Sielen: The Tiny Ancestral Home of the Schoenthals

After spending the prior day in Volksmarsen and Breuna, home of the Hambergs, I was excited to go to Sielen, the home of the Schoenthals.  We were going to meet two people in Sielen, Julia Drinnenberg, with whom I’d only exchanged a few emails, and Hans-Peter Klein, with whom I’d been in touch for a couple of years.  Hans-Peter and Ernst (not related to each other) created the Juden in Nordhessen website that has provided me with extensive information about my Hessen ancestors.  When I was researching the Schoenthals, Hans-Peter was a tremendous help.  He also knew my friend from home, Amanda, so I was looking forward to meeting him and Julia.

Sielen is about forty minutes from Kassel, the city where we were staying, and the drive was quite scenic.  We went over the mountain (hill?) where the Kassel fortress is, then along a winding and narrow road, and then through beautiful countryside.  As we approached Sielen, there was a flock of sheep grazing in the field on the edge of the village.  I decided to get out and take some photographs of the surrounding area.

Countryside outside of Sielen

As I was doing that, another car pulled up alongside me, and a man got out and asked me if I was Amy.  It was Hans-Peter, and we both laughed at the fact that he knew it had to be me, given how small and isolated Sielen is.  We both drove into the village where Julia soon appeared as well. She was also outgoing and friendly, and we all hit it off right away.

As in the other towns and villages, there was a marketplace and a church. But Sielen is much smaller.  Whereas Gau-Algesheim has a population of about 7000, Volksmarsen about the same, and Breuna almost 4000, Sielen’s population is only about 500 people.  It was the smallest village we visited.

While we were all getting acquainted, a man appeared in the marketplace where we had parked, yelling in German.  Harvey and I were both a bit intimidated, but after some discussion with Hans-Peter and Julia, the man left.  Apparently we had driven up to the marketplace the wrong way.

Sielen church and marktplatz

Julia had some historical information about Sielen to share with us.  According to a 1789 report on Sielen by J. Chr. Martin entitled “Topographical and Statistical News of Nether Hessen, Goettingen (1789, p. 103, as translated), at that time there were 114 homes in Sielen and about 500 residents: “106 men, 112 women, 128 sons and 123 daughters, 14 servants, 14 maidens.” In terms of livelihoods, the report noted that there were forty farmers, 76 peasants, seventeen “cloth-weathers,” one blacksmith, one wainwright, one tailor, and two carpenters.  The report adds, “Also there are two Jewish families who make their living by trading.” I had to wonder whether my Schoenthal ancestors were one of those two families.  Levi Schoenthal, my great-great-grandfather, was born there in 1812, so perhaps his father Heinemann was already living there by 1789.

As I wrote previously, according to the Alemannia-Judaica website, there was a very small Jewish community in Sielen at least from the early 19th century.  There was a synagogue in Sielen as early as 1817, and the village had its own Jewish cemetery starting in 1846.  In 1835, there were 38 Jewish residents; in 1861, there were 48.  By 1905, there were only fourteen Jewish residents, and by 1924, there were just four Jewish residents remaining.  My Schoenthal ancestors had left Sielen by the 1880s.

Julia’s papers also included a later report about Sielen, written in 1932-1934, around the time that Hitler came to power.  This document, written by Superintendent I.R. Brandt and titled “Chronicle of Sielen,” provides some insight into the status of Jews at that time.  It can be found at the Landeskirchliches Archiv Kassel, D 2.2 Hofgeismar v.O. HS 22. There were two Jewish families left, one being an elderly woman named Perle Herzstein, whose house was attached to the old synagogue.

The report goes on (p. 109)(as translated in the document Julia gave me):

Inside it is desolate, there aren’t any church services for a long time. But the old keeper of bygone splendor [Ms. Herzstein] shows us proudly the marvelous tora-rolls, man-high and from thick parchment, lovely as on its first day. And she shows us the colorful embroidered silk ribbons twined around them, and other books and things. She sighs in remembrance of former, for her, better times!

