Ruby Family History Project Blog

Day 7: Landesarchiv-Berlin

I arrived about noon at the Landesarchiv-Berlin in the north of the city, which I thought would give me ample time to search their records. It turns out that I should have been there before 11, which is their cutoff time for ordering records for same-day access. The good news is that they do have the files related to the Database of Jewish Businesses of Berlin.

A young women named Carmen was super friendly and helpful, and was able to locate the record numbers for the two Ringel businesses. She helped me to fill out a record request to access the files, which will be ready for me to view when I come back tomorrow.

The archive has several other collections that are relevant to our case. The first are files related to restitution cases for dispossessed Berliners. She quickly located the database record for Elly Ringel geb. Wohlgemuth, but there was a surprise. The case relates to the estate of Betty Wohlgemuth and has nothing to do with the Ringel businesses. Carmen didn’t know why Elly did not file an action related to the businesses, but she speculated that companies like Hermann’s may not have had a lot of hard assets. It is harder to put a value on customer relationships and business reputation. There is another avenue for inquiry on this. I know the name and address for Elly’s lawyer who handled the case in Munich, but I did not bring this with me. I can follow up with that firm after I am back home.

The other collection of interest at the Landesarchiv is its main reason for being. It holds all vital records of sufficient age for residents of Berlin. Birth records less than 110 years old, and marriage and death records less than 70 and 30 years old, respectively, are held in the local registry offices where they were originally filed and are not available to the general public for privacy reasons. 

I already have a number of our relevant records, but there are others such as Schija Ringel’s marriage and death certicate, plus anything on Hermann’s two siblings and their children, that are not in my collection. To locate these records, one still has to know the date of the event and the registry office location (based on the person’s residential address). Some of this information may not be readily available to me before I return to the archive-tomorrow, but I have hopes to at least find the death record for Schija Ringel, which might then lead to his burial location.

That’s it for today. Crossing my fingers for a treasure trove of new information tomorrow.

Day 6: Berlin topograpies

One of the books I read before leaving on this trip was a slim but satisfying, recently published volume called Berlin for Jews, a Twenty-First Century Companion by Leonard Barkam. Rather than try to comprehensively cover everything about the subject, the author focuses his attention on just two locations and three people who shaped the city’s Jewish history. Through these five subjects, Barkam is able to paint a larger mosaic that allows him to muse about the city’s glorious past and its rebirth as a center of Jewish culture. 

One of the locations he covers is the Bayerische Viertal (Bavarian Quarter), a section within the Schöneberg district south of the Tiergarten residential district. I had already noted that the area was fairly near to my Halensee base and had it on my list of possible visits. But when I mapped the addresses of our two Katz ancestors—Betty Wohlgemuth and her cousin Amalie Katz, discussed in yesterday’s post—I found both of them within a few blocks of the Bayerische Platz, the center of the quarter. So I decided to make that my first stop for the day. 

The Bayerische Viertal has long been known in Berlin as the Jewish Switzerland, an upper middle class neighborhood of leafy residential streets and stately apartment buildings. Back in the day, the area was home to 16,000 Jews, and it was here according to Barkam that German Jewish culture achieved it greatest heights. Most Jews retained their religious identity but they also assimilated into the surrounding culture and were as proud to call themselves German as they were of their Mosaic faith. 

Residents like Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin and Albert Einstein were at home here. And so were our two Katz ancestors, even as late as the 1940s, where they continued to live their comfortable lifestyles even as the Nazi persecutions rained down in the neighborhood and across the city.  

More about our relatives in a minute, but before proceeding to their addresses I wanted to take in the Platz itself. It was a typical Berlin public square occupying about four city blocks with streets angling off in all directions. There was a fountain, well-tended flowerbeds and walking paths. After taking some pictures, I took a seat on a bench to breathe in the scene. (Among the other indignities during the dark period, these same benches had once been banned to Jews.)

An older gentleman approached me and was interested in my camera setup. When I showed him it was just an iPad snapped into a frame, he nodded, explaining he uses an older cell phone and is not very good with computers. His name was Wolfgang and we fell into talking. Despite having suffered a stroke a few years ago, his English was better than my German so we proceeded in that language. 

Wolfgang was born in 1947 in the south of Germany but lived here since finishing high school in the early 1960s. His father fought in and survived Germany’s great defeat in Stalingrad, but Wolfgang had little taste for anything about the Nazis and the Third Reich. He said this place was developed during the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm, a period of greatness for the German nation.  

