Posts Tagged ‘German Jewish history’

The Germans are remarkably honest in their self assessment.  A museum named “A Topography of Terror” sits by a remnant of the Berlin Wall, just across the street from the former Luftwaffe ministry building of the Third Reich.  This is a massive building in which the blitz campaigns against Poland, France, and Great Britain were all planned.  The museum presents an open, factual, detailed history of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, the atrocities it committed, and the methods it used to subvert the democracy of the Weimar Republic in 1932 and 1933.

The most important element of the success of the Nazi party was how it played on people’s needs and emotions to gain popular acceptance.  It appealed to the people’s patriotism and sense of loss over World War I.  It promoted pride in German nationalism.  When finally in power, it provided just enough economic improvement to the masses to at least keep their tacit, if not vocal, support for the regime.  In such an atmosphere many Germans who had no interest in Jews and who were not necessarily anti-Semitic, became indifferent to the fate of the Jews; as the regime gave them just enough progress and just enough pride in the nation to keep them quiet.  Even keeping all of this in mind, it is important to note that between the summer elections of 1932 and the November elections of 1932, the Nazi party lost 5% of its electoral support.

In a multi party election (November 1932) Hitler and the Nazis won 32%.  They had the largest number of seats in the Reichstag so Hitler was brought into the government as chancellor.  In early 1933 the Reichstag fire precipitated the passing of a series of emergency laws giving Hitler authoritarian power.  Common knowledge holds the fire was set by the Nazis to create grounds for demanding these powers.

New elections were called; but the Social Democrats, the largest main stream party, and the Communist Party were outlawed.  The Centrist Catholic party was disbanded after the government passed laws disallowing any political party other than the Nazi party.  Leaders of opposition parties were arrested and put into the first concentration camps.  These included a number of high profile, democratically elected officials.  Any party affiliation other than the Nazi party; or any perspective voiced other than that of the Nazis, was equated with being unpatriotic.  The museum had numerous pictures of political leaders publically shamed before being sent to prison for their opposition to the Nazis.

On April 1, 1933 was the first official act against Jews in the form of a boycott of all Jewish owned businesses.  The museum is blunt in its portrayal of the persecution of Jews throughout the Nazi period as well as persecution of Gypsies and homosexuals.  People with disabilities were rounded up and executed as being a drain on the resources of the Fatherland.

On May 10, 1933 was a book burning of all books by authors the Nazis deemed as antithetical to German and Nazi ideals.   These included the works of Heinrich Heine, the inspiration of the Social Democrats.

Through the complete manipulation of the flow of information, along with providing just enough economic improvement to lift the people’s spirits; the general populace supported the Nazi regime.  But it was a support indifferent to the details of Nazi governance.  All of the major demonstrations and speeches shown on newsreels were not spontaneous, as claimed, but staged events.  As long as that minimal level of needs was being met, and as long as the German people felt the Nazis were elevating a level of German national pride, the people ignored oppressive measures.  After all, if they were not Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals or political opponents, they believed they would be left alone.  This attitude of indifference is perhaps the scariest aspect of the success of the Nazis in Germany.

What lessons do I draw from all of this?  First, any apparent overreach by the government deserves to be questioned.  Even if it is part of protecting national security, everything deserves to be questioned in a free press.  Perhaps we will be satisfied with the answers.  Perhaps the answers lead to needed reforms.  Americans must care enough to question.  Second, no group has a monopoly on patriotism or an exclusive righteousness regarding the good of the nation.  The demonizing of each other because of a political affiliation is the first step the Nazis took.   Embracing diversity in political perspectives keeps America strong.  Third, we need to condemn and fight any singling out of specific ethnic, religious, or social groups.  This is nothing but an attempt to create straw figures for the political advantage of those seeking power.  Hate radio (the Limbaughs, Becks and their hate speech) needs to be ignored, not encouraged.  Last, we need to preserve a society completely free of censorship.  All books, whether we disagree with them or find them disgusting, should be available.  The flow of opinion and information to the public must be unimpeded.  Censorship of the written word is the enemy of a free society.

It was interesting that in the accounting of oppressive measures taken by the Nazis there was NO mention of gun control.  The passing of laws depriving Jews (and some other groups) of weapons in 1938 was a sign of the success of the oppression, not the cause of the oppression.  The Nazis succeeded because they moved quickly in 1933, when they had strong popular support, to totally subvert the democratic institutions of the Weimer Republic and to pass the initial laws against Jews.  By 1938 it was too late.  Jews were subjugated and the general German population was entranced with the seeming advances the Nazis had made.

The United States also has its “topography of terror” to confront.  The enslavement of blacks, the treatment of Native Americans, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are just a few examples of sins we need to honestly assess.  But the biggest sin would be cooperation with the erosion of the freedoms of knowledge, opinion, and thought through our indifference.

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            They were a prototypical upper middle class German – Jewish family.  Karl and Irmgard Romberg along with their two young boys, Manny and Ralph lived a comfortable, assimilated life in Germany.  Karl’s business prospered well after Nazi oppression had suffocated other Jewish businesses in the 1930’s, as he was the exclusive importer of English wool in western Germany.  But, as written previously, that all changed on Kristalnacht.  Their business was ruined and Karl knew it was time for the family to leave Germany.

It is clear that Karl had planned for this eventuality.  He had spirited money off to an English bank account in his trips to meet with English suppliers.  The day after Kristalnaht Manny and Ralph were each told to pick a favorite toy and then sent to the home of their uncle Emil’s widow.  Emil was Karl’s oldest brother.  He had been arrested in 1937 by the Nazis as one of the leaders of the Social Democratic party in Essen and beaten to death.  His widow (Ralph does not remember his aunt’s name) was a short, tough woman, who cared for the boys for one week.

The boys then moved back home for one day before beginning the journey to their aunt Julie in Sweden.  Julie was Karl’s older sister, who moved to Sweden years earlier with her husband, as her husband had gotten into some legal difficulties in Germany.  The boys, travelling alone, took a train to Hamburn, then a ferry to Malmo.  They went to sleep on the boat and woke up the next morning in Sweden.  Then they took a train to Stockholm where they were not met by Julie, as she had  physical difficulties, including heart problems.

The boys lived in Sweden from late November 1938 until late May 1939.  Three weeks after arriving in Sweden it snowed and they had to learn how to cross country ski in order to go to school.  One day in early May 1939 their father called and told them they were coming back to Hamburg, where their parents met them.  They had a passage booked on the Iberia to Cuba.  The boys were back in Germany for only one day, although it might have been longer as Karl did not like the accommodations.  The Iberia was not really a passenger liner, but a combination passenger and merchant ship.  The family was booked in third class which meant sleeping in hammocks.  Karl wanted to try for another ship, but Irmgard would have nothing of that and insisted on leaving Germany immediately.  In another piece of great planning by Karl, he bought a car just before leaving Germany, loaded it on the boat to Cuba, and sold it upon arrival in Cuba.  This provided enough money for the family to live on in Cuba without touching the money banked in England.

That was a fortunate bit of planning as most of the 20 thousand Jewish refugees in Cuba lived off of money provided by the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee).  These Jews were in a difficult position as they did not see Cuba as a permanent residence, but as a way station to America.  There were many reports of suicides among these Jews.  Some could not stand being dependent on JDC welfare.  Others were depressed by their inability to get a visa to enter the United States.  This was a time in which US immigration operated under a quota system, in which some countries were favored and their immigrants did not have to wait long, whereas others, such as Eastern European countries, had to wait for years to be able to enter the US.

