Celebrations | Found family Torah takes on new life for next generations
by renee ghert-zand, May 2, 2013
When Charlotte Smith reads from the Torah at her bat mitzvah next month, she will be “holding history,” she says.
The sefer Torah that Charlotte will hold and read from June 29 in front of her friends and family at the Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa Valley is a very special one for her family. The sacred scroll survived the Holocaust and traveled over two continents and an ocean to be read from, 75 years later, by the great-great-granddaughter of the man who safeguarded it from the Nazis.
Unbeknown to Charlotte’s family, the Torah has been in Marin for the past several decades. It was only through a combination of serendipity and amateur sleuthing on the part of Charlotte’s mother (and Hamburger’s great-granddaughter) Julie Ann Kodmur that the St. Helena family discovered the scroll’s nearby whereabouts.
Charlotte Smith, Rabbi Alan Levinson (center) and Rabbi Jerry Levy at Hamburger Torah dedication at AlmaVia in San Rafael. Charlotte will be using the Torah, which belonged to her great-great-grandfather, at her bat mitzvah in June. photos/courtesy of julie kodmur
The Hamburger Torah derives its name from David Hamburger, who kept it at home in the small town of Fürstenau in the northwest corner of Germany. Hamburger was the de facto head of the town’s small Jewish community, and its members would gather in his house for religious services. A horse and cattle trader, Hamburger used to like to sit in his garden and tell Torah stories to his children Bette, Ruth and Siegfried; his wife died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918.
Siegfried managed to immigrate to San Francisco in 1938, as did Ruth with her husband and young daughter. Bette married a Dutch Jew and moved to Holland. Bette, her husband and their twin daughter and son died at Auschwitz.
David Hamburger remained in Fürstenau and was hidden overnight on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938 by friends at the local Catholic hospital. The next day, he made it out of Germany to Holland by train. He took a portrait of his wife and the Torah with him.
While his wife’s portrait did not survive the war, both Hamburger and the Torah emerged intact after being hidden for eight years by various farmers and priests in the Dutch countryside. Hamburger, who remarried after the war, chose to remain in Holland, and the Torah stayed with him.
It was stored in Hamburger’s home until he was killed at the age of 75, when a truck hit his motorcycle. When Siegfried came to take care of his father’s effects, he brought the Torah with him to the Bay Area. It remained with Siegfried until he passed it on to his son Steven.
Steven, in turn, gave the Torah to Rabbi Jerry Winston for use at his small San Anselmo congregation, Barah. That was the last the family knew of the scroll’s whereabouts.
David Hamburger in his last year of hiding in Holland, with daughter of family that hid him. She was told to call him “Uncle Derk.”
Kodmur also knew Winston, who “married my husband and me in 1996, and somehow it came up in conversation that he had also married my cousin Steven Hamburger a number of years earlier,” she recalled. “But I am pretty sure that the Torah was not mentioned.” She last saw Winston at Charlotte’s baby naming, and thoughts of the Torah took a back seat for the next 12 years.
As Charlotte began nearing Jewish adulthood, the Torah once again entered Kodmur’s consciousness. “It was in the recesses of my mind,” she said. “It’s a ritual object to which I and my family have an intense connection.”
She started asking around at North Bay synagogues whether anyone had knowledge of the Hamburger Torah. Eventually, she got a call from a woman, a friend of Winston’s, who told her that the rabbi’s sons had given the Torah to Rabbi Alan Levinson of Sausalito upon Winston’s death in 2010. After hearing the Torah’s history and learning of its connection to Kodmur’s family, Levinson graciously returned it to David Hamburger’s descendants.
Charlotte is excited about the Torah portion she will be reading at her bat mitzvah. “It is about the daughters of Zelophehad going to Moses and being very brave, so that they can ask for the land they want to inherit after their father’s death. It symbolizes women standing up for their rights,” she said.
In another twist to the story, however, Charlotte will be reading from a borrowed Torah: Yes, she will be reading from the Hamburger Torah, but it is no longer in the family’s possession. When Charlotte and her parents learned from Rabbi Jerry Levy of Tiburon, who is helping her prepare for her bat mitzvah, that his congregation at the AlmaVia senior living community in San Rafael was in need of a Torah, they decided to pass the scroll on yet again.
