For Rosh Hashanah this year, I want to share a story about one of my cousins. His life is a true example of how we as human beings are capable not only of inconceivable evil but more importantly of boundless love and undying hope and gratitude.
When we talk about the Holocaust, the number six million is both overwhelming and numbing. Our minds can’t grasp what six million people looks like—what six million of anything would look like. Visiting the camps makes that number somewhat more comprehensible; when we visited Auschwitz in 2015 and saw the huge piles of eyeglasses, of shoes, of suitcases, each representing one of those six million killed, it made the scope of the horror more visceral. It gave us a concrete, visual way of imagining each of those killed. This video also helps to illustrate the immensity of that number:
But for me, it is the individual stories of those people who were killed that leave the biggest impact. If we read one story about one of the six million who were killed each day for our entire life, we still would hardly make a dent in the total numbers. Assuming we read a story a day for eighty years, we would still have read fewer than 30,000 stories—learned about only 30,000 of the six million who were killed. And that doesn’t even include the horrifying stories of many of the survivors—those who survived the camps, those who spent the years in hiding, those who escaped but who had lost their families and homes forever.
This is the story of a cousin whose life was forever changed because of the Nazis. He wishes to remain anonymous, so I will refer to him simply as J. J is my fifth cousin, another descendant of Jakob Falcke; his family left Oberlistingen, Germany at the end of the 19th century and moved to the Netherlands, where for many generations the men were butchers and cattle traders or worked in the textile and clothing business. J’s father was a butcher.
Their quiet lives were forever altered after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May, 1940. J’s father was taken to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he was killed in October, 1941. J, who was just a young boy, and his mother and younger sister were left behind. When it became clear that the Nazis were going to start deporting all the Jews in Holland to concentration camps, J’s mother placed her two children in an orphanage in Utrecht, believing that the Nazis would not deport children because they would be too young to work. J’s mother and her sisters went into hiding with a non-Jewish family.
But then in December, 1942, those living in the orphanage were moved from Utrecht to the ghetto in Amsterdam, and J’s mother realized that her children were in imminent danger. She tried to get her children released from the orphanage, but it was impossible. Instead, a cousin who was working at a hospital in Amsterdam somehow managed to kidnap the children and bring them to a safe place in Amsterdam where J and his sister could then be placed in hiding.
At that point J’s mother relinquished her spot in the home where she and her sisters had been hiding so that her son, my cousin J, would have a safe place to hide. His sister was hidden somewhere else. J’s mother moved to different hiding places, but she was eventually discovered by the Nazis in the fall of 1943. She was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in October 1943. As J expressed it to me, she had given everything so that her children would survive.J and his sister survived the war in their hiding places. After the war, his sister immigrated to Israel, where she still lives. J stayed in the Netherlands and continued to live with the brave couple who had kept first his mother and aunts safe and then kept him safe. He described them as being like grandparents to him. They made it possible for him to go to college, where he trained to become a veterinarian.
Despite the horrible losses he experienced as a young boy, J has led a remarkably productive and happy life. In addition to achieving professional success, he has been married since 1958 and has four children, ten grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. He is another example of the resilience of human beings who, in the face of the darkest evil and the most heinous cruelty, somehow emerge into the light and are able to give and receive love and find the good and the beautiful in our world.
For me this is an appropriate story for Rosh Hashanah, It reminds us that although we must always look back and remember, we also have to look forward with hope. We must be cognizant of all that is evil in the world, but we must embrace all that is good and beautiful.
May we all find the light of love and share all that is good and beautiful in the coming year.
L’shanah tova! A good year to you all, family and friends!
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.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.
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!
So before I take this time to be with my children and grandchildren and celebrate the holiday, I wanted to look back and think about what I’ve learned about my extended family during this year. For the most part this has been the year of the Schoenthals, and what a journey it has been. I had known very little about my paternal grandmother’s paternal family before I started researching, and they have inspired me in many ways and in some ways saddened me.
My great-grandfather Isidor Schoenthal and his many siblings were all born in Sielen, Germany, and all but two came to the United States in the second half of the 19th century and, for at least some time, lived in western Pennsylvania. They were a large and interconnected family, and so many of them did interesting things. Henry, the oldest brother, was a scholar and a community leader as well as his family’s leader.
