In Search of a Baal Shem

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove,PA)

I never heard her call him the “Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

Instead my grandmother spoke of “Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser” as a “Wundermann,” a miracle-worker.

My first real memory of him is connected to a beam of bright sunshine falling into her parlor window, setting off her “good” blue-and-white Wedgewood dishes glistening on the table. She was feeding me a mid-day meal along with telling me about the famous man.

I was not in her parlor frequently for my parents and I lived in another city and we did not see her often. Even  rarer was the chance of hearing my Oma tell me stories.

Tiny sun motes floated about the room that day as she spoke to me of the rebbe’s wisdom, his kindness and his strong religious faith.

“Both Jews and Gentiles in the small town of Michelstadt south of Frankfurt benefited  from his remarkable skills. Many a person depressed by business or health problems found the Rebbe’s calm, serene manner and his gift for active listening eased his troubles, perhaps even solved them. And when a healed  visitor walked out of Seckel Loeb’s door, it was always with renewed self-worth and confidence.”

Oma had her personal reasons for passing on tales about the great man.

Her own mother, my great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, had been brought to the home of the rebbe as an orphan child.  He had taken her in  and raised her as a member of his own family until the day when, as a grown young woman, she left Michelstadt to be married.

At least a half a century passed before the name of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser entered  my thoughts again.

Long after I had arrived as a child-survivor of the Holocaust in the U.S, married, and had raised a family of my own, the mail brought a brochure put out by a well-known publisher of Jewish books.

One of the titles advertised for sale read: “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.”

I could hardly wait until the small book arrived and lay open on my desk.

It was a collection of warm, sentimental episodes taken from the life of a man once renowned as a healer and worker of miracles. The book was written in the early 1900’s by a Swiss rabbi, Naftali Herz Ehrmann, under the nom de plume of  “Judeus.”

I was stunned to find in it many of the stories my grandmother had once told me, stories I had somehow not trusted to have been “real.”

But it was the photograph on the book’s last page which stirred me the most: a picture of a house.

It was a box-shaped wooden structure — two full floors and a triple-window mansard.  The metal plaque attached above the first-floor windows aroused my considerable interest. It read: “In this house the humanitarian S.L.Wormser lived from the year 1826 to his death in 1847.”

The plaque was dedicated as a tribute by his hometown of Michelstadt.

I concentrated on the windows in that photograph. How I wished I could transport myself into the past. This house was surely the home of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, and now I knew these were the windows through which my great-grandmother must have looked out at the world.

The more I read about the Rebbe’s life, the more faint images culled from my grandmother’s tales came back to me. I remembered certain details which were mirrored in the book.

After forty-one years I finally decided to go back to Germany.

One important reason for my return was the nagging wish to learn more about him, to find out what I could about the man they called the Baal Shem.

On the June day when friends drove my husband and me to Michelstadt, I carried the book about the Baal Shem with me.

We reached Michelstadt in the middle of the day. Ancient houses embellished with distinctive “Fachwerk” decorations lined the cobblestoned streets. I closed my eyes and pretended to be back in the medieval hamlet of southern Germany that was once the destination of many a Jewish and non-Jewish pilgrim headed for a visit to the bushy-bearded saintly man with the kind brown eyes known throughout the neighborhood as teacher and healer.

After a hearty meal in the oak-beamed dining room of the Green Tree Inn, I no longer needed to pretend. I was close to realizing my fanciful daydream. This very hostelry was a favorite with Jewish travellers who visited Rebbe Seckel Loeb. Many stories about the Baal Shem of Michelstadt grew into legends here, nurtured no doubt by glasses of excellent local beer. Because of their fondness for the inn, some patrons even nicknamed it “The Jewish Canteen.”

Armed with the family record, I finally entered the tall doors of the “Rathaus Annex” and headed for the chief of tourist reception. I told the man I was looking for links to an ancestor who grew up in the house of Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser. Immediately I felt my tourist stature increase to that of a VIP.

Meanwhile I could hardly wait to see the house of the Baal Shem.

No one knew the Wormser House by that name, so it took much searching and asking for directions before I located it. Suddenly I stood in front of it: my photograph had come to life.

One hundred and thirty-five years after Rebbe Seckel Loeb died here, the house was still in use. I walked around it and inspected it from every angle. Now it was occupied by a law firm, but no one was in. I was disappointed that I could not enter. I so wished to see the rooms where the Master taught the Holy Books, where the wise man counseled the troubled on urgent problems now long forgotten, and where my own ancestor climbed the stairs.