Last fall, on Simchat Torah, Charlotte assisted Levinson and Levy in leading services at the Torah’s dedication at AlmaVia as Jewish residents, Hamburger relatives and others looked on. “My role was to bring this precious piece of history to AlmaVia,” Charlotte said.
Levy (who confirmed Kodmur when she was a teenager living in San Diego), surmised that Hamburger saved the Torah by removing the atzei chayim, or wooden rollers. “That way, it could fit in a suitcase,” he said.
Charlotte clearly grasps her great-great-grandfather’s legacy. He held on tightly to the Torah so that she could one day proudly read from it — and recognize when it was time for the scroll to serve another small Jewish community, just as it did in Fürstenau.
October 27, 2012, The Jerusalem Post, by Edmon Jace
Kristallnacht torah reaches new generation
By JTA / EDMON J. RODMAN
Charlotte Smith will read from the Torah that her great-great-grandfather rescued from the Night of Broken Glass.
It was the “Night of Broken Glass” in Germany, Kristallnacht — a national pogrom of death and destruction of Jewish property and the rounding up of Jews — and Dietrich (David) Hamburger was in hiding.
Hamburger was the leader of a small congregation that met in his home in Fuerstenau, a countryside village in what now is the province of Niedersachsen. Someone had warned him about the coming onslaught, and on November 9, 1938 he went into hiding in the local Catholic hospital.
“The cover story was that he was in for a hernia,” said Edith Strauss Kodmur, his granddaughter and the family’s historian.
This spring — 75 years later and a continent away at a Californian winery — Kodmur’s granddaughter will have her bat mitzvah. And Charlotte Ruth Smith on that day will read from the Torah scroll that her great-great-grandfather rescued soon after that tragic night.
But Hamburger would need to escape Germany and the Torah would need to find its way back to his family.
“By prior arrangement, one of his hired hands met him in the hospital garden while the nuns were at Mass,” Kodmur recalled from detailed notes. “He drove Dietrich back to his home where he packed, taking an oil portrait of wife Rosa [he was a widower] and the community Torah with him.”
Kodmur thought Hamburger had removed the rollers, or etz chaim, to make the Torah easier to transport.
“He then boarded the train to Holland, to Winterswijk, to his daughter Bette,” said Kodmur, whose family as well as her uncle Siegried, Hamburger’s son, had left Germany for the United States in 1938.
Kodmur as a small child had visited her grandfather frequently, she said, recalling that he would sit in the garden with his children on the Sabbath, reading to them and discussing the Bible.
“He was very adventuresome, and well-dressed. Involved with the horse and cattle trade business,” she said.
A memorial book for the Holocaust victims of Winterswijk titled We Once Knew Them All uses quotes from the people who lived in the eastern Holland town to tell what happened to Hamburger and his family.
“My parents had a Jewish person in hiding during the last year of the war, a Mister Hamburger. We called him by his alias, ‘Uncle Derk,'” a community member recalls in the book. “His daughter, son-in-law and their children died in the concentration camps. He also had a son in America.
“Once we were threatened by a posting of German soldiers at our home. Uncle Derk hid behind a wardrobe. Obviously we noticed that Mr. Hamburger was very afraid of being discovered. My Father told Uncle Derk to act differently, otherwise everyone might be arrested.
“On the morning of liberation, I woke up Uncle Derk!”
From another community member: “Father Hamburger stayed a while in Winterswijk after the war. My, my how that man cried over his grandchildren.”
After the war, while Siegfried was visiting his father in Holland, Hamburger gave him the Torah scroll to bring back to his home in Redwood City, Calif. It stayed there until Siegfried died.
Kodmur, who lives in the San Diego area, knew that Siegfried had given the Torah to his son Steven. But she had lost touch with that part of the family and was uncertain of its whereabouts.
