Ruby Family History Project Blog

Why did the Wohlgemuths leave Danzig?

In all our writings so far, it has been said that the Wohlgemuth family relocated to Berlin from Danzig during or more likely after the First World War in order to find better prospects for their marriageable daughters Elly and Hilde. That's a nice story and no doubt partly true, but there were very likely other factors motivating the family's move. 

[By the way, I am spelling Hilde with an 'e' instead of the 'a' she used later because that is how I find her listed in some original records.]

Danzig was a cosmopolitan German city in Isaak Wohlgemuth's day. The city's considerable Jewish community tended toward assimilation with the German state. The leading synagogues and community leaders were liberal. Zionism took hold slowly and was rejected by most Danzig Jews in the early years. Also, eastern Jews from Russia were discouraged both by German law and the attitudes of German Jews from settling in Danzig. 

Families like the Wohlgemuths were prospering in business. They retained their Jewish identity but sought to fit in with the dominant Christian society. Danzig Jews volunteered patriotically for the Great War. [There are a number of Wohlgemuths on German WWI casualty lists, but I have not yet connected them to our family.]

The photo is not of the Wohlgemuths but of prominent Danzig businessman Franz Boss and his family, out for a Sunday stroll in pre-WWI Danzig. 

In 1920, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Danzig became a semi-autonomous city-state called the Free City of Danzig, created as a buffer between the reduced German republic and a new Polish nation. The city became a free trading zone and a point of embarkation for transit to the west. Tens of thousands of Polish and Russian Jews passed through the city on the way to England and America, and Danzig's own Jewish community swelled with the addition of eastern, orthodox, Zionist Jews who could now freely settle in the city. 

It must have come as a unwelcome change for long-time Jewish residents of Danzig. Our grandmother Elly grew up as a Jewish Danziger, perhaps until age 19 or 20. Possibly we can see here the formation of some of the attitudes she later projected: her disdain for östjuden and her disinterest in Zionism. 

Perhaps we also see here the real reason that Isaak Wohleguth pulled up stakes from the rapidly changing Danzig to a place, Berlin, where a more civilized and cosmopolitan Jewish lifestyle was practiced. If so, that explains why the Wohlgemuths chose to permanently leave their native city at the very time Danzig's Jewish population was dramatically on the rise.

Gerhard Salinger study of Jewish Stargard

A German-American Jewish historian, Gerhard Salinger, who is the author of detailed studies of the Jewish communities of Pomerania and West Prussia, has collected the available Jewish records for  the town where our Wohlgemuth family originated.

We learn this from a December 2010 review of Salinger's West Prussia book by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson in the Journal of the Assoiation of Jewish Refugees, in which she describes Salinger's methods using his work in Stargard as an example. Here is the relevant passage from the review.

So how has he set about his seemingly overwhelming task? Take the town of Preussisch Stargard (now Starogard Gdanskie) as an example (see Part I). What can the reader expect to find here? Apart from a brief potted history, Salinger notes that two Jews, Mendel Salomon and Alex Baruch, were permitted to settle there in 1774 because they possessed more than 1,000 Taler. By 1812 there were 112 Jewish households, and individual names - both original and adopted later - are listed. 

The population had grown to 597 by 1840, to 688 by 1849, and to its highest number (802, 13.7 per cent of the population) by 1870. There was a synagogue, a rabbi and a school. 

Salinger goes on to list all those Jews who paid taxes in 1883, stating their names, occupations and places of residence. There is also a list of tax-payers in 1911. The names of two men who lost their lives in action during the First World War are given, as are extracts from the Secret State Archives in Berlin concerning the election of Jewish officials and other matters. 

There is a list of deaths, giving names and age, going back to 1848, and a long list of deaths from 1857 until the community ceased to exist. It is striking that many died at a relatively young age. There is no information on where and how they died, but it is nonetheless an extraordinarily detailed survey.

On his visit to the town, Salinger discovered that the synagogue is now used as a shopping centre and that the greatly neglected cemetery has a number of gravestones, many severely damaged but five still standing upright, with the names of Mendelsohn and Wohlgemuth recognisable. Photographs of the former synagogue and the cemetery are provided.

How wonderful that he has called out the recognizable Wohlgemuth headstone that we have already discovered among the resources at Virtual Shtetl. More importantly are the multiple lists of residents, taxpayers, deaths, and war casualties for various years between 1812 and 1918. Undoubtedly we wiill be able to find more about our Wohlgemuth ancestors in Stargard by examining the actual book.

It is written in German in three volumes and evidently there are very few copies in existence. I will be trying to track it down. 

Wohlgemuth map, 1812-1942

I annotated this map of the northeastern section of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II between the years 1871 and 1918 with what we have learned about the Wohlgemuth family movements during that time period.

The map shows the provincial  borders between East and West Prussia and neighboring Pomerania. I was wrong earlier when I said that Elbing was in East Prussia; it was within the boundaries of West Prussia. Also, Kolberg was in Pomerania, not West Prussia. 

Isaak Wohlgemuth on 1893 Elbing list

Virtual Shtetl has lists of Jewish Households and Individuals in Elbing for a few random years in the 1890s and 1900s. Following is the list for 1893, where we find Isaac Wohlgemuth listed as "Kaufmann" (merchant) along with two other Wohlemuths, Witwe and Heinrich. (I'm not sure, but you may need to be logged in to the site to access the page.)

http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/article/elblag/10,people-lists-of-names-genealogy/34432,j-dische-haushalte-und-einzelpersonen-im-jahr-1893/

There are also lists for 1900-1 and 1905-6. On the 1900 list the same three Wohlgemuths are listed using first initials only (Isaac is identified as "J. Wohlgemuth".) However, in 1905 there are no Wohlgemuths listed.

