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
http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/images/Images%20362/Rauischholzhausen%20Ort%200100.jpg

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
http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/rauischholzhausen_friedhof.htm

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.

The Indomitable Human Spirit: The Descendants of Minna Ruelf Spier

Although the story of Minna Ruelf Spier is, like that of her sisters Esther and Bette, a story that includes much tragedy and suffering, in its way it is also uplifting for what it reveals about the human spirit and the will to survive. As we move closer to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I find Minna’s story appropriate for these days and inspiring.

I have been in touch with one of Minna’s direct descendants, my fourth cousin- once removed Jennifer Spier-Stern, and she has shared with me what she knows about the family history as well as some family photographs. I am so very grateful to Jennifer for her help and her generosity.

Minna Ruelf was born on February 16, 1859, in Rauischholzhausen, Germany:

Minna Ruelf birth record
Geburtsregister der Juden von (Rauisch)Holzhausen (Ebsdorfergrund) 1824-1874 (HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 452)AutorHessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Wiesbaden, p. 10

Three days after her 21st birthday, on February 19, 1880, she married Isaak Spier. Isaak was born June 12, 1850, in Leidenhofen, Germany, another town in the Hesse region, the son of Abraham Spier and Esther Schaumberg. Isaak was a merchant.  Minna and Isaak settled in Ebsdorf, a small village a mile from Leidenhofen, where they had the first of their three sons, Abraham, who was born on January 18, 1881.

Minna Ruelf and Isaak Spier marriage record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Collection: Personenstandsregister Heiratsregister; Signatur: 915; Laufende Nummer: 2524

Their two younger sons, Julius (July 26, 1883), and Siegfried (November 29, 1886), were born in Rauischholzhausen.

Isaak Spier died on June 17, 1910, in Rauischholzhausen. He was sixty years old. At that time none of his sons had married.

Isaak Spier
Courtesy of  Jennifer Spier-Stern

Isaak Spier death record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Personenstandsregister Sterberegister; Bestand: 915; Laufende Nummer: 8036

Abraham, the oldest son, married nine years later on November 3, 1919; he was 38 years old. He married Jenny Wertheim, who was born on June 4, 1890, in Hatzbach, Germany, to Wolf Wertheim and Sanchen Edelmuth.

Marriage of Abraham Spier and Jenny Wertheim
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Collection: Personenstandsregister Heiratsregister; Signatur: 915; Laufende Nummer: 5047

 

Abraham Spier, c. 1914
Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

Jenny Wertheim  Spier Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

Abraham and Jenny had five children, one daughter and four sons: Edith (1920), Julius (1922),[1] Alfred (1924), Martin (1925), and Walter (1927); they were all born in Rauischholzhausen.

Edith, Julius, and Alfred Spier , c. 1926 Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

Family of Abraham and Jenny Spier, Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

Just three weeks after Walter’s birth, his grandmother Minna Ruelf Spier died at age 68 on November 5, 1927.

Minna Ruelf
Courtesy of her great-granddaughter Jennifer Spier-Stern

Minna Ruelf Spier death record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Personenstandsregister Sterberegister; Bestand: 915; Laufende Nummer: 8053

The youngest son of Isaak Spier and Minna Ruelf, Siegfried, died when he was 48 years old in Rauischholzhausen on February 21, 1935, just seven months before the Nuremberg Laws were adopted by the Nazis in Germany. Siegfried was unmarried.

Siegfried Spier death record
Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv; Wiesbaden, Deutschland; Personenstandsregister Sterberegister; Bestand: 915; Laufende Nummer: 8061

Not long after Siegfried’s death, Julius Spier (Abraham’s brother, not his son) left Rauischholzhausen. According to Alfred Schneider’s book, Die Juedischen Familien im ehemaligen Kreise Kirchain (p. 350), Julius was still in Rauischholzhausen in 1935, but as of 1936, his location was unknown. One source says that he went to Frankfurt where he had a seat on the stock exchange.  That same source said that he immigrated to England by 1945, perhaps as early as 1938.  (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Pedigree Resource File,” database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/2:2:SB2K-RMP : accessed 2017-09-06), entry for Julius /Spier).