He was most proud to point out that it was at the Schöneberg Rathaus (town hall), just a few blocks south of the Platz, where JFK made his famous Berliner speech in 1963. That led to a discussion of current world affairs, including of the ways Trump is like and unlike Hitler. He is no fan of America’s current politics, citing the environment and trade as two areas where the U.S. has abdicated leadership. He was glad to find that I shared his opinion on that subject, and also on the damage that Netanyahu has done to Israel’s reputation in the world. 

I told him about my relations and what had happened to them here. He commiserated and remarked that I was not the first family historian he has met here in the Platz. Many people come here searching for their Jewish roots in Berlin. 

I would have liked to engage him further about German politics and especially the migrant crisis, but I needed to hurry on. He directed me to Landshuter Straße, running due north from the platz, and also pointed out Aschaffenburger Straße angling off to the northwest. Both these streets are named for Bavarian towns, Wolfgang said with some pride that the region of his birth is thusly honored in the Prussian capital city that is his adopted home. 

Taking my leave, I went first looking for Landshuter Str. 13, where Amalie lived. Unfortunately, it is the one building on the street that is no longer there. Numbers 12 and 14 bookend a small playground, or Spielplatz, that a sign informed me had been erected in 1997. If we wanted to sponsor a Stolpersteine for Amalie, it would have to go on the sidewalk in from of the playground. 

The other buildings on the street are all handsome Berlin apartments, built presumably in about 1910 when the quarter was developed by a Jewish developer. No doubt Landshuter 13 was the same at one time. 

Around to the other side of the playground running at an angle is Aschaffenburger Str., where Betty lived at No. 6. This yellow-painted building remains, again with elegant proportions and decidedly upscale as it no doubt was in Betty’s time. I took my photos and recorded video there, then looked at the listing of resident names by the door and was happy to see several Jewish names among them. It is about two miles as the crow flies from here to the Ringel apartment in Charlottenburg, or a little more on foot or by bus. 

I was surprised to see only a few Stolpersteine in the blocks around the neighborhood, but then I saw that the Bayerische Viertal has its own unique kind of memorial to the Jewish experience here in the Nazi era. Attached to lampposts all around the quarter are 80 simply designed but stunning effective, two-sided signs listing an obnoxious Nazi anti-Jewish regulation and the date it was promulgated. On the other side is a graphic image depicting that affront.

For example, on Betty’s street is one stating (in German) “Occupational ban of actresses and actors, March 5, 1934.” On the reverse is a bright red theater curtain, fully closed to represent one more loss of economic opportunity to Jews in Berlin. These stark reminders are a different type of memorial from the sidewalk stones, but both serve as constant in-your-face reminders of the terrible things that happened here. 

By the time I got back to the apartment to freshen up and enjoy a quarter watermelon that I picked up (the heat and humidity are still oppressive), I realized that visiting the Landesarchiv today as planned was not in the cards. By the time I got there I would have only a few hours before closing time to conduct research, So that will have to happen tomorrow.

Instead I decided to visit another historical attraction, if you can call it that, that was on my list. The Topography of Terror exhibition and document center stands on the site of the old Gestapo headquarters and Reich security office. From the outside it is a stark, low-slung, black metal building centered on a massive square of crushed rocks. The exhibit is indoors and out, and I started by taking in the football-field length display of chronological events of the year 1933, when Hitler was given power and he exercised it ruthlessly. The display is sited along the east end of the square, hard up against the former route of the Berlin Wall.

There was a lot of great information there but nothing that cannot be found in other sources. The real treasure is inside the building in what they call the document Center. Here too are extensive information panels with photos and captions covering the sordid history of the Gestapo, SS, SD, RHSA and all the other instruments of persecution. Here are all the war criminals—Himmler, Heydrich, Kaltenbrunner, Eichmann, Müller and the rest. One personality of fascination to me is Artur Nebe, a recurring character in the Bernie Gunther books who was the chief of Berlin’s criminal police (Kripo) before taking command of Einsatzgruppen B, the mobile killing squad that murdered tens of thousands in Belarus and Lithuania. How this respectable lawyer and professional police administrator turned into a mass murderer has been one of those inexplicable things I’ve grappled with, but here you begin to understand how otherwise reasonable people were sucked into the system.

The star of the show for me were the documents. They weren’t the originals, of course, but the exhibit has page after page of incriminating evidence—memos, lists, IBM cards, the Wannsee Conference report and so much more. You can’t help but be overwhelmed with the brazen openness with which this criminal regime undertook its dirty work. Nor can you come away with any conclusion other than that most of the perpetrators came out of it with insufficient consequences. A handful received death sentences; most served no more than a few years time before being excused. Far too many of them ended up with jobs in the West German government, all the way up to Konrad Adenauer’s chief of staff Hans Moltke, who was implicated in the atrocities in Greece yet served as Der Alte’s chief of staff all the way into the 1960s.