The next few lines are confusing—I am not sure whether it’s the translation or it was as confusing in the original:

Yes, it’s true, the Jew misbehaved in Hesse in former times. He often contributed to his own pauperization by profiteering and Gueterschlaechterei, etc. (?) Nowhere else the antisemitism of National Socialism is carrying greater justification than in Hesse. But these ordinary harmless people scattered here and there in small villages for many a long year, who still belong to orthodox Judaism and whose integrity and strength of character…cannot be denied—they just belong to the colorful German nationhood.  It would leave a void if it were weeded out completely.

It seems that, on the one hand, the writer is condoning anti-Semitism, but on the other is praising the Jewish residents of the area and admitting that it would be a loss for the community if they were “weeded out completely.” I wish I knew more about this source; perhaps Julia can give me more information about it.

At any rate, today there are no Jews in Sielen. Julia told us that the house depicted below was where the last Jew in Sielen lived until the 1930s when at some point he was dragged from the house and beaten.

House where last Jewish resident of Sielen lived—right across from the church and on the marktplatz

When I asked Julia and Hans-Peter what people did for a living today in these little villages, they said many are employed in Kassel (there is a Volkswagen plant near Kassel) while some are tradespeople.  Not many are farmers any more.

We walked to where the synagogue once was and stood outside what is now a large home. We walked around the corner, looking for some indication of where the entrance had been, and as we stood outside, a man came out.

Section to left was the old synagogue in Sielen. Compare to photo above.

After our experience with the angry man in the marketplace, I was concerned that this man also was going to yell at us for loitering in front of his house. But instead he asked what we were doing, and when Hans-Peter and Julia explained, he became very interested, asking more questions.  He introduced himself to us (his name, Braun Rode, was on the beer sign outside the house—perhaps it is also a tavern).  He and his wife had lived in the house for 40 years.  And he was very happy that we had come to see it.

Then his wife came out and offered us all something to drink.  When we all declined, she returned with a book about the former synagogues in Germany and showed us the picture of their house when it had been the synagogue (see above).

These two people, who did not know us at all, could not have been nicer.  Herr Braun Rode insisted that we take photographs with him in front of the house and send him a copy (which Julia did).  When we said goodbye, he said to us in German to send regards to America. Once again, we were left with a very positive and warm feeling about the people in Germany.

Julia Drinnenberg, Hans-Peter Klein, Herr Braun Rode, and Harvey outside the former synagogue in Sielen

We then drove to the cemetery that lies outside the village up a rather steep hill.  It is hard to imagine how people from Sielen and the other nearby villages managed to get the bodies of the deceased to these cemeteries.

Looking down the hill from the cemetery to the road

There were not a lot of stones in the cemetery, and I looked at each one several times, hoping to find my great-great-grandfather Levi Schoenthal, or any other Schoenthal, but I had no luck. Some of the stones are completely eroded, and others are only in Hebrew and were extremely difficult to read. Julia had a transcription of the stones, and there was this one, which I had previously found in my research:

Transcription from Sielen cemetery, HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 774, p. 4

Thanks to the helpful people in the Tracing the Tribe Facebook group, I know that that translates as “Chaim Schoenthal from Sielen died 7 Nissan 5634,” or March 25, 1874, which is four days before the date I had for Levi’s funeral (the actual date of death was not legible in the death record).

Levi Schoenthal death record March 1874
HHStAW Abt. 365 Nr. 773, S. 9

The name as transcribed confused me since it was not Levi, but Chaim was probably his father Heinemann’s Hebrew name, so I think the transcriber could not read Levi’s own first name and transcribed only the patronym. It probably said “Levi ben Chaim Schoenthal.”

But even with that transcription, we could not find the actual stone.  The transcriptions were done over 30 years ago, so the stone must have badly eroded since then. I examined each stone, hoping to find an inscription that contained the name of my great-great-grandfather.  But it was not to be.

Sielen cemetery

Sielen cemetery

Sielen cemetery. I now think that the very eroded sign on the left could have been where Levi Schoenthal was buried.

Or maybe this one?

Although I was disappointed not to find the stone for my great-great-grandfather, it had been a great morning, meeting not only Hans-Peter and Julia, but also the friendly couple who live in the house which was once the synagogue.  Sielen is a tiny jewel with a long history, and it might have been a good and comfortable place to be a child growing up.  But  now I better understand why my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal and all his siblings left the village.  There was not much there to support a young adult who wanted to go out on his or her own.

