Frankfurt revisited

Felix Weil

Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer







For 30 years, the city of Frankfurt, like most German cities, has hosted a number of guests who were chased out of the country during the Nazi years. This year, it was my turn. I haven’t been back in a decade.

This story is not about reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation, and no one had any intention of making this trip one of reconciliation. It is about finding and reestablishing roots. Whether we like it or not, we all have roots. Mine are deeply embedded in Germany. My father and mother’s sides both go back hundreds of years in Germany.

Eighty people attended Frankfurt’s get-together: 40 former Frankfurters and their spouses or children.

They came from everywhere — mostly different parts of the United States — but many came from Israel, from England, South America and even Australia.

I met someone who was on the same Kindertransport Train with me on Aug. 10, 1939. He lived three blocks from me in Frankfurt. We compared notes from that fateful journey and came up with identical perceptions of the trip. As the years went by, I was beginning to think that my perceptions were nothing more than fantasies. He made me feel good that I still have all my wits about me.

One of the highlights of our trip was revisiting Sophienstrasse 12, my last family residence before leaving Germany in 1939. I have been back there several times on previous trips to Frankfurt, but this time was different. We were told that over the last few years, there had been embedded in the concrete sidewalk in front of our house three bronze plaques with the names, dates of birth, dates of deportation, and, in my father’s case, the known date of death. On all the plaques there was the inscription “Murdered in Lodz.”

Everyone walking on this sidewalk — every day — will see these plaques and be reminded of what their countrymen did.

We attended Shabbat services at the old, prestigious West End Synagogue. In its day, it was one of the most beautiful synagogues in Germany. I remember the three rabbis and a magnificent cantor this congregational boasted.

This congregation and others like it were part of what was known as the “Liberal” movement in Germany and were the forerunners of the Reform movement of today.

It was quite an emotional moment to be back where I sat with my father for many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services — he in his “tails” and top hat. Today, it has become an ultra-Orthodox congregation populated by Russian and Polish immigrants who came to Germany after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Surprisingly, I can still find my way around this city without any trouble. Many of the street names have been changed, and some of the old Jewish street names have been reinstated.

We visited the little town of Oberusel, in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains, where my great-grandfather owned a flour mill. Here, too, we visited the little cemetery where members of my family are buried. This cemetery is small and in surprisingly good condition. The grass has been tended to and the stones had been cleaned.

I spoke in two schools to groups of 16- to 18-year-old students. I was amazed that I was still able to speak (almost) fluent German. The kids were wonderful. They were polite, attentive and quite knowledgeable about the Holocaust.

I minced no words. While I made it quite clear that I had no quarrel with their generation, my feelings about their grandparents were a different story. I made it perfectly clear that had the 70 million Germans in the Nazi years really wanted to do something to prevent or even minimize the Holocaust — if they would have had any feelings whatsoever toward their fellow citizens — instead of complete apathy and, yes, consent, the outcome would have been very different. Hitler was very cognizant of public opinion.

Another highlight of our trip was our visit to Sulzburg — in southern Germany — near Freiburg on the Swiss border. Our friend, Angelika Rieber, whom we have known for about 15 years, accompanied us after having made arrangements in the city of Sulzburg with the mayor and the city historian to find information about my grandfather’s house.

The house was found; it was right next door to the synagogue. It is a beautiful house, and is still lived in. My family was very prominent in Sulzburg and the family tree goes back a very long way. There is even a street named after my grandfather — Gustav Weil Strasse. They gave us a reception at City Hall and took us to a wonderful luncheon. The synagogue had been restored and is beautiful.

Another important event was our trip to Worms with the entire group. We saw the oldest Jewish synagogue in Germany (also restored), the famous Raschi House, and the oldest Jewish cemetery. The Raschi House is now a historical museum with centuries old artifacts. There is also a centuries-old mikveh (ritual bath) there.

We visited the beautiful Jewish museum in Frankfurt on the Main River, housed in the former Rothschild estate. Along with exhibits, computerized information is available about Frankfurt’s Jews dating to before the Nazi years. We also visited the Judengasse Museum located near Borneplatz, with excavations from centuries ago, showing the history of Jewish life in Frankfurt from 1100 to 1800.

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the trip came when we visited Borneplatz, where the beautiful Hauptsynagogue had stood. The Hauptsynagogue was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht. The remains of the cemetery are still there; most of that, too, has been destroyed. Now there is the huge cement wall with 11,000 little cement squares to which are attached 11,000 plaques with names, dates of birth and where and when they were deported. These were of the 11,000 Jews remaining in Frankfurt. The deportations started on Oct. 19, 1941. My father, my mother and my sister were among the first contingents of 1,100 to be sent to the Lodz ghetto. I placed little stones on the three cement squares with the bronze plaques attached. I need not describe my feelings.

We were taken on a cruise of the Main River, we were taken to a play, and on the last evening, we were all invited to the Romer, the city hall, for speeches and yet another beautiful Kosher farewell dinner. The city of Frankfurt outdid itself in making us feel comfortable.

We all left with good feelings. There were no reconciliations, but we refreshed our memories from whence we came, we found our roots and we realized how lucky we were to survive — to live our lives to the fullest, and to raise new families. We must be grateful to the Almighty for allowing us to take our place in society and carry on our ancient traditions which almost were destroyed and extinguished forever.

© 2006 The Dayton Jewish Observer

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