Archive for June, 2013

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 29th centuries. 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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It’s a funny thing about families. They all contain those members that you wish were not your relatives. Some might be plain toxic, in other words, trouble makers. Some might be cold and distant, or some might be just plain weird. The last is what generally made up the relatives we knew from my father’s side of the family. For years my brothers and I could not stand having to be with a particular group of our dad’s aunts, uncles and cousins. All of these relatives were related through our dad’s mother, i.e. her siblings nieces and nephews. We had no family from our dad’s father’s part of the family for a simple reason. Our father’s parents were divorced by the time he was about 2 years old. Our dad did not know his father. He met him once, when he needed his signature on the papers to leave Germany in 1939.

Our mom’s family was very small. These were the relatives we felt close to; our grandparents, aunt and uncle and their children – our cousins. So we grew up feeling our family was very small. Between our mother’s small family whom we loved and the preponderance of dad’s family who were whackos – well – it was a small family. All of that changed August 22, 2011.

That was the day we were found by the part of our father’s family that no one ever knew about. A fellow by the name of Bert Romberg sent an email to my mom claiming to be my father’s first cousin. My mom, fearful this was some kind of scam, forwarded the email to me. I called Bert and within minutes it was clear that there was an extensive family that we never knew existed. Bert was indeed my father’s first cousin as he was the son of my grandfather’s brother – one we had never known about. The little bit that we knew about dad’s father, Walter Romberg, matched up with everything Bert told me. Suddenly, our grandfather became a real figure with real family that included a second wife (with whom he had 4 children) and 12 siblings. Suddenly we could trace our family back to 1785 when Nathan Moses, my great, great grandfather was born.

I asked Bert how he found us. Here is that story. One of Walter Romberg’s siblings, Oskar Romberg, never left Germany. He had married a Catholic woman and survived the war. He had 4 daughters with her, 2 before the war and 2 after the war. In 1959, on a business trip to Essen, Germany, by chance, my father found his Uncle Oscar and met his family. Anne, Oskar’s 3rd daughter, born in 1947, was a young girl dreaming of coming to America to study English when her family met my father. She wrote him a letter and he responded to her. In the summer of 2011 Anne was going through some papers and found the letter from my dad. She immediately contacted Bert and told him to try and find Rudolf Romberg. Bert did an internet search and found my father’s yartzeit notice from my parent’s synagogue. He then wrote my mother.

Within days I was getting emails from Romberg family members in Germany and different parts of the US. Three weeks later an envelope arrived from Germany and it contained my dad’s letter to Anne. I recognized not only his handwriting but the stationary of the business he owned when we lived in West Virginia. My brothers and my mother began to email and speak with our new found relatives and soon we all realized that we had to arrange a meeting. On the weekend of April 27, 2012, twenty eight Rombergs met in Dallas, Texas, many for the first time. Anne, from Germany was there, as well as relatives from all over the US. By the end of the weekend my brothers and I were asking each other, “Why couldn’t this be the family we grew up with?” They were an amazing, warm, interesting group of people.

Audrey and I took an instant liking to Anne and as we were planning to be in Italy for a wedding in June 2012, it was decided that we would also visit Germany so that Anne could show us around some of where our family came from. We visited Anne that June, meeting her sister Doris and nephew Toby as well. Anne took us to Lengerich, where Nathan Moses Romberg lived and is buried. A little Jewish cemetery still exists in Lengerich, overgrown but unharmed. You have to get the key from the town hall to enter. So I was able to say kaddish at the grave of my great, great grandfather. We saw a house, kept as an historical landmark, that he lived in.

Anne had already started to do some research on the Romberg family and had uncovered some good records in Lengerich about Nathan and his descendants. As I have looked over the records, and spoken to various family members, the journeys of different segments of the family through the Holocaust and World War II are diverse and amazing. Even more amazing is how all these family members, who had lost contact with each others by the war, found each other, often quite randomly, during the decades after WWII. Bert contacting us was just he latest piece of a much larger puzzle. I realized that our family’s collective history is a great reflection and a refraction of Jewish history from the war years.

These stories need to be collected and preserved. So here I sit in a hotel room in Dallas, Texas, where in two hours I will begin a process of interviews to put together the family history. I do not know what all I might uncover in the next two months, but it promises to be very interesting.

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