According to Jennifer, Julius Spier married Lucie Henrietta Cohn. According to this website located by Jennifer, Lucie was the daughter of Hugo Cohn and Selma Marcuse of Halberstadt; she was born on October 28, 1897. The website also states that she’d gone to Frankfurt and married (no date or place was given, nor the name of her husband). If futher states that after getting divorced in 1938, Lucie had immigrated to England and worked in the fashion industry.  Although I have no marriage record or other document showing her marriage or divorce, Lucie appears on many passenger manifests between 1947 and 1960—first residing in London, later in the US, listed at various times as a commercial traveler, a housewife, and a nurse.

Julius died in London on February 25, 1959. (England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007, on Ancestry.com)

UPDATE: Thank you to Anne Callanan of the German Genealogy for sending me some records she found on FindMyPast, a genealogy service to which I do not (yet) subscribe. Anne found Enemy Alien registration cards for several family members including Julius Spier and Lucie Henrietta Spier. From those records, I now know that Julius was in England by November 1939, working as an agent. He was at first granted an exemption from being detained as an enemy alien, but that decision was reversed and he was interned on June 21, 1940, but was released two months later on August 23, 1940.

Lucie also had to register as an enemy alien. She registered on December 8, 1939, when she was living in Manchester, England (thus not with Julius) and working as a house servant for a Mr. M. I. Marks in his home. She was granted an exemption and was not interned. The card does not reveal any information about her marital status.

Julius Spier (son of Minna Ruelf and Isaak Spier)
Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

Abraham and Jenny Spier and their children were still in Germany during the Nazi era, but they were eventually able to get some of their children to England. According to my cousin Jennifer, Edith Spier left Germany on one of the early Kindertransports to England where she worked as au pair; according to the Schneider book (p. 351), Edith left on October 20, 1937, when she was seventeen. She eventually went to New York, where in 1943 she married Alfred Baumann, who was born in Adelsberg, Germany, in 1913, and had immigrated to the US in 1938.

Julius Spier (Abraham and Jenny’s son) was arrested along with ten thousand other Jewish men  in the aftermath of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, and sent to Buchenwald. His daughter Jennifer wrote this about his experiences:

My father, John Sanders (nee Julius Spier) was born in Rauischholtzhausen, Germany on June 17, 1922. At the age of 16, on November 9, 1938 he was arrested in his home by the Gestapo. It should have been my grandfather, but he was in a few towns over at his mother’s home. Rumors around the towns were that the Gestapo were going from house to house to arrest the eldest male.

My father was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp where he remained for 10 weeks. During this time, his mother heard about the organized efforts of the Jewish Agency of Bloomsbury, London to get as many Jewish children, between the ages of four to 17, out of Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. She went to the Jewish Agency and the police, where she was told to get all the documents ready, as well as a visa to leave Germany.

Upon release from Buchenwald, my father had only two weeks to leave Germany. His father took him to the Frankfurt train station, where he was to meet the Kindertransport train that would take him to England. At the train station there were other families with children. The parents and their young ones had to say their good-byes inside the train station. The children, regardless of age, had to go onto the platform and then onto the train by themselves. Families with infants gave the infants to the older children. It is difficult to comprehend all sides. How does a parent give up a baby and how does a young adult care for one. My father said goodbye to his father, not realizing that this was the last time he would ever see him.  …

After his tenure in Dover Court, my father was taken into the home of an Orthodox family in Westgate, London. He was there until June of 1939 when his brother [Alfred] came over from Germany. Together, they went to a hostel in London. Shortly thereafter they were taken to a farm in Aberdeen, Scotland. An aristocrat owned the farm by the name of Sir Robert Grant. He treated my father and his brother with the utmost of respect and kindness. One memorable time for my father was when the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce took him and his brother to Harrod’s department store in London and they were able to pick out all that they needed. Sir Robert Grant applied for visas to get my father’s parents and brothers out of Germany. Unfortunately war broke out a few days later and all visas were denied. 

Julius Spier, son of Abraham and Jenny (Wertheim) Spier, c. 1935
Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

That left Abraham and Jenny and their two youngest children, Martin and Walter, stranded in Germany. On September 7, 1942, all four were deported to Theriesenstadt. Then on May 18, 1944, all four were transported to Auschwitz, where Abraham and Jenny were murdered. Martin and Walter survived. Walter Spier talked movingly about his experience in this video. I implore you all to watch it. It’s less then fifteen minutes long, and when you considered what he suffered for years, you know you can spare fifteen minutes to hear him talk.

 

When I think of the two young men being reunited in Rauischholzhausen in 1945, it moves me to tears.

