Ruby Family History Project Blog

Day 1: Getting oriented

There s a heat wave in Europe, and man was it brutal in Berlin on the first day of my trip. I arrived 12 hours late after a flight delay that left me overnight in Copenhagen. My digs in Berlin are in a lovely apartment in Halensee in the western part of the city, courtesy of family friends who are in the U.S. this month. From here, I have easy access to transit to all locations around the German capital city.

My so-so German skills helped me with the transit systems and signage, but I was all but unable to communicate verbally because the sentences formed too slowly. Finally, at the end of the day in a checkout line at a market, I realized that I did not have a shopping bag like everyone else. The words came together as the cashier rang up my items. “Ich habe keine Tasche,” I said, and she reached under the counter to give me a paper bag. Success!

The main stop on my orientation tour of the Scheunenviertal and Mitte Berlin was at the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße, not to see the exhibition but to find out about archive access. The Zentrum Judaicum, quartered in the old building, holds the archives from the Berlin Jewish Community, including the records of Weißensee Cemetery. I wasn’t surprised that I was not able to get in on my unannounced visit, but received an information sheet with contact information for the archivist. I sent her an email hoping to make an appointment for next week. We’ll see.

I also had limited success in acquiring a copy of Berliner Konfektion and Mode, the history of the German Jewish garment industry in the 1920s and 30s by Uwe Westphal. Apparently it is a pretty obscure title. After striking out a several bookstores, including a very hip place just three doors down from Hermann’s import-export company offices on Alte Schönhauser Allee, I wrote a message to the author directly via the contact page on his website. He continues to be very involved in uncovering the history of Nazi expropriations, so I hope he will be interested to learn about Hermann Ringel. Let’s see how that works out. 

Other than that, I visited Jewish sites in the Scheunenviertal, including of course the Alte Judische Friedhof where Moses Mendelsohn is buried. There are a dozen or so ancient headstones lined up against the wall but mst of the property is overgrown with weeds, the graveyard having been demolished by the Nazis. I tried out my camera setup there and some other locations with respectable results. Mainly I shot videos but the photo here is a shot of a memorial sculpture outside the wall of the old cemetery.

I also walked to the Hausvogteiplatz, where Westphal says was the center of the Garment business though there are few signs left of that today. Then I trekked to Potsdamerplatz and all the way to the Zoo Station before taking the bus down Kufürstendamm to Halensee. I was hot, exhausted and ready for my big “Ihave no bag” moment.

Setting the scene: Everything we know so far

To set the scene for the blog items that will follow for the next three weeks, I present here an article written in 2016 that tells the story of the two branches of my German-Jewish family. It is lengthy but well worth reading to come up to speed on the subjects I’ll be addressing during the trip. 

“The 19th Century Origins of the Ringel Family's German Citizenship (And What Happened After That)” focuses of the subject of Jewish citizenship in Germany—how it was gained, how it was stolen away, and how it has been restored in some cases. This serves as a useful frame for presenting the story of my two family branches, one from Galicia and one from West Prussia.

To make the article digestible, I’ve broken it into blog-sized chunks and posted them in reverse order so you can read them in correct order in the blog. Enjoy!

Then we’ll get to the live blogging when I am on the ground in Germany on Thursday.

Our German-Jewish birthright

Hermann Ringel with daughter Helga on the Kurfürstendamm in the early 1930s

In another chapter of this book, my sister Joanne describes how she was able to reclaim our mother's stolen German birthright under Article 116 of the German Constitution. She also explains why—alas—my older brother and I were not eligible to do the same thing.

In this chapter, I explore our mother's family roots to discover the historical circumstances that conferred German citizenship on the family to begin with. I look at the history of two family branches—the Ringels and Wohlgemuths—to show how differences in their legal status and cultural outlook resulted from their differing points of origin in Austrian Galicia and German West Prussia. 

As for the parenthetical part of the title, I found I couldn’t leave that out. I’ll show how much good their cherished citizenship did for them after the Nazis took over, which is to say almost none. Our centuries-long family history in Germany and Austria was snuffed out at that time, but family members like our mother who managed to get out in time carried with them some cultural DNA that was passed down to future generations. Today, Joanne’s reclaimed citizenship and that of her daughter Elana affirm our ties to the family’s history in the pre-Nazified German lands. 

A tale of geographies

Living in the borderlands

Our mother was born Helga Ringel in Berlin in 1924, the daughter of menswear manufacturer Hermann Ringel and his fashionable wife Elly, née Wohlgemuth. Hermann and Elly were proud German Jews holding full German citizenship, but they came to that status differently as a result their ancestors' differing geographical origins.

