Tag Archives: Germany

Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen 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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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen 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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An Appreciative Smile

by Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

He stopped rather suddenly at the door pausing to take in the room’s layout and carefully eyeing its contents. Visibly on edge, he began to fidget nervously as though preparing himself for some  unforeseen danger that could possibly be lurking nearby. After all, he had managed to survive the war when so many had not. His short stature belied an inner strength and tenacity that had helped keep him alive during the most difficult of times. He had seen and experienced things that few could ever imagine and survival meant being constantly on guard–taking nothing, absolutely nothing, for granted. Although those horrific days have long since passed, he continued to feel ill at ease whenever finding himself in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Such indeed was the case today during this initial visit to the ear doctor’s office. Noting that all seemed to be quiet and in proper order, he took a deep breath, cautiously moved inward, and, as instructed, sat himself down on the waiting chair.

“Doctor, something tells me that you are a religious person. Are you orthodox by any chance?” he inquired just as I made my way into the room.

Hardly a question I would have expected from a first-time patient. It was the tone of his voice, however, laced with an equal mix of criticism and bewilderment, that caught me off guard. Sitting here before me, I thought, is a patient unlike any I had encountered before. Very few individuals would take the liberty to speak in this manner, especially before formal introductions were made and a doctor-patient relationship established. I could not think of any other patient or acquaintance, for that matter, with the temerity to ask such a question before meeting someone for the very first time. Yes, he certainly was different and only later on would I learn how remarkably different.

“Well, tell me, doctor, am I right? Are you religious?”

Not knowing how to respond to his persistent questioning, I quickly organized my thoughts and replied, “What is it exactly that makes you say that?”

Grinning proudly, he answered, “Well, every room in this office has a mezuzah, and not a one is covered with any paint. That tells me that the mezuzahs are routinely removed and probably checked every so often. Only religious people would bother doing such a thing. Isn’t that so doctor? Isn’t that what religious people would normally do?”

I nodded in silence, uncertain as to where this was all heading.

“What brings you here today? What seems to be the problem?”

“Oh nothing too bad,” he began.  “Just some ringing in my ears and I think my hearing may not be as sharp as it used to be.”

His distinctive accent, animated expressions and mannerisms were remarkably similar to what I had been exposed to while growing up. “I see you come from central Poland,” I remarked while removing a hefty amount of wax from his right ear.

But before I had a chance to attend to his left ear, he  turned abruptly in my direction. His face now sported a wide quizzical smile accentuated by the glitter of a solitary gold tooth.

“You are absolutely correct,” he exclaimed somewhat begrudgingly.  “But how could you possibly know? What tells you that I was raised in central Poland?”

It felt as though we were playing a long and difficult game of tennis and I had finally succeeded in gaining the advantage.

“My parents were also from central Poland, and they spoke with the same accent and often used the same expressions as you.”

In short order, we compared notes, discussed wartime experiences, and soon discovered that both he and my father were prisoners in the Flossenburg concentration camp. They were both liberated by American forces while on the same death march. For the first time since entering the office, he was at a loss for words. Just as the word ‘Mister’ left my lips, and before I could even mention his family name, I was cut short and reprimanded.

“By the way, doctor, from here on in, I want you to call me David. We have a lot in common, you and I. You must call me David.”

I had completely lost track of time. The door to the examination room suddenly opened and my receptionist entered advising me that a number of patients were still waiting to be seen and were beginning to complain about the long wait.

“Mr. …, I mean David, we have to end at this point. Forgive me but there are others waiting. Perhaps we can continue our conversation at a later time?”

He rose, took my hand, and declared, “I will be back doctor. I promise you I will be back.”  David was to  keep his promise in more ways than one can imagine.

There were times when David made appointments much like any other patient, but on other occasions he would arrive unannounced, usually when I was just about ready to leave for home.  During these latter visits, there would be a firm knock on the door and there stood David stating that he came to talk.

“We must talk. So few people want to listen. Nobody wants to hear about our lives back in Poland. No one wants to know what happened to us during the war. But I sense you have an interest in hearing about all that we Jews were forced to endure during that dark bleak period in our history.”

