The Wohlgemuths in Danzig

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 Ancestry.com 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. 

Menk names search tool

Because of my interest in the Jewish history of Danzig, I have been contributing as a volunteer in a project to index Danzig marriage records. Among other things, this involves recognizing the surnames of Jewish brides and grooms written on documents in longhand German script. With some practice, this becomes fairly routine but sometimes you come up with a speculative spelling is not a commonly known name.

At these times, it is helpful to consult a comprehensive resource called A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames by Lars Menk. Many times, that weird name whose spelling you are not quite sure of turns out indeed to be among the more than 20,000 names in the directory. 

Menk's Dictionary includes extensive information for each surname entry, including geographical distribution, which would be helpful for my use. It is a costly reference book and I do not have a copy. However, the publisher provides a complete list of just the surnames available as a download. 

I took advantage of that and created a quick and handy tool for searching the Menk names list. You can quickly confirm that a spelling of a name is or isn't in the directory. You can also do complex searches like "Starts With" or "Contains" if you recognize part of the name but not all of it. 

The Menk Names search tool is available here on Family History Machine. 

Research database for Danzig Jewish marriages goes online

Blog restarts with a precious image of Hilda'a restitution affidavit

This blog has been inactive for more than a year as I have been working on other things, primarily the publishing of a Holocaust memoir coauthored by Walter and myself. During that time I have not been documenting advances in what we know of our family roots. However, the information has continued to come in, so there is a bit of a backlog of material, as well as some new stuff, for me to work through as I start things back up.

To pick up the narrative, during my trip to Berlin in July 2018 I found at the Berlin Landesarchiv bulging record files on two matter related to our family history: a Ringel file containing documents concerning the dissolution of the Hermann Ringel business in 1939-1940, and a Wohlgemuth file of documents from the 1950s related to the restitution claims of Hilda and Elly. 

I spent two days with the material in Berlin but was prevented by the archive regulations from capturing an image of any of the documents. One of the treasures in the files that I was able to identify and then translate was the two-page typescript affidavit submitted in 1958 by Hilda Wohlegmuth Leibman in her restitution case against the Germany government. In it, she provides a detailed explanation of her mother's personal history and an accounting of the wealth that she accumulated during her lifetime, assets that were illegally seized by the Nazi authorities. 

The affidavit is a fascinating read, and I posted the translation here in the course of my hectic work during that trip. I urge you to read it again now while also gazing at the image of the original document, signed by our aunt Hilda. 

This document is just one highlight from the full Landesarchiv files. Several months after returning from my 2018 trip, I received digital scans of all the pages in the two files. I saved them to my genealogy case files and then pretty much forget about them until a few days ago. Along with my other backlogged items, there is a lot of knowledge to unpack as I work through the material. 

For now, the Hilda affidavit picks up the narrative thread regarding our Wohlgemuth family branch. I'll have a few more Woihlgemuth developments coming up. 

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