The beauty of the exhibit is that it lays bare the details of the government’s evil doings for all to see. That includes the thousands of today’s German citizens, many descended from participants in this history, that tour the exhibit in droves every day. At this exhibit and at memorials all over the city, there seems to be a willingness—or even desire—to face up to the facts and own up to a national collective responsibility. That’s encouraging. 

I came out of the Topography of Terror exhibit mentally exhausted and ready to turn the page to another chapter in history. The famous Checkpoint Charlie, the inter zone border crossing where the U.S. and allies faced off against the Soviets in a number of tense episodes during the 1960s, was exactly one block to the south. As gripping as was the Terror exhibit, the whole scene around the checkpoint was disturbingly superficial, reminiscent of any tourist trap from Time Square to Gatlinburg. Actors in military dress mugging with the tourists for money. Chintzy museums and attractions. Soviet uniforms and paraphernalia is cheesy little tourist shops. (Fortunately it is against the law to sell Nazi regalia, but there is no limit to the amount of fake Russian gear on offer.) 

There is still much to be learned and experienced in this undoubtedly important location, but it is hard to find amidst the all the junk history. I got my fill of it pretty quickly and caught the bus west into the heart of the shopping district. 

Normally I don’t like going to department stores,  and it would probably be low on my list to take in high-end shopping venues on an international trip. But department stores are an integral part of the history of Jewish commerce in Berlin, including the Nazi repressions that dispossessed Jewish retailers of their property. 

The most famous department store in Berlin today, the Kaufhaus des Westens, universally known as KaDeWe, was owned in the 1920s and half of the 30s by the Jewish merchant Hermann Tietz. Like many institutions in Berlin, it was all but destroyed in the war and only slowly revived afterwards. In the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, it has returned to or likely surpassed its former glory, with eight floors of dedicated to the culture of consumerism. 

Also, all the Berlin guidebooks list its gourmet food emporium on the sixth floor as a top choice for dining on the cheap in the city. So I took the M29 bus to the Wittenberg Platz and entered the famous store. On the lower level, every exclusive design label you can name had its own boutique. Of course the place smelled like every other department store in the world, a combination of perfumeries meant to seduce normally prudent people into the spirit of spending. I rode the escalators up, stopping on the menswear floor to see what I could find to replace my ripped shirt from the cemetery. Even though many racks were labeled as 50% off, I didn’t see anything I wanted for less than 50€ so I didn’t stay long.

Then I went up to the food level. Here the aromas were more to my liking as I browsed every imaginable kind of luscious food stall. The smoked fish counter looked especially good, though I wasn’t here for take-home delicacies, but for the equally enticing selection of restaurants. Every kind of cuisine was represented but today I was looking today for traditional German fare, which I had not yet sampled in the city. There were several good choices but by the time I had made up my mind it was just past 8 pm, 20 Uhr on the German clock. As I sat down at the counter and asked for a menu, the server told me with apologies that food service throughout the store closes at 8. I had just missed the deadline. 

No biggie. Although everything in the store looked enticing, the prices were not as good as promised in the guidebooks, and there is no shortage of hearty German food on just about every block in the city. I walked down the boulevard back to the corner of Schlüterstrße, where I enjoyed my first strictly German food, a schnitzel plate with salad and potatoes, along with a half-liter of well-deserved Pilsner. 

While on the corner of KuDamm where our ancestors probably walked by every day, I tried to find a sidewalk paving pattern that resembles the layout in the picture that we have of Hermann and Helga walking on the boulevard. So much has changed since that time in Berlin but the sidewalks in this case seem unchanged. The photo shows a section of sidewalk on Schlüterstraße on the block north of KuDamm, which is very close to what we see in the photo from the early 1930s.

Then I hopped a bus. Then I hopped a bus down the KuDamm to Halensee and tucked myself in after another long day.

Day 5: The cemetery records

I  had kind of a down day on Monday. The heat was back and I was feeling pretty wiped out from my busy first days in Berlin. So I won’t regale you with any big adventures in this installment. Instead I will focus on the first hard results from my family history investigations.

They came via email from the archivist at the Zentrum Judaicum. First came the disappointing news that I won’t be able to visit the archive in person on this trip. I made the mistake of not arranging for a visit before my arrival and it turns out that their research desks on site are fully booked this week. However, the archivist was kind enough to look up the Weißensee Cemetery records for our family members, and they were jam-packed with important new information.

