last three days of our trip were going to be days to relax, enjoy a beautiful city, and look back on everything we’d seen. I had scheduled a walking tour of Worms for part of one of the days, but otherwise, we were going to be on our own.

So we took a deep breath, got back into our Nissan Juke, and set the GPS to take us to Heidelberg. We were ready for the last leg of our trip and had plenty of time to get to Heidelberg and return our rental car before 6 pm when the Hertz office closed.

But it was not to be.

A Town with A Secret Language: Schopfloch and the Nusbaums

I thought I should outline my connection to the Nusbaums before I began writing about them.   The chain between Amson Nusbaum  and me is as follows, with the Nusbaum descendants all on the left side of each couple:

Amson Nusbaum—Voegele Welsch  (my 4x-great-grandparents)

John (Josua) Nusbaum—Jeannette (Shamet) Dreyfuss  (my 3x-great-grandparents)

Frances Nusbaum—-Bernard Seligman  (my great-great-grandparents)

Eva May Seligman—-Emanuel Cohen (my great-grandparents)

John Nusbaum Cohen, Sr. — Eva Schoenthal  (my grandparents)

John Nusbaum Cohen, Jr. —-  Florence Goldschlager  (my parents)

Amy Cohen (me)

(Although the Nusbaums spelled their name with two S’s in Germany as in NUSSBAUM, the family dropped the second S once they got to the US, just as the Seligmanns dropped the second N when they immigrated.)

So where do I start telling this Nusbaum story? I have already talked about my grandfather John Nusbaum Cohen’s life and his mother Eva Seligman Cohen’s life in telling the stories of the Cohens and the Seligmans.  So I could start with my great-great-grandmother, Frances Nusbaum, who married Bernard Seligman.  I’ve also written a little about her.  But I prefer to start at the earliest point and move forward in time.   Right now the earliest Nusbaum ancestors I have found date back to the 18th century with Amson Nusbaum and Voegele Welsch.

This is the first branch that I have been able to take back as far as my 4x-great-grandparents.  Although I know very little about Amson Nusbaum and Voegele Welsch, I am hoping that I can learn more if I can obtain more records from Schopfloch.  But for now, here is what I know.

Amson Meier Nusbaum was born around 1777 possibly in Schopfloch, a small town in the Ansbach region of Bavaria.  He married Voegele Welsch, who was born March 7, 1782, somewhere in Germany.  They were married around 1804, and they had eight children born between 1805 and 1819, all born in Schopfloch.  Amson was a peddler.



Although I do not have much specific information about Amson and Voegele, I was interested in learning more about the town where they lived and raised their children in order to glean something about what their lives might have been like.

First, I read a little bit about Bavaria.  I really know almost nothing about Germany’s history, but I do know that it was not a unified country until 1871.  Before that, there were a number of separate duchys and kingdoms controlled by various aristocrats and noblemen, fighting over their borders for many hundreds of years. From the tenth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the land that we know as Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire.   The Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, which started as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics and grew to a much larger regional conflict, was perhaps the most destructive of the wars that occurred during this pre-unification era in the area we now call Germany.

Map of the Imperial Circles of the Holy Roman ...

Map of the Imperial Circles of the Holy Roman Empire (c. 1512) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bavaria was one of those regions within what is now Germany.  It is located in the southeastern part of the country, bordering the Czech Republic and Austria to the east and south.  The official website for what is now the state of Bavaria within the Federated Republic of Germany said this about the history of Bavaria:

Bavaria is one of the oldest states in Europe. Its origins go back to the 6th century AD. In the Middle Ages, Bavaria (until the start of the 19th century Old Bavaria) was a powerful dukedom, first under the Guelphs and then under the Wittelsbachs. … Cities like Regensburg developed into cultural and economic centres of European rank. After the Thirty Years War, the Electorate of Bavaria played an important role in the political deliberations of the major powers. In the 19th century Bavaria became a constitutional monarchy and the scene of a great cultural blossoming and of political and social reforms.

Schopfloch is a small town of three thousand people located near the western boundary of Bavaria.  It is about sixty miles west of Nuremberg, about one hundred miles northwest of Munich, and about eighty miles northeast of Stuttgart.