Life for the Rombergs, however, settled into a kind of routine.  Manny and Ralph attended a Montessori school – the Miss Phillips School.  The lessons in the morning were in Spanish and in the afternoon in English.  Ralph really liked his teacher, an American, Miss Jones.  She would drive him home after school in an old Ford with a rumble seat.  They attended a Reform synagogue led by an American rabbi who spoke Spanish.  Many of the fruits and vegetables were new and strange.  They had never seen a mango, for instance.  Ralph remembers that shopping for a chicken dinner was a unique experience.  It involved watching the butcher take a live chicken and slaughter it.  One day he went with his father to buy meat at a butcher shop.  Karl spoke no Spanish, fumbled through what he wanted and paid for the meat.  As they were walking home he realized he had not gotten his change.  He went back to the butcher and tried to ask for the change and the man said in perfect Yiddish, “Bubbela, I left it for you on the counter but you walked away.”  The butcher turned out to be a Sephardic Jew.

Karl would check with the US consulate every month about a visa to the states.  Finally, they got word they could emigrate.  They had stateless papers, which the US accepted, got physicals and prepared to enter America.  Karl decided they would go in style and booked a flight on a Pan Am clipper to Miami.  From Miami they took a train to Atlanta and then another train to Chicago, where family was waiting for them.

Karl became a Fuller Brush man for two years.  One day he called on a woman who ran him through a full presentation but did not buy anything.  As he was leaving he muttered under his breath in German, “kiss my ass.”  The woman turned out to be German and when she heard him speak German asked if he was from Germany.  When he answered yes, she bought from him.

The family did very well in Chicago.  Karl eventually opened his own ladies ready to wear store.  Both boys went to college and served in the US army.  Not all of the refugees stories were tragic.  Some, like Karl and Irmgard’s family’s, ended by living and embracing all of the hope and possibilities that America represented.  They were some of the lucky few.

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Karl Romberg was the youngest of the 13 Romberg children born to Julius and Fredericka.  In many ways he might have been the most successful, at least financially, of his generation of the family.  Karl was the exclusive importer of English wool for western Germany.  As a result, not only was he financially successful, but his business continued to prosper long after other Jewish businesses had collapsed because of Nazi inspired anti-Semitism.  This is because his partners/suppliers in England were not about to change importers in Germany just because of Nazi policies.  So Karl had a monopoly in English wool.

On trips to England, Karl would smuggle money out of Germany in the hollowed handle of a shaving brush.  He opened a bank account in England as a hedge against the day when he would have to get his family out of Germany.  He prospered.  The boycott against Jewish businesses in 1933 hardly affected him.  His suppliers and customers were loyal.  So he thrived when others did not.

But all of that ended at Kristalnacht.

Across the street from Karl and his family lived a non-Jewish man who had served with Karl in World War I.  He owned a set of garages and let Karl store his car there, as it was against the law in Essen in those days to park in the streets because of the regular street cleaning (part of the German phobia of orderliness).  One day, in November 1938, his war comrade came to Karl and told him to get out of town and hide for about 2 weeks.  The SS had him targeted and a large operation was being planned.  He told Karl not to ask him any questions about how he knew, or ask for any details, just to understand Karl was about to be targeted by the SS.

So Karl left town leaving his business (which was right below the family’s living quarters), his wife, his sons Manfred and Ralph, and their governess, a woman named Maria Jagode.  Maria Jagode’s story was rather interesting.  She was an orphan who was raised by nuns who ran a combination farm, school and cloister in a small town on the banks of the Rhine River.  Kristalnacht arrived.  The family, minus Karl listened from the living quarters upstairs as the Nazis took axes and sledge hammers to everything in the office below, completely destroying the business.

The main stairway to get to the living spaces upstairs ran from the garden in the back of the store.  Soon they heard the troopers stomping up the stairway.  The Nazis burst through the door with the intent of destroying the home as well.  Maria, the governess, intervened.  She spoke to the leader saying she was Catholic and that the family was leaving Germany soon and was giving all of their belongings to her.  She said she would appreciate it if the Nazis would not destroy what was going to be her furniture.  They bought this and left the apartment unharmed.