The big news is that Betty Wohlgemuth did not take her own life. She died of an unspecified natural cause In a clinic on Trautenaustraße. Her burial at Weißensee was arranged and paid for by a first cousin who was previously unknown to us. This was Amalie Katz, who was a daughter of the brother of Betty’s father. Amalie was born in the town of Preussisch Holland in East Prussia, midway between Elbing, where the Wohlgemuths later lived, and Heilsberg, where the Katz family originated. If you are looking on a map, the modern name of the town is Pastek. Heilsberg is now Lidzmark Warmnski and Elbing is Elblag. 

Amalie was six years older than Betty, and she had lived in Berlin for many years. I am searching for more information about her parents and possible husband (if she married, it was to another Katz) but have not yet turned up anything on those scores. However, we do know about her death, and it suggests the fate Betty would have faced if she had not passed away naturally. 

Amalie Katz was deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt on August 17, 1942. This was supposedly the good concentration camp where many elderly Jews were sent, but it wasn’t good for Amalie. Five weeks later, on September 26, she was sent on to the Treblinka death camp where she probably perished soon after her arrival. She was 73 years old at the time of her death. I have her Berlin address and we may want to consider sponsoring a Stolpersteine there to commemorate her life and sad end. 

Next, we already knew that Betty’s husband Isaak Wohlgemuth passed away in August 1929. The new information is that he resided at Woelkpromenade 6 in Weißensee, the building next door to the apartment where the Ringels lived and that I visited the other day. The funeral arrangements were made by Hermann Ringel. 

It is interesting that Isaak’s death came in the same year that the Ringels moved from Weißensee to Charlottenburg, possibly precipitated by that event. Betty also later moved to an address in Wilmersdorf, but I don’t yet have a year for that. Joanne has a memory from Helga that Betty lived in the same building as the Ringels, which I had discounted because she is not listed in Charlottenburg. But now we know that she did live next door to her daughter and son-in-law (and granddaughter) when they all resided on the Woelkpromenade.

The photo above, which is not mine, shows a view across the pond to Woelkpromenade 5 and 6. 

There is also new information about Hermann’s death, and it contradicts something I thought I discovered a few weeks ago. The arrangements for his burial were made by his business partner, identified as Erich Wasserreich, about whom the archive has no further information. I thought I had identified the partner as Isser Reichenthal, so this is contradictory information that opens a new avenue of investigation. 

Presumably, Wasserreich was the scoundrel who weeks after arranging Hermann’s burial absconded with the money Hermann had set aside for the family’s escape from Berlin. 

So that answers one of the big questions I came here to learn, about Betty’s cause of death and whether she may have taken her own life. She did not. On the other major question, details of Hermann’s businesses and their “aryanization,” the ZJ archivist was not able to help. The information that files supporting the entries in the Database of Jewish Businesses in Berlin are held at the ZJ is not correct. The archivist says that these files are located at the Landesarchiv Berlin, which will be my next stop. 

In addition to those files, if they are there, the Landesarchiv also holds records about postwar restitution cases. We know that Elly received restitution payments from the German government so hopefully there will be information that can be found about her case. 

That’s all I have for Day 5, when I made my first big breakthrough without ever leaving the comfort of my Berlin apartment. 

Day 4: Biking in Berlin

After last night’s rain, Sunday offered more pleasant conditions for touring some of the city on bicycle. The friendly neighbor in the building where I am staying insisted that I use her husband’s bike instead of renting. I did and had a wonderful time exploring Charlottenburg, the Tiergarten and many of the sights of the Mitte. 

I’ll say this right off the bat, based on all of four days in the city: There is no better way to get around Berlin than by bicycle. There are designated paths on every major street (excepting a few thoroughfares), so you can either make good time if you want or poke around neighborhoods at a leisurely pace. It seems everyone does it, most without helmet but carefully stopping for every red light and keeping to their proper lane. I get the sense that most Berliners obey the law, even in small things like jaywalking. I’ve seen this too on the transit, where everyone dutifully pays the fare even though it is mostly on an honor system. That doesn’t work in the States. 

My first destination was Schlüterstraße 12 in Charlottenburg, the address of the Ringel family from 1929 to 1938. Joanne has visited here before so I had a pretty good idea of what it was like. On a pleasant Sunday around lunchtime, the cafe out front was doing a brisk business but in a leisurely way. Nobody eats and runs here. They linger. 