The Ringel family originated in Austrian Galicia. Helga's two grandparents on that side were from Rzeszów and Kraków, respectively, and they independently came to Berlin as young adults in the first half of the 1880s. Helga’s father Hermann was born in Berlin in November 1885. On the other hand, the Wohlgemuth family came from various locations in German West Prussia. Helga’s mother Elly was born in Elbing in 1901, lived in Danzig, and moved with her family to Berlin in about 1912.

It is just 350 miles as the crow flies between the city of Rzeszów in the south of modern-day Poland to the smaller city of Starogard Gdański in the north. Yet the cultural and political circumstances were vastly different in the 1850s and 1860s when Helga's two grandfathers were born in those places. Let's follow the families in a little more detail.

Emancipation of the Jews

Wohlgemuth headstone in Starogard's disused Jewish cemetery

Isaak Wohlgemuth, the father of Elly, was born in 1865 in what was then the German town of Preußisch Stargardt. He descended from one of two brothers who had first adopted the Wohlgemuth name in Stargardt in 1812 at the time of the emancipation of Jews in West Prussia.

For centuries, Jews had lived in Prussia just as they had in neighboring Russian and Austrian territories, in their insular communities without legal status and protection. They lived according to their own customs, including their style of patronymic naming without the use of surnames. In a period of liberalization following the Napoleonic wars, Jews in West Prussia were made eligible for full citizenship if they met certain criteria and adopted required customs, including the use of a western-style surname. 

Thus in a database of Jews who gained Prussian citizenship in 1812 we find the name of Moses Wohlgemuth and two of his sons, Herz and Solomon, all living in Preußisch Stargardt. This is when they legally acquired that name, which I presume they selected from a list of suggestions. It translates as something like “good natured,” and was used fairly commonly by German Jews and gentiles alike.

There are Wohlgemuths from other towns also in the database, but these three became important when Isaak’s 1898 marriage certificate later turned up and it showed his birthplace as Preußisch Stargardt. Stargardt was a milling center on the river 30 miles south of Gdansk, called Danzig in those days. We can presume that Isaak's father Leopold, who is named in the marriage certificate, was a son or grandson to one of the brothers in the database, Herz or Solomon, though I have not yet established the precise connection.

Upward mobility in West Prussia

In the first half of the 19th century, there was little social or geographical mobility. By the 1880s, technological and social change opened broader horizons for the younger generation of Jewish men and women throughout all areas of Jewish settlement. In West Prussia, young men left their ancestral towns to seek opportunities in the surrounding area. Isaak Wohlgemuth, his older brother Julius and another relative all left Stargardt around 1890 to resettle in the nearby larger city of Elbing.

Isaak established himself in the milling business and started a family there. In 1898, he married Betty Katz from the Pomeranian coastal city of Kolberg, where he probably traveled for business. Betty was the daughter of Louis Katz, also a merchant, from Kolberg. Elly was Isaak and Betty’s first daughter, born in Elbing in 1901. A few years after that, they relocated again to the more cosmopolitan port city of Danzig, where another daughter, Hilde, was born in 1906.

The family prospered in Danzig. Isaak and his brother Julius were co-owners of a freight and moving business located in the city’s old port district. The Wohlgemuths attended a liberal synagogue congregation and participated in the city's enlightened Jewish cultural scene. They appreciated the benefits of assimilating into the broader German society. They viewed with disdain what they called Ostjuden—orthodox Jews from the Russian Pale who passed through or resettled in Danzig.

Yet these unwashed masses were also his company’s clientele, so Isaak still straddled two worlds. In 1912, the brothers decided to cash in and sold the business to a German, Peter Regehr, who continued to operate the company under the Julius Wohlgemuth name all the way to the end of the Nazi period.

The good times in Berlin

Isaak took this opportunity to move his family once again, this time to the cultured capital city of the one-time German Empire. He was forty-eight in 1914 and most likely didn’t serve in the Great War. Most Jewish men of age from Isaak’s class and background proudly did their service. Some paid the ultimate price, including several Wohlgemuths from West Prussia who are found on German casualty lists. 

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 altered the map. Prussian territories including West Prussia were ceded to Poland, and Danzig was made an autonomous “free city.” For the Wohlgemuths in postwar, early Weimar Berlin, life was beset by inflation and political unrest, but Isaak and Betty nevertheless found Berlin to be a more congenial locale for their style of cosmopolitan Jewishness. They lived in the suburb of Weißensee. As their two daughters came of age, there was no shortage of eligible suitors.

A match was made for Elly with a handsome Jewish war veteran, Hermann Ringel, who was fifteen years her senior. Hermann was already successful in business as a wholesaler of ready-made outerwear for men and boys. He also ran a separate import-export clothing business together with a partner.

Hermann and Elly lived at first in Weißensee and later moved to the fashionable Charlottenburg neighborhood. They enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle even though their marriage was not an entirely happy one. Their only child, whom they named Helga Fanny Ringel, was born at Empress Auguste Victoria Hospital in Charlottenburg on October 20, 1924. Elly’s sister Hilde, who was six years younger, later married another eligible Jewish businessman, Herbert Peiser, and little Helga was a flower girl at the wedding.

The Ringel side of the family

Unlike the Wohlgemuth girls, Hermann was a native Berliner, having been born in the city’s Spandauer district in 1885. At the time of Hermann’s birth, his parents Schija Ringel and Feigel Kaufler were not yet married. They officially wed two years later and had two other children after that. 

Schija was very likely also in the garment trade. He had come to make his living in Berlin during the socially mobile 1880s, having been born into a Galician shtetl family from the city of Rzeszów. He hired Feigel Kaufler, a young woman from Kraków, as his housekeeper. Evidently, they fell in love.

Thanks to the fantastic records kept by JewishGen/JRI-Poland and also to the Geni.com Jewish Families of Krakow project, I am able to trace both the Ringel and Kaufler lines back several more generations.

With the Kaufler family, we see that Fiegla Kaufler (1854-1921) was the daughter of Abraham-Moyzesz  Kaufler (b. 1829) and Chaja Esther Gruenberg (b. 1826). We can trace Abraham’s line to his father Schulim (b. 1798), his grandfather Isaak (b. 1771) and all the way to his great-grandfather Nachman Kaufler (b. 1755), who seems to have been the original Kaufler in Kraków. 

For the record, Nachman is nine generations back on my direct family lineage. He started a family that multiplied in Kraków for five generations before Feigel picked up and left to make her future in Berlin.

We know less about the Ringel genealogy in Rzeszów, going just one generation back before Schija Ringel. Schija was born in 1856 to Moses Ringel and Rose Lea née Reichman, the first of five or six other children, two of whom also show up in later German records. A brother Jakob Schia Ringel went to Hamburg and raised a family there, and a sister Basze Sure Ringel came to Berlin and married Josef Herzig in 1894.

Jewish migration from Galicia

If this Ringel family was typical, we are getting a picture of movement of young Jewish people migrating from their family towns in Galicia to cosmopolitan centers in Germany. This is happening at the same time that a far greater migration of Galician Jews is underway to the United States and other countries, so the inter-European migratory patterns happening at the same time are sometimes overlooked. 
 
Rzeszów was a midsize Galician city midway between Kraków and Lemberg, as the present-day city of Lviv was known by its German name. As many as 6,000 Jews lived in Rzeszów in the years of Schija’s youth, about two-fifths of the city’s population. The Jews of Reishe, as it was called in Yiddish, lived in the old quarter and followed a mostly traditional shtetl life focused around religion, family and commerce. 

Previously a part of Poland, Galicia was attached to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1871. The region still ran like a feudal state, with the true power exercised by a handful of Polish landowners. Jews made their living under the economy and laws set by these overlords. Over the previous centuries, through recurring cycles of repression and liberalization, Jews gradually obtained more and more rights.

The garment trade in Rzeszow

By the time of Schija’s birth, Jews in Rzeszow region enjoyed full citizenship rights in the dual Austro-Hungarian Empire. They could own land, enter the professions, and even vote.  

Austrian citizenship law considered Judaism to be a religion but not a nationality, as Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and others were considered to be. Jews that absorbed in the culture were identified first by some other nationality and only secondly by their Jewish faith. Thus, a Galician Jew at the turn of the century was typically referred to as a "German [or Pole] of Mosaic persuasion"—a designation that subordinated their true Jewish national identity.

Emancipated Austrian Jews could freely engage in commerce with Christian businesses. In Rzeszów, these interactions took place in the markets, bustling with activity as farmers and craftsmen brought their products to the city’s regional fairs. Rzeszów gold- and silversmiths were renowned across the region. In textiles, Jews sold every imaginable kind of garment—furs, leather, shoes, hats, coats and, of course, wonderful fabrics for custom tailoring. 

Our Ringel family was probably involved in the garment trade in Rzeszów. Moses Ringel could have been a tailor or other craftsman but more likely was involved in the trading aspect of the business—retail, wholesale, supplies or something similar. This is entirely speculative but is inferred from the subsequent history of Moses’s son and grandson, as we will see. 

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