The Neue Synagogue of Stalerstrasse was consecrated in 1913 from Edmund Körner’s designs, and was Essen’s cultural and social epicenter for the 4500 Jews around town. With its four striking copper cupolas,
it was considered one of Europe’s largest and architecturally significant synagogues of all time.
Twenty-five years later, the synagogue burned at the hands of Nazis on the eve of Kristallnacht, while onlookers could only watch in horror and dismay.
Fire engines stood guard as a precaution in case adjacent buildings should accidentally catch fire while the synagogue continued to burn.
Although the synagogue’s interior was plundered, vandalized and badly scarred by fire,
and intense Allied bombing scored direct hits on the Krupp artillery and munitions factory nearby,
the exterior of the synagogue miraculously survived against a backdrop of rubble.
My mother’s family worshipped at the Neue Synagogue from the time her parents settled in Essen in 1919. One of her earliest memories was sitting in the chapel listening to her father chant the Sabbath prayers from the bimah.
By 1988, the synagogue had been restored to its original splendor, and to the world, represented a shining memorial of the German resistance.
In August, 1999, despite my mother’s solemn vow to never return to Germany, her views were softened by Essen City Council’s olive branch of restitution, and she accepted their invitation to once again visit the synagogue she loved, and reflect on her upbringing. Twenty years later, Essen City Council officially decreed the Alte Synagogue as a “House of Jewish Culture.” Following my visit to Bergen-Belsen, I met with Martina Strehlen, the Deputy Head of Research Collections of the Old Synagogue to experience this cultural landmark, the origin of my mother’s Jewish roots, and to review specific archival materials. Martina clearly recalled my mother’s visit 20 years ago, and eagerly shared copies of artifacts she had donated to the research center’s collection.
Afterwards, I stood in the warm sun for a time and marveled at the significance of the Old Synagogue sharing a courtyard with the Church of Peace.
I was nearing the end of my journey, but there was one last deed to fulfill. Before returning my rental car to Amsterdam, I would first stop at the Jewish Cemetery of Diemen, located just outside Amsterdam’s city limits, and search for my grandfather’s grave.
Records indicate that Mnil Strawczynski was cremated on September 5, 1943, and his remains were transferred to Field U–a remote and overgrown plot of closely stacked headstones memorializing the 400 urns from Westerbork Transit Camp during Nazi occupation.
Walking the cemetary alone against a gray souless sky, I felt a odd closeness to someone I had never met, but had come to know through scattered remnants of research.
But I was no closer to the closure I was seeking.
With each stone unturned, a mountain of questions have been unearthed,
yet the answers are as obscure as the inscriptions on these markers.
A recent two-week trip abroad was much more than a European romp through a handful of city centers. My mission was ambitious: to gather relevant data on my mother’s ancestry that has thus far proved elusive, and reconnect with family across the Atlantic whom I haven’t seen in nearly 48 years.
My itinerary took me through the highlands of Scotland, to the canals of Holland, to the Rhineland of Germany,
with travel hubs in Edinburgh,
before taking a breath, and finishing strong as a tourist in Brussels,
Each stop was consequential in my quest to uncover vital research of my mother’s epic escape from Nazi Germany, and the endless road taken to reunite her broken family.
This was not an easy trip, but I could sense that during the planning stage. Yet, preparing myself for the inevitable and predictable emotional turmoil was balanced by the prospect of discovery–knowing that every step was taking me closer to connecting the dots.
Starting in the UK, I then worked my way back in time to The Netherlands, and eventually Germany–where it all began–but it was Amsterdam that proved most pivotal in my discovery and the epicenter of my travels, because it was Amsterdam that first offered safe harbor and hope for two young sisters, who until then, only had each other.
It was in Amsterdam that my long-distance cousin Jude and I began to fill in the missing pieces.
It so happened that a landmark exhibit of rare photographs at Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Museum coincided with our visit, and immediately became a must-see.
A large number of photos were taken by professional photographers, mostly commissioned by German authorities for use as propaganda.In addition, there were also countless amateurs who photographed the persecution and deportation of the Jews.The NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) manages by far the largest photo collection on this theme and conducted extensive research into the visual history of the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands.Countless archives at home and abroad were consulted;this has led to the discovery of many still unknown photos. The exhibition shows a large and representative overview of the photographic recording of the persecution of the Jews.The images show in a penetrating and confronting way, the consequences of the anti-Jewish measures in the occupied Netherlands.They bear witness to the merciless behavior of the German occupiers, the cooperation of the Dutch in the deportations, but also the help to people in hiding and to the daily Jewish life during the occupation.In addition, attention is paid to the post-war reception of the few survivors from the camps and those who returned from hiding.