Meanwhile, their older siblings were for a time in the United Kingdom. But like many other Jews who were sent to England for safety from the Nazis, Julius and Alfred were sent to the Isle of Man as possible “enemies of the state” after England declared war on Germany in September, 1939.

According to this article from B’nai Brith Magazine, the first inmates arrived on the Isle of Man in May, 1940, and by August, 1940, there were over 14,000 men, women, and children imprisoned on the Isle of Man, some being Nazi sympathizers, many others being Jews who’d been born in Germany and thus were considered enemy aliens, ironically.  Because of overcrowding, in July, 1940, England decided to send some of the inmates to Canada or to Australia. (Cheryl Klemper, “Imprisoned On The Isle Of Man: Jewish Refugees Classified As “Enemy Aliens”, ” B’nai Brith Magazine, September 19, 2016)

Julius and Alfred Spier were among those sent to Australia. According to Jennifer, they both were on the ship known as the HMT (Hired Military Transport) Dunera. According to the Australian website for the Migration Heritage Centre:

On board the HMT Dunera were about 2,000 male German Jewish refugees aged between 16 and 45, who had escaped from Nazi occupied territories. Also on board were 200 Italian POWs and 250 Nazis. The voyage lasted 57 days. The conditions were appalling. Apart from overcrowding on the ship with the attendant problems of hygiene and harsh treatment by crew members, the journey was also made unpleasant by the fear of torpedo attacks, the uncertainty of the destination, and by tensions between Jewish refugees and Nazi passengers.

After arriving in Australia, Julius and Alfred spent two years interned at camps in Hay and Tatura in Australia. The Migration Heritage Centre website reported this about the Hay camp:

The Hay POW camp was constructed in 1940. The first arrivals were 2036 German and Austrian Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis. They were mostly professionals who had simply fled for their lives. They were placed along side 451 German and Italian POWs many of whom were pro Nazi and fascist.

While awaiting release, the Dunera Boys developed a rich cultural and intellectual programme at their camp, giving concerts and establishing an unofficial university. The small group of strictly Orthodox Jews also managed to organise a kosher kitchen. After a period of time the injustice of their situation was realised and they were permitted to return to Britain.

Here is a record identifying Julius Spier as a POW in Australia during the war:

Courtesy of Jennifer Spier-Stern

According to Jennifer, when Julius and Alfred were finally released, they were given a choice  either to return to Germany or join the British Army, so they both joined the British Army, where they served for the duration of the war and then returned to England.

UPDATE: Thanks again to Anne Callanan, I now have enemy alien registration cards for both Edith and Julius Spier.  Edith registered on December 12, 1939, and was granted an exemption; she was working as a domestic. Her brother Julius registered as an enemy alien on November 28, 1939, when he was working on Sir Robert Grant’s farm in Scotland. But as we know he was denied an exemption and interned until June 21, 1942, when he was returned to the UK from Australia.

In the years immediately after the war Edith was in New York City, Julius and Alfred were in England, and Martin and Walter were in Germany. Martin and Walter both stayed in Rauischholzhausen for a year after their liberation from the camps in 1945, and then both immigrated to New York City where both of them later married.

In England, Alfred married Hannelore Reimers, who was from Bielefeld, Germany. Hannelore wanted to return to Bielefeld where her family still lived[2], so Alfred and Hannelore ended up back in Germany.

Julius married Helene Trunec in England in 1952; Julius and Helene stayed in England until 1963 when they immigrated to the United States and were reunited with Edith, Martin, and Walter in New York City. Julius and Helene had two children, Jennifer and Mark.

The five children of Abraham Spier and Jenny Wertheim thus all survived the Holocaust, although their parents did not. The five siblings not only suffered the loss of their parents and of their home; two were tortured and suffered terribly in the Nazi concentration camps, and two were imprisoned like criminals by England, the country where they had sought sanctuary. It’s hard to imagine how any of them coped with what they had endured.

But listening to Walter Spier on that video reveals that somehow the human spirit can endure unimaginable suffering and still have faith, hope, and love. All five of the Spier siblings went on to have children after the war, one sign of the incredible power of faith, hope, and love.

 

[1] I find it interesting that Abraham named a son Julius since his brother Julius was still alive. I assume the son was named for another family member, not his uncle.

[2] Hannelore was not born Jewish, but converted when she married Alfred.