The crash of shattered glass from the haberdashery shop below, and the chorus of discordant shrieks that followed was enough to drive Eva into Berte’s bed. With the covers pulled over their heads, the two sisters — almost four years apart — huddled together in darkness, listening in silence to a din of destruction coming from the street outside their bedroom window.
At once, the printed ponies on the quilt came to life from the flickering light that shone through the fabric that momentarily managed to insulate them from the unknown and the unthinkable, and they delighted in the illusion until Eema barged in and broke the spell.
“Mach schnell1, girls!” she commanded, the urgency quaking in her voice, “Grab a sweater and your dress coats. We have to move quickly. It’s not safe here.”
“Where are we going, Eema2?” asked Berte, peering out from under the blankets, but Eema was already out the door screaming something inaudible to Abba3 down the hall.
“Look Bertie!” Eva was tugging on Berte’s pajamas from behind.
“Not now, Eva! We have to listen to Eema.”
“But Bertie, the shul’s4 on fire!”
They ran to the window looking out from Ribbeckstrasse — their attention drawn to the commotion across the street.
Flames were darting through the top floor windows while white smoke billowed from the stone arches surrounding the facade. People gathered to gaze at the spectacle — as if in a trance — but nobody lent a hand to douse the blaze.
The Neue5 Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews in town. The imposing freestanding stone monument with four striking copper cupolas was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs,
and considered to be one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time. Built to accommodate 1,400 worshipers, Bertha often kvelled6 at the size of the sanctuary. She marveled at the symmetry of the polished organ pipes above the altar, and how its acoustics would carry her from her seat beside Eema in the women’s gallery to the soaring dome high above her — as distant as the sky — where she could still hear the whispers of the men cloaked in talllit7 who were davening8 on the floor below.
Eema also adored the Neue Synagogue, although she claimed that Piotrkow’s Wielka Synagogue9 outside Lodz easily rivaled its beauty and immensity.
It was there, at the August Oneg Shabbat10–of-the-month social, that Eema first met Abba. The year was 1914, and Menil Strawszinski and Rochel Kolski were teenagers at the time. As the daughter and son of textile workers, their families thought Menil the perfect button to Rochel’s bow, and arranged a meeting for them at the Great Synagogue that night. However, they found themselves in the midst of a regional struggle for Lodz, with Nicholas II and Wilhelm II threatening the peace.
During the Oneg celebration, a gang of Russian Imperial soldiers entered the synagogue under the guise of conducting a mission to uncover the whereabouts of a hidden telephone with a direct link to the German command. Unable to substantiate their claim, the soldiers ransacked the room and roughed up several of the members who dared to interfere with their “investigation”. Menil’s pride was wounded, but most of all, his bruises and bloody nose were a reminder of the capricious violence that surrounded them.
Turmoil in Lodz continued under German occupation from 1915 until the end of the war, when the Polish state was re-established on November 11, 1918 and Poland’s independence was restored. But peace was ephemeral. Soon after, military conflict resumed when Polish armies pushed hard against Ukraine’s eastern borders — intended as a bulwark against future encroachment by the Soviets, who viewed Poland as a pathway to sowing seeds of communism in vulnerable post-war Germany.
On New Year’s Day, 1919, Menil turned 21, and two months later became eligible for compulsory conscription when the Sejm of the Republic of Poland enacted the Provisional Statute on Mandatory Military Service for all male citizens. With anti-Semitism flourishing through the ranks of the armed forces, and an uncertain future awaiting him at the Ukrainian frontline, Menil knew what he had to do. With their parents’ blessings, and a modest nadn11 of a sewing machine and seven bolts of wool fabric from the Kolski’s, Menil and Rochel were married in a quiet ceremony, and boarded a train to Essen, where a second cousin, once removed could offer them a fresh start.
Menil and Rochel’s migration to North Rhine-Westphalia was typical of thousands of other Jewish Poles who fled a fragile and defeated Eastern European landscape, hastened by the political instability and famine created by The Great War and the Russian Revolution.
They arrived in Essen — under an opportunistic umbrella of social acceptance and religious tolerance — eager to capitalize on a climate of post-war possibilities, with hopeful prospects of putting down roots. Living by Jewish tenets of hard work and the value of education, coupled with their Christian neighbors’ encouragement and cooperation, the Jews of Essen seamlessly assimilated into a world of German mercantilism, and became an accepted part of Germany’s middle class.
At first, Menil worked two years for his second cousin as a pattern cutter and a tailor, while Rochel helped with the books and ordered the notions, but their dream was always to open their own retail shop in the city center. Their break came when Moishe Samuels invited Menil to his shop on Ribbeckstrasse to help him cut custom suits for the famed Hirschland family, a leader in Essen’s Jewish community and the world of finance. In fact, it was Isaac Hirschland, the family elder, who originally recommended the location down the road where the Neue Synagoue would subsequently be built.
After two years of working for Moishe and living in a small one-room flat above the store, Menil and Rochel arrived at the crossroads of their future. Moishe Samuels passed away after a prolonged battle with liver cancer, and Menil and Rochel acquired the business from his widow. They expanded into ready-to-wear menswear and boys clothing, with an emphasis on custom tailoring, and became the first in the area to showcase double-breasted jackets as part of their fashion line — all of which guaranteed the store’s success for years to come.
Not that there weren’t setbacks. The rising tide of German nationalism — as a response to communist rhetoric and activity — catapulted the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into power in 1933, resulting in an anti-Semitic city manifesto calling for random arrests of Jewish citizens, Jews to be fired from their jobs (regardless of their prominence), and Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted.
Strawszinski’s Haberdashery survived an initial wave of Nazi attacks on Jewish merchants, but repeated discrimination and Nazi-sponsored decrees took its toll on Menil’s bottom-line. His customer base was slowly shrinking, his supply lines were becoming unreliable, and his shipments were being poached by corrupt officials. There were times when Menil and Rochel felt like giving up, but where could they go? Everything that was theirs was invested in the shop, and now they had a family to consider.
Berte had just turned seven — the year Hitler was elected as Chancellor — and Menil cherished her with all his being. She would pretend to help him around the shop after school — dusting the mannequins, picking up loose pins, and sweeping the floor. She was his shaina maidel12. Just last year, she had requested that he buy her a horse for her sixth birthday, and he couldn’t disappoint her. They drove to a local barn on the edge of town, and he let her pick out whichever one she wanted. Of course, Menil had already made the necessary arrangements with the farmer ahead of time, so Berte’s pick was limited, but she had to have the chestnut mare with the white face, and she named her Shaina Maidel.
Eva, on the other hand, was still in diapers at age 3, and clung to Rochel as if her life depended on it. There was no putting her down for fear of a crying storm that would only abate when she was back in Rochel’s arms. Menil and Eva had a different kind of bond. He felt he knew her heart better than anyone, even Eema. Maybe it was because they shared the same birthday. Or maybe it was because she always knew how to grab Abba’s attention when he was unhappy, and cheer him up. But oy13, the crying! Gott sei Dank14, Berte could console Eva long enough to allow Eema to light and bless the Shabbos15 candles.
It was 1938. Strawszinski’s Haberdashery had managed to survive, and even boasted a modest 15-year anniversary celebration, but now the store was being looted by a riotous mob, and the shul was burning.
Tears welled up in Eva’s eyes, and her voice quivered. “Why isn’t anybody putting out the fire? And where are we going to pray on Shabbat?”
9The Great Synagogue