In 1996, Kodmur’s daughter Julie Ann and her fiancee, Stuart Smith, attended a pre-wedding counseling session with Rabbi Jerry Winston in San Anselmo, Calif. The rabbi mentioned that he had officiated at the marriage of Julie Ann’s cousin.
Julie Ann had heard the stories of her great-grandfather’s escape with the Torah and its unknown whereabouts, and in the whirr of Jewish geography and family history that ensued, both Julie Ann and Winston soon realized that Steven Hamburger had given the rescued Torah to the rabbi.
“I didn’t even think to ask him for it,” said Julie Ann, thinking back on that meeting.
In 2000, Winston officiated at the baby naming for her daughter Charlotte, but Julie Ann and the rabbi would lose touch.
It was more than a decade later, when Julie Ann began thinking about her daughter’s bat mitzvah, that her thoughts again turned to the Torah. Beginning a search last year, she soon discovered that Winston had died and the small congregation he led had disbanded. Could he have given the Torah to another synagogue?
She called the big synagogue in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin County, Rodef Shalom, and the historic synagogue in San Francisco, Temple Emanu-El, and many others leaving messages. Then she received a call back.
“The woman had a German accent and said she was a friend of Rabbi Winston’s. She told me that his sons had given the Torah away, to Rabbi Alan Levinson of Sausalito,” remembered Julie Ann, who lives with her husband, Stuart, and Charlotte in the small town of St. Helena, Calif., near the family-owned Smith-Madrone Winery.
After contacting Levinson, who had been a longtime friend of Winston’s, they quickly exchanged what each knew of the provenance of the scroll. It was the one. “His plan was to give it to another synagogue,” said Julie Ann.
Meanwhile, Julie Ann also was looking for a rabbi to prepare Charlotte for her bat mitzvah. She connected with Rabbi Jerry Levy, who worked with students via Skype. She had known Levy growing up in San Diego; he had been the rabbi at her brother David’s bar mitzvah.
Levy also was the chaplain at AlmaVia, a faith-based elder care community in San Rafael, Calif., where according to the rabbi, 18 to 20 of the 120 residents are Jewish. Julie Ann inquired if Levinson would consider giving the Torah to Levy for use in his community. Levinson agreed and this month, Levy held a dedication at AlmaVia.
With Levinson, Julie Ann and Charlotte present — she helped roll the scroll to the correct reading — the scroll to be known as the Hamburger/Fuerstenau Torah was dedicated.
“They were kvelling,” said Levy of the AlmaVia residents on hand.
Speaking at the ceremony, Charlotte recounted her great-great-grandfather’s escape on Kristallnacht and the Torah’s travels.
“We found it, and not only would I be able to use it for my bat mitzvah, we could give it a home here at AlmaVia,” she said.
“This coming spring, I will borrow the Torah from all of you here at AlmaVia for my bat mitzvah and the story will continue.”
Lib at Large: The story of a lost Holocaust Torah
By Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal
November 11, 2012
UNTIL RECENTLY, members of the Jewish community at Alma Via, an assisted living home in San Rafael, were without a Torah, the five books that make up the Jewish Bible.
Last month, a Torah was given to them, a very special Torah, a Holocaust Torah with a long and, at times, harrowing history, beginning when it was smuggled out of Nazi Germany in 1938.
“The Torah we’re using today, which my family is so very proud to bring to all of you, has quite a story,” 12-year-old Charlotte Smith told the congregation when it was dedicated at a Simchat Torah service in October at Alma Via.
It originally belonged to her great-great-grandfather, David Hamburger, a horse and cattle dealer in Fuerstenau, a quaint village in the countryside of northern Germany.
“The Jewish community in Fuerstenau was so small that it didn’t have a synagogue,” Charlotte began. “David was the leader of the congregation, and the Jewish families would come to worship in his home. Somehow — we don’t know how — the community had its own Torah, this Torah, which David kept safely in his home.”
On the infamous Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis went hunting for Jews all over Germany. Neighbors and friends hid David in a hospital in town and, the next day, helped him slip back home to pack, knowing that he had to get out of Germany right away.