UPDATE: On December 2, 2022, Julia sent me photographs of Levi’s headstone and an updated transcription of the inscription on the stone. I was correct—the original transcription was not complete and the name “Chaim” was a reference to Levi’s father Heinemann, not to Levi himself. Here are the photographs and the updated transcription in Hebrew and in English.

Levi Schoenthal headstone

איש הישר ר אריה בר ר
חיים שענטהאל מזיעלן
הלך לעולמו יום ז’ ניסן תרל”ח
Here rests
an honorable man R. Arieh son of
Haim Schönthal from Sielen
he came in his world on 7. Nissan 5638

As Julia pointed out, Arieh means lion in Hebrew and thus may have been the Hebrew equivalent to Leon or Leo and paired with Levi as his full name.

Thanks again to Julia for finding the stone and providing me with a better transcription of its inscription.

The Schoenthals: Where They Came From

Deutsch: Deutsche Bundesländer Karte.

Deutsch: Deutsche Bundesländer Karte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (Note the location of Hessen in blue on this map.)

My great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal came to the United States in 1881; he arrived in New York City on September 3 of that year on the ship Rhein when he was 22 years old.  I had known that he came from Germany, but not exactly where.  His death certificate said he was born in “Celand, Hess, Germany,” and from various other sources about him and his siblings, I concluded that the town where he was born was in fact Sielen, a small town in the Kassel district in the Hesse region of Germany.  Today’s post will focus on what I’ve learned about Sielen, the home town of my Schoenthal ancestors.

Sielen, Germany

Sielen, Germany

It was not that easy to find out very much about Sielen.  The town is so small (510 inhabitants as of 2011[1]) that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.  The closest major city is Frankfurt, and it is over 200 kilometers away, as are Dusseldorf and Cologne.  From what I can see on Google Maps, Sielen is surrounded for miles and miles by farmland.  The closest town is Trendelburg, which is about four kilometers away. It merits its own Wikipedia page, though that entry is all of three sentences and tells nothing of the history of the town.

Wikipedia reports that the population of Trendelburg was over 5000 people as of 2011, based on this website.  But according to the town’s official website, that number reflects not just the village of Trendelburg itself but the neighboring towns, including Sielen.  Trendelburg proper has just over 1100 residents.   Sielen has 552. Sielen is now considered a district within the larger town of Trendelburg.

Deutsch: Stadt Trendelburg

Deutsch: Stadt Trendelburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


From the Trendelburg official website, I was able to learn some information about the history of the town, though relying on Google Translate makes reading the German always somewhat bewildering.  Assuming I am reading most of the general information correctly, the history of Trendelburg as a separate entity began when a castle was built there in the 13th century by Konrad the III, Schoeneburg .  The location was already an important trade center for that region as it was close to a good fording spot on the Diemel River.   Over the next several centuries, the castle was used for many different purposes: a hunting lodge, the offices of the Prussian Forestry Department, and today as a privately-owned hotel and restaurant.

Die Trendelburg - Gesamtansicht, Hessen, Germany

Die Trendelburg – Gesamtansicht, Hessen, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hotel’s website includes some more detailed history of the castle:

With many twists and turns, the Diemel River meanders towards the Weser River. Right by Trendelburg Castle, there is a sharp bend around a rocky ridge which the locals called “Trindirberg” many years ago, probably naming the “mountain” after the village Trende, at the time situated to the west of the ridge but now completely vanished.

Sometime before 1300, Konrad the III of Schöneberg constructed a castle on this “mountain” to protect the main road from Kassel to Bremen. The settlement outside the castle also dates from this period.

Around 1305, Landgrave Heinrich I and the Bishop of Paderborn each purchased one half of the castle. The part belonging to Hessen was a Paderborn fief; the town’s official representatives were the Stoghusens, who lived in the castle for four generations.