A four-person film crew apparently shooting a music video (though there were no musicians) was capturing the scene on the sidewalk and inside the cafe, which made my little camera rig look preposterous in comparison to their fancy equipment. When I started shooting and pointed in their direction, the cameraman became somewhat agitated and demanded in a torrent of German that I not record his face. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, but he was profoundly disinterested. 

Having just been renovated in 2016, the exterior of the building is gorgeous and perfectly proportioned, like so many of the grand apartment buildings in this section of the city. Unlike in New York, these buildings don’t have doormen. The entryway was open and I took advantage of that to take a look at the lobby, stairs and back garden. I shot some video footage with commentary here and at other locations during the day). However, I haven’t taken the time yet to figure out how to post my video to the web site using just my iPad. I think I will devise a way to do it soon, but until then I’m posting only a few still shot

As I was standing in the lobby filming the building logo on the carpet, one of the residents approached and wanted to know what I was doing. After I explained, she was actually quite friendly. I asked how much the building had changed in the renovation. She said she had moved in only after that, but imagined it was not very much. Some of the interior walls had been removed to make bigger rooms, she said, but otherwise they were much the same.I wish I had asked her to see inside her apartment but I didn’t push my luck and she didn’t offer. 

The next stop was the Pestalozzistraße Synagogue, the orthodox prayer house where Hermann attended. I knew it was just two blocks away from the apartment building but I still had a hard time locating the wall plaque that marks the location of the synagogue hidden behind an apartment house in the interior of the block. I didn’t expect to get inside today, when there were no services, but hoped to be able to get a camera angle on it somehow, but no such luck.

There was a different reward, however, a cluster of so-called Stolpersteine, memorial bricks to deported Jews that are mixed in among the cobblestones. You see them in many locations around Berlin, but here there were at least a dozen stones, each containing the name of the person who lived at the address, when and to where they were deported, and their fate, which was almost always “Ermordet”—murdered. 

For today, I had to make do with the plaque and the stones. There is a possibility of coming back here on Friday, on my last night in town, to attend Shabbat services. 

Then it was off to the Tiergarten, one of the great urban parks in the world. It was the perfect location for a bike ride, with a different landscape and monument view around every curve in the path. I barely scratched the surface, but I think I like the Tiergarten even more than Central Park, which I love. 

I had read about the architectural village called the Hansaviertel in the northwest section of the park, so I took a ride past and around many of the dozens of boxy, color-cladded buildings constructed here in 1957 for an international architecture exhibition. In the 1950s, these were the cutting edge of postwar modern architecture. Today, they are still visually arresting but in a slightly dated way

Now I crossed the Spree and headed about a mile along its northern bank looking at the tourist boats going the opposite direction. I passed by the central Berlin train station and arrived upon a massive gash in the earth. It is a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, with a yawning no man’s land between two facing walls. I won’t have time for a Cold War tour on this visit but there is such an abundance of museums and memorials that I would like to make that the focus of a future trip. 

By the way, does anyone offer a tour of Bernie Gunther’s Berlin? He is a fictional Berlin police detective whose career spanned the Weimar, Nazi and Cold War eras. The tour would begin and end at the Alex, then and now the Berlin Polizeipräsidium (police headquarters) at the Alexanderplatz. Following the tour would be like traveling through time, from the 20s to the 60s, with a cynical cop as your guide. 

Now I had reached the heavy tourist area in front of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. I would have time for these popular landmarks on another day, but for now I decided to take some time to experience the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the undulating wave of irregular massive black steles that represents the six million souls lost to history. 

I didn’t go far into the labyrinth because I had my bike. I should have locked it up because I was promptly told that one place you don’t bring a bike in Berlin is to a Holocaust memorial, especially this one. If I have time, I’ll come back later this week for a proper tour. 

This is also the area where historical Nazi sites were located—Hitler’s bunker, the air ministry, Gestapo and most of the National Socialist levers of power. Of course I have a fascination for this stuff, but I’ll wait to do a Third Reich tour later in the week. For now, I was on to look at a particular address on Krausenstraße in the old commercial heart of the city. Trouble was I spent a long time looking on Kronenstraße before I realized my mistake. I restored myself with an ice coffee and went on the right address. 

It was the building that was a subject of a fantastic book about the Wolff family and how it was finally able to gain restitution from the German government for the expropriation of the headquarters building for the family’s fur business. The architecturally significant building housed the East German national railway for all the years of the Cold War, and now several government ministries are located there. There is also a very nice plaque out front, erected in 2016, that acknowledges the building history and credits the H. Wolff Company as the original owner. I took some nice photos of the building with The fish-eye lens.