“He had to hurry and could only take a couple of things,” Charlotte told the seniors. “He took a few clothes, a portrait of his wife and, most importantly, the Torah. He then took a train to Holland, where his daughter was living.”
All during the war, Hamburger hid in the Dutch underground, going from one farm to another.
“At one point he was hidden in the home of a Catholic priest for 18 months,” Charlotte said. “In case you’re wondering, yes, he kept the Torah with him all of those years.”
Hamburger’s daughter, her husband and their twins, a boy and girl, were not so fortunate. Captured by the Nazis in Holland, they all perished in Auschwitz.
After the war, Hamburger decided to stay in Holland, where he enjoyed ice skating, bicycling and riding his motorcycle. It’s sadly ironic that after all he’d been through, he ended up being killed in a motorcycle crash in 1958 at the age of 75. After his death, his son, Siegfried, who was living in San Francisco, brought his father’s belongings back to the Bay Area, including the Torah.
When Siegfried died, his son, Steven, gave it to Rabbi Jerry Winston, who led a small congregation in San Anselmo.
“In quite a coincidence, my parents were married by Rabbi Winston,” Charlotte said. “And when I was 6 months old, he conducted a baby naming ceremony for me.”
As she got older, Charlotte started studying for her bat mitzvah. About a year ago, her mother, Julie Ann Kodmur of St. Helena, thought it would be a wonderful connection to her family’s history if the Holocaust Torah could be used for Charlotte’s bat mitzvah. But she wasn’t sure where it was.
As she began asking around, referring to it as “the lost Torah,” she learned that before Rabbi Winston died, he’d given it to his friend, Sausalito Rabbi Alan Levinson, who still had it. When she asked him if her family could borrow it for Charlotte’s bat mitzvah, Rabbi Levinson realized that it would be an incredible closing of a circle if the Torah was returned to the family that saved it.
“It’s a big thing, not a little book,” Charlotte’s mother said. “That’s one of the amazing things about my great-grandfather. For eight years, from 1938 to 1945, he took it from Dutch farm to Dutch farm where he was hidden. And he carried it with him the whole time. Imagine if it could talk.”
As she approached her 13th birthday, Charlotte was studying for her bat mitzvah with Rabbi Jerry Levy of Tiburon, who leads the congregation at Alma Via. Because the assisted living center didn’t have a Torah, Charlotte’s family thought it best if the Torah be used by Alma Via, and for Charlotte’s upcoming bat mitzvah.
“What a wonderful solution,” Charlotte’s mom said.
For Rabbi Levy, the Holocaust Torah is important to the family that saved it, but also as a symbol of something much larger.
“Every time a sacred scroll is saved, preserved and passed down,” he said, “not only from community to community, but also from teacher to student, from father to son, all of those things represent the strength of Judaism.”
Postcards from Luedinghausen: Julie Ann Kodmur, ‘78
“We Were Ghosts”
Last June I spent five days in Luedinghausen, the tiny German town where my mother, Edie Strauss Kodmur, ’56, was born. In the picturesque Westphalian countryside an hour’s train ride from Dusseldorf, Luedinghausen isn’t on most maps. But for three families invited from around the globe, it was the most important town in the world.
We were there to participate in the installation of 22 Stolpersteine. Literally translated as “stumbling blocks,” Stolpersteine are handsome brass-topped sidewalk paving stones installed by German artist Gunter Demnig to memorialize Jews taken from their homes and killed by the Nazis. In the late 1990s, Baerbel Zimmer, a local high school teacher, began researching what happened during World War II in this once thriving, if small, Jewish community. When e-mails started arriving from around the world asking what had happened to relatives, she began filling in the pieces of the mosaic for all of us, finding out how each member of our family had died.