This is great because it definitively places our ancestor as a merchant in Elbing between the years 1893 and 1901. We also know that Elly was born in Elbing in 1901. It also shows that Isaak no longer resided in Elbing by 1905, which is consistent with the fact that Hilda was born somewhere else (Danzig) in 1906. Whether they remained settled in Danzig or perhaps relocated again (to Konigsberg) is to be determined.

The two new Wohlgemuth names, Witwe and Heinrich, are new to us. The name we might have expected to see—Leopold, Isaac's father—is not listed. Is he perhaps deceased by 1893 or else still in Stargard? If so, are Witwe and Heinrich brothers of Isaac? They could also be cousins or similar relation. ( Elbing is only about 30 miles from Stargard although it was across the river in East Prussia.) It is interesting that Witwe and Heinrich are also absent from the 1905 Elbing list, suggesting that they all may have moved together.

Welcome home, Jo. This is the second time your traveling investigations have resulted in fantastic discoveries.

More on the 1812 citizenship law

Here is a better view of the relevant records of three of our Wohlgemuth ancestors in Stargardt. This records the very moment they took on the Wohlgemuth surname as a condition for acquiring legal citizenship in West Prussia. 

At the time of this action, they were among a small number of Jews from rural areas who established homes and businesses in the town. Without citizenship, they were subject to various punitive measures up to expulsion.

Previously, Jewish men were identified by the combination of given names, their own and their father's. So in the first record we see Moses, the son of Salomon, who now adopts Moses Wohlgemuth as his legal name. 

The next two records have original names identifying them as the sons of Moses, so we see the family tree developing. We know that our great-grandfather Isaak Wohlgemuth was born in this town 53 years after these Wohlgemuth men became citizens. We presume that Isaak's father Leopold was born here but don't have the year or other details of his birth. 

I am working to establish the connection from Isaak and Leopold backwards to either the Herz or Salomon Wohlgemuth listed. There will be another one or two generations in between. If we establish that our Wohlgemuth family descended from either Herz or Salomon Wohlgemuth, that will further embellish our German citizenship credentials. 

About the Wohlgemuth name, it translates something like "good natured" and it was probably selected by Moses and his sons from a list of approved surnames. 

Surname Givennames
Original
New
Town
(Prussian name)
(Polish Name)
Subsidiary
List
Page #
WOHLGEMUTH Moses Salomon 
Moses 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 

75 (WP) 
WOHLGEMUTH Herz Moses 
Herz 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 
56 
75 (WP) 
WOHLGEMUTH Salomon Moses 
Salomon 
Preuss. Stargardt 
Stargard Gdanski 
73 
75 (WP) 

Wohlgemuth gravestone in Stargard

At Virtual Shtetl, there are photos of the destroyed Jewish cemetery of Starogard Gdansk. Just a few headstones are intact, but see here the one for a Wohlgemuth woman buried in 1890. She could be an aunt by marriage of Isaac's father Leopold. 

The Nazis killed very few Jews in Starogard for the simple reason that almost everybody had left the town before 1939. The Jewish population of Starogard peaked at around 600 in 1875, when Isaak was a boy, and then began to decline for economic reasons. We know that Isaak left there for Elbing at a time that many young people were leaving shtetl life for larger cities. 

There was an atrocity in the fields outside of Starogard, but they were Poles that were gunned down, not Jews. The Nazis occupied the synagogue building after 1939. The building is still standing (see the photo), having been used by merchants for many years, but was recently returned to the Jewish Community of Gdansk.

Also here is four-minute video shot at the Starogard cemetery. The narration is in Polish but images and music are quite moving. I believe I see another Wohlgemuth headstone in the video.
http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/video/63/

Earlier blog posts identified Stargard as possible Wohlgemuth town

Review what was written here about the Wohlgemuths in April 2012. 

http://familyhistorymachine.com/content/family-video-powwow-and-new-wohlgemuth-developments

http://familyhistorymachine.com/content/looking-isaak-wohlgemuth-west-prussia

The second post concerns a West Prussian citizenship law of 1812 that affected the lives of area Jews in important ways. The law made some Jews eligible for Prussian citizenship, giving them legal status and protection from persecution. Among the requirements to qualify, Jewish families were required to take on Western-style surnames instead of the patrilineal naming style that Jews had practiced for centuries. Before the coming of surnames, Jewish men were known by the combination their own name and their father's name. 

In 2012, I had discovered 10 instances of Wohlgemuths on the 1812 citizenship list. I found they were clustered in towns to the southwest of Danzig and even made a map to show the distribution of towns. Two of the Wohlgemuths on the list, Moses Solomon Wohlgemuth and Herz Moses Wohlgemuth, were from the town of Stargard Gdanski, a sizable town 40 miles south and west of Danzig. 

Since we have now learned from his marriage certificate that our ancestor Isaak Wohlgemuth was born in Preuss Stargard (in 1865), it seems logical to assume that Isaak and his father Leopold must descend from one of the Wohlgemuths from Stargard on the 1812 list. 

Three Wohlgemuth generations

Betty Katz Wohlgemuth, Helga Ringel, Elly Wohlgemuth Ringel

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. 

Joanne discovers Betty at Weißensee

From Joanne in Berlin:

I  just dizzy with joy. I was looking for the Wohlgemuth plot but the area was much overgrown. Then it just popped out suddenly, Isaak's stone and Betty there with him. She did not perish in a camp but is buried with her spouse, like mom and dad with a vertical stone. I guess we didn't find the Wohlgemuth stone the last time we visited, or else my memory is gone.

 

Big rush now. Off to the Jewish Museum and then Shabbat services at Hermann's shul. Also have to clean the apartment and pack.

Family Story:

Pages