Since I was nearby, I decided to return to the Vogteiplatz where I had been briefly a few days ago. This was the setting for Uwe Westphal’s novel about the Jewish fashion industry in the 1930s that was another of my recent reads. I didn’t have my bearings on the earlier visit but now I was able to identify certain buildings and also locate the monument that Westphal helped to create to honor the lost industry of Jewish designers in Berlin.

And now I set off on my final task of the day, trying to locate the addresses of buildings where Hermann Ringel did business in and around Alexanderplatz. I crossed the Jannowitz bridge and pedaled up the broad Alexanderstraße toward the Alex. This is now the domain of high-rise Soviet-era apartment buildings, and there is no trace of whatever used to be at 55 Alexanderstraße where Hermann did business in the 1920s. 

Then I circled the platz and came out on by the Hackesher Markt looking for Memhardstraße 12, where Hermann’s office was in the 30s. Those blocks are all new construction, with residential buildings and a retail mall. No luck. 

I knew I would have better luck at my next stop at Alte Schönhauser Alle 8, which was the office for the Reichental-Ringel wholesale company. This street retains all its old character, though the trendy shops and art galleries do not reflect what the Scheunenviertal was like 90 and 100 years ago. Number 8 has a Japanese restaurant and fashion boutique on the ground floor, and five stories of apartments above. The menswear wholesaler must have been in one of the commercial spaces. 

Finally, at the top of the street, I turned onto Torstraße, a major thoroughfare at the border of the Scheunenviertal. This is a postwar name for a street previously called Lothringerstraße. Hermann kept an office there at number 4 in the early years, between 1919 and 1923. Many of the buildings here are older. I don’t know if the numbering is the same on the renamed street, but the lowest number I could find before it hits Alexanderplatz is number 6. The building next door is given an address on the cross street. 

So overall my Scheunenviertal address hunt turned up four locations clustered around Alexanderplatz but only one with a surviving structure. 

By now it was getting dark and I had a fairly long ride ahead of me. But I took this opportunity to ride by the sights on Unter den Linden, including Humboldt University (I’m an admirer of Alexander von Humboldt) and farther down the Adlon Hotel (a definite stop on the Bernie Gunther tour).

Then it was on through the Brandenburg Gate and a careful ride home without a lamp to Halensee. But not before one last stop, at a Döner cafe, for a well-deserved dinner of lamb kabob and potatoes.

Day 3: Judische Museum

Judging from several private responses to my last post, it seems that the prospect or reality of getting locked inside a cemetery (as I did yesterday) is not uncommon. This evening, I attended an author reading and interview at the Jüdische Museum with Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron, promoting his latest book, Eighteen Lashes, which has just come out in German translation. 

Evidently, a key moment in the book comes when the taxi-driver protagonist—also an amateur detective working on a historical mystery from the British Mandate period—gets locked inside the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv and has to scale a wall to get out. Gavron admitted that he used artistic license in the scene, since Trumpeldor’s gates actually stay open all night. I’ll keep that in mind for when I go to Tel Aviv and visit the several Spektor family members buried at Trumpeldor. By the way, I have always loved that name, but now it sticks in my craw. 

The reading came at the end of my visit to Jüdische Museum Berlin, which was just as stunning for its architecture as promised. Unfortunately, the museum’s permanent exhibit on the history of German Jewry was closed for renovations. I had hoped that I would gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances and attitudes of Prussian Jews like our Wohlgemuth family that is the focus of my trip. Instead, I toured and thoroughly the temporary exhibition, Welcome to Jerusalem, which is housed in the museum’s old building. Highly recommended.

The lower level of the new building, containing the three intersecting axes of Exile, Holocaust and Continuity, was open and from that I was better able to grasp the intent of the architecture. The three-dimensional angles produced by the axes leave numerous void spaces, representing the absence in culture and history left by the destruction of Jewish life in Europe. The voids are used to present stunning artistic interpretations of that concept, including one in the photo selection above.

Each axis also presents exhibit installations with objects illustrating the concepts, and some of these touched on subjects of interest to our Wohlgemuth-Ringel story. In the exile section, there is a case about Nazi regulations limiting the items that could be legally taken out of Germany by so-called emigrants. It was very specific: You could take items only if they were owned prior to 1933. Each person could take eight pieces of silverware. Most precious metals and jewels were not allowed to be taken, with a couple of exceptions. You could take your wedding ring, and that of a deceased spouse. Also pocket watches were specifically exempted. 