By June 1939 the family, intact, made it to Cuba, eventually moving to Chicago, where Manfred and Ralph grew up and went to college.   They learned that the World War I comrade of Karl’s who warned him was himself an SS officer who saw Karl’s name on a list to be rounded up that night.   Maria wrote to the family while they were living in Cuba.  Now comes an interesting post script to the story.

Ralph served a tour in Korea as an American GI.  He was then transferred to Germany.  One of the people he looked up was Maria Jagode, to try to aid her.  She told him that the nuns that raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere.  A satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

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            There is an interesting connection between my grandfather, Walter Romberg, and his younger brother Oskar.  Both originally married Jewish women.  Each fathered a son with their first wife.  Walter divorced his first wife, Martha, which is really no surprise as this was a forced marriage resulting from Martha’s pregnancy resulting in my father.  Oskar’s first wife died.  Each man then remarried in the year 1932.  The second wife of each man was Catholic, not Jewish.  Each of the women were significantly younger then their husbands – 15 and 14 years respectively.  Most strange, perhaps, is that each had the same name – Margarethe.  I cannot continue the story of the Romberg family without paying at least a small tribute to these two women.  They turned out to have much more in common than the fact they were both Catholic and had the same name.

Stop and think for a moment about the atmosphere in Germany in 1932.  While Hitler had not yet taken power, the Nazi party had grown tremendously in popularity.  A combination of the economic depression along with the humiliation most Germans felt by the victory in World War I by the allies primed the populace for the Nazi message which promised a return of German pride and power and improved economic circumstances.  Blaming the Jews for the country’s problems was not a tactic new or unique to the Nazis.  They were just more vehement and violent about it than any group previously in European history.  So even though Hitler had not yet become chancellor in 1932, that year did contain two national elections which saw huge support for the Nazis and their messages.

All of this means that even though there were no official government policies targeting Jews in 1932, hatred of Jews was certainly on the rise.  Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their desires to carry out punishment for the Jewish “crimes” against the fatherland.  Despite this certain unfriendly atmosphere for Jews, both Margarethes fell in love with and married Jewish men.  Oskar’s in-laws were not happy that their daughter married a Jew.  They warned their daughter this would lead to trouble.  These warnings did not deter her.

Even more impressive for each of the women is how they stayed with their Jewish husbands as the laws against Jews became more and more harsh.  Both endured pressure from non-Jewish Germans to divorce their husbands.  In Essen, Oskar’s wife was called into the Gestapo headquarters a number of times and told she should no longer be married to a Jew.  Cousin Anne actually showed us the building which contained the Gestapo in Essen.  It is now just a benign office building, but Anne cannot help but think of what her mother went through each time she passes it.

In Cologne, Walter’s wife endured tremendous hardship in order to stay with him.  In the face of the pressure to leave Walter she actually tried to help Jewish families being deported by preparing food for their journeys and going to the gathering camp to bring it to them.  Both women tried to help Jewish shopkeepers clean up their destroyed stores in the aftermath of Kristalnacht.

Each of the Margarethes also walked a fine line between protecting their children but not letting them forget they were the children of Jewish heritage.  After Walter died in 1942 an allied bombing raid destroyed many of the offices containing official records in Cologne.  Walter’s widow told her girls not to mention their father was Jewish.  Now there was no way to prove anything.  Yet, later on when Charlotte got involved with an informal Hitler youth group in which the girls wanted her to be a leader, her mother told her not to forget who she was or where she came from.  In Essen, Oskar’s daughter’s, Doris and Ilse, endured comments and deliberate exclusion because their father was Jewish.  One time they told their mother that they were the only children on the block not given chocolate promised by a neighbor to all of the children.  Their mom said she knew the neighbor meant to give them some and found some bread for them as a kind of “consolation” prize.

Both women endured horrid living conditions.  Walter’s widow had to contend with constant allied bombings of Cologne, and often being excluded from the bomb shelters.  She had apartments bombed along with the loss of all their possessions as well as being evacuated to Sudetenland.  Oskar’s family had to move more than 20 times.  Often Oskar was gone (probably hidden by the priest when sought by the Gestapo).  His wife sent their daughters to south Germany to be hidden, and when they were discovered she went herself to fetch them, even though she was pregnant at the time.

