Sep 4, 2019

going to Germany to see what was

I recently went on a trip to Germany. Something I never thought I would do.

So, how did this happen?

The City of Fulda sponsored a program bringing children of Holocaust survivors and victims from Fulda to Fulda. My grandfather was from Fulda, and while he got out after a stint in Buchenwald,  his parents, my great grandparents, (among other relatives) were deported and murdered in Sobibor. They put together a program tracing roots, memorializing the victims, seeing the current community, seeing what was and what is.

Fulda is a city about 100km from Frankfurt. Outside of Frankfurt it is the biggest city in its area, and it is located in the state of Hessen.  The current Jewish community is largely made up of Russian Jews who came from the Soviet Union after the Cold War and after the Berlin Wall fell and the fence between East and West Germany came down, though there are still two German Jews in town.

So we get to Germany, and the City sent someone to pick us up from the airport and drive us to Fulda. We checked into Hotel Esperanto and settled in. As I had asked about kosher food and no kosher food being available in Fulda, the city had ordered enough kosher meals for me, my father, and my cousins from the glatt kosher restaurant, Sohar, in Frankfurt. We had dinner with a German beer. Just for a shout out, the food was very good throughout the trip - 3 meals a day from Sohar, though some of the items were difficult to identify (being very European dishes), and all 3 meals each day were meaty. Other people in the group either didn't keep kosher and ate hotel food or made their own arrangements with a combination of bringing food along and eating what was ok from the hotel.

Another point to note is that I wore my yarmulka openly the entire trip. I went in not sure about whether to wear a kipa or hat. I had been told about the danger, but I felt it was likely exaggerated, and I had also heard that while some places in Europe really have problems, Fulda is a friendly and quiet town with no such incidents (and not such a large refugee/migrant population). So, I brought a hat along and was ready to wear it if I should feel uncomfortable or if I should feel in danger. I and my father were the only ones to wear our kipas in public - everyone else who was religious in the group wore hats. And I felt perfectly fine the entire time. We were easily identified as Jews, and received a number of random "shaloms" from people in the streets or present at events we attended. In addition to the random shaloms, we also had people approach us thanking us for coming to Germany and that they travel to Israel regularly for business or vacation. So I think wearing a yarmulka openly was a success. I felt comfortable and I think I showed myself as a proud and unafraid Jew comfortable in my own skin (I am not commenting anything about those who chose not to - everybody made their own decisions for their own reasons each with his own considerations and no one decision is more legitimate than another. I am just saying I am happy I decided to do what I did).

The first day, on Wednesday, after breakfast we got a walking tour of the main area of Fulda. The tour started with a few minutes walk over to the plaza in front of the train station. This plaza is where the Jews of Fulda were marched to, in front of the screaming gentile residents who were also throwing stones at them, by the Nazis for deportation, once in 1941 and again in 1942. We then contineud to walk through town and saw the street named for the Maharam Schiff, who lived there and headed a yeshiva in Fulda a few hundred years ago. From there we went to the street called Jerusalemplatz which is the location of the old Jewish cemetery. This cemetery no longer exists but is a park and a residential building and parking lot.

The cemetery was closed in 1906 as the city expanded and the community stopped using it (actually the last burial was in 1927 of someone who had purchased a plot there before it had been closed in 1906). From 1906 the community began burying its dead in the new Jewish cemetery, which we would see on Friday.

The government basically forced the community to sell the cemetery, that had been completely destroyed in Kristallnacht, to the government who would then convert it to being part of the city and despite agreeing not to build a building on it, they built the park and a building which went up too fast to stop. According to what we were told, when the park and building were being built, bones were frequently seen in the ground and among the construction. Recently the government made a memorial room at the bottom of the building, with no external signs indicating such a memorial, that contains pictures of the old cemetery, some Jewish items and some other memorial stuff. As well, some people made a memorial at the edge of the park with a stone bearing an inscription about the cemetery, along with a number of stone son the ground bearing the names and dates of some of the people buried in the cemetery - there was even a stone with the name of the grandmother of one of the people on the trip. The other end of the plot has a wall plaque honoring, again, the Maharam Schiff. No mention anywhere of a Jewish cemetery that had been there (and still is, underground), though there are people working hard to change that, pressuring the government to make a public memorial sign.

We continued to walk though town, seeing some general historic sights of Fulda. We also saw the bus depot which used to be the cattle market that was largely used by Jewish businessmen. The Jews were not allowed to be members of the variosu guilds, so they could ot be craftsmen and had to turn to other businesses, such as the classic money lending and insurance and whatnot, but also they dominated the cattle market. My great grandfather had been a cattle trader, so he worked in that very market. Someone else in the group had his father who had been a leather worker, and eh too had worked in that market.