When Elly left in 1938, it was not via an approved emigration but in an illicit human smuggling operation. So she was not necessarily subject to the regulations, but it is interesting that one of the few jewelry pieces in her estate that can be traced back to Germany was a gold pocket watch. Perhaps Joanne can tell us if Elly’s wedding ring, and even possibly Hermann’s, were also in the collection. 

The other exhibit of interest concerned the widow of the artist Max Liebermann. Her last letter written to a friend in London in March 1943 was a desperate plea for help. But before the friend was able to contact her, Martha Liebermann was found dead of an overdose of Veronal, one of an estimated three to four thousand German Jews who took their lives during the period of the deportations. I think Betty Wohlgemuth was another of this number, and apparently Veronal was the preferred method where you simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. 

I’m still hoping the Zentrum Judaicum that I mentioned before will help me solve that, but there is also a possibility of finding information at the Leo Baeck Institute Berlin branch, which is also housed in old building of the Jüdische Museum. It wasn’t open on a Saturday, so I will return for a visit there during office hours next week.

I browsed in the museum bookstore on the way out and purchased a couple of items, a catalog of an earlier exhibition called “Die ganze Wahrheit” (The Whole Truth) and a drink coaster with a hilarious image of Albert Einstein as a modern Berlin hipster. Then I headed out in the evening for a planned walking tour of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. 

The weather had changed. As I walked alonged Oranienburger Straße into the bohemian and international district of Kreuzberg, the sky grew dark and there was a blustery wind. There was rolling thunder and then the rain started. I stuck it out for a few blocks but finally took cover in a beer garden at Kottbusser Tor. I took at seat at an empty table but was shortly joined by local man who turned out to be a very friendly expatriate from Chile. We both enjoyed our suds and I also ordered a plate of fish and chips. I know, not very German but it was what I wanted. 

Roberto told me about his life as an aspiring filmmaker in Berlin and then he was joined by four of his friends, young men and women, who were all Spanish speaking, one other from Chile and the rest from Spain. Roberto had praised my German but chided me as a California for not speaking Spanish. Still I was able to enjoy their comraderie until well after the rain had subsided and I took my leave, after exchanging Facebook contacts with Roberto. 

So that was pretty much my Saturday, except to mention several email exchanges that are relevant. First, I heard back from Uwe Westphal, the expert on the history of the  Berlin Jewish fashion industry. He is on vacation on the Baltic, but was interested in my quest for information on Hermann’s businesses. He was not familiar with the name of Ringel, explaining that his focus is primarily on the haute couture fashion houses centered at Hausvogteiplatz, and not the wider industry of garment ready-wear manufacturing. However, he is interested in our story and offered that there was still time to include information about it in the forthcoming next edition of his book. The new book will also come out in English translation, for which Westphal is currently raising funds. Anybody know someone, possibly in the fashion industry, who might want to help pay for the translation? 

I heard back from Donna Swarthout, the author of the book about Jews returning to Germany that Joanne and I ended up not contributing to. She is out of town, too, but we may be able to meet on Friday, my last day in town. Her book is finished and due for publication in December. There will be a launch event at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. Also, I heard from well-known Jewish genealogist Logan Kleinwaks. Among his areas of expertise is the history of Jews in Danzig, and he heads the JewishGen Danzig special interest group, He had a number of tips for me and we made plans to meet in Warsaw. So there will be more about Logan on this blog next week. 

That’s all for now. After the rain, the weather should be nicer tomorrow.

Day 2: Soundless in Weißensee

I went for most of the day to Wießensee, the suburban district in Pankow, a northern section of the city. The highlights were my exploration of the Jewish cemetery (including having to scale the wall to get out after failing to observe the early closing time on Shabbat eve); locating the apartment building where the Ringels lived in during the first five years of Helga’s life; and taking an au naturel dip in the Weißer See, the resort lake that gives the district its name.

On the down side, I had the audio settings screwed up on the many videos that I shot, so my narration was not captured in most cases. The attached is one short clip with narration that I shot with the iPhone, not the iPad which is my main camera. Either I will dub over my videos later, or else go back next week for a reshoot. No big loss, since my ad-libbed commentary was not super articulate anyway. I’ll probably write a l0script for the next time. 

First a bit a good news. On my way in the morning to the S-Bahn station at Hohenzollerndamm in Wilmersdorf, I passed by an art and collectibles auction house called Dannenberg, and thought to get an idea of the value of our Julius Assmann pocket watch in the country where it originated. Before leaving on the trip, I had it informally appraised at several Bay Area auctioneers, with somewhat disappointing results. It seemed the most it might bring in the U.S. market was about $1000. 

