Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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 His office was piled high with papers of all kinds – newspapers, magazines, books, historical documents and ledgers filled with names, dates and statistics of every sort.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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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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