So, on a warm and bright day, my mother and I stood in front of 5 Bahnhofstrasse (built by my great-grandfather and the first example of Jugendstil—art nouveau—architecture in Luedinghausen). We recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for my namesake and great-grandmother, Julie Strauss, my great-aunt, Hildegard Strauss, and my cousin, Walter Strauss, while Mr. Demnig meticulously installed three Stolpersteine and a small crowd clustered around us. It was a complicated and confusing moment. The Strauss family had a long, happy history here; my mother was the fifth generation of Strausses to be born in this home. Yet, behind each of those Stolpersteine was a tale of horror in stark contrast to the charming setting. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis smashed every dish in the Strauss home and the Gestapo arrested my great-uncle Siegfried and great-aunt Hildegard. They were driven to the jail in nearby Coesfeld, where, days later, Hildegard committed suicide. Their 7-year-old son, Walter, was sent to an orphanage in Cologne, Germany, and then, at age 11, he was put on a train full of Jewish children. The children were taken to a forest near Riga, Latvia. The Nazis turned up the volume on phonographs so nearby farmers wouldn’t hear the children’s screams as they were machine-gunned. My great-grandmother, at 75, was sent to Theresienstadt and died just a few days after arriving, her death accelerated by many days in that terrible train.
Installing the Stolpersteine around Luedinghausen was part of a schedule of events, including the unveiling of a memorial at the spot where the synagogue once stood and a speech-filled dinner at the town’s oldest hotel. But more important were the conversations—70 years later, people wanted to tell us their memories of our family. The son of the man who built three wooden trunks for my grandparents (in which they took their belongings to America) told us how his father delivered them in the middle of the night so as not to be arrested for helping a Jewish family. A woman put her hand on my arm and said very warmly, “Thank you for taking the trip all the way from America for this.”
These few days in Germany were eerie, heart-wrenching and extremely disconcerting. At times I felt my mother and I were specimens, everyone watching us, however warmly they interacted with us. And at the same time we were ghosts, once at home here but soon to be gone again, living on only in the shiny brass in these sidewalks.
Postcards from Luedinghausen
Edie Strauss Kodmur, ‘56
Going Home Again
I was 3 years old when I left my hometown in Germany, but the fairy-tale town never really left me. As a child, I studied photographs of my family and a postcard showing my grandparents’ home. I reveled in stories of my grandmother’s “bewitching the pots” and of my father’s and his two brothers’ boyish pranks. My parents and I were able to escape in July 1938, mere months before our loved ones’ lives were torn apart by Nazi arrests and deportation. Last June, on my fifth visit to Luedinghausen, Germany, I bid a formal and very public farewell to my grandmother, aunt and cousin, all victims of the Holocaust.
On an earlier visit to Luedinghausen (a 14th-century town of brick houses, peaked roofs, flowering window boxes and bridges over the curving Stever River), I met Baerbel Zimmer, a local teacher who has been researching the history of the Jewish community and finding answers to the questions the former residents’ scattered descendants share: where and when did our relatives die? Our visit was the impetus for Zimmer and a dedicated group of townsfolk to organize the installation of Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks.”
Since 1995, German sculptor Gunter Demnig has installed 15,000 inscribed brass plaques on the sidewalks of Germany, in front of the homes where Holocaust victims lived. His work has returned an identity to those who lost it and given a sense of closure to their descendants. Demnig installed 22 plaques in Luedinghausen.
So it came to be that my daughter, Julie Ann, ’78, and I recited the Kaddish—the traditional prayer for the dead—while standing in front of my grandparents’ Jugendstil (art nouveau) house, now a declared architectural landmark. We spoke words familiar to us as the artist placed three shining brass squares into the sidewalk and a respectful group stood alongside. This scene had been repeated on many streets in the town that morning, accompanied by music, poetry and townspeople walking with us, sharing their recollections and reactions.
We and other families had come to take part in a series of carefully planned events: a banquet at the oldest hotel, where our forebears probably met to have dinner; breakfast at the town’s moated castle; and the annual Brand Prozession, where the Catholic and Protestant churches march together to the central market square and pray. This last ceremony usually commemorates the Plague and a series of fires from the 13th to 17th centuries, but this year it was dedicated entirely to the Holocaust and to those poor souls taken away for the “Final Solution.” We visitors bore witness to an entire community coming to terms with its scarred history.