Julius served in the US Army and lived in Washington, DC. Felix was a successful businessman in the typewriter repair business; he moved to Boston. Simon had a very large family, and his children not only ran hotels in Atlantic City; some of them settled in the wild west of Arizona, as my cousin Hettie Schoenthal Stein so beautifully described in her memoirs.
Amalie Schoenthal married Elias Wolfe, a cattle drover, and they raised a large family. Amalie moved to Ohio after her husband died. Hannah Schoenthal Stern survived being widowed at a young age and came to Pennsylvania with her young children and raised them on her own in a new country.
And my great-grandfather himself was a pioneer—first moving to Pennsylvania, and then moving his family from the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, to Denver, Colorado so that his asthmatic son would have a better place to live.
These were adventurous and interesting people who were willing to take risks in order to secure better lives for them and their family. I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with a number of their descendants—my cousins Steve, Ron, Jacquie, Maxine, Elaine, Linda, Sharon and Ezra, and Betty, who passed away just this summer.
But not all the Schoenthal siblings left Germany, and the fate of the children of Jakob Schoenthal and of Rosalie Schoenthal Heymann broke my heart. One of my most meaningful new projects is the work I am doing with Tom Lion (with the invaluable help of my cousin Sharon, also a Schoenthal cousin) to ensure that the memoir of Tom’s father Ernest Lion is preserved and made as publicly accessible as possible. Ernest’s first wife, Liesel Mosbach, Rosalie’s granddaughter, was killed during the Holocaust as were her parents, her aunt, and his sister; Jakob Schoenthal’s daughter Henriette Schoenthal Levi and her husband were also murdered by the Nazis. Other family members were forced to uproot themselves, lost everything, but somehow survived and started over in a new country. They were all my cousins.
I also learned about more of my Seligmann relatives—Mathilde Gross Mayer, her parents, her siblings, and all of their children. They also endured the Holocaust, some of them escaping in time, others being murdered by the Nazis. Mathilde’s book motivated me to start learning German so that I could better understand her life and her experiences. And along the way I also found another living descendant, my cousin Susan.
But most of my experiences this year have been uplifting. I had the pleasure of connecting with and meeting my cousin Rob, a Hamberg descendant. I still haven’t told the whole story of the Hamberg family, but my great-great-grandmother Henriette Hamberg Schoenthal had a large family, most of whom unfortunately stayed in Germany. Their story is yet to come. But I was able to explore the story of Amalia Hamberg Baer, whose children founded the Attleboro jewelry company today known as Swank. And I have been fortunate to connect with two of the descendants of Amalia Hamberg and Jacob Baer.
And now in the past week or so I have returned to the Brotman story as I’ve discovered new connections and new members of my maternal grandmother’s extended family, the Goldfarbs and the Hechts. More on that to come after the holiday. That work also has given me the blessings of new cousins like Sue, Lisa, Debrah, and Jan.
So when I look back on the year, I don’t just see all those people from the past. I see all the people who are my cousins, many of whom I never knew before. Some of us are as distant as fifth cousins, some as close as a second cousin, once removed. But without exception these new cousins have added joy and a sense of fulfillment to the work I am doing to tell the story of my family—their family—our family. There is nothing that makes me feel better about doing this than when one of these newly found cousins thanks me for finding the story of their ancestor’s lives. I never really think that I am doing this for others since I personally get so much out of doing it, but the excitement that others have expressed to me about my work makes it ever so much more worthwhile.
What lies ahead in my research? In this coming year I hope to be able to learn about the last of my great-grandparents. I have researched seven out of the eight so far, and although I still have more to learn about the families of Joseph Brotman and Bessie Brod, Moritz Goldschlager and Ghitla Rosenzweig, Emanuel Cohen and Eva Seligmann, and Isidore Schoenthal, I’ve not even started to tell the story of my remaining great-grandparent, my father’s maternal grandmother Hilda Katzenstein. She was the daughter of Gerson Katzenstein and Eva Goldschmidt, and their stories will likely be the next major research project on my list.
May all of my cousins, newly found and otherwise, and all of my family and friends and fellow genealogy researchers and bloggers be blessed with a sweet, healthy, and happy New Year. And may all those who came before us be remembered with honor and gratitude. Shana tova! A good year for all!
I haven’t disappeared. As I said in my last post, it’s a hectic time of year, and I have been busy with non-blog-related matters. Like spending time with these two, the sweetest little boys you will ever meet (and I am not biased):
And with these three:
And with my two September birthday girls (back in the 1980s):
And then there’s the holidays. Lots of eating and catching up with friends, less contemplation and introspection than expected. But that’s okay. Yom Kippur is next week. There’s still time.