Schopfloch in AN

Schopfloch in AN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the official town website, the earliest mention of the town dates from March 11, 1260, on a land deed witnessed by someone named Ulricis de Schopfloch.  (Schopf loch apparently means “ crested hole” or “tuft hole,” and perhaps this is a reference to the fact that the town is located in a small valley).  During the Thirty Years War, many Protestants moved from Salzburg to Schopfloch.  They were primarily tradesman in the building trades—masons and bricklayers– and the town was known for its many families in the construction business.

The history of the Jews in Bavaria is, like the history of Jews in most countries in Europe, one of oppression, discrimination, unfair taxation, and frequent pogroms with occasional periods of greater tolerance and civil rights.  There is evidence of Jews living in Bavaria as early as the 900s, and numerous towns and cities in Bavaria had Jewish communities by the 12th century.  Jews were limited in their livelihoods in many locations; in many places, they were prohibited from most trades other than moneylending.  Beginning in the 14th century and continuing through the 17th century, the Jews were subjected to widespread orders of expulsion and deportation from many Bavarian communities.  A good summary of the history of Jews in Bavaria can be found here at H. Peter Sinclair’s “Chronology of the History of the Jews in Bavaria 906-1945,” .

As for Schopfloch specifically, the first Jews settled there in the fourteenth century.  According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust: K-Sered (Shmuel Spector, Geoffrey Wigoder, eds., 2001, NYU Press), p.1151, Jews moved to Schopfloch after being expelled from the nearby town of Dinkelsbuehl.   Another source suggests that Jews were welcomed to Schopfloch by rival nobles who took in Jews to increase their strength.     Jews were able to do well, engaging in cattle trade in Schopfloch and in several communities near Schopfloch.

A Jewish cemetery was created around 1612 and served not only the Jewish residents of Schopfloch but also those of surrounding towns.

A synagogue was built in 1679, and there was also a ritual bath and a school.   According to the website “Destroyed German Synagogues and Communities” :

The Jews of Schopfloch established a synagogue in 1679 and enlarged it in 1712 and again in 1715. Rabbis served the community during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the village was home to a regional rabbinate during the years 1841 to 1872. In 1877, a new synagogue was built on the Judengasse, or “Jews’ alley” (later renamed Bahnhofstrasse).

According to the town website, the Jewish residents played an important role in the social history of the town, and the long history of co-existence between the Christians and Jews in Schopfloch made it less susceptible to anti-Semitism even in the Nazi period.  Perhaps there were no pogroms or expulsion orders in Schopfloch.  None were mentioned in H. Peter Sinclair’s “Chronology of the History of the Jews in Bavaria 906-1945,” cited above and found here.

Overall, it would seem that Schopfloch would have been a relatively comfortable place for Jews to live when my ancestors Amson and Voegele Nussbaum were having children between 1805 and 1819 and the years following when their children were growing up.  Amson died June 7, 1836, and Voegele died October 2, 1842.  From what I can find in immigration records, my three-times great grandfather John (Josua) Nusbaum emigrated in 1843, the year after his mother died.  It appears that at least some of his siblings emigrated around the same time.  What would have motivated them to leave once their parents had died if in fact conditions for Jews were relatively good in Schopfloch?

The Nussbaum family was growing up in an era of significant change in Bavaria and in Europe generally.  Napoleon had risen to power in France as the 18th century ended, and the Holy Roman Empire crumbled. His armies invaded the lands in what is now Germany, and eventually he defeated the Austrian army and took over much of German land. His emancipation of the Jews in France in 1806 had an impact on those in Bavaria, and in 1813 Bavaria adopted the Jews Edict of 1813.  Although Napoleon was defeated shortly after, the Jews Edict of 1813 remained the law in Bavaria.

The Jews Edict was a mixed blessing.  As described by one source, “Jews now could acquire land and participate in trade but they were forced to adopt German surnames and to list the head of the household’s name and occupation as shown in the Matrikellisten (census) of 1817.”   This registry (while a good thing for genealogy research), which may seem benign, had a negative impact on Jews because it forced many Jews to leave their homeland.  Section 12 of the Edict provided that the number of Jewish families in any community could not increase.  That meant that a child in a Jewish family could not establish his or her own family, but had to leave the community.  Section 13 provided some exceptions, but they were quite restrictive.  In addition, Section 14 prohibited the issuance of a marriage permit even if the marriage would not result in an overall increase in Jewish families unless the man could demonstrate that he was going to engage in a legal occupation other than being a peddler.

Thus, not all of Amson and Voegele’s children could stay in Schopfloch.   To do so would have created eight new Jewish families in the town.  Moreover, since Amson had been a peddler, chances are at least some of his sons had planned to engage in a similar trade.  So they had to leave Schopfloch, and since the neighboring towns were under the same restrictions, they could not even settle nearby.  They had to emigrate, and I am sure that America, a new country with a democratic form of government, must have been very appealing to these young people who were being denied the right to stay in the town where they were born.

The Jewish population in Schopfloch hit its peak in 1867 with 393 Jewish residents out of a total population of 1,788.  Although a new synagogue was built in 1877, by 1880 the Jewish population had dropped to 147 people.  It continued to drop so that by the early 1930s there were fewer than forty Jews in the town.  Nevertheless, the synagogue was renovated in 1932, and there was a large celebration rededicating the synagogue, attended by many Jews and non-Jews, including members of the Christian clergy, the mayor, and other town officials and residents.  One pastor spoke about the good relations between the Christian and Jewish residents of Schopfloch.

Schopfloch synagogue 1910 Source: Wallersteiner Kalendar, 1983 found at

Schopfloch synagogue 1910 Source: Wallersteiner Kalendar, 1983 found at

Tragically, just five years later on November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, this newly renovated synagogue was destroyed by fire.  As described on the “Destroyed German Synagogues and Communities” website:

In 1938, in the wake of virulent anti-Jewish incitement, Schopfloch’s mayor advised the Jews to leave. All of them did so within months, and the synagogue was eventually sold (its ritual objects were transferred to Munich). Schopfloch’s last Jews left in October 1938. Although the synagogue was set on fire on Pogrom Night, the blaze was extinguished by the fire brigade. The building’s interior was completely destroyed, as were the ritual objects in Munich. Three Schopfloch Jews emigrated; the others relocated within Germany. Forty-eight perished in the Shoah. The synagogue building was demolished in 1939.

The cemetery, however, still exists, and a woman named Angelika Brosig began a project to restore the cemetery and to record all the names of those buried in the cemetery.  Sadly, Ms. Brosig died in 2013, and not all of the headstones have yet been translated and recorded, but the work is supposed to be continuing by others.  Thus far, I have not found any Nussbaums on the list, but I have to believe that my four-times great-grandparents Amson and Voegele are buried there.

Although Schopfloch is and was a small town without any particular historical significance of its own, it has been recognized for an interesting reason.  The Jews of Schopfloch developed a dialect of their own to be used in the course of cattle trade as a way of communicating without being understood.  It was a dialect combining Hebrew terms with German, and eventually it was used not only by the Jewish residents of Schopfloch but also by the non-Jewish residents.  In fact, the dialect, called Lachoudish, a shortened version of Lachon Kodesh, or “holy language” in Hebrew, continued to be used by the residents of Schopfloch long after all the Jews left the town in the 1930s.  The New York Times published an article about this secret language on February 10, 1984, giving some examples of the use of Hebrew terms in the dialect:

Lachoudisch is replete with words that bespeak the Jews’ wary relationship to Christian authority. The word for ”church” in Lachoudisch is ”tum” – from the Hebrew word for ”religiously unclean.” The word ”police” is ”sinem”- from the Hebrew for ”hated.” A priest is a ”gallach” or, in Hebrew, ”one who shaves.”

(James M. Markham, “Dialect of Lost Jews Lingers in a Bavarian Town,” The New York Times (February 10, 1984) found at  The article also provides historical and current information about the town.)

This website provides further examples of Hebrew terms used in Lachoudish.   Although Lachoudish is disappearing as there are fewer Schopfloch residents who remember it, there has been some effort to remember and revive the dialect.  This video, which unfortunately for me is in German, is about Lachoudish and also provides some images of Schopfloch today.  If anyone wishes to translate this for me, please let me know.

Coat of arms of Schopfloch

Coat of arms of Schopfloch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)