The Ringels in Berlin—the Nazi years

The Ringel family endured Nazi persecutions in the 1930s leading up to Hermann's sudden death in July 1938 on the eve of his family's planned flight from Germany. In October, Elly and Helga escaped the country, leaving behind their German legacy. The Nazi authorities seized and sold the assets of the Hermann Ringel Co. 

Interpreting the Wohlgemuth headstone

On the right is the photo Joanne snapped yesterday at Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin. It is the headstone of Helga's grandparents Isaak and Betty Wohlgemuth. 

Note Betty's death date of February 26, 1942. Also note her maiden name Katz and birth date, which match up with newly available records on that reveal the Katz family history in the town of Kolberg, West Prussia, and the Wohlgemuth family in Stargardt, West Prussia. 

The photo at left is the one carried by Elly Ringel, the daughter of Isaak and Betty, on her journey to America, and thus was made before late August or early September of 1938 when Elly and Helga left Berlin. It shows the same headstone with Isaak's inscription (he died in 1929) but obviously is without the inscription for Betty (since she was still living in 1938).

Until yesterday, we had not known Betty's fate after 1940, when we know she was in touch with Elly while she and Helga were refugees in France and Betty sent them the money that enabled them to escape Europe. There had been much speculation among the Ruby siblings that Betty had suffered deportation to the camps, perhaps Auschwitz, as did tens of thousands of Jews from Berlin between October 1941 and early 1945. 

The fact that Betty was apparently laid to rest at Weissensee in February 1942 strongly suggests this is not the case. The surprising history of Weissensee is that the cemeter continued in operation throughout the war. According to an article I read yesterday, there were more than 3200 burials (almost 10 per day) during 1942. This dropped to 931 and 244 in 1943 and 1944. 

The history suggests that the Nazis allowed Weissensee and also a Berlin Jewish hospital to remain in operation throughout the worst years of Jewish persecution, probably as a public relations ploy to portray the regime as sympathetic to the plight of the local Jewish population. In reality, they began a systematic roundup and deportation of Berlin Jews in October 1941.

Betty Wohlgemuth would have been 66 years old at the time. Joanne believes she was living in an upstairs apartment at the Schlüterstrasse 12 address, though I want to review her evidence for that. As an older, female, widowed Jew with proven German citizenship (by virtue of her father's birth in West Prussia) she was not included in the early transports of Berlin Jews during 1941.

I was asked yesterday if Betty could have died in a camp and the inscription made later, perhaps even with some ashes interred. While it is true that ashes of some concentration camp victims are interred at Weissensee, I understand they were in a mass grave that was destroyed by bombardments in the last days of the war. (While the historic cemetery was thankfully mostly undamaged, one section sustained heavy damage.) 

If Betty had been killed in a camp and later a stone was inscribed, I believe there would have been some reference to the place and manner of her death. Since there is not, the more logical explanation is that she died in Berlin and was buried by the still-functioning Jewish community. 

At this point, we don't know how she died at age 67 in February 1942. Nor do we yet know who arranged and paid for the headstone inscription. Her age and circumstances certainly allow for any number of natural causes. Another possibility is suicide.

The article I referenced above says that 811 of the burials in 1942 were suicides, up from 254 in 1941. Presumably the 300 percent increase can be explained by the new deportation orders that went into effect in late 1941. Could our great-grandmother have been among that statistic, or did she die of a natural cause? There may be more we can find out. 

One more matter to consider here is the cause of our misinformation. Several family members have visited the cemetery before and not seen the Wohlgemuth headstone. This is because the main focus of their visits was the Hermann Ringel headstone in a different section of the cemetery. Joanne said yesterday that she doesn't think she saw the Wohlgemuth grave on her earlier visit. 