But in between all those activities, I have been hard at work researching my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal and his family. I’ve found an incredible amount of information in a fairly short time (though much of the groundwork had been done much earlier). Some of that is due to the fact that others had already researched some of the family lines; some is due to the new databases that have become available since I first started doing family history research. Today I even found online some digitized German records of the births and deaths of some of the Schoenthals.
So I am hoping to start being able to pull together my notes and my thoughts and start blogging about the Schoenthals within the next week. From what I’ve already learned, I think they will prove to be an interesting group to write about and, I hope, to read about.
Be back soon.
Once again I find myself in the midst of the early September craziness after a long, relaxing summer: several family birthdays and anniversaries, school starting (well, not for me anymore, but for my husband), and preparation for the Jewish holidays. In my spare time, I am trying to put together the pieces of my Schoenthal research slowly but surely. But for the next week or so, I won’t have much time to write anything coherent about my research, so I will be taking a short break.
That seems appropriate as this is the time of year when I am supposed to be contemplating the year past and making decisions about the year to come. It’s a time to be thoughtful and thankful. A time of making amends and making resolutions.
So I wish all who celebrate a wonderful holiday with time for your families and your thoughts. And for everyone, I wish a new year filled with gratitude, happiness, good health, and love. And for the world, I will hope for peace and for a way to protect and shelter all those people all over the world who have been uprooted and seen their lives and families destroyed by war, poverty, and hatred. Today is the 14th anniversary of the day that showed us all what hatred can do. May we finally learn from it.
May it be a year when somehow people everywhere find a way to accept differences and respect and honor the humanity of each other.
Shana tova. A good year to all.
I was going to post about Gau-Algesheim this morning, but have decided to wait until after Rosh Hashanah. It’s an important post (to me, at least), and with so many family and friends celebrating the holiday, I thought it might get lost in the shuffle. So I will wait until Sunday to post it.
In the meantime, I also will be busy celebrating the holiday and so will take a short break from writing and researching so that I can focus on the holiday and my family.
For everyone out there, whether you celebrate this holiday or not, let’s hope for and work for a year of peace everywhere—within our families, our communities, our countries, and our world. Shana tova!
I will post tomorrow morning about the town in Germany where my Seligman ancestors were born and what I learned about my family by researching that small town called Gau-Algesheim. But for now—I have three events to recognize.
First, it was a year ago today that my cousin Judy set up the blog and I made my first blog post. It had no text—just a posting of my great-grandmother’s death certificate. I was learning how to use WordPress, and I don’t even know if anyone saw that post other than Judy and me. I didn’t actually post anything substantive until October 4 when I wrote my first post about what to expect from the blog. But I will always celebrate September 23 as my “blogiversary” for another very good reason. September 23 was my grandmother Gussie Brotman Goldschlager’s birthday. She would have been 119 this year.
So happy birthday, Grandma, and happy blogiversary to me! Thank you all for being with me on this journey. I can’t believe in a year that I have made so much progress in learning about my mother’s family and my father’s family, although I am humbled by how much more I have to learn.
And there is another reason for posting today. Tomorrow night is the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. So it is not only the beginning of a new year for me with my blogging and genealogy adventures, it is a time for being thankful for all our blessings and for being reflective about the year that has gone by and the year to come. So let me reflect for a moment on this past year.
First and foremost, this year has brought the miracle of more children into the family. I am particularly grateful for the birth of my grandson Remy, now over three months old, a happy, smiling baby with a sweet and calm disposition. Two of my cousins also had new grandchildren this year, and perhaps there were others I don’t even know about yet who have enlarged our family tree.
Second, I am grateful for the continuing presence in my life of my family—both my immediate family and my extended family—and for all my friends who are like family to me. I wish for you all a new year of good health, peace of mind, gratitude for all you have, and joyfulness.
Third, I want to thank and recognize all my genealogy friends—fellow bloggers, Facebook genealogy group members, the people at JewishGen.org and JRI Poland and Gesher Galicia, and, of course, Renee Steinig, my mentor who has inspired me and taught me so much. May we all continue to work together to break down brick walls, to find our roots, and to honor our ancestors as best we can.
Shana Tova to you all! May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year, and may it be a sweet year for everyone.