Monday, July 4, 2016

 Before and After the Pogrom

After we arrived in Bad Konigshofen and checked into the charming but unpretentious Hotel Ebner, Audrey, Amanda, and I walked the three blocks to the town’s central market square. Amanda, who had actually visited the town 12 years before, served as our guide. “I think Grandma’s family’s apartment was on that side of the square,” she said—pointing toward a corner with a restaurant on one side and a bakery on the other— “and the family’s business was down the block over there.”

Then she pointed us in another direction and said, “I think the synagogue used to be down that way.” We followed her lead and walked three blocks to where we spotted a historic signpost. The marker showed an image of a two-story building with an inscription that we could sort-of translate. It roughly said, “Near here. . .the Jewish synagogue and culture center of Bad Konigshofen im Grabfeld was destroyed on the inside during a pogrom on the morning of November 10, 1938.” Near the marker there is just a blank asphalt rectangle in front of a modern garage. That rectangle is even more descriptive than the marker. It says, “There used to be a Jewish community in this quaint, historic southern German town, but not anymore.”

Above is the signpost describing the synagogue's destruction;
below is the empty paved rectangle where it once stood.
Audrey’s mother and grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives had been part of that community from the 1880s until soon after that 1938 pogrom. But none of her relatives lived there anymore, though several were buried, unpeacefully (as I will explain), in the local Jewish cemetery. There were never very many members of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community—perhaps 125-150 at most in a town with a population of between 2,000 and 3,000—but today there are none.

Over the next two days, we would learn more about that Jewish community from our two special guides, Elisabeth Böhrer and Rainer Seelmann, and gain a better understanding of Audrey’s family’s place in the town. Everywhere we walked with Elisabeth and Rainer, we found echoes of Audrey’s mother and her family. The apartment and business that I wrote about in my last blogpost. The old synagogue where Audrey’s mother had been taught lessons by a teacher/cantor whom she often spoke about with great reverence, even years later when she was living in upper Manhattan and he in the Bronx. The newer synagogue (the one that was partially destroyed on Kristallnacht) that her grandfather and granduncle had been forced to desecrate soon after the pogrom. Her mother’s kindergarten. The building that had housed her granduncle’s shoe store. The cemetery where members of two older generations were buried.

While growing up in New York, Audrey had heard a little bit about this town from her mother and grandmother, but not much. Were the memories too difficult, or had they just decided to move on? But we were here now, and we decided to explore and learn.

On our second morning in Bad Konigshofen, we returned to the no-longer-synagogue location where we met our guides. Rainer had stories to tell and a binder filled with copies of old photos. He turned to a page in the binder with photos of the synagogue before and after Kristallnacht. Particularly sad were photos of the synagogue’s ark (Torah cabinet) in its pre-pogrom majesty and afterwards. Rainer explained: The synagogue had not been completely destroyed by fires set inside the building during Kristallnacht. Later that night or the next morning, elders of the Jewish community, including Audrey’s relatives, had been forced to wield saws and hammers to dismantle the shul’s pews and ark to be used for firewood. For whose fires? We weren’t told. The shell of the building was left as a gruesome reminder for several more years before the lot was cleared in 1951.
Bad Konigshofen's synagogue in the 1920s.
The desecrated ark on November 10, 1938
The synagogue was not the only “victim” on that November night. Gravestones in the Jewish cemetery located perhaps a mile away were toppled and smashed. Some would later be used as paving stones; others were smashed into gravel. Eight Jewish men were arrested and transported to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were held for a few weeks.

Kristallnacht marked a life-changing event for most of Bad Konigshofen’s Jews.  Nearly 50 emigrated soon afterwards, including Audrey’s grandparents and uncle, who would join her mother in London and then head to New York. I have written about how my mother-in-law rescued her family previously (see: http://goodmanwrites.blogspot.com/2013/11/bravery-in-faceof-hatred-it-is-no.html). Others left in the following year. Most of the emigres went to America and a new life. Some fled to other parts of Germany, and their stories didn’t end well. Soon, only six Jews remained in Bad Konigshofen—being either too old or too infirm or too alone to escape. These last members of the community were deported to concentration camps and killed in 1942. One of those was Audrey’s then senile great aunt Bertha, who had been unwilling to leave earlier.

Having sufficiently depressed us, Rainer and Elisabeth led us on a happier journey. As we walked through the town’s central area, they pointed out the town’s earlier synagogue and school, where Jewish children such as Audrey’s mother and uncle were taught prayers and Jewish culture. We walked past Audrey’s mother’s kindergarten building too. It’s still there, but serves a different function now. They pointed out family members’ former homes and business locations. We continued walking into a different part of the town where there were more modern homes and an elementary school and high school. Rainer and his wife both worked in the high school, he teaching history (including a special course on the history of the town’s Jews) and she teaching math. Both were on holiday that week, and they invited us to lunch in their home with their four young children. After a morning filled with depressing history, it was great to spend time with a modern vibrant family. We really appreciated their kindness—and the great lunch!

After lunch, Rainer’s oldest child, 11-year-old Josef, joined us on a short walk to the last remnant of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community, the cemetery. As I mentioned above, most of the gravestones in the cemetery had been destroyed in November 1938. But the cemetery was revived in 1974. Amazingly, stones of three of Audrey’s direct relatives—her great-grandfather, great granduncle, and great grandaunt—survived. Those stones have been restored and replaced upright inside the revived cemetery. The bones of Audrey's ancestors may or may not be located anywhere near the stones that mark their graves, but the stones declare that all three once lived and later died in Bad Konigshofen and were among leaders of its Jewish community.

Brett stands beside the gravestone of his great-great grandfather, Phillipp Malzer. The Malzer brothers were Kohens, descendants of priests, who were given special honors in the synagogue.

This monument inside the Jewish cemetery contains segments
of broken gravestones discovered near the cemetery
While in Bad Konigshofen, we were also welcomed at the Rathaus (town hall) by the Deputy Mayor, who told us about the town’s long history and its growth in modern times. We were invited to sign a registry and were interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper. Audrey was a media darling in yet another place in Germany. The deputy mayor told us a very different story from the ones we learned at the empty site of the synagogue or in the cemetery. He described a vibrant place whose citizens have in recent months readily agreed to take in more than 200 Syrian refugees and find them homes and jobs. Bad Konigshofen today is a welcoming place. For a brief period 80 years ago, that was not how things were.
Brett, Amanda, Audrey, and I signing the town register
 as we rediscover Audrey's mother's history.

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