I did not bring the watch with me to Germany, since the U.S. experts all agreed that with worldwide auction markets connected by Internet there would be little difference in value based on the location of the auction house. However, I do have some excellent photos of the watch and stopped inside to show them to an appraiser. He said he could not give a true estimate without seeing the physical watch, but was quite impressed with the brand and quality of the merchandise. He said they would set a minimum price of €1500, and that it could sell for as much as €5000 or more. He said they would be pleased to include it at any of their four auctions per year if I would bring it with me on a future trip. So it does seem there would be a significant difference in the sales price to offer the watch in its home market. 

So on to Weißensee. The first thing I learned approaching the cemetery on Herbert Baum Straße is that the street obtained that name in the 1950s, named for a martyred Jewish hero who organized a student anti-Nazi resistance movement. Thus, the cemetery cheat sheet showing our family grave locations that I have in my collection at home, and that gives Herbert Baum Straße as the cemetery address, could not have been among the items Elly took with her in 1938. I now conclude from reexamining my photo of the document that Elly must have visited the cemetery, then in East Berlin, sometime in the 1970s. I still don’t know if Helga ever went there. 

The cemetery was very much as I pictured it—grand, immense, overgrown, and suffused with solemnity. The cheat sheet gave me the cemetery field number and row for our two family grave sites. However, as Joanne had warned me in advance, locating the graves was something like finding a needle in a haystack. In field O7, where Hermann’s grave is located, there are about 400 graves tightly packed in. There was no indication of row numbers, and in most of the area no footpaths between the rows. You have to climb through the dense ivy, stumbling over hidden stones marking the graves, to make your way through the field, scanning every headstone for Hermann’s name. It took me at least 30 minutes before I found it. (For future visitors, Row 1 is at the near, western, end of the field. Hermann is in Row 17, roughly halfway down the width of the field. The headstone inscriptions are on the east-facing side of the graves, which might lead you to think, as it did me, that the row numbering begins on that side of the field). Though I was quite familiar with photos of the headstone, it was quite another thing to be there in person and feel a connection with our ancestor lying there. I took my time paying respects and shooting videos with different lenses and camera angles. As I mentionsd, I unfortunately failed to capture my audio commentary. 

Then I proceeded to Field H5 alongside the cemetery’s eastern wall, near the now-closed Rosa Luxemburg gate, where Isaac and Betty Wohlgemuth are buried. As thick with overgrowth as Hermann’s field is, this one is considerably thicker. In much of the field, you would have to hack through lush vegetation to make your way down a row. Even though I knew I was looking for Row 19, at first I thought I would never find our grave. And then I instantly spotted it, about three rows in and visible from the path on the east side of the field. Here again, I shot soundless video and spent 30 minutes in silent communion with our ancestors. To think that they came from common roots, prospered during the golden age of German-Jewish culture and ended their days in this grand monument to the lost heritage of that culture!

Isaac was buried there in 1929 at the height of the good times for Jews in Berlin. Betty was added to the grave 13 years later, at the lowest point in German-Jewish history as the Jewish citizens of Berlin were being deported by the tens of thousands to concentration camps for so-called resettlement. One of the questions I am investigating here is whether Betty’s death at age 67 may have been a suicide in the face of her coming deportation. I got one clue from the gravestone that might lead to further information. We already knew the grave identification number for Isaac but did not have that information for Betty. But there were the two numbers engraved on one side face of the stone. When I finally succeed in locating and inspecting the cemetery records, this number will be useful in finding the details of Betty’s interment, including hopefully a cause of death. 

I took my time leaving the cemetery grounds and found with dismay that the heavy iron gates were locked and there was not a soul around who could help me get out. It was just 3 pm, but there was a sign that I had neglected to read on the way in informing visitors that the cemetery closes at 2:30 on Fridays in observance of the Jewish sabbath. With a sinking feeling, I contemplated the possibility of spending the night and following day alone on the inside. My phone was not set up for roaming, so there was no way to make an emergency call. Finally, I decided I would have to climb over the imposing metal-spiked gates or high brick wall to get out. I inspected all along the front perimeter and found a place I thought I could scale. Trouble was, I couldn’t see the other side to determine if I could get down from the top of the wall. Finally, I decided I had no choice and pulled myself up to the top of the wall, carefully holding on to my shoulder pack to make sure my equipment, money and ID came with me. There were two-foot-high was metal spikes topping the brick wall. I thought I could step over those, and I did, but I managed to catch my shirt on a point, which left a six-inch rip in the sleeve. No matter. From the top I saw a foothold on the other side of the wall and realized with relief that I would be able to get down. I dropped my bag to the ground and then carefully descended to safety. