Ruby Family History Project Blog

Hermann’s sudden death

Hermann had to see the writing on the wall. In June, there would be a deadline to register all firms for Aryanization, and after that he would have fewer options. By the time that a new wave of street violence erupted in the spring of 1938, his exit strategy was in place and near to execution. Feigning normality, he took his wife on a early summer holiday at a spa in Czechoslovakia. 

Tragically, Hermann came down with an infection that turned to sepsis. He died June 24, 1938, just as the worst of Berlin’s summer violence was peaking. Up and down Berlin’s best streets, shops were marked with “Jude” in graffiti while Hermann was laid to rest at the Jewish Cemetery at Weißensee. 

During the next six weeks, Elly took over arrangements for their departure. I am not going to give here the full story of her 30-month flight with my mother out of Germany to their eventual arrival in New York. I have covered that in a previous chapter of family history (see “Implications for Righteousness in the Unknown Case of the Consuls of Toulouse” link). However, I will mention a few key episodes from their flight that relate to the citizenship theme of this chapter.

Betty Wohlgemuth stays behind

Three generations of Wohlgemuths. From left, Betty, Helga and Elly. 

First we go to Betty Wohlgemuth, saying goodbye to her daughter and granddaughter, who are carrying only two small bags as if leaving on a weekend trip. Knowing they could be watched, they give each other just an ordinary hug and kiss goodbye, not the kind you give to someone you will never see again.

Betty made her own choice to remain behind. She was sixty-three years old and had seen the terrible excesses of the Nazi regime. But she still regarded herself as a German as well as a Jew. She had lived her life in Kolberg, Elbing, Danzig and Berlin. She had seen the best of enlightened Jewish culture. Her concept of herself as both German and Jewish remained unshaken. 

Perhaps she thought the Nazi era was an aberration and would eventually pass. Or perhaps she thought she was too old to run for her life in hopes of starting over in another place. You have to wonder, though, what she was thinking two months later when synagogues were burned and businesses looted in the nationwide pogrom called Kristallnacht.

Escape from Europe

Elly Ringel obtained a Polish passport based on her late husband's Galitzianer ancestry

Actually, we know that Elly and Betty were somehow able to communicate through intermediaries more than once during the next 18 months while Elly and Helga lived as stateless Jews in Nice in the south of France. Against all odds, Betty was able to transfer a sum of money to Elly in May 1940, after Germany had conquered Paris. These were the funds that provided the means for Elly and Helga to escape from France to Portugal and eventually reach America.

Remember that 1906 “certificate of belonging” that Hermann Ringel obtained from the city of Rzeszów. Before leaving Nice, Elly paid for a certified French translation of that document. A month later—after a frantic rush to Lyon, then Marseilles, then Bordeaux—she presented the documents at a Polish consulate in Toulouse. The document proved that her late husband “belonged to” the city of Rzeszów, and on that basis she qualified to receive a Polish passport. 

Betty’s fate

Betty is buried alongside Isaac Wohlgemuth at Weißensee cemetery

Betty Wohlgemuth lived three and a half years longer after saying goodbye to her daughter and granddaughter in Berlin. In October 1941, the cycle of persecution neared its conclusion as the deportations of Jews from Berlin began. Through January 1942, ten transports of roughly 1000 people each were sent to camps in the East. As a elderly widow, Betty was not listed to be taken on the early transports but the outcome must have seemed inevitable. 

We didn’t know for sure what happened to Betty until fairly recently when Joanne uncovered the Wohlgemuth grave plot hidden in the brush at Weißensee Cemetery. Despite the ongoing deportation of Jews from Berlin at the time, this important Jewish institution in the borough of Pankow surprisingly remained in business throughout 1941 and 1942 and to a lesser extent after that. It is said that the Nazis let Weißensee operate in those years as a public relations stunt, something like their supposedly model concentration camp at Theresienstadt. 

Weißensee also served an definite need, as more than 1000 burials were made there in 1942. The surviving cemetery records show suicide as the cause of death on a surprisingly high percentage of those deaths. 

From the Wohlgemuth gravestone that Joanne recently visited, we now know that Betty was laid to rest next to her husband Isaac at Weißensee on February 26, 1942. We have not yet discovered the original cemetery record for the burial, so we don’t know if she died of natural causes or possibly—sad to contemplate—took her own life in the face of an expected deportation. 

Weißensee Cemetery

She was buried at Weißensee by the still functioning Berlin Jewish community, which also took charge of any assets she had remaining. We don’t know if her name and dates were added to the headstone at that time or, according to Jewish custom, a year later. We also don’t know what her daughter Elly or even our mother Helga knew for sure about Betty’s end. 

Growing up, we three children had the general sense that Betty was a concentration camp victim. We have no information that she was ever in contact with Elly again after sending the money to Nice, even though Elly and Helga finally reached America about nine months before Betty’s death. 

Elly returned to Germany many times from the 1950s through the 1970s, though more ofter to enjoy Alpine resorts than to return to the city of her married years. I don’t know for sure that she ever went back to Berlin, but if she did and wanted to visit her husband’s and parents’ graves, she would have needed special permission to cross into the Eastern Zone in order to visit Weißensee. 

My mother, who always resisted going back to Germany, finally did in the 1980s. That was still a few years before the fall of the wall, and I believe she probably did not go to the cemetery, so it is possible that she and my grandmother never knew that Betty was thankfully buried alongside her husband.

Destruction and renewal

Helga's cousin Margot Shattner perished in Belgrade

Not all the family members mentioned here were as lucky as Betty. Hermann’s sister Rosa and her lovely daughter Margot were among the Jewish women and children of Belgrade who in early 1942 were rounded up and confined at Semlin concentration camp, then gassed to death in mobile vans. Fortunately, Roza’s boy Wolfie escaped that fate. Under his new name, Ze’ev Sharon, he worked with his pioneer group on the docks in Haifa, helped to found an important Israeli kibbutz, and passed on his Ringel genealogy to a large and growing family in the Jewish homeland. He passed away in 2009 at age 92.

In one way, the Wohlgemuth gravestone (and also a Ringel one that we have not yet tracked down) represent the end of the story for Helga’s German family, and for the culture and ideals they represented. Yet when we return to Berlin in 2016 we find Helga’s childhood apartment building beautifully restored. We find Hermann’s orthodox synagogue still holding services a few blocks away. Of course, there’s the cemetery in Weißensee, where not only the Wohlgemuths but also Hermann Ringel is laid to rest. 

The rebirth of Jewish life in Berlin is fed in part by Jewish repatriates from the U.S. and Israel, as well as by far greater numbers from former Soviet republics. Today’s German culture is more eclectic, vibrant, and contradictory than the world that our forebears inhabited. However, among all that modernity, it is satisfying to know that currents of cultural history represented by German-Jewish families like the Wohlgemuths and Ringels are still a part of the mix. 

This is the end of the article.

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.

Family Story:

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.

Family Story:

Wohlgemuth family left Danzig in 1911-12

This post was written as an email on September 24, 2016, but was not previously posted to Family History Machine.

I looked at more of the directories and found that the Julius Wohlgemuth (Fa.) limited-liability freight and moving company is listed by that name but under new ownership, Regehr & Drabandt, beginning in 1912. Later it was owned solely by Peter Regehr and it continued in business at the same address and phone number all the way to the last available directory in 1942. 

Throughout most of those years, there is an advertisement displayed for the business in addition to its standard listing. The attachment shows the display ad.

It is interesting that the company name was apparently important to the new owners. Instead of rebranding as Regehr and Drabandt, they were buying a going concern with a name, reputation, customer relationships, etc. By the 1930s, the name must have sounded vaguely Jewish but not definitively so, since there were also Christian Wohlgemuths.

For our family history, what this means is we can now place the relocation of the family to Berlin before World War I instead of after. There are no more residential listings for Isaak after 1911. Julius continued to have a residential address in Danzig until 1915 but not after.

As for when the family came to Danzig from Elbing, The directory files listed for 1905 and earlier won't open for me—some technical problem. So whether it is 1902 or up to 1906 we still don't know.

No responses necessary unless you want to. Writing these emails is my blogging process. Later I post them on the site.

Family Story:

The Wohlgemuths *were* in the moving business in Danzig

This post was written September 24, 2016 but was not published (with minor edits) on Family History Machine until today. 

I have been skeptical for several reasons of the detail from Walter's "Helga's Story" that Elly's father Isaak had been in the moving business in Danzig before moving to Berline. For one, Isaak's profession is given as "mill owner" on his 1898 marriage certificate. Also, it didn't make sense he was anti-Ostjuden, as we've been told, since they would have been a big part of a mover's clientele in Danzig as they came through the city on the way to the west. 

Also, there has been this lingering question about just who was Julius Wohlgemuth, whom we originally believed was Elly's father. 

I have just discovered a trove of address books from Danzig at that answers both questions. So far I looked only at 1907 but immediately hit paydirt. Attached are images of the Wohlgemuth listings in the 1907 address books. 

Both Isaak and Julius are listed as co-owners ("Mitinhaber") of the firm Julius Wohlgemuth, which is called a "carrier" ("Spediteur") and provides "furniture transport, residential and office." The business address is on a major Danzig street, Poggenpfuhl Straße. Julius's listing shows a graphic image for a telephone. His telephone number is 611. 

Clearly, Julius is the older brother of Isaak and the senior partner in the business since it uses his name and the business listing is given under Julius. 

I thought you'd want to hear about this development right away. I've been holding back on further news of the Katz family. Betty's father Louis was born not in Kolberg but the East Prussian town of Heilberg (now Linzbark Warminski in Poland). His parents were Hirsch Levin Katz and Taube Conrad. 

Family Story: