Archive for June, 2013

            Oskar Romberg was the second youngest of the 13 children of Julius and Fredericka Romberg.  He was, by his own admission, a bit of a wild child.  But the traits that his 3 remaining daughters remember most about him was his kindness, and the easy way he befriended people of all kinds.  Julius died before Oskar was ten and not too long afterwards his mother suffered a stroke that meant she could no longer care for her children – those left at home had to care for her.  Oskar provided a lot of this care.

His first marriage was to a Jewish woman, Doris Williner.  With her he had a son, Julius, but while she was pregnant with their second child had a tooth  pulled, which resolved in an infection.  The infection was never properly treated and killed her in childbirth.  She bore a child Oskar named Ilse, who died 4 weeks later – as baby had contracted the untreated infection from her mother.

A few years later Oskar met another woman, Margarethe.  She worked as a cashier in her parent’s butcher shop, which was also a kind of deli as there were tables where customers could sit and eat lunches they bought there.  Margarethe’s family was Catholic, but this presented no problems for Oskar he already had many non-Jewish friends.  By this time Oskar had established himself as a travelling salesman for furniture.  Most of his customers were not Jewish yet he had many strong relationships.  He married Margarethe in 1932.  They had two daughters; Doris, who he named in honor of his deceased first wife, and then Ilse, which was the name of his baby girl who died.  He kept a close contact with his first wife’s parents and his young girls came to look at them as relatives of their own.

This should have been an idyllic life for Oskar.  He was a successful salesman, with a wonderful new wife and two young children.  He had many friends of all sorts and even kept a close contact with his first in-laws.  But it all fell apart in just a few short years.

By1936 he was forced to quit his profession and do street labor with heavy equipment.  More and more apartment buildings did not want to rent to Jewish families.  His wife, Margarethe, was regularly called to the local Gestapo headquarters and badgered to divorce her Jewish husband.  Over he next few years the family had to move over 20 times, each time into worse conditions.

During the events of Kristalnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, Oskar disappeared and his children did not know where he was.  Doris believes now that he was most likely hidden by a priest, Father Vorspel.  Just a short time earlier, as Oskar was no longer able to find employment that would support the family, Father Vorspel hired Margarethe to work in the priest’s quarters for the parish.  She cleaned, carried buckets of water, anything to support the family.

By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Gestapo was actively trying to round up Jews.  One time a Nazi sympathizing neighbor saw Oskar on the street and called to the policeman on the beat that there was a Jew walking around and he better take him in.  The policeman had no desire to arrest Oskar, but did so and once he got to police headquarters, set him free.  By 1940 the family was hearing of Jews being deported.  In fact, the Williners, Oskar’s first in-laws, were deported.  Father Vorspel often hid Oskar when the Gestapo came around.  He would put him in the priest’s quarters or hide him in the recesses of the church library.

But that was not the end of the priest’s caring.  By 1943 he told the family that the young girls, Doris and Ilse, needed to be hidden, and he had the right place for them in a nunnery in south Germany.  Margarethe responded that they did not have the money for either the trip or the costs of boarding them.  Father Vorspel’s response was to not worry about the expense.  He took care of everything.  The girls were told not to tell anyone about their Jewish father and they lived with the nuns from March 1943 until November 0f 1944.  They would have stayed longer but someone from Essen came through and recognized them.  So their mother came to pick them up.  On the way home, Doris got sick with appendicitis and that delayed their trip home by two weeks – the time of the hospital stay.

Upon arriving home, Oskar was gone.  No one had seen who had taken Oskar.  Finally they got a postcard from him, sent from Holzmindin, an interim transfer camp.  After that they heard nothing.  Every few weeks Margarethe went to what remnant was left of the Jewish community to see if they had any word, but there was none.  At the end of March 1945 the Americans arrived in Essen.  The entire atmosphere of the city changed, as the Americans were extremely sympathetic.   But still there was no word about Oskar until they arrived home after yet one more trip to the Jewish community.  Someone had left a note at their apartment, written on a rag.  It read, “my dear wife and dear children, I will soon be with you but I am still very weak.  My friend and me went on foot, but it takes more than two weeks until I will be home again.  I am yearning for my family.  I send you many kisses.”

Oskar had been sent to Theresienstadt.  He was liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945, just two days before he was scheduled to be gassed.  He was only 75 pounds the day he was liberated.

Oskar lived to have two more daughters, Anne and Beatte.  He rebuilt his furniture business, with many of his old customers giving placing large orders with him.  It was a time everything was being rebuilt and everyone needed furniture.  But Oskar’s customers made sure Oskar Romberg did very well.  They had always liked him and wanted him to prosper once again.

In Doris’s photo album of the family in the war years is a picture of the priest, Father Vorspel.  Without him, Oskar might well have been caught by the Gestapo years earlier and would not have survived.  If Father Vorspel has not been honored as one of the righteous gentiles, it needs to be rectified.  This righteous man was a priest who got it right.

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            The end of the war found Charlotte living in Westfalen, an industrial district in Germany.  A series of jobs ended with her working in a lithographic office.  It was during this time that she became interested in and involved in politics.  Her mother joined the KPD (German Communist Party) after the war.  After that she was recruited for the Free German Youth – a Communist affiliated youth movement started by Germans living in exile in England during the war.

When someone has lived through intense oppression and has witnessed the atrocities of a regime like the Nazis, they often develop an extreme ideology in reaction to their life experiences.  Nazism is the extreme end of the conservative/right wing of the political spectrum.  Communism is the extreme end of the liberal/left wing of the political spectrum.  Both have led to totalitarian regimes in which power, in the name of the masses of believers in the system, is concentrated in the hands of a very few.  The tenants of the ideology justify, in the minds of the followers, this concentration of power.  It is seen as a necessity in order to create an “ideal” system.

For Charlotte Romberg, her life experiences and the realization of the truth of Hitler, made her a receptive vessel for the Communist perspective on the world.  Through her involvement in the Free German Youth, she came to believe that it was capitalism that was the cause of all the evils of the world.  It was capitalism that led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  It was capitalism that was the cause of all war.  The idealism of the youth movement she joined was a vision of a world without weapons and without war.  This was truly the vision of Isaiah (Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor with they study war any more).  But it was placed within the context of a Communist system, not a religious system.

Her exposure to Communism taught Charlotte several things.  First, and perhaps most important, was the falseness of Hitler’s racial theories.  Second, was that the Russian people suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis.  This, of course, is quite true.  The Nazis were incredibly cruel to the Russians in the territories they occupied.  It is also true that the Soviet regime under Stalin was as repressive and repulsive as the Nazis.  Millions of political opponents to Stalin were murdered.  Soviet anti-Semitism, while not having the goal of the physical extermination of Jews, tried to keep Jews from any kind of religious expression and the result was an oppression that moved many Soviet Jews to flee to America as well as Israel.  All of these are easily overlooked when one has the idealism of youth confirmed by oppressive childhood experiences.

Charlotte went to the DDR (East Germany) to study in a seminar on Communist political activism.  She also met her first husband there and returned to West Germany to continue her political activism.  In 1953 was the World Youth Games in Berlin.  Youth came from all over the world but those in West Germany were turned away by West German authorities at the border.  The Cold War had already begun.  After the third try she was let into East Berlin.  The theme of the games was peace and friendship for all nations.

By 1955 Charlotte was pregnant with her first child.  As it is difficult to be a political activist with a young child, her friends suggested that she return to the DDR.  She lived there until 1964 getting the education she was not able to get while a child growing up in Nazi dominated Germany.  In addition to political indoctrination she also learned the arts, music and German literature.  But Charlotte always felt that her real work was in West Germany, so she returned to live there.

For many years, especially the height of the Cold War years of the 1950’s, the KPD was outlawed in West Germany.  Charlotte’s first husband was imprisoned for his political work.  But in 1968 a legal Communist party was formed in West Germany and Charlotte spent most of her adult years advancing left wing causes.  The most successful demonstration she described was a protest against nuclear weapons in which 300,000 Germans participated.  They formed a human chain from Bonn to Stuttgart.  She lived for many years in the Baden-Wurttenburg area and was politically active until the early 1990’s.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the coming down of the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the Eastern European Communist block was a shock to Charlotte and her companions.  She said that they still discuss how this could happen today.  She mentioned that my father did not approve of her politics.  I explained that this was understandable as Dad was very involved in left wing politics as a young person, even helping the Communist controlled furniture worker’s union organize a factory in New York after the war.  But as he opened his own business, he became totally disillusioned with both the union and Communism.  While maintaining liberal attitudes about many things, Dad was without doubt opposed to union control and Communism.  He was proud of the sister he found late in life, but absolutely did not approve of her politics.

It is easy to understand how the combination of child experiences at the hands of the Nazis could lead to an embrace of Communism.  The cognitive dissonance that Charlotte experienced regarding Hitler was resolved through an embrace of an idealistic political philosophy.

But of course this is just a new form of cognitive dissonance for the many Communist followers who do not see that the totalitarian methods of the Communists resulted in the suppression of many people’s human rights in the name of the workers.  One cannot dismiss the Soviet gulags or the large waves of people who sought freedom in the west.  In the end, extremism on the left ends up in the same place as extremism on the right.  I hope one day I am able to discuss this with my aunt.

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It was a scene you could easily imagine. The archives of Diepholz were in the town’s municipal building, but buried in the cellar. We descended a short spiral staircase to a musty basement filled with the records of the town dating back at least 3 centuries. There was copy equipment that looked as if it was at least as old as the town records. This was an archive not only of the records of the inhabitants, but also of all of the old office equipment the town had ever used.

The archivist, Herr Falk Liebezeit, was waiting for us. Imagine now a 6 foot 2 inch Pillsbury dough boy, but with a mustache. That was Herr Liebezeit. His office was piled high with papers of all kinds – newspapers, magazines, books, historical documents and ledgers filled with names, dates and statistics of every sort. He was extremely genial and clearly relished getting visitors and having the chance to speak about the history of the town of Diepholz, particularly the Jewish history there as he co-authored a book on that subject. Herr Liebezeit turned out to be a delightful source, who freely shared everything he could locate.

Diepholz is a town of about 15 thousand inhabitants. It plays an important role in our family history as this is where my great grandfather, Julius Romberg, along with his wife Fredericka, settled for most of their adult life. Julius was born in Lengerich, where his family had settled in the 1820’s. He most likely moved to Diepholz sometime in the 1860’s. His father, Nathan Romberg, died in 1865 and Julius was the primary heir and executor of his father’s will. As such, he laid claim to a Torah scroll that Nathan had purchased for the Jewish community of Lengerich. Julius brought it to Diepholz and was promptly sued by the Jewish community of Lengerich, which claimed the scroll as their own. Julius prevailed in the German courts, so I presume the Torah stayed in Diepholz. I am trying to learn its fate. Herr Liebezeit had no clue as to that, but did give me the email contact of perhaps the last former Jewish resident of Diepholz, now 90 years old and living in Israel.

The history of the Jews in Diepholz is interesting as it is a refraction of the greater European Jewish history – especially in countries like Germany. The first Jews to live in Diepholz, Samuel and Simon Moses, arrived in 1684. They were sent by the Prussian Kaiser to provide a means of extending credit to the farmers and small merchants in the area. At that time, Christians were forbidden from charging other Christians interest. So, typical to the Jewish story in Europe, Jews were the agents for providing finances. The Moses brothers could not charge more than 9%. They could take clothing as collateral, but this meant stricter terms for the loan recipients, as clothing depreciates rapidly. As an interesting side point, the Torah discourages using a person’s coat as collateral for a loan.

Jews were considered servants of the Kaiser and not allowed to own property. They were provided with a place to rent and had to pay protection money to the municipality. Jewish fortunes in all of Prussia changed for the better by the late 18th century through the relatively liberal policies of Frederick the Great. But the Jewish population of Diepholz probably grew a lot more after the end of Napolean’s occupation of much of Germany between 1810 and 1814, as Napolean introduced very liberal polices governing Jews. Christians were no longer forbidden to lend money and more occupations opened up to Jews, so after 1814 the Jewish population began to increase.

Now comes something interesting to ponder. The original family name for the Rombergs is Moses. Nathan Romberg was born Nathan Moses and changed his name sometime in the 1820’s. It is possible (but this is only speculation) that Julius was a distant relative to Samuel and Simon Moses, and the presence of their family in Diepholz could have been a reason as to why he moved there. His occupation was that of a low end fur and clothing merchant – truly the “schmatta” business!

A building for a synagogue was purchased by the Jews of Diepholz in 1835. The synagogue also served the small Jewish populations of some very small nearby towns as well. Herr Liebezeit and I agreed that the likelihood was this was a Liberal/Reform congregation for a few reasons. First, there was no rabbi present to enforce Jewish law. Jewish life was led by a series of teachers who were often both secular teachers as well as religious teachers, but not rabbis. This was a rather remote area and the very observant would have a hard time finding some of the basic necessities to live a halachic life.

The census of 1871 records a total population of 2,686 of which 48 were Jews. This must have been the highest level of Jewish population as by the census of 1901 there were 500 more people in Diepholz, but 18 less Jews. Julius and Fredericka Romberg are part of the census of 1871. Most interesting is that the official life cycle records for the town, as with all German communities, were the ones kept by the religious institutions. So the synagogue records of the period show all Jewish marriages, births and deaths. We found and photocopied records for many of the children of Julius and Fredericka.

By 1871 the first united Germany was established and the town records became official. We found a page detailing the birth death and marriages of my grandfather, Walter. Here we had a bit of a shock. The record of the date of Walter’s first marriage shows that he was forced to marry my grandmother because she was already pregnant with my father. I do not know if Dad ever realized he was the product of a shotgun wedding.

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When you suffer the consequences of war, its end brings emotional if not physical relief. You feel that better times are about to come; and even if they are not immediate, you at least have a moment of celebration that a period of fear has passed. So you would think.

At the end of World War II, Charlotte, her mother and her siblings were living in the Sudetenland. This became part of the Russian zone of occupation so the Red Army moved into their area. This only triggered a new round of atrocities, especially the first day they arrived. Women were raped. People were abused. The conquering victors had arrived. Margarethe had her daughters lay down on the top level of a bunk bed, curl themselves very small, and put their thumbs in their mouths to appear as childlike as possible. The Russian soldiers came into their room, shone their flashlights, saw the children lying there and left. It was a close call.

There was a song the family knew from the Karnival celebrations in Cologne. (Karnival is a winter festival celebration held every year in Cologne, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.) The lyrics said, “when you are homesick, you should travel on foot back to Cologne.” The family was homesick, so in early summer of 1945 they began a journey on foot back to Cologne. The Romberg family travelled with another young women and her two children. Age 13, Charlotte was the eldest of the children. Every day they walked. At night they slept in a different place; sometimes a barn, sometimes a school, sometimes the ground. They foraged the fields for food or depended on the kindness of strangers they met along the way.

One day they came upon a farm house and the farmer’s wife was outside churning butter. They asked if they could spend the night in the barn and the woman told them “no.” As they were leaving they met up with a Red Army officer, as the farmhouse had been commandeered to house a group of army officers. He spoke German and asked them what they wanted. They told him the just wanted to sleep in the barn for the night, but the farmer’s wife had told them no. He then forced the farmer’s wife to give them a bedroom in the farmhouse reserved for a Red Army officer. For the first time in weeks they slept in a real bed, were able to wash and to have real meals. They stayed there for several days.

Charlotte and her family were able to hitch a ride with a Red Army truck headed for Carlsbad. The driver let them off a bit before there and when he said goodbye gave them some tins of food for their journey. They made there way to the border of the American section near the Eger River, but the border was closed and they could not pass. They took shelter in a kind of makeshift refugee camp in the ball room of a guesthouse near the border. Every day brought the possibility of starvation unless they could successfully forage for food from the farmer’s fields in the area.

One day, Charlotte’s brother Norbert found a farmer’s cellar filled high with potatoes. They formed a plan to steal potatoes in which the brothers crept into the cellar with a bag and Charlotte kept watch. Back in the ballroom there was a small oven with a rough surface. They scratched the potatoes and put them onto the oven to make them more edible.

Finally there was a train organized to take refugees back to their homes in western Germany. After an overnight in Braunschweig, then another in Hanover, they finally arrived in Cologne in December of 1945. They were home at last in their beloved city – only to find it almost completely destroyed by allied bombing. They were placed in a bomb shelter near the Great Cathedral of Cologne. But in a devastated city there was no work or apartment for a widow with 4 children. They were evacuated to Pivitsheide where Charlotte stayed for the rest of her childhood.

When a war ends the soldiers look forward to a homecoming. The victorious side has parades to celebrate the heroics of the young soldiers. Families are reunited. Tears of joy are wept. Old romances are rekindled, new romances are found. An exciting new life begins for the returnees from the front. But for Charlotte and her family there was no homecoming. There was only a long journey, mostly on foot, the worry of starvation, and the sorrow of seeing the home that they loved in ruins.