First greeted with a timeline of events,
we proceeded through an open-air corridor and into a subdued chamber, where mostly elderly patrons followed a photographic progression of Holland’s involvement in the war, and its impact on the Jewish population:
Experiencing the exhibit was numbing to my core, but still my senses were on high alert. What were my chances, I wondered, that of the 140,000 remaining Jews in Holland from 1940-1945, I might find a photograph of my grandmother stitching an article of clothing…
for the Jewish Council,
to match up with one of the few yarns she used to tell me when I was so much younger and unappreciative of her travails?
Perhaps, she could be the proper woman in the gray coat with the straight back walking the lane between barracks in Westerbork.
Or might I recognize her in a crowd of 2,500 faces that was awaiting one of three “death trains” to Theresienstadt after the Nazi command realized that the Allies were only days away from liberating Bergen-Belson on April 15, 1945.
At times, I used my camera as a shield to protect me from the full impact of the horror behind the photographs, thinking that if I could position myself as someone who is solely documenting the documents, than I could better insulate myself from the madness that she and so many others must have experienced.
An interactive Remembrance Wall occupied a room by the Museum foyer, encouraging patrons to search its ever-evolving database for the names and dates of Jewish victims who perished in Holland.
As a tribute to my unknown maternal grandfather Mnil…
I entered his name into the query window. He never survived Westerbork, and I had a quiet moment of reflection and gratitude for his courage to save his family before himself.
A two-hour drive to Kamp Westerbork with Jude did nothing to assuage my feelings of emptiness and sadness, but the site was ironically enlightening and beautifully serene.
Once at the memorial museum, we were greeted by a train of suitcases, representing the cycle of detainees that the Dutch pushed through Westerbork over the years,
with an emphasis on the plight of 102,000 Jews who sacrified their lives, all for the sake of a twisted manifesto of hatred.
Jude and I met Guido, the senior conservator of the museum at the museum cafe,
where he eagerly shared news and theories of our grandfather’s demise and our grandmother’s salvation through a collection of registration documents.
Two miles away, the hallowed grounds of the memorial can be reached on foot or by bus. Mostly empty space and green fields for an array of radio telescopes,
it nevertheless showcases a collection of iconic relics from the war that survived the Dutch government’s demolition of the camp in the 1960s.
There is a glass enclosure protecting the Commandant’s quarters;
an original boxcar that stands as a testament to the 84 trains that transported Jews to Auschwitz and Sobibor,
where nearly all of the 94,643 persons deported were killed on arrival;
a monument to the 102,000 Jews of The Netherlands who passed through Westerbork…
and lost their lives;
the remnants of a barrack;
and a guard tower standing beside a metaphoric railbed.
I drifted from display to display, as if being involuntarily directed like a Ouija board peg–believing that I was somehow being programmed to walk in the footsteps of my grandparents.
Upon return to Amsterdam, Jude and I strolled through the Jewish District, walking past the Portuguese Synagogue, an imposing Baroque structure completed in 1675, where most certainly, our family would have prayed, but sadly, never as a family;
and along Weesperstraat, past the Monument of Jewish Gratitude,
where a controversial limestone edifice will soon be replaced by Daniel Libeskind’s Shoah Memorial.
From there, we strolled in search of the Burgerweeshius,
once the landmark orphanage that sheltered our moms after they were transported from Soesterberg…
and now home to the Amsterdam Museum.
For one moment, I thought I could hear the faint and familiar sound of children playing in the courtyard–playing tag around the tree, and playing soccer across the herringbone pavers.
Amsterdam had much to offer. Walking through the city, I felt an eerie sense of belonging–not because of the dissonance of grief–past or present–but the resonance of a shared understanding brought about by reconnecting with my cousin, Jude and the revelation that Amsterdam’s secrets have become an open book of acknowledgement and remembrance.
The towering Tannenbaum on the snow-dusted platz was a magnificent specimen to behold. The balsam fir rose twenty-five meters to the heavens and stretched fifteen meters across the plaza to form a perfectly proportioned arrow. All its weighty boughs pointed upwards, carrying full and fluffy branches, making it a remarkable holiday centerpiece for the city plaza from any angle–especially the approach to the Hauptbahnhof. However, the Tannenbaum, despite its natural beauty, was infected with garish red lights and glistening Nazi ornaments from bottom to top,
and crowned with a giant Germanic sun wheel–transforming the setting into a propaganda postcard.