Both women were the glue that held their respective families together.  This clearly had to be the case for Walter’s widow after he died in 1942, but for Oskar’s wife as well, she endured many times when he was being hidden, she had to be the one who worked to support the family and of course for a number of months she was alone with her daughters while Oskar was in Theresienstadt.

So I salute and honor both Margarethe Rombergs posthumously.  They were clearly two amazing women who helped our family navigate the hardest times and circumstances one can imagine.

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            Oskar’s disappearance in November of 1944 took the family by surprise.  Perhaps they were so used to Father Vorspel successfully hiding him whenever the Gestapo sought him out.  More likely, it was simply the result of Margarethe’s having to travel to the Black Forest to bring their daughters home to Essen.  Doris and Ilse had been sent to an abbey by the priest, as he was afraid they would be taken away as Jews.  However, after a year and a half of living with the nuns, someone from Essen happened to be travelling there and recognized them.  So Margarethe went to bring them home.

But it was not an easy journey.  First of all, Margarethe was pregnant.  Secondly, Doris fell ill with appendicitis.  She was hospitalized for two weeks.  No one visited her, but one nun brought her a knitting toy.  By the time she was able to travel and Margarethe finally got her home, Oskar had disappeared and no one had any clue as to how or when it happened.  One day a neighbor had seen him.  The next he was gone.

Margarethe would visit whatever remnant of the Jewish community was left to see if any word had come of Oskar’s whereabouts.  Finally they received a post card from him in Holzmindin, a transfer camp.  Doris wrote her father a letter but heard nothing back.  Once again his location became a mystery.

In the early morning of March 13, 1945, Essen suffered a heavy bombing by the Allies.  The house that Margarethe and the girls lived in was destroyed.  They had made it to the bomb shelter underneath the house but lay trapped there, under the rubble until 3 in the afternoon.  Now, with no place of their own and their possessions destroyed, they were fortunate that a theology student by the name of Theo Borges had room for them in his apartment.  But still, there was no word of Oskar.

By the end of March, 1945 the Americans arrived in Essen.  Margarethe had saved one of the yellow Jewish stars that Oskar had worn.  She showed it to the Americans who then took pity on them and treated them with great kindness, spoiling the girls with chocolates and treats.  But still no word of Oskar, even though the Jewish community was able to begin to function once again and Margarethe checked with them constantly.

Finally, after yet one more visit to the Jewish authorities, a neighbor hailed Margarethe as she was returning, saying, “Mrs. Romberg, something always happens while you are away.”  At their door was a piece of cloth, a rag really, with Oskar’s handwriting.  The note simply said, “my dear wife and dear children, I will soon be with you but I am still very weak.  My friend and I 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 taken to Theresienstadt.  The Russians liberated the camp just two days before he was scheduled to be gassed.  Oskar was free to go but needed to recover some strength, as he weighed only 85 pounds.  Oskar was given food rations and cigarettes.  After a few weeks he began the journey back to Essen partly on foot and partly by hitchhiking on trucks.  Oskar missed his wife tremendously and did not want to return to her empty handed.  He hoarded his cigarettes and then traded them for a cut glass set of a creamer, small bowl and tray to give Margarethe.  Doris has the set in her cupboard even today.

Oskar spoke very little about Theresienstadt.  He only would say that they always needed to treat people well, with respect.  The only stories he told were ones with a touch of humor.  For example, one day a group of prisoners had to paint a barracks.  They found some potatoes and hid them in the paints so the guards would not confiscate them.  Later, they cleaned them off and made a small fire to fry them.

When Doris got married and had her first child, Andrea, Oskar would only say how lucky the child was to be able to live in a safe time in which she would never see the experiences that Oskar had seen.  His grandson would not have to live on the edge.

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            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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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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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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