Soon after we went for a reception in the castle, in which City Hall is now located, with the Lord Mayor, the Oberburgermeister, Lord Mayor Wingenfeld. We met some people from the current Jewish community at this event, and some other prominent people, and then the lord mayor came. He is a very genial fellow, young and friendly. He pushed hard for this and funded the entire program, seemingly with no political gain to him, so I am not quite sure why, unless it is truly altruistic or if there are reasons I am not aware of. The Lord Mayor greeted people and then spoke to the crowd. He spoke about history and community and the need to be aware of what happened and prevent such things in the future, and more.

That was basically the end of the official day, but we had a little more in store for the Goldmeier group. The driving force behind the trip, and behind a lot of what goes on for the memory fo the Jews of Fulda, is a Christian woman named Anja. She has taken on remembering the victims of oppression and  has done tremendous research into the Jews of Fulda, has pushed to open the city archives, pushes for memorials, and was very involved in this trip. Anja does not work for the government, but does all her work on her own, but she has made strong connections and pushes the government offices to assist and cooperate. I will also add that the Director of Culture for the eCity of Fulda is a man named Dr. Hylan. Dr Hylan opened the archives for us but he has also been instrumental in researching the history of the Jews of Fulda through the archives, and he has ordered the archives be put online and made fully available to the public - and they are.

So, after the reception with the Lord Mayor, Anja took us to see where the old shul was. The old shul was a beautiful structure on Am Stokhaus St, honorarily named Juden Grasse. The old shul is now a small residential building with a parking lot, and another larger residential building behind it. Next to the shul was a building with a mikva and a smaller beis medrash which they used during the weekdays. The mikva was discovered and still exists fully intact, but we could not see it as it is underground and has been sealed. The city rented the storefront (used to be a car dealership) at the bottom of the building and has put a memorial for the shul in there with images of what it looked like. Outside the parking lot on the wall around the lot is a plaque with the names of the 200+ Jewish residents of Fulda who were deported in the 1942 deportation. My great grandparents names were in this memorial, along with some other relatives.

the stables/garage
The small street in front of the shul going down the hill was known as Judenberg, back in the day. On the other side of that little street, in what is now all residential buildings, was the yeshiva of Fulda, and another smaller shul (for the "eastern Jews"). We then walked a couple more blocks and saw the building where my grandfather and great grandparents lived. We were able to go into the building, but not into the apartment because the guy who lives there now was not home when we were there - he has let other relatives in to see in the past. Interestingly, behind the building is now a parking lot, but it used to be where they kept the cattle, with what are clearly barn doors and windows for lowering hay still all there. Funny story my father told - the Jews had cattle, and the gentile neighbors kept pigs there. So, the Jews had to be careful to take in their buckets and not leave them outside, or else the goyim would use the buckets to milk their pigs and that would be a problem for the Jews to then use the buckets for the cows milk.

Day 2, Thursday, was not specifically Jewish in content. Fulda is very central Germany, and is a popular destination for conferences from around the country because it is on the train line and is about maximum 3 hours travel from every major city in Germany. Fulda is also the closest city to what was the wall and fence between East and West Germany, the US Army had a small base outside of Fulda at one of the main junctions of the fence - this is called Point Alpha. I would note that because of this army base, many Jewish soldiers pent a lot of time as part of the Jewish community in Fulda throughout the years, but that ended when the US Army closed the base and pulled its troops out after the wall came down. Point Alpha is now a museum about the division of Germany, and the people who suffered because of it. And near that is the army base that is now a museum about the US Army activities there. I would note, that when Germany was reunited, Soviet Jews came flooding into West Germany - with Fulda being a nearby town, many went to Fulda, and they largely make up the Jewish community in Fulda now.

Thursday afternoon we had off, while some people got private tours of where their families had lived.

Friday we went back to the old cemetery and heard the story more in full than the brief description we had been given on the first day. This time it was with Dr Hylan as well who also showed us images from the city archives of the city expansion and of the cemetery. We also now got to go into the memorial room and see the pictures and items therein. We (most of us) went as a group to the old shul and heard more about that, again with official pictures from the city archives. We later went to the new cemetery and saw the graves of relatives buried there. They had some interesting graves and memorials - including a memorial plaque of the Jews of Fulda who had died in battle in World War I. We then met with Dr Hylan at the archives and he showed us records of our families. Besides for seeing records of the individuals, we discovered that when the Jews were deported their homes were sealed and eventually sold by the State. When they would seal a home, they would catalog all the items inside and put them up for sale. The archives had recorded lists of items sold from any relevant person - things like curtains 50 Rechsmarks. 2 gold rings, 17 Recihsmarks, 4 knives, 3 Reichsmarks, mirror 2 Reichsmarks, etc. And, the Nazis had altered the records of the Jews, adding the name Israel to the records of Jewish men and the name Sarah to the records of Jewish women.

Shabbos was interesting in that we got to interact with the current Jewish community. We walked about 20 minutes to the new shul. The shul is located inside what sued to be a house - two people on the trip had been born in that house! Their parents went back after the war and left Fulda for greener pastures in 1949. In the meantime, these two brothers had been born there. This building also used to function as the school, so it was where my grandfather, and everyone else, went to school for Jewish studies after general school hours. Now the building functions as the shul and the lower floor bears a museum of sorts with images and memorials of the community and the school.

The shul only has services on Shabbos -Friday night and Shabbos morning, and on Monday morning. After davening the community eats Shabbos dinner and lunch together, though ti is really a light pareve meal - I am told the only time they have meat at the communal meal is Pesach night. The rabbi is a young man born in Moscow, living in Fulda, after having lived in Israel for a number of years. He led the davening, read the torah and spoke at the meals. He spoke in 3 languages - Russian, German and Hebrew. The rabbi also services other, smaller, communities, so he trades off with someone else, Reven Melamed who is one of the directors of the Jewish community of Fulda, and travels to the other communities, being in Fulda about 2 Shabbatot per month and in other communities on other shabbatot. Rabbi Jedwabni seems very dedicated to his work and the community and is doing avodas kodesh, giving these people some Judaism to be connected to. The crowd was just 15-20 people. The davening was nice, the meals were pleasant, we chatted with some of the community members and the rabbi, sang songs and had a nice time. The community is almost entirely old Russian Jews, so unless the course of the world undergoes some seismic change and God sends  more Jews to Fulda, pretty soon (in 30 to 40 years) there won't be a Jewish community left - there are no kids, and the younger people left long ago for other cities in Germany or Europe. I would note, the front gate and entrance is kept locked and they only use the back entrance, and a police car is stationed in the lot near the door during the times of services or other activities takign place in the shul.

Saturday night there was a concert, as the City of Fulda is celebrating a Jubilee year - celebrating its 1275th year. The concert was a special production of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Wednesday through Friday I also went running early in the morning. Fulda is really a beautiful, quiet, city.

Sunday was checkout and flying back to Israel, with a little bit of walking around town in the downtime. Being a very Christian city, all the stores and businesses, not including some restaurants, are closed on Sundays. The main strip was eerily quiet.

My main takeaway, I think, is that we have it so good nowadays, and we, most of the time, don't even realize it. We have freedom. We have so much freedom we love to fight with each other. We have so much freedom we strive to find ways to serve in ways that were unimaginable in previous generations, when they were just happy to be allowed to live their miserable lives and not be killed or deported ( and I am not just talking about the time of the Holocaust) before the end of the day. We have so much freedom we can go where we want, when we want, how we want. We can daven openly, learn torah openly, work in any profession a person might desire to work in, participate in sports or other public activities, easily find readily available kosher food in most places. We have it so good.

some other pictures of interest:

the park that used to be a Jewish cemetery

memorial at the edge of the cemetery/park

memorial plaques of the deported Jews of 1942 outside what used to be the shul

imahes of the old shul

 These are from point Alpha

there was a mine field between the two fences

wandered into the train station and saw the train is exactly like the Israeli trains

Dr Hylan at the cemetery\park

these were displayed in a storefront we passed.. it seems you can just walk in and buy any of these if you are over 18

on display in a show we wandered in to

The new Jewish cemetery

the section for children

a bush grew over the grave. we had to pull back the branches to access the grave

At the archives

group picture at City Hall, in the castle

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  1. Even saying one good word about Germania is one too much!

  2. Sounds like it was a meaningful trip. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Those are pellet/BB guns, Rafi

    1. lol. I wondered that at first but they look like real guns and I didnt see any markings of them not being real guns

    2. Pretty expensive ($150-$200, $400 for the US one).
      And pretty good sights and other features.
      Great holdup tools, I guess in a country where muggings aren't common, it's OK, but not in US, and not among dangerous Muslims.

  4. When I'm certain that every last German who personally murdered a Jew is dead, I'll consider going there or giving even a penny to anything German. That should be another 10 years or so. But not until then!!


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