This explains our recent ignorance of the Betty Katz data on the headstone. I am wondering now what Elly and Helga knew about Betty's fate. Was Elly ever able to communicate with her mother after she and Helga arrived in America in April 1941? Did she learn of her mother's death at the time or at any time later? I don't believe Elly was ever able to visit the grave during her lifetime (she died in 1981). Though she traveled to Germany in the 60s and 70s, Weissensee was in East Berlin and she would probably not have obtained permission to go there. So she probably never saw the headstone. As to whether she could have been informed of Betty's death by the remaining Jewish community, that is an open question. 

If Elly did know what had happened to Betty, then Helga would have known too. Helga traveled to Berlin in the post-wall period and I'm pretty sure she visited the cemetery at the time. In her interviews with Walter near the end of her life, she gave the impression that she believed Betty died in a camp. 

So we are left uncertain for the moment about whether Elly and/or Helga knew of Betty's true fate, and thus whether our recent finds are true discoveries or perhaps a rediscovery of forgotten family history. That headstone has been standing there with Betty's information since 1942 but our generation just learned of it in August 2016.

Better late than never. 

Upcoming trip to Berlin, Warsaw and Gdansk

I’m getting ready for a journey of discovery to Germany and Poland coming up in a few weeks. Here is the itinerary.

I will have 10 days in my mother’s birthplace, Berlin, with hopes to uncover more information about her family’s life before and during the Nazi persecutions. The top items on my research agenda are learning more about the Nazi expropriation of my grandfather’s clothing business and learning the cause of death of my great grandmother’s death in 1942.

Then I’ll attend the annual Jewish genealology conference, held this year in Warsaw for the first time in Eastern Europe. I have a magazine assignment to blog about the conference, part of an article package about Ashkenazi genealogy. I’ve been to two IAJGS conferences before, and have made great strides forward as a result of the people I have met and the knowledge gleaned. I expect all that and more at the Warsaw conference.

For an add-on adventure after the conference I had several options in Poland and Belarus. I decided to go to the former West Prussian region when one side of my Berlin family, the Wohlgemuths, originated. I’ll go first to Starogard Gdanski (at one time, Preussich Stargardt), where the family resided for most of the 19th century. Then I will have two ads in Gdansk, formerly Danzig, where Isaac and Julius Wohlgemuth prospered in the hauling business.

I hope to be blogging regularly with updates before and during the trip. The magazine has asked me for some video blog items, so I am going to try out that format as well.

Hermann Ringel’s partner is identified

A couple of years ago, I found the names of two clothing businesses owned by our grandfather Hermann Ringel listed in a database of Jewish businesses expropriated by the Nazis. One was his own outerwear manufacturing company, Hermann Ringel & Co. The other, an export-import menswear wholesaler, was co-owned with a partner. The database gave us something we hadn’t known—the name of the wholesale business.

The company was Reichenthal & Ringel, with addresses in the heart of the Scheunenviertal, first on the Spandauer Bridge and then at Schönhauser Allee 8. We never knew much about this partner, except for his own treacherous act of stealing the money Hermann had set aside to get his family out of Germany. Walter recorded our mother Helga’s account of the thievery in his Ruby Family Histories.

But we never had a name for the partner who took Hermann’s money after he died in 1938, and nearly scuttled the desperate escape of Hermann’s widow and daughter. The database told us his name was Reichenthal, but I had not tried to identify him precisely. 

Today, in compiling a list of Berlin addresses associated with Hermann Ringel, I looked for the first time for a telephone directory listing for Reichenthal & Ringel. I found several listings, dating back to 1921. In each case the business listing was associated with a residential listing for Isser Reichenthal.

So now we have the full name of the man who helped to establish Hermann in business, but who betrayed him in the end when it was a matter of life and death. I’ll be looking further into the life and postwar fate of Isser Reichenthal during my upcoming trip to Berlin.

Hilda’s restitution affidavit

Affidavit statement        

I, the undersigned, Hilda Wohlgemuth Liebman, explain the following about the life history of my mother, Betty Wohlgemuth. She was born on January 1 1875 in Kolberg, the daughter of the banker-manufacturer-entrepreneur Louis Katz and his wife Bertha Katz, born Bernhart. They were from Kolberg and were citizens of Germany. From the marriage of my grandparents, there were two children born, my mother Betty and her sister Klara, married name Jacobson.        