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During the school year of 1937/38, Charlotte Romberg attended kindergarten. December 6 was Santa Clause day: a celebration of the coming of Santa Clause. A man dressed in a Santa suit would come along with another man, a kind of bishop figure with a tall pointed hat. After witnessing Kristalnacht, her dreams transformed these figures into short SA Nazi brown shirts carrying sledge hammers. But they also wore some of the Santa gear as well. In her dreams she referred to them as the “small men,” and their appearance was always a sign of danger. Kristalnacht conflated the appearance of Santa Clause with Nazi atrocity. The dream followed Charlotte through much of her life. Her interview with me was the first time she ever spoke about it to anyone.

On the morning of November 10, 1938, Charlotte woke up to a house without parents. She did not know it yet, but her mother had left to escort her father to work, to make sure he arrived safely. The night had already contained most of the destruction – but not all. She went down to the street. There she saw a band of Nazis, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, carrying sledge hammers and other tools of destruction. They began to smash down the doors of a Jewish shop across from their building. They smashed the windows and emptied the contents of the store into the street. Charlotte ran upstairs, frightened.

Later, after her mother arrived home, she went out and saw that the shop next door, a Jewish owned shop of threads and laces, was destroyed. A Torah scroll from a small Jewish prayer space on an upper floor of a building across the street, was tossed out of the window onto the ground. Her mother tried to help one of the Jewish neighbors put their store back together.

Margaret, Charlotte’s mother, was Catholic. So she was able to provide some protection from Nazi brutality, but not much. Charlotte was not allowed to attend certain schools because her father was a Jew. Their living quarters were limited to certain areas, certain buildings and as the war began, the conditions grew progressively worse. Watching the deportation of her Jewish girlfriends from downstairs, Elfreide and Helga, stays with her and she still tears up when she speaks of a fountain in Cologne dedicated to the city’s Jewish children killed by the Nazis. Her friends’ names are on the fountain.

But there was worse. As a technically “Jewish” family, when allied bombs fell they were not allowed to use the bomb cellars with other families. One time, however, she, her mother and siblings were caught outside with their father, just outside their building. They grabbed their father’s hands and pulled him inside the cellar of the building as the allied bombs began to fall. Inside the space, which is barely large enough to hold two families, was a Nazi family they knew from the neighborhood. As this family glared at the Rombergs Charlotte remembers glaring back, clenching her fists, daring them to say something out loud.

Almost a year after her father died, in July of 1943, one of the largest Allied bombing raids on Cologne occurred, resulting in their apartment building being destroyed – along with many of their family documents and picture. As a result, Charlotte has no pictures of her father. But there was an advantage to the destruction by the bombing – government offices were also destroyed, so there was no longer documentation of the family’s Jewishness. Her mother told the children not to mention to anyone that their late father was a Jew. Yet, Charlotte remembers clearly, that as they moved from stage to stage, Margaret never let them forget that they were indeed the children of Walter Romberg – a Jew in blood if not in faith.

The destruction of that night was so bad, that the family, along with many others, was evacuated to Silesia. Charlotte and her siblings went to school there, able to conceal a piece of their identity, yet never forgetting.

In 1945, as the Russian front drew ever closer, they were evacuated to the Sudetenland. There, Charlotte had a group of girl friends who formed their own imaginary “Hitler Youth” club. This was not something official. The children had been brainwashed to believe that Hitler was a person who was kind and gentle with children. After all, the propaganda they saw showed the Fuhrer holding little children and smiling at them. Charlotte had not yet experienced the cognitive dissonance between the Hitler of fiction and the one responsible for the death of her father, as well as her family’s flight from their home in Cologne.

The other little girls in her group wanted her to be a leader of their Hitler fan club. When Charlotte told this to her mother, Margaret had only one question for her daughter, “Do you remember where you came from?” On they day they learned that that Hitler was dead and the war was over, ironically, Charlotte cried tears of grief. The victim had formed a psychological connection to her oppressor.

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My grandfather, Walter Romberg has always been a man of mystery – someone shrouded by a curtain very hard to pull aside. My father knew very little about him. He has only one memory of meeting him – sometime in 1939 when he needed his father’s signature on the paperwork allowing him to leave Germany. The meeting was not unfriendly, but strange. He went to what he thought was Walter’s apartment in Cologne. His father was a bit apologetic for not being a father to him. Dad remembered seeing children inside the apartment, so he believed his father had children through another marriage. Those are his only first hand pieces of information. All of the rest came through his mother’s family, and they had nothing good to say about Walter.

For much of his life Dad was told how awful his father was. Certainly his mother, Martha, was bitter about her experience with Walter. His Uncle Richard had nothing good to say about him either. It was only when Dad was in his 50’s that one of his uncles (who had married into the Stern family so did not have the prejudice of other family members) told him that his father was really not such a bad person. But other than a name and these scant references, Walter Romberg has been a person concealed by the mists of a not easily recoverable history.

When cousin Bert Romberg made contact with me in August of 2011, bringing our part of the Romberg family into the fold with the rest of the surviving Rombergs, he could not add much detail other than Walter was one of 13 siblings. He only added that Walter seemed to be the “black sheep” of the family, as no one seemed to have much contact with him. He had the reputation of being a bit of a rogue, perhaps a gambler, someone who kept a little separate from his brothers. As I began to communicate with the rest of our newfound family, the only positive comment I received was from cousin Ralph Romberg, who remembered meeting Walter when Walter was visiting Ralph’s family in Essen. Ralph remembered that Walter was nice, funny and bought him a treat. Ralph of course could not have been more than 5 or 6 at the time.

But the story of Walter’s life is much more complicated – and tragic. He was born on March 4, 1893. He served in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. He had an unusual view of the war in that to him, it was a grand adventure. His daughter Charlotte said it was strange that when he spoke of the war it was in jovial terms, as if he enjoyed his time in the army. What made this doubly strange is that Walter, politically, was a member of the KPD – the Communist Party of Germany.