Tragically, the accompanying nativity scene of baby Jesus and the Magi was replaced by a winter solstice display of heather, hay and holly, with candles arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. Boys from Hitler Youth and girls from the League formed an outside circle around the tree, serenading family, friends, and bystanders with their harmonious rendition of Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was a disgrace.
There was a time as a young boy, when my favorite holiday of the year was the day before Christmas. Papa always waited until the day before Christmas to cut down a tree of our own, because “the customer always comes first!” he would say. On the day before Christmas, I would wake early and wait for Papa to walk with me into the wald, although I was usually one step behind him, struggling to carry an axe as tall as me.
We would cross the empty patches of forest together in search of the perfect tree that would satisfy Mama–not too big, and not too small. If I came upon a tree that I liked, I would drop the axe and run to it. “Is this the one, Papa?” I’d ask. At which point, Papa would indicate his answer with either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”
I figured Papa to be a very particular man, because most of my early choices were often rejected. But he taught me what to look for when selecting the perfect Tannenbaum. Papa would eventually approve my pick of tree, and always gave me the first whack at it with his axe–although in the beginning, I hardly ever made a dent in the bark.
When we got the tree home, the house would smell just like aBäckerei1, because Mama was usually in the middle of baking her special Bethmännchen2. But she always stopped whatever she was doing at the time to evaluate our selection and deliver her ruling, even though she always awarded Papa with a “thumbs up.”
Once Papa secured the tree, he could retire to his chair by the fire for a snooze, while I sipped hot cocoa and glazed the cookie tips with shokolade–deliberately managing to get my fingers as dirty as possible, just so I could lick them clean. Then it was time to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries together until my fingers were sore from being pricked so often.
An hour before dinner, Papa was usually awake, which gave our family plenty of time to trim the tree. When the last ornament was hung and the final garland was draped across the tree, it was my job–sitting astride Papa’s shoulders–to place the Star of Bethlehem atop the tree.
After enjoying Mama’s amazing Christmas dinner of roasted squabs stuffed with apples, dates and sausage, and served with giant helpings of sweet red cabbage and spaetzle3, we would attend Christmas Eve vigil at St. Lambertus, where I was an altar boy, and sang carols in the choir. And when we returned from church, Mama would serve her Christmas Stollen4 with spiced cider for dessert, and I would open presents.
But today it’s completely different–to the point where I no longer crave the need for a family tree–realizing that the sanctity and meaning of Christmas has been replaced by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Collectively, the Aryan nation has effectively and systematically stripped Christ from Christmas. For Christ’s sake, they even rewrote the words to my favorite and most sacred Christmas hymn:
Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, all is bright. Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight, Watches o’er Deutschland by day and by night, Guiding our nation aright. Guiding our nation aright.
“That fir may have come from one of Papa’s earliest seedlings,” I lamented to Ilse.
“If he only knew what the Nazis have done to his finest tree, he would roll over in his grave,” answered Ilse.
“Heil, Hitler!” I heard from behind.
Riding horseback and approaching on my right was Oberpräsident Terboven, astride a stunning black gelding with an oversized swastika button on its bridle.
Ilse greeted him with a cautious nod. “Frohe Weihnachten5, Herr Terboven!”
1bakery 2marzipan cookies 3dumplings 4traditional fruitcake 5Merry Christmas
The wagon wheels traced two perfect lines in the snow as we rolled along the country road. Once the flurries had stopped, and the wind had died down, the crisp air had lost its bite, and riding in the back of the wagon with Eva became more enjoyable. Nevertheless, I was ever so grateful for the double clothes under my coat.
I thought for a minute about what Abba and Eema had sewn behind the buttons of our coats, and massaged one of them through my mittens, but felt nothing out of the ordinary, which made me wonder if anything was even there.
“How’s everyone doing back there,” Onkel Max called out.
“Alles gut1,” I answered back.
“I have to pishn2, Onkel Max,” shouted Eva.
“Really Pony? We haven’t been on the road for more than fifteen minutes,” I asserted.
“But the ride is bumpy and my insides are nervous, Bertie.”
“Is it an emergency?” I asked.
“That’s a silly question,” she shot back.
“We have to stop for a minute, Onkel Max,” I yelled.
“Perfekt3!” he responded. I detected the resignation in his voice.
If anybody had passed us on the road, they would have noticed a middle-aged woman standing beside a horse and wagon, holding Shaina Maidel’s red blanket in stretched out arms. But on the other side of the blanket there was Eva and me, creating two yellow circles in the snow.
All things considered, we were back on the road in no time at all, and with plenty of time before our 10:00 a.m. departure, provided we didn’t have to stop again for Eva.
“We are approaching the town road, so it’s time to cover up,” instructed Onkel Max.
I pulled the red blanket over our bodies which magically made us invisible to the rest of the world. Occasionally, a burst of sunlight would bounce around inside our igloo world, washing Eva’s face with streaks of red light, and then she’d turn invisible again.
“Are you nervous, Bertie?” asked Eva.
“About what, Pony?” I considered.
“About taking care of me,” she answered. I thought I saw a glint of her sly smile.
“Should I be?” I was getting nervous.
“Well, Abba thinks I’m a handful,” she boasted.
“For me, it all depends on what’s inside your hand,” I suggested. “For instance, if your hand is filled with dirt and worms, then I guess I’m a bissel nervous. But if your hand is filled with shokolad4 and raisins, then there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
“What if my hand was filled with shokolad worms?”
“That’s a silly example. Who doesn’t like shokolad worms?”
Eva cracked up and so did I. I think that being outdoors for the first time in a month probably made us a bit giddy.
“I can hear you from out here,” shouted Tante Ilse. “You will need to keep your voices down since we’re approaching der platz5 in eine Minute6.“
“Okay, Tante Ilse!” shouted Eva.
I shook her leg to get her attention. “Remember. You’re a handful of shokolad.”
“And now it’s all melted and gooey,” she claimed, and mimed a hand smear on my coat.
“Not another word!” I hissed with an edge.
“Okay. I’ll stop.” she said abruptly.
After another flash of light under the blanket, I caught a flash of Eva zipping her lips.
1All good, just fine 2pee 3perfect 4chocolate 5square 6one minute
The first time I met Max Köhler, he came to the shop for two funeral suits–one for himself and one for his father, who was planting seedlings on his property at the time a heavy storm suddenly swept through the area and caused a big tree to crash down on him. He was being buried the next day in Heisinger cemetery, so the suits had to be rushed. Although Max was short on gelt1 at the time, we worked out an equitable arrangement that made my Shaina Maidel very happy on her seventh birthday.
Our friendship deepened over the years that followed, and we never hesitated to help each other or ask the other for help when it mattered. Yet I could not think of asking Max and Ilsa to risk their lives for us when the Nazis intensified their crusade against the Jews…but then, I didn’t have to. Max and Ilsa insisted on helping, and volunteered to shepherd us through our personal nightmare.
Of course, it so happens that Max comes from a long line of earth shepherds who have tilled the same twenty hectares of forest for generations. According to Max, his sliver of land was originally bestowed by a knight from the house of Broich to an ancestral squire who had saved his knight’s life in battle. Max has continued in his father’s mold, living in a 200 year-old stone farmhouse amidst a field of shrubs and trees he’s raised for commercial landscapers and residential gardeners.
Once the great reservoir was completed in ‘33, families throughout Westphalia would traditionally day-trip to the farm before Christmas, scouting here and there for their special fir tree in the forest and chop it down. Then they were off to explore the nearby castle, Schloss Shellenberg2, and finish the day with a boat ride on the Baldeneysee3. Likewise, the farm became our escape from city life most every Sunday, but because of the Köhlers, it also became our salvation…although, the thought of Tannenbaums4 filling out in the fields was giving us shpilkes5.
The first Shabbos at the farm was a true celebration. Gott sei danke!6, we were all together and we were safe. We davened; we sang; we danced; and we passed around a bottle of shnaps7. But as we got closer to Christmas, it was impossible to know how long our luck would last. On those days we lived in fear, wondering if the Nazis would arrive one day and separate our family, while the goyim were enjoying the fresh smell of pine on their axes.
Those were the days we had to be extra careful, considering the steady flow of traffic to the area. Those were the days we went deeper into hiding. Those were the days we prayed the hardest…but not on Hanukkah! Hanukkah, was different.
Living underneath the farmhouse kitchen was never easy, but we never complained. On days when the farm was open, the four of us hunkered into a crawl space and we kept very still. Bare bulbs hung from the center floor beam, lighting a path to the end of the wall, where a hanging sheet concealed a tall metal milk can meant for doing our business. Mattresses lined the dirt floor on one side of the beam, while the other side of the floor was used for storage and seating. Usually, Eva would draw and I would read, while Abba and Eema stitched special linings into our winter coats spread across the mattresses.
We studied in silence—under the kitchen floor—until we got the “all clear” signal from Onkel Max and Tante Ilse. We listened for three taps on the floor, after which Eva and I would race to remove the false floor under the kitchen sink cabinet and collect hugs from Onkel and Tante on the other side.
We lived without contact from the outside world—except for whatever news Onkel Max or Tante Ilse brought us whenever one of them returned from town. They would alternate, going every other day for supplies, so one of them was always around should there ever be an unexpected delivery or a visitor to the farm.
“What was it like in town today?” we’d ask, the moment we emerged from hiding.
We hung on every word. One day we learned about a boy on a bike who was hit by a tram while crossing the tracks. There was also news of the grand re-opening of Karstadt Department Store after the looting. On another day, we heard that Hirshland Bank was taken over by the Nazis. And we couldn’t believe that the Nazis were taxing Jewish people for the destruction of Jewish property on what was now being called Kristallnacht.
On December 10, Onkel Max came back from town with a surprise package for us, but he wouldn’t say what it was—only that it was special and it was dirty. Eva and I took turns guessing the contents of the sack, but Onkel Max was shtum8. Eema accepted the sack and disappeared with Abba. They soon reappeared carrying a blackened hanukkiah9 with candles in all eight branches, including the shamash10.
“Yippee! It’s Hanukkah!” gasped Eva.
“But it’s only the first night, and all the candles are staged,” I objected.
“Nevermind!” We are mazldik11 and brukh12 to celebrate when so many others have nothing but tsoris13,” Eema defended.
“Tonight we celebrate for all eight days, and for all the Jews who are unable,” Abba informed.
“Can I help light the candles, Abba?” Eva asked eagerly.
“Absolut14!” agreed Eema. “Tonight, all of us light all the candles.
Eema set the candelabra on the kitchen table, and lit the shamash, holding it as she recited, “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu l’had’lik neir shel Chanukah. Amein15.”
Eema handed the shamash to Eva with instructions, “Start on the left side, mein lib. Tsvey18 leyts19, and pass the shamash to Berte.”
Eva lit two candles and passed the shamash to me. Eema instructed, “Tsvey leyts, and pass the shamash to Abba.
I did as Eema asked, and the shamash rotated from Abba to Tante Ilse to Onkel Max and back to Eema, with each one taking a turn until the hanukkiah was aglow.
Afterwards, I helped Eema and Ilse in the kitchen, and we enjoyed a delicious holiday meal of brisket, tzimmes20 and latkes21. We ate by the light of the menorah, and for one shining moment everything in the world seemed normal, until a knock on the front door.
1money 2Shellenberg Castle 3largest of six Ruhr resevoirs 4fir trees 5anxiety 6Thank God! 7liquor 8silence 9Hanukkah candelabra 10helper 11lucky 12blessed 13trouble 14absolutely 15Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. Amen 16Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season. Amen 17Praised are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. Amen 18two 19lights 20Jewish stew of sweetened vegetables 21potato pancakes
Abba and Eema had a plan. They knew one day the Nazis would come for us, and we needed to be prepared when that day should arrive. So on Sundays for the past few months — when the goyim1 were at church — we would practice our escape to Venlo, where Abba kept a small storage room above a shop on Jodenstraat. We pretended to make it look like an innocent outing in the countryside, but it never seemed right to me. I couldn’t pretend how unfair it was that we should lose everything that Abba and Eema had worked so hard to achieve just because we were Jewish.
Ordinarily, Eema packed a lunch, and we’d gather inside the delivery van with our empty suitcases and drive to the farm on the edge of town where Shaina Maidel lived. While I spent a few minutes with my horse, the rest of the family moved merchandise from the van to the trunk of Abba’s Opel. Then we were on the road again. We would drive to Duisburg, and enjoy Eema’s picnic on the grassy hill overlooking the riverbank where the Ruhr flows into the Rhine. We would nosh2 on Eema’s cold chicken leftovers while watching the steamboats navigate the confluence.
Afterwards, we would cross the German border into Venlo–a small Dutch town with a small Jewish district–where Abba thought we would be safe from the Nazis. If Eva and I helped Abba carry his merchandise from the Opel to the second floor storage without complaining, he would buy us something sweet from the Kosher bakery on the ground floor.
Sunday was a good day to cross over. There was less traffic on Sundays, and fewer guards at the border crossing where we’d always have to stop and show our papers. Abba’s and Eema’s papers were different from mine and Eva’s because our nationality was German, and theirs was Polish, so it always took a little bit longer to sort things out at the checkpoint. This was the riskiest time during the trip.
Eva and I knew from Abba and Eema to be extra quiet when we got to the border so as not to attract attention. Sometimes, Eva and I would make a game of it so she wouldn’t be so frightened. We would imagine what the guard looked like standing outside the gate in his underwear, but Abba said we should take it more seriously. Of course he was right, because things didn’t go as planned in what was to be our last practice before the Kristallnacht3 pogrom shattered the night.
On this day our suitcases were packed, and we had more than the usual cargo in the trunk. When we approached the checkpoint gate, we slowly rolled past an older man laying on the ground outside his open car. He was trying to cover up and protect himself from a soldier who was beating him bloody with a rifle stock. With each jab of his rifle the soldier was yelling something obscene. Eva couldn’t help herself. She got upset and started to cry.
“Why are they doing that to the man?” she wailed.
I tried to quiet her by cradling her under the picnic blanket. “You have to keep your voice down, Eva. If you don’t, they’re going to catch us.”
But I couldn’t completely stop her from whimpering. As I peeled away the blanket, I noticed the guard glaring at me through the backseat window as we came to a stop in front of the guardhouse. Abba rolled down his window to present our papers. With every turn of the page, the guard scrutinized our identities against our pictures. When he got to Eva’s papers, he demanded to see her face, still hidden beneath the blanket.
“Show yourself!” he ordered.
Abba tried to explain. “I apologize, officer. She’s not feeling very well. We are on our way to see a doctor in Venlo about her condi…”
“Silence!” the guard interrupted. A loud gunshot rang out behind us near the old man on the ground, and I willed myself to ignore it.
The guard returned his attention to the backseat. “I said show yourself!”
All of which intensified Eva’s crying. She slowly pulled the blanket away from her face to reveal her swollen red eyes filled with tears.
The guard returned to Abba, impatiently tapping our folded papers against his gloved hand. “Juden!?” he expressed more than he asked. The guard already knew the answer to his question, having noticed the “J” on Abba’s passport before the exchange.
“Yes, officer,” confessed Abba, his voice filled with resignation.
Handing back our papers, “You will not be continuing into Nederlands,” he informed. “You will turn around and return to Essen. Do you understand?”
“Yes, officer. Thank you, officer.” Abba accepted our passports, rolled up his window, and u-turned the Opel in the direction of home. I instinctively shielded Eva’s eyes as we drove past the beaten driver who was laying perfectly still in a small pool of blood from a bullet to his head.
Usually, after returning home from Venlo, Eema would prepare dinner while Eva and I would listen to Abba’s critique of our performance during the escape drill. “You can’t be just a little bit right,” he’d say emphatically. “You have to be one hundred percent right, as if your life depended on it!”
And how do you get to one hundred percent?” Eema always quizzed from the kitchen.
“You have to learn from your mistakes,” I would state with assurance.
“Right you are!” asserted Abba. “And what do you think would happen if I always made one hoyzn4 leg longer than the other?”
Now it was Eva’s turn to answer. “We would lose all our customers, Abba, and then we’d end up in the poorhouse with the other beggars.”
It was a scary thought, but not as scary as the encounter with the guard. On that night, Abba didn’t have anything to say at all. He kept to himself, smoking his pipe and reading the paper in his favorite armchair. Eva cautiously approached him and climbed into his lap, forcing him to adjust his newspaper.
“I’m sorry, Abba. I didn’t mean to cry. It’s just that when I saw that man being hit by the soldier, I imagined that he was doing that to you.”
That evening, Abba explained that hatred towards Jews was increasing, and it was just a matter of time before the German soldiers became more aggressive. He was already aware of several instances of Jews being arrested and deported back to Poland. “Your mother and I are very worried about your welfare, so we decided that this time we were leaving Essen for good and going to stay in Nederlands. But I guess it didn’t work out that way.”
Eva locked her long arms around him and held him closely. “That’s okay, Abba. At least we’re all together.”
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 Jewish ceremony, and boarded a train to Essen, where a second cousin, once removed could offer them a fresh start.
Menil and Ruchel’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?”
1hurry up 2mother 3father 4synagogue 5new 6expressed pride 7prayer shawls 8praying 9The Great Synagogue 10Sabbath celebration 11dowry 12pretty girl 13Oh, my! 14fortunately 15Sabbath