I left the Wormser House hesitantly and returned to the Rathaus-Annex where I had an appointment with the town archivist.

In one wing of this ancient seat of the mayors of Michelstadt, a Herr Hartmann presided  over  records dating back to the 13th century. His amazing collection of documents owed its survival to the little bomb damage the town sustained during World War II

I knew nothing about my great-grandmother except her name: Babette Muhr.

Herr Hartmann delved into his well-preserved archives of the Jewish community. Within a few minutes he located a page listing the death of a rabbi named Wolf Muhr in 1848. This is really a coincidence, he told me, because he had never come across that name before, let alone the name of a local rabbi.

I was convinced that there was a connection between Rabbi Muhr and my ancestor and asked the archivist to trace it.

We did not succeed that day, but I found a book of local Jewish history on his shelf and he allowed me to browse in it.

I discovered that Wolf Muhr was Seckel Loeb’s cantor who handled the town’s rabbinical duties in Michelstadt until 1826. During that year Rabbi Wormser returned after a lengthy stay in the town of Mannheim where he worked as a healer at the local hospital.  Upon his return to Michelstadt he resumed his post of rabbi there.

I had gotten closer in my ancestor search. The archivist promised he would continue it. Perhaps we would find the connection someday.

The old Jewish cemetery was too far from town. I wanted to stay in Michelstadt a little longer to meditate at the grave of Rabbi Wormser, but my time ran out. I did not make it to his last resting place and to the new gravestone which replaced the desecrated monument of the Nazi period.

However, a final touching experience awaited me during my last hour in town: I was given  a tour through the Baal Shem’s synagogue. Like most German synagogues the original tiny structure, built in 1791, was torched by the Nazis. Only its exterior shell remained.

One Jewish family still lived in Michelstadt in 1969 when members of a few remaining Jewish communities in the state of Hesse met and decided to restore the former synagogue as a museum.

It was named the Lichtigfeld Museum in honor of Dr. I.E. Lichtigfeld, a postwar rabbi of Hesse, who tried to revive Jewish life in the area. The Lichtigfeld Museum primarily memorializes Rebbe Seckel Loeb Wormser, the Baal Shem of Michelstadt, whose love for humanity once brightened this town.

Ritual objects, books and mementos filled the showcases along the walls of the modest ex-sanctuary. Among them were two new additions I had brought from America: the English translation of  “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt” and a copy of my own biography of Elie Wiesel, “Witness for Life.” Having them in this place is an honor I cherish.

The site of the original Almemor had been preserved. I stood near the spot where the holy man once prayed and I reflected on the tremendous faith he inspired.

What was the real nature of the Rebbe’s “miracles?” Were the stories his deeds generated just that–exaggerated accounts of local happenings, blown out of proportion by his simple fellow country–Jews who needed someone or something to believe in?

The hatred-bearers did extinguish the spark of life here and they succeeded in wiping out the  decency and healing which once existed. But they could not erase the memory of the Jewish spirit that long ago filled this building and this town.

And who knows? Perhaps the special memory may be the most lasting of this Baal Shem’s many miracles.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel.  Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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4 Comments

Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

4 responses to “In Search of a Baal Shem

  1. nathan hofman

    I just read this article and I can let you know that my grandmother’s mothers maiden name was strauss and her grandmother was a daughter of the baal shem, so my mother was a fifth generation (daughter after daughter) of this great man. I also used to hear all these stories from my grandmother. Today there are hundreds of families whose lineage are from him although I don’t know if they are that direct.

    Nathan Hofman, Toronto

  2. Just read your article as we were today reminiscing about our experience in regard to learning more of the Baal Shem of Michelstadt — my son is now a high school senior, but seven years ago we brought him to Michelstadt (2007) and the grave of the Baal Shem of Michelstadt at a suggestion of my father-in-law who was there for the summer Chairing a student musical competition and he was teaching master classes in the synogogue you mention above. If you could forward me your email, I have some interesting photos I can share with you… send a note to me as listed below if you have interest… very much enjoyed reading your post.

  3. PS Stern (Stearn – changed in the US) is my maiden name…

  4. Andreas Ullmann

    ….I just read this article: very fascinating!

    My name is Andreas Ullmann, I am a young German historian, and at the moment, I am working for a exhibition in the “Freilixchtmuseum Hessenpark” about Jewish rural life in Hessen, 1871-today. In this exhibition, we will as well show Seckel Löb Wormser and Michelstadt.

    All the best to you!

    Andreas Ullmann

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