Well, David pushed the right button, and we spent many hours discussing his personal experiences during the Holocaust, Jewish life in Poland, and his views on religion.

He spoke emotionally of his family back in Poland, all of whom were strictly observant, God-fearing Jews. “How could it be that they all perished and I alone survived?” he would occasionally whisper when lost in thought. Although he had long since strayed from organized religion, David loved to describe Jewish customs and tradition in great detail. He spoke tenderly of a way of life that suddenly was no more, a life that had gone up in smoke along with the victims.

After an hour or so of conversation, he would check his wristwatch, finish his sentence, and then declare, “I’m sure you have had a long day and want to get home to your family so we will end here.”

In spite of the late hour, I knew only too well that he wanted to stay longer, but in spite of my best efforts I could no longer conceal my impatience. On many an occasion, he would call me either at the office or at home asking if I had a minute or two to spare. There was something that he wanted to share–a story, a thought, or perhaps a recollection. Once he began, he found it difficult to stop. He had a mission to complete, and complete it he would.

During one particular office visit, David entered excitedly and informed me that in six weeks he would be returning to Germany. “I have been working with some German officials about commemorating the death march we spoke about earlier. A number of survivors along with family members will be going back to revisit the route by marching from the camp to where we were finally liberated. Doctor, I think it would be worthwhile if you were to come along and see firsthand where your father spent the last months of the war. Come with us to Germany. There are a number of survivors who are returning with their wives and children and wish to retrace the death march perhaps for the last time. You will be able to speak to people who may remember your father. And, by the way, don’t worry. There will be plenty of kosher food. As a matter of fact the inn where we will all be staying is to be entirely kosher. Many of us are no longer religious but keeping kosher would be the proper thing to do while in Germany.” How could I possibly say no?

It is difficult to describe the survivors’ reactions as they retraced their steps as free men. Some would stop at particular locations revealing all that had transpired at one site or another. Talk of death and suffering permeated every discussion. There were some, however, who remained silent–their teary eyes making it clear to all that certain recollections were to be kept within.

We paid homage to those who died while on the march stopping at a number of makeshift burial sites where nameless corpses were laid to rest soon after liberation. The haunting words of the Kaddish could be heard at each stop. This special prayer for the dead was recited in unison by the entire group. It mattered little whether one had forsaken religion or still happened to observe. The words of the Kaddish touched everyone’s heart and literally singed our souls. Thanks to David, I had the opportunity to visit the camp where my father had been brutalized and tormented. At the end of the march, I stood at the place where he had likely been liberated, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as American servicemen fast approached. And for that I shall forever be indebted to David.

David was always on a mission of some sort traveling back and forth to Poland and Germany, either seeking to right a wrong or fighting to keep the few remaining vestiges of Jewish life from disappearing.  He would arrive at the office seeking medical advice or simply wanting to sit down and talk for a while. David’s visits were becoming somewhat less frequent and I assumed he was involved in some new Holocaust related venture. And then sadly, two days before Christmas, I received a phone call from a friend of David’s family informing me of his death. Apart from the day, time and place, no other details were given. I rearranged my schedule and set out for Manhattan in the early morning hours on Christmas eve.

I approached the rabbi who had officiated at the service and asked who would be saying the Kaddish for David during the next twelve months.

“I’m not certain,” declared the Rabbi. “I did not know him very well. There are no sons and I know of no one in the family who is likely to do so.”

I remembered the very first time I met David and how curious he had been about my religious observance. What is there to think about, I thought. Before the Rabbi could offer a solution, I immediately volunteered to say the Kaddish. Given the choice, David would have preferred that  the Kaddish be recited by someone with a familiar face and an appreciation of all that he had endured during the Holocaust.  And so I say the Kaddish every day.

Just as I begin to recite the prayer, I sense David’s presence and can make out the defining features of his face. His customary smirk has now been replaced by a soft appreciative smile.  David seems finally at peace.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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