In 1897, my mother married the son of the landowner Leopold Wohlgemuth-from Stargard in Eastern Pomerania, Isaac Wohlgemuth, born October 29,1865 in Stargard. They were also German citizens. The marriage was in Kolberg following the Mosaic rite. Me mother was awarded a dowry of 80,000 goldmarks which my father used to establish his business as station forwarder in Gdansk and Stettin. My parents bought in Gdansk at Poggenpfuhl 6, where we lived above the offices in a six-room apartment. The house had six floors and is still there. The other apartments were rented. Later we lived in a luxury apartment building. We lived in pleasant prosperity and luxury. We had a horse and carriage and service staff. The business of my father developed rapidly into a very reputable company with numerous employees. My father had regular business as freight forwarder for the German and Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht.     

From the marriage of my parents there were two daughters born, my sister Elly and me, Hilda Wohlgemuth. I was born in Danzig in the year 1906.        

In the year 1911-12, my parents moved to Stettin, where the company also did business. However, we stayed there only a short time before settling in the Weißensee district of Berlin, at Wölckpromenade 6. My father sold the companies in Danzig and Stettin and kept only the one in Berlin at Gorlitzerplatz train station. As the world war broke out, my father also sold that business. The successor company kept the existing name of I. Wohlgemuth. My father was in the military and served as a non-commissioned officer. After the demobilization-he took over the general-representation of the Buchholz Cognac in Silesia-Grünberg and of cigar and cigarettes wholesalers in Weißensee. I lived in the house of my parents until to my wedding in 1928.

On 14 August 1929 my father died. My mother sold a part of the furniture from the six-room flat, keeping only the most precious family pieces from Danzig and precious things from the home of her parents from Kolberg. She took an apartment consisting of two and a half rooms in Berlin at Aschaffenburger Straße no. 6.        

My mother’s assets included the proceeds of my father’s company, which for the largest part were in government bonds as well as in 6.5% gold-bonds, as well as other papers and cash. The gold bonds in the value of 100,000 RM was in the safe at Darmstadt National Bank in Berlin. Other assets were held at the Disconto Society, Dresdnerbank, and Deutsche Bank in Berlin, as well as cash. The interest earned far exceeded the amount my mother could spend for herself for travel, toilets, amusements, and living expenses.            

When her apartment on Aschaffenburgerstraße was seized by the Nazis for being “Jewish-owned” [after her death], she had in her possession 10,000 RM, as well as many as 20 gold pieces. These were to be the means to allow her to leave Hitler’s Germany. She already had a visa for Cuba in her passport, having paid $1000 for it. In addition, she also held values of jewelry in her apartment, also part of the funds needed for her emigration.

My maternal grandmother Bertha Katz, nee Bernhardt, died in Kolberg (I don’t remember the year), and she left, among others, especially high-quality jewels that are incompletely listed in the filings . The records of the probate court in Kolberg may be able to confirm my information.

In 1917, my father’s only brother, a bachelor Heinrich Wohlgemuth, passed away. He was the owner of the banking house and grain company Mayer & Gellhorn in Danzig. My parents were the heirs of his assets, including jewelry, artwork and master-antique furniture.

In 1939, my mother’s sister Klara Katz, married name Jacobson, passed away. She was a resident of Berlin at Salzburgerstrße no. 10. Her husband had been successful as a tobacco manufacturer. They had no children and my mother inherited her assets.

In 1939, a sister of my father, Rose Wohlgemuth, also died and left her assets to my mother.

The list of chief objects from the apartment that I remember after so many years are provided separately, just as are the important jewelry items.

I give the above statements on oath according to American and French law concerning the German criminality. They are true and accurate to the best of my ability to remember. 

Signed, Hilda Wohlgemuth Liebman

December 19, 1958


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