In 1443 and 1456, the fortifications were renewed following serious fires. After their reconstruction, Trendelburg Castle was also changed, taking on the shape you see today. The fortifications were extended by a 38 metre high keep with four bretèches and a curtain wall in the shape of a pentagon with four small round towers. In the living quarters, which were erected in the 15th and the 17th century respectively, the remains of a late Gothic chapel with ribbed vaults have been preserved; the Trendelburg register office now uses this space for its civil wedding ceremonies. 

In the Thirty Years’ War, the castle was occupied by Tilly’s troops, and in 1637, it was destroyed by the Croats. In the Seven Years’ War, Trendelburg Castle was occupied by the French until they were driven off by Ferdinand V, the Duke of Brunswick, through artillery fire.

In 1901, military man Oberst Adalbert von Stockhausen, in all likelihood a descendant of the Stoghusens of old, bought the castle.

Taken over by the Dr. Lohbeck Group in 1996, the castle’s long-term future was secured by its conversion into a hotel for discerning visitors.

According to the hotel’s website, this is the castle where Rapunzel lived and let down her hair.  There is even a weekly “re-enactment” of this fairy tale at the castle.

The Trendelburg official website also contains some information about the history of Sielen itself. The village is bordered on one side by the Diemel River and surrounded by limestone hills. According to the website, a stone ax found in Sielen dated back to 6000 years ago, and a cemetery back to 1000 B.C.E.  A mill dating from 1243 remains as a ruin.

So what were my ancestors doing in this tiny village back in the 19th century and maybe before?  What kind of Jewish life could there have been? According to the Alemannia-Judaica website, there was a very small Jewish community in Sielen at least from the early 19th century.  In 1835, there were 38 Jewish residents; in 1861, there were 48.  By 1905, there were only fourteen Jewish residents, and by 1924, there were just four Jewish residents remaining. Like my own relatives, the Jewish residents either had emigrated outside of Germany or moved to the bigger cities.  During the Nazi era, those few remaining Jews in Sielen either left the area or were killed during the Holocaust.

Despite the tiny size of the Jewish community, there was a synagogue in Sielen from about 1817.  Originally a home owned by Moses Herzbach was used for prayer services, but in 1817, seven Jewish families sought permission from town officials to build a synagogue as an addition to Herzbach’s home.  Permission was granted, and Herzbach financed the construction of the synagogue.

There was also a Jewish school and a cemetery.  According to Alemannia-Judaica, at first Jews were buried in a cemetery in Trendelburg, but around 1846, a separate cemetery was established in Sielen on the road between Sielen and Trendelburg.  There are 26 graves there, including that of my great-great-grandfather Levi Schoenthal, as I will discuss in a later post.

Down the road in Trendelburg there was also a Jewish community with its own synagogue, cemetery, and school.  That community dates back to 1676, but also was quite small.  In 1731 there were 21 Jewish residents; the Jewish population peaked in 1827 at 31, but was down to just 12 by 1895.  There was a Jewish school in Trendelburg, where my great-grandfather’s brother Henry Schoenthal was a teacher before he immigrated to the United States.  There was also a mikveh, the ruins of which were discovered in 2001 during renovations and which can now be seen as a tourist attraction.  By Hitler’s time, there were only a handful of Jews remaining in Trendelburg, and they died in the Holocaust.

How did these Jews make a living in these small towns where the number of Jewish residents was so small? What were their lives like? I can’t say that I am surprised that my great-grandfather Isidore Schoenthal and almost all of his siblings left Sielen by the 1880s; my great-grandfather had ten siblings who survived to adulthood.  What kind of opportunities could they find in this small, rural town? Probably very few, and so they left and ended up all over the United States: Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Arizona, California, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, and so on.  They learned English, they worked hard and survived, and they became Americans.    Like Joseph and Bessie Brotman, Isadore Goldschlager, Bernard Seligman, John Nusbaum and Jeanette Dreyfuss, and Jacob Cohen and Sarah Jacobs, they took the risk of leaving behind what they knew so that they could make a better life for themselves and their descendants.  How fortunate I am to be one of those descendants.

English: Location of Trendelburg in district K...

English: Location of Trendelburg in district Kassel, Hesse, Germany Deutsch: Lage von Trendelburg im Landkreis Kassel, Hessen, Deutschland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)