Among the many townsfolk reaching out to us, the most emotional meeting took place with a soulful Simone Signoret look-alike who invited us to see her home—my parents’ former residence. Her Nazi father was killed during the war and she helped her mother raise five children. She wrote that after our meeting, she and a neighbor planted an “Edith Strauss rose” in my honor. So, though I continue to cry, what were tears of sorrow and loss are now tears of love, friendship and a deeper connection with a long-lost home.
LAST MOMENTS: Edie’s uncle, aunt and young cousin were captured during the Holocaust. Alfred escaped as part of the Kindertransport.
FAMILY HISTORY: Edie and Julie Ann stand near Edie’s great-grandfather’s home.
Stumbling stones or stepping stones?
By Julie Ann Kodmur
For the Weekly Calistogan
July 17, 2008
(Editor’s note: Julie Ann Kodmur returned to her St. Helena home last month after a week in Luedinghausen, a town in the Westphalian countryside of North Germany where her mother, Edith Strauss, was born. She and her mother were among several Jewish families attending the installation of “Stolpersteine,” stones commemorating those who died in the Holocaust.)
On a picture-postcard June day, in the quaint, tree-shaded town of Luedinghausen in northern Germany, my mother and I stood in front of 5 Bahnhoffstrasse where three brass-plated paving stones, known as Stolpersteine or stumbling stones, gleamed in the light. On them were the names of my great-grandmother and namesake Julie Strauss; my great-aunt Hildegard Strauss, and my cousin, Walter Strauss.
Three names, three stories out of an estimated 6 million — the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust.
My mother, Edith Strauss, was born in this pretty town along the Stever River in the Muensterland region of Germany known now as then for its horses, cattle, rolling meadows and moated castles. Her father was a livestock dealer whose family had a long, happy history in Luedinghausen. Little Edith, called “Edithlein” by her family, was the fifth generation of Strausses to be born here. Her grandfather had built the town’s first Art Nouveau home, complete with stylized crocodiles on the downspouts.
But in the late 1930s her father, Ernest, foresaw grim times ahead and applied for visas for his family. My mother was 3 when she and her parents boarded the SS Seattle in Bremen in July, 1938, and made their way to San Francisco and a new life. They left behind many Luedinghausen relatives, including several who later would be hidden by non-Jewish friends.
The night of broken glass
In this town of winding cobblestoned streets and window boxes filled with cascading flowers, it is difficult to imagine the horror of Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass” — when Nazis systematically smashed the windows of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues across the country.
That night in Luedinghausen, the town’s tiny synagogue was destroyed and its contents burned on the main Marktplatz. Julie Strauss was put in a cattle car and taken to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia where she died shortly after arriving.
The same night the Gestapo arrested Hildegard Strauss and her husband, Siegfried, and took them to a jail in nearby Coesfeld where days later, Hildegard committed suicide. Their 7-year-old son, Walter, was sent to an orphanage in Cologne. (Four years later he was put on a train full of other Jewish children and in a forest near Riga, he and the others were taken off the train and mowed down by machine-gun fire while their Nazi captors turned up a phonograph to drown out the sounds of the slaughter.)
A teacher’s project
Now, decades later, my mother was standing outside her grandparents’ home reciting the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, as German artist Guenter Demnig installed the Stolpersteine for her family. It was eerie, emotional, heart-wrenching. The Jews of Luedinghausen hadn’t been forgotten.
This day was the culmination of more than a decade of research by a local high school teacher, Baerbel Zimmer, who began looking into what had happened to its once small but thriving Jewish community. Soon she was getting e-mails from people living in Australia, Zambia, England and California, asking about relatives. She wanted to fill in the missing pieces of the mosaic by discovering how the members of each family had died. Thus, she became part of a dedicated group of Luedinghauseners trying to build bridges to the town’s Jewish families — now so dispersed — by exposing the past and simultaneously coming up with ways to honor their memories.
One of the first things Zimmer did was organize the town’s high school students. Some cleaned up the Jewish cemetery, while others started working on family trees. Zimmer wrote a series of articles for the local paper detailing as much as she could about each Jewish family.
An artist’s tribute
Last fall my mother visited the town and met the teacher and her friends. After that meeting those involved in the research contacted German artist Guenter Demnig, whose Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” project is an unprecedented tribute to Jews killed by the Nazis.
Demnig has installed 15,000 stones so far and is now expanding his scope beyond Germany to the Netherlands, France, Italy and beyond. Demnig insists that the cost of making and installing the Stolpersteine be covered by the townspeople and not by the Jewish families. The brass-plated pavement stones are installed in the street or sidewalk in front of homes where people were sent to their deaths in concentration camps, a stone for each name.
Finally, on June 2, Jewish families arrived from all parts of the world to witness the installation of 22 Stolpersteine in front of six homes. There were speeches, the strains of violin and flute, a cantor singing a prayer, family members reciting the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. It was emotionally overwhelming.
At each installation, old pavement stones had been removed and Demnig carefully inserted the Stolpersteine with their inscribed brass tops noting names and dates of birth and death. He poured dust, a binder and water around them and then, somewhat disconcertingly, pounded each into place, finally dusting them off so they gleamed.
Zimmer, after years of research and months of planning, was deeply moved when the Stolpersteine were placed.
“To see the small stones with the engraved names and fates of the murdered Luedinghausen Jews,” she said, “gave me the feeling that these people had finally regained some of their dignity and now have a place of remembrance.”
Several days of related events followed, days that included a long speech-filled ceremonial dinner at the Hotel zur Post in a grand room lined with antlers and brass candelabra. (Zimmer’s husband, Peter, realized during the dinner that our great-grandfathers had all met to socialize and play cards in this same room 70 and 80 years ago.)
A town remembers
There was also a solemn and symbolic parade known as the Brandprozession which dates to 1634 and commemorates the fires which regularly ravaged Luedinghausen in medieval times. This year, however, the Brandprozession was dedicated to the Stolpersteine.
And a memorial was unveiled at the spot where the synagogue once stood.
But perhaps even more important, there were coffees and breakfasts and lunches and dinners where Luedinghauseners reached out to us, telling stories of the Strauss family or just talking about their own memories and feelings.
During these visits we spoke with the son of the man who built the three wooden trunks my grandparents used to take their belongings to America. He told how his father delivered them in the middle of the night so as not to be arrested by the Nazis for helping a Jewish family. The woman who today lives in the home of my great-uncle Adolph Strauss — a veterinarian who survived the war hidden in Luedinghausen — brought us the brass name plate of his business.
And after my mother recited a prayer at the Brandprozession, people made a point of personally conveying their feelings.
“One sobbing woman could only take my hands in hers,” my mother said. “There was a woman who had gone to school with my murdered cousin, and an old man who admired my mother and watched my newlywed parents take walks together.”
Two women who were neighbors of my grandparents met with us to share their memories. One told of her brother, a plumber who’d helped Jewish families repair their homes after Kristallnacht only to be picked up by the Nazis the next day and sent to the Russian front as punishment. Another woman, still troubled by that time in her country’s history, told us of her father, who had been a Nazi but, she said, “not an angry one.”
During a morning walk, a woman stopped me and put her hand on my arm and said warmly, “Thank you for taking the trip all the way from America for this.”
We heard, too, from a woman now living in Holland, who, as a child, had visited her Luedinghausen grandparents every summer. They were next-door neighbors and she remembered my great-grandmother giving her cookies.
A mother heals
My mother’s memories are of a different sort. She was barely 3 years old when she left her birthplace.
“I may have left it, but Luedinghausen never really left me,” she said.
“I grew up studying family photographs and a colored postcard of my grandparents’ house, heard stories about Daddy’s pranks at school, of Mother walking along the river before I was born. Despite their pain and deep sorrow at the loss of many close relatives during the war, my parents never spoke about the place or its people with bitterness or malice.
“Seeing the names of my family on the shiny gold Stolpersteine tiles gave me a feeling of closure,” she added.
“These poor souls who have no traditional ‘final resting place’ will now be remembered exactly where they spent their lives.”
To learn more about the Stolpersteine project visit www.stolpersteine.com.