Day 9: Last day in Berlin

I got an early start on Friday so I could write up and post my Thursday report and still make an early arrival for my second visit to Weißensee cemetery, knowing now it has an early closing time on Fridays

My main purpose was to shoot video with sound of the cemetery grounds and the Ringel-Wohlgemuth graves. I also thought I might be able to find the grave of one more Wohlgemuth, Rose, whose grave I have a photo of but no location. After shooting some video at the front gate, including of the wall I had scaled seven days earlier, I stopped in the cemetery office to see if they could direct my to Rose’s grave.

I hoped that by finding her grave and maybe burial record, I could clear up the confusion introduced by Hilda’s testimony over Rose’s identity. I believe she was Isaak’s sister in law, not sister as Hilda testified.

I’d been warned how unhelpful the staff in the cemetery office might be, and indeed the attendant there seemed contemptuous of my request. Finally I got him to search his database for our ancestor’s name and he relayed the information that there were three Rose Wohlgemuths buried at Wießensee. He asked me if I had a maiden name or birth or death date to narrow the search to the right Rose. I tried out the one possible maiden name that I had, Sittenfeldt, but none of the three listed that name. I had no other information other than a photo of the unadorned grave that Elly took with her in 1938. I showed it to the attendant, but that was of no help. As far as birth and death date, I had no idea.

I asked if he would give me the location of all three graves but he would not do so, and acted as if it was an unreasonable request. I asked if this was for privacy reasons, but he would not give me a further explanation. Come back with more information, he said, and made clear it was time for me to go. This was a disappointment, but I can possibly follow up with the ZJ archivist who had earlier given me the burial records for our other three Wohlgemuths. For now, Rose’s identity remains a mystery.

While on the subject, I will comment here on some of the errors in Hilda’s testimony. Betty’s natural mother was not Bertha Bernhardt. The records I have are quite clear that Betty and Klara Katz were both daughters of Henriette Müllerheim, but Henriette died when the girls were two and one years old, respectively, and their father Louis Katz shortly thereafter married Bertha, who raised the children as their stepmother. It seems from Hilda’s misinformation that Louis may never told Betty about her true parentage, or else that Betty did not share that information with her own children, who knew Bertha as their grandmother. 

That error is fairly understandable. The bigger conundrum is Hilda’s contention that Isaak had just one brother, Heinrich, as well as the sister Rose. It seems she is completely unaware of Julius Wohlgemuth, and his role in the moving business and of his wife Rose and son Leopold (or of the infant Adolf who died at a tender age, whom I recently discovered in the records. 

If my information is correct, and I am close to certain about it through I now have to review my exact sources, Hilda would have been just six years old at the time of Julius’s death in Stettin. So it is reasonable that she did not have a personal memory of this uncle. However, it is surprising that Isaak did not later share this part of the family story with his daughter. (We don’t know what Elly knew, but she was five years older than Hilda and would likely have remembered Julius. Did Elly and Hilda never discuss the family history in Danzig?) One detail Hilda has half right. After the sale of the moving business, the new German owner did not change the name of the company, but continued to use Julius Wohlgemuth FA [incorporated] as the business name into the 1940s. However Hilda testifies that the name of the company was I. Wohlgemuth [for Isaak], which I can show is definitely wrong. Maybe Isaak intentionally whitewashed his brother out of the family history. If so, was that to inflate his own role or merely to simplify the family story for his young daughters. 

You might ask, if HIlda was wrong on these accounts, is the rest of her testimony accurate? As you read, there are many fascinating new details of Isaak’s and Betty’s lives in Berlin, including his ownership of a freight company in Berlin at the Gorlitzerplatz Bahnhof and subsequent career as a marketing representative for liquor and tobacco companies. Also, she gives information about his military service in WWI that was entirely new to us. 

I am inclined to accept that information as true, as well as her detailed account of Betty’s life as a widow, because she was then of an age to have personal memories of all these matters. Her errors on the early Katz and Wohlgemuth history are understandable given her age and possibly the whitewashing passed down by her parents. 

Having been stymied in the cemetery office, I made my way back to the two grave locations I visited last week, and this time captured good video with my commentary. I will later edit this material into a video blog presentation for Family Tree magazine. I then walked the mile or so to the Ringel and Wohlgemuth apartment buildings on the Woelkpromende. Since having visited a week ago, I had learned that not only did Hermann and Elly (and Helga) live together at Woelkpromenade 5, Isaak and Betty lived throughout their time together in Berlin in the building next door. In her sworn statement, Hilda remarks that she lived in the six-room apartment at No. 6 all the way until her marriage in 1928 [to Herbert Peiser, when she would have been 22 years old.]

As I commented on the video I recorded there, we don’t yet know if Hermann already lived at No. 5 before his marriage, and that he met and married the girl next door, or if he and Elly took that apartment after their marriage in 1922 in order to be close to Elly’s family. That will be interesting to learn but it awaits further evidence to decide. 

All my work in Weißensee proceeded quickly such that I did not have to rush to make it back to the city for my next appointment at 2:30. That’s a good thing since I did not take the best transit route to get myself the Kreuzberg where I was due to meet Donna Swarthout, the author/editor of the book about Jews reclaiming German citizenship that Joanne and I had submitted a chapter for but later withdrew. [One of the problems when traveling without cell service, is you cannot access transit directions on the fly and I did my best to get to Donna’s work location of Geneisenaustraße in Kreuzberg, but ended up at an U-Bahn station more than a mile away. I still made it to the appointment with time to spare.

We met up in the cafe at the CIEE international school [for American exchange students], where Donna works as an administrator and occasional instructor. She was delightful, sharing her enthusiasm for her adopted city (she is originally a Bay Area resident). She acknowledged her disappointment that Joanne had dropped out of the book. I tried to explain Jo’s decision but Donna didn’t really buy my explanation. In the end, she found a replacement story for the book that also deals with the issue of siblings receiving a split decision on citizenship restoration The final manuscript is finished and fully edited by her German publisher. In fact, she had received page proofs only the day before and she proudly showed it to me. She also shared the information that a launch party for the publication will be held in December in New York at the Leo Baeck Institute. I wish her all success. 

My last mission for the day and of my nine days in Berlin was to attend Friday evening services at the Pestalozzistraße synagogue. I had to explain the reason for my visit, show my passport and have my bag inspected before I was admitted. I was a few minutes late but stopped for a moment to admire the exterior of the building, visible only once you are inside the courtyard, before going inside. 

This is where Hermann attended services when it was an orthodox synagogue (Helga told Walter that Elly went instead on high holidays to the liberal synagogue on Fasanenstraße). The first thing I noticed upon entering was the organ music played by the cantor and the voices of a men’s choir, neither typically heard in an orthodox service. On the other hand, women were seated in a separate section from men, an orthodox practice not typically observed in a reform temple. 

Thus, the synagogue in its modern incarnation has found some kind of middle ground that works for its members. The service was quite well attended—probably 50 or so men and women. The rabbi named Jonah Sievers was a tall and clean-shaven and he exuded warmth and generosity from the bema. Unfortunately, my German was not good enough to grasp most of his message. Instead I admired the beautiful interior frescos and soaked in the hypnotic liturgical music. Even though I am not observant and don’t go to a shul at home, I felt moved to experience something that was an important part of my grandfather’s life.

The service was not long, perhaps about an hour. After sharing Shabbat Shaloms with a number of the congregants, I lingered to have a few words with the rabbi after he finished with his post-service greetings. He did not remember seeing Joanne here two years ago. Sievers has been in the pulpit here for just about that long, so he was probably not the same rabbi Joanne spoke with then. When I explained about Hermann’s attendance here in the 1930s, he was not at all surprised by the reason for my visit. He said that quite a few people come visit for the same reason. 

In fact, another American, a young women from Ann Arbor, joined our conversation. Sievers said that he was originally from Hanover and that he had studied for the Rabbinate in London, after first earning a degree in (I think he said) psychology.. It seems he also has a passion for American football, identifying the Lions and the Raiders as the teams from the home towns of his American visitors. He said that he supports the Green Bay Packers because he appreciates that the team is owned by the people and not a wealthy owner. 

When I asked about the size and growth of the temple membership, he explained that here people are members of the overall Berlin Jewish Community, which gives them access to any of the active synagogues in Berlin. He and others I asked confirmed that there is an active renewal of Jewish life in the city, but that it would probably not ever return to the proportions from the pre-Nazi times. As for the temple itself, he explained that it had been spared in the Kristallnacht, primarily because of its proximity to neighboring, German-owned buildings. The beautiful interiors were the result of restoration work done after the war that brought back the design from before WWI. The one difference, he said, is that back then there was not the central bema that is the focal point today. 

All together, it was a moving experience and a fitting end to my time in Berlin.