I do not know how Walter met my grandmother, Martha Stern or when they married. I do know that my father was born on July 11, 1923. Now comes the big reason why the Stern family probably had nothing good to say about him. In 1922 Walter fathered a son with another woman. I remember that my father told me he had an older brother who died in a traffic accident. This was confirmed by Charlotte; who also confirmed that this son was not by Martha. We cannot know the details of this little sordid triangle of the early 1920’s. But no matter how you analyze the dates involved, Walter was a two-timer – either cheating on his wife or stringing two women along at the same time. This is not the only time that fatherhood did not necessarily coincide with marriage for Walter, as he married Charlotte’s mother Margaret about a month after Charlotte was born in 1932.

Another point of conflict between Walter and my father’s uncle, Richard Stern, was politics. Uncle Richard was a member of the Social Democratic party – socialist, but a mainstream party of the German Weimer Republic in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Walter was a Communist. He was very well read and loved literature. Charlotte remembers that he loved to read Heinrich Heine. Heine’s writings were forbidden by the Nazis so the books were hidden between stacks of linens. Walter also loved music and paradoxically, Charlotte remembers him playing his favorite composer, Wagner, on an old style wind up gramophone. Wagner, of course, was a Nazi favorite because of his anti-Semitic views.

But Walter was a person of contradictions. He had no relation with my father, whether by choice or prevented by the Sterns we cannot really know. But he deeply loved his 4 children with Margaret and they felt it. She demonstrated a game he played with them in which he would call each one in turn gathering them into his arms one by one until he was embracing all four. As the 1930’s progressed he was forbidden by the Nazis to continue to be a travelling salesman and was pressed into hard labor on road crews. This paid very little so the family moved into progressively worse apartments – from one with an inside toilette to one where the toilette was shared with other families. Food was scarce but Walter made a game of it. He would save some of his lunch that he took to work, bringing it home and made a festival of cutting it into little sections for each child and calling it “rabbit food.”

Regarding the Nazis he had a kind of black humor. He told this joke referencing Hermann Goering: Pointing to each shoulder he would say, “The more decoration, the more decoration the fatter he gets.” The gestures indicated the epulettes on the shoulders.

Walter scrounged to find things for his children to make them happy. Charlotte wanted a toy pram, but of course they could not afford one. Walter inquired of an acquaintance who found one for him, but it was so old and out of style that Charlotte was ashamed to wheel it home with her father. They stopped at a kiosk for a bite to eat leaving the pram outside and laughed together over what should be its fate – perhaps someone would walk off with it while they were eating.

Walter had no involvement in Judaism. The only time Charlotte remembers going with him to synagogue was to meet someone else. Yet he wore the yellow Star of David, like all Jews, and even though he was married to a Catholic woman, his children were kept out of certain schools and later, when the war was on, his family was forbidden from using the cellar bomb shelters with other German families.

In their last apartment building were some other Jewish families. Charlotte remembered that one family had two little girls who gave her a rose for her holy communion (her mother was Catholic and had the children baptized as Catholics). In 1941 the Jewish families of her building were told to evacuate Cologne and report to a gathering camp outside of the city. Walter had a small handcart and helped the families transport their belongings, not knowing it was a useless exercise. These families were all sent to concentration camps in the east. In Minsk they were place on trucks they were told would transport them to work camps, but the trucks were rolling gas chambers and all were slaughtered. Years later Charlotte saw a picture of a pile of shoes of the children who died in these camps and wondered tearfully if some of the shoes belonged to her friends.

Walter Romberg died on a warm, sunny Sunday in early August, 1942. He was home, sick in bed, probably the result of his latest assignment of slave labor – in a factory in which he handled poisonous chemicals. Walter came into the kitchen, gasped, clutched his chest and collapsed in front of his wife and daughter. The doctor who came could do nothing other than confirm he was dead. As his body was carried out for the funeral, a girl from a Nazi family in the building asked Charlotte why she was crying. It was, after all, only a Jew.

What can I conclude about my grandfather? He tried to live a life that was a non conventional path. He was politically radical and tried to be a person without religious ties. He wanted to travel life on his own terms. Perhaps his tragedy is summed up by the Nazi girl’s comment to my aunt. When he died, he was just another Jew.

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On the wall of my office is a picture of my great uncle, Richard Stern. He is the man who raised my father – his father in reality if not biology. Uncle Richard is standing in the doorway of his bedding store in Cologne, wearing the Iron Cross he was awarded for valor in World War I. Next to him is a uniformed Nazi – complete with swastika and all. Uncle Richard was protesting the boycott of Jewish businesses, the first official anti-Jewish decree by the Nazi government in April 1933. What you do not see is that he was handing out anti-Nazi leaflets, condemning the actions of Hitler, Frick and Goering as an insult to all the Jewish soldiers who served Germany in World War I.

When we were in Germany last summer, Audrey and I visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin. This is a very large, well done museum tracing the history of Jews in Germany from Roman times to the present. As we reached the section that begins to describe the oppression of Jews by the Nazis, I was shocked to see a huge blowup of the picture of Uncle Richard that is in my office, dominating a section of the wall. Just below and to the side of his picture was a large copy of the leaflet he printed and handed out – a leaflet in which I own a couple of the originals.

Last night cousin Anne hosted us at her apartment for dinner. It was also a time to share pictures and documents with each other. Anne, whose father was my grandfather’s brother, has been doing a lot of family research on the Germany side. She found our great, great grandfather’s grave in Lengerich. She also found a complete record of the family tree through the generations of her father (and my grandfather). I brought with me a number of documents and pictures to show her as well. Some were just to share and enjoy (like pictures of my dad and family when I was a child). Others were to try to get more information about. Anne had lots of pictures of the Romberg side from their life in Germany.

One of the things I showed her was the leaflet Uncle Richard produced and told her his story and about his picture in the Jewish museum. She was moved and fascinated. Then I showed her a small, passport-like booklet, that had Uncle Richard’s name on it and was dated from 1917. I had guessed that this booklet had something to do with his term in the army, but as I do not read German, I asked Anne to confirm this. She paged through the booklet and confirmed. Uncle Richard was a musketeer. He served until 1919. His service had all good marks, no demerits. It is a detailed description of his time in the service. Then as she reached the back, two small folded up pieces of paper fell out. I had not really noticed them. They were the most interesting as they turned out to be from 1937. One was a certification that he was physically fit for service in the German army. The other disqualified him for that service because he was a Jew.

Why is this interesting? Uncle Richard made a point of keeping all the records of his service in the German army and his later rejection on the basis of being Jewish. Yet, when America entered World War II, he purposefully turned in his Iron Cross medal to the scrap metal drive to be made into bullets to kill Nazis. We had connected some dots by learning his complete service record in the German army. But it then raised the interesting question of why did he keep those records, and the official documentation of later German anti-Semitism, yet give up his medal?

That was not the only treasure we speculated over last night. I had found in my father’s collection of papers and pictures, an old photo of a couple dressed in clothes that must be from the 19th century. I did not recognize either person. The woman was not my grandmother. I thought, perhaps they might be my father’s maternal grandparents. The woman in the photo is significantly younger than the man. Anne then pulled out a photo of an older woman she said was her paternal grandmother, my great grandmother. As we looked at the two photos it became obvious that the woman in each was the same woman, just at different ages. If so, then the man in my photo must be my great grandfather, Julius Romberg. This is significant because to the best of Anne’s and my knowledge, no Romberg family member has a photo of Julius. Indeed, if this is him, then how and why would my father, who had almost no contact with the Romberg side of his family, come by this picture of his grandparents? We hope to confirm the identity of the people in the photo when we go to Diepholz, where my great grandparents lived, and talk to an archivist there who has written a book about the Jewish community in Diepholz.

Tomorrow we leave for Esslingen, where I will meet my father’s half sister. I am hoping that she will be able to connect a lot of dots concerning my grandfather’s history. And I know that with each connection will come even more questions.

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You cannot be Jewish and not wrestle with the role of Germany in Jewish history. It is a place where Jews experienced tremendous success, spiritually, intellectually, financially and socially. Before there was an affluent and influential Jewish presence in America, it existed in Germany. The great reforms of Jewish modernity started in Germany. Germany gave us, or helped to give us, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Isaac Mayer Wise; to name a few. Germany nurtured Jewish artists, writers, musicians, the early Zionist movement and was, for many Jews, a promised land. Yet, Germany also perpetrated what is probably the greatest crime against a single ethnic group in human history. So we Jews wrestle with our relationship to Germany.

There is a parallel, I think, with the relationship the people of ancient Judah had with the land of Egypt. Egypt was the place of enslavement. Yet at the same time Egypt was held out as a hope for Judean survival in the face of pressure from the great empires of Assyria and Babylon. Egypt is at once seen as a source of dread, yet also a place of potential alliance. The prophet Isaiah warns against depending on Egypt, telling Hezekiah in the 8th century to have faith in God, not Egypt. Language in the Tanach describing Egypt condemns its moral depravity. To ‘yored Mitzraima,’ to “go down to Egypt,” is not just a matter of geographical direction, but of spiritual and moral descent as well. Yet, after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, a Temple was built in Elephantine, Egypt. One of the first great Jewish communities of the diaspora was formed in Egypt. Egypt was a conundrum. It was the place of enslavement and the place that nurtured the growth of a strong Jewish community post Babylonian conquest; and did so for centuries.

I am about to leave tomorrow for Germany. It is the birth place for all of my ancestry, i.e. my father’s and mother’s families. It all begins for us in Germany. Our family is a great example of how much Jews integrated into the fabric of German life and culture. As I wrote a few days ago, Alfred Romberg was a commissioned officer in the German army during WWI. My father’s uncle, Richard Stern, the man who raised him in the absence of his biological father; was a decorated German soldier in WWI. My great, great grandfather, Nathan Moses Romberg, was a successful merchant who helped organize a Jewish community in Lengerich, Germany. He was originally Nathan Moses, but changed his last name to Romberg in what can only be an expression of his integration into the German society of the early 19th century.

But just as our family is an illustration of Jewish involvement in German life, so to is it a symbol of the consequences of the Shoah on Jewish life. Of my grandfather Walter’s 13 siblings, we know of 3 that died in German concentration camps. Walter himself was placed into slave labor that eventually killed him. His brother Oskar avoided the Gestapo for much of the war, but was eventually caught, sent to Theresienstadt and survived – rejoining his family in Essen, Germany. Others made it to America by various routes. One went to Sweden, others went to South Africa.

Yet, in spite of this history of our family with Germany, almost every family member I meet has been back to Germany, or wishes to visit Germany. My father, who not only experienced a lot of Nazi oppression before he barely escaped in September 1939, but was an American GI fighting against Germany in WWII; visited Germany many times for business and for pleasure. My brothers have both been to Germany and my youngest brother lived and worked there for a year after college. This will be my 3rd visit to Germany – 2nd within a year.

I totally understand that a person who survived the concentration camps, and who was not born in Germany would cringe at the very thought of not only travelling there, but of having anything to do with German products. I do find it strange that American Jews who have no family connection to the Holocaust boycott German products or scrunch up their face in displeasure when I mention I am returning to Germany. Other than using their displeasure as a peculiar method of ethnic identification and solidarity, what do they really know about my feelings regarding Germany? Or the feelings of any Jew of German descent?

So now I will be honest. As an American there is no better place to travel in Europe. It is friendly, interesting, dynamic and easy to navigate. As a Jew, I do feel just a bit tentative. I find myself looking for (and usually finding) signs of German atonement for what was done to my family. I soak up every German museum, display, memorial, or sign of respect about Jews. As I leave for Germany, I wonder how my family that ended up staying there navigated the post war years. What did they feel about their country? Did they ever wish to leave?

Yes, Germany is our generations Egypt. For it is Germany, for better or for worse, that has shaped the unfolding of Jewish history in my time. It is Germany that embodies the nascent hope of Jews of the 19th into the early 20th century. It is Germany that influences the Jewish dynamic of my generation, and I feel sure, of many to come. We cannot escape it.

So I close with a thought, really a question. In a thousand or so years, what country will be that generation’s Germany? And will they know it when it happens?

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The aftermath of Kristalnacht found the various segments of the Romberg family scattering in various directions. From this point forward, each family unit lost contact with the others, focusing on their own survival. The war years would see some die and some survive. No significant contact would be made until a decade after the war, and then only the families of 2 brothers finding each other. But Magie Furst almost made an unexpected link with a lost cousin.

Magie is Bert Romberg’s older sister. Like Bert, she is my father’s first cousin. Born in 1929, Magie is only a year older than Bert, but that year makes a huge difference in the details that she remembers from her years in Germany. While she certainly does not have the same depths of memories as my father (he was born in 1923), she has clear recollections of Nazi oppression and the impact on her family.

She remembers the night their father, Alfred Romberg, died. He had developed heart problems and had had a series of incidents (I guess a doctor would call them infarctions). She remembers that the doctor told her mom that one more incident would likely kill him. And it did. The night of Alfred’s death was chaotic, with Sida crying, a cousin of hers who had come to help take care of the kids during Alfred’s illness, was trying to comfort someone. A pall settled over the house. Realize, this would leave Sida alone with two small children and a farmer’s supply business to run – while dealing with Nazis demonstrating outside the store to discourage customers from patronizing a Jewish business.

For the funeral, Uncle Karl Romberg (I will interview his son Ralph in San Francisco in July) came from Essen as well as Uncle Siegfried Romberg. As Magie’s family was one of only two Jewish families in Astheim, the funeral procession walked to another town to a small synagogue and then to yet another town where there was a Jewish cemetery. Nazi onlookers threw stones at the procession as well as the usual racial epithets.

After Sida moved with the children to Eschwege, Magie remembers Nazis goose-stepping to loud oompah music. She remembers the chaos of the Jewish school she and Bert attended – short of teachers because many had already fled Germany. She remembers that on Kristalnacht the synagogue was damaged and the children stopped going to even that chaotic sham of a school.

Magie also remembers a summer when Sida sent she and Bert to Essen to be with other members of the Romberg family. This is important because it shows that much of the family knew about each other and were in contact at least until Kristalnacht in November of 1938. In Essen they stayed with Uncle Oskar Romberg, whose second wife was a Catholic woman, the red haired, exotic, Margaret. Their daughter Doris, who I will be meeting next week, was just a baby. Magie remembers Oskar as a small but jovial man, a lot of fun. With him they visited a lot of his brothers and sisters, Tante Ella, Uncle Emil, and Uncle Siegfried – Rombergs all. It was a summer of family warmth and happiness – at least for the small surviving children of Alfred Romberg. It was possibly the last time that this much of the Romberg family interacted together until our family reunion in April of 2012.

There is one relative Magie does not remember being in Essen or hearing anything about – her uncle Walter Romberg – my grandfather. Perhaps Walter really was the black sheep of the family (I have heard that a few times). Or perhaps the fact he lived in Cologne and was raising 4 children of his own with his second wife (my father was the only child of Walter’s first marriage) just kept him from seeing family centered in Essen. We might never know.

The rest of Magie’s story very much parallels Bert’s: the escape from Germany on the Kindertransport, living with a foster family in England, having her schooling supervised by the Jewish orphanage, the brushes with the Nazi air war over London, and the eventual voyage to America are part of both Bert and Magie’s history. The big exception is that Magie’s foster experience was very difficult in the manner the family treated her.

Once established in New York, Magie met and married Harry Furst in 1948 and they married in January 1949. Harry was another German Jew, but one well connected in the German Jewish community that was established in the mid to late 1930’s in Washington Heights, Manhattan. One of the popular personalities among the young people of the German Jewish crowd in Washington Heights was a fellow named Teddy Tobar. Teddy seemed to know everyone, and gave many Saturday evening parties in the late 40’s and early 50’s.

Sometime in 1949, not long after they were married, Harry took Magie to one of Teddy’s parties. At the party she heard that there was someone there named Romberg. She does not know why she was timid about inquiring about him, but afterwards Harry told her he spoke with him. He was from Cologne and in the furniture business. As it turns out, that mysterious Romberg was my father. At this party in 1949 Magie was only a few feet away from taking the first step towards putting the Romberg family back together again. This time with the son of the uncle that no one seemed to mention in Germany.

Teddy Tobar, by the way, was a good friend of my father’s going back to his days in Germany. I met Teddy several times. He was a real character and I remember he looked a lot like Yogi Berra, the catcher for the New York Yankees. Later in life, Teddy took up photography as an art. One of his photos hangs in my office at Temple Israel.

So in a random party in 1949 my father was the cousin almost found. How our lives would have been different growing up being part of the larger family, I cannot tell. Instead of a uniting of cousins, it was just a near miss.

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Happy endings are not like those depicted in story books and adventure stories. True, the really well written books or movies make us sweat through the trials and tribulations of the hero. But we know there will be a happy ending, and what is more, we know the story is not real. So the emotional journey, however skillfully portrayed, is fake. In the end no real people were impacted, no lives were changed other than through the enjoyment of a good story. What about when a happy ending is real? What about those stories lived by our friends, our families? Have you ever seen someone and known, just known their life had turned out well? And after realizing it turned out well, did you wonder at what cost they purchased their happy ending?

My first family interviews were yesterday in Dallas, Texas. Bert Romberg is the cousin who actually found the rest of us. Bert also organized the family meeting in Dallas last year. He is an intelligent, thoughtful person who is also a kind, caring soul, very involved in the Dallas community. He mentors students at a magnet high school for the performing arts, helped to found a chavurah in Jackson Hole, WY, where he built a vacation home. He and his wife Terry are long time active members of a Conservative congregation in Dallas, yet he is known around the Jewish community. In fact, one of my rabbinic colleagues from Dallas, upon hearing that I was going to meet Bert for the first time last year exclaimed to me, “you are really going to like him!” And I do. I try to speak to Bert at least once every few months. He is a person whose judgment I really trust in that if I needed to confide in an older wiser head, Bert would be at the top of my list. His Jewish values reflect my own Jewish values. He understands the challenges facing the Jewish people in the same terms I do. No accident, I think, that we have turned out to be related.

He had a successful career, starting as an office clerk for a scrap metal processing business based in NY in 1955. At that time the firm had maybe a couple of hundred employees. When Bert retired in 2000, he was the Chief Operating officer of the company which by that time had about 20 thousand employees and did business all over the world. He and Terry raised three great daughters and have in many ways been the glue that holds family together. His ending, by any standards, is a happy ending; indeed, a great ending.

Bert told me his story in slow, measured tones, using thoughtfully constructed sentences.

Bert was born in Astheim, Germany in 1930. His sister, Magie, is a year older than him. Their father, Alfred Romberg, was one of the few Jewish commissioned officers in the Kaiser’s army in World War I. In addition, he is the recipient of the Iron Cross, highest order. He was wounded in battle and his wounds stayed with him the rest of his life. He married Sida Rothschild in 1927. Alfred moved to Astheim to work in Sida’s family’s rather successful farm supply and feed store. Astheim was a smaller town with only two Jewish families.

Bert has no memories of his father. Alfred died in 1934 from a combination of complications from war wounds and heart problems. Magie, Bert’s sister does remember demonstrations by the Nazis out side of their store. They were called all manner of names and the Nazis urged the locals not to buy from the Rombergs. So when things got very bad by 1936, Sida sold their assets for whatever she could and moved her and the children to a larger town and Jewish community, Eschwege. Realize that from 1934 onward, Bert’s mom was essentially alone in managing her two children.

After Kristalnacht, November 8, 1938, Sida was desperate to at least get the children out of Germany. A series of Kindertransports, specially arranged transports to get Jewish children out of Germany, began in December 1938. The Quakers of England started the program and got the British government to support it. Sida was able to arrange passage on a Kindertransport for Bert and Magie in May 1939. She also had a bit more luck. At the same time, a cousin of hers in London was able to sponsor her passage with the children to England as well, and she acted as an adult chaperone on the trip. On the train ride out of Germany the SS shouted at the Jewish children, demanding they turn over their valuables and calling them Jewish dogs.

But upon arrival in London, the cousin told them he was bankrupt and had sold his house. Sida would be able to work there as a maid, but the children were placed into foster care, each with a separate family. Bloomsbury House, an English Jewish welfare agency, took charge of placing the children and seeing to their education. Magie’s foster placement was very difficult. The father was abusive. They expected her to work as a maid and a cook along with going to school and trying to get along in a new country at 10 years old.

Bert’s had a better experience in foster care, even though he moved around a bit from family to family, part of that was to avoid the Nazi bombings of London and the industrial town of Coventry. Indeed, one foster family Bert kept contact with even into the 1990’s, hearing from the couple’s children when their parents passed. But where Bert really shone was academics. He excelled in school, not only academics but in making friends and participating in English life as well. Both Magie’s and Bert’s educations were supervised by a Jewish orphanage, but it was Bert who was able to lift himself through education. In fact, he was one of only two children connected with the orphanage to earn a scholarship that would have covered all levels of British education he wished to pursue – through college and even institutions like Oxford.

From May 1939 until May 1945, Bert and Magie lived apart from their mother and apart from each other. Each had scrapes with German blitz of London, the bombings that tortured the British for the first 3 years of the war. Finally, in 1945, Sida heard from her sister who had made it to New York, that she could sponsor the family to come to America. But Sida faced a difficult situation with Bert. He could never have the educational opportunity in America that he had in England. Yet, she needed to be in America, where she could once again have the support of family and live a life free of fear. So she gave Bert, then not quite 15 years old, the choice. It was up to him. He could stay in England and follow his mother and sister whenever he finished school, or go with them immediately. Bert chose to go with his mother and sister and forego the scholarship.

At this point I asked Bert a question. I asked him what pushed him to give up the education and leave with Sida and Magie. He could have followed later. At that moment he began to sob. He wiped some tears away and said quietly, “I did not want to be separated from them any more.”

We had only been speaking for about 90 minutes, but it really hit me that for the better part of 6 years, the entire time they lived in England, Bert had lived apart from his mother and sister. From age 9 to 15 his only families were foster families. Whatever scholastic success Bert ever had became insignificant as I realized he had lost a childhood. In Germany it was impossible to have a normal childhood, and in England, even kind caring foster families could not be a substitute for his family. What an emotional price Bert paid for his life.

Sacred moments really cannot be planned. They just well up and suddenly you have experienced something holy. When Bert softly cried I saw the holiness of his life, and the emotional price he paid to earn it. It was an honor to sit with this good soul at that moment. The Shoah is a tragedy in which many deserving people did not survive. But Bert Romberg did, and did so in a way that honors everyone who lived through those years.

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