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.
I drove the back roads to the farm with the van’s headlights off as a general precaution. Leaders of the Jewish community had informed me earlier in the evening that the Nazis were on high alert–canvassing the roads and making hundreds of arrests across town. The last thing Rochel and I needed was for something to go wrong.
There was no reason to return to the house and the store. It wasn’t safe there anymore, and anything of value had probably been stolen, destroyed or tossed into the street. At least we managed to grab the important things, like our coats and our papers before the pogrom spread through the neighborhood like a virus.
Packed suitcases and my sewing machine from Lodz were already in the back of the van (from our last attempt), hidden under a mattress of worsted wool that my angels were now using as bedding. Glancing back at them, both girls appeared to be fast asleep. It melted my heart.
Whispering, “This is not what we planned, Rochel. This is not how we intended to protect the kinder1.”
“I know, Manny. But it’s too risky to hide them at the farm. In fact, it’s not safe anywhere in Germany, right now. We’ll have a talk with them in the morning.”
Eema pulled the barn doors apart in darkness. The van quietly coasted into the open barn, and pulled up beside the Opel. Abba shut off the engine, exited the van, and joined Eema in securing the barn doors with a heavy chain through the handles of both doors. Eema approached the back of the van and swung open the back doors before Abba could stop her. Whispering, “Rochel, let’s not disturb them. Let the kindershluffen2 a bissel3.” Eema nodded. She reached inside for the picnic blanket and spread it across our curled- up bodies, up to our faces.
I tried to stifle it, but I couldn’t help but sneeze. Eva stirred for an instant, but remained asleep.
“Gesundheit4!” Eema answered reflexively. She paused for a moment and sniffled, “Lang Lebn5 my beauty,” before turning away.
I watched through the windshield as they slowly walked arm-in-arm to the front of the barn with a familiar closeness, and slipped into darkness.
1children 2sleep 3a small amount 4health/ bless you 5long life
“It’s not practice anymore,” I reminded Eva. “Remember, we need to be 100 percent!”
“I know, Bertie!”
I held her hand firmly as we wove through the growing crowd surrounding the synagogue entrance. Abba and Eema led the way, clearing a path for us, and we followed close behind.
We crossed over to the other side of the shul as a squad of brown-shirted hooligans kicked open the temple doors carrying armloads of siddurim1 that they dropped on the steps in a heap and splashed with some kind of liquid. Abba and Eema paused to watch, and we took to their sides. The Storm Troopers were followed by another man in a black shirt who held a torch aloft and lit the books on fire. A Gestapo officer in a long black coat was close behind with sacred Torah scrolls stacked to his chin.
“These are the words of Satan, and they will burn in hell just like each and every one of you Jewish scum!” he shouted. When he flung them into the fire, the gathering seemed to collectively recoil in horror from the sight of something so unholy–the text of untold generations of prayers withering in a funeral pyre of desecration.
The flames leapt high into the cool air, carrying ashen remnants past our faces and beyond, drifting above the rooftops to a heavenly resting place. People were sobbing all around us. Abba was having a whispered conversation with a local Zionist leader while Eema was clutching Abba’s arm and wiping her eyes with Abba’s handkerchief. Eva had buried her face in my coat. I knew that I hated the Nazis for what they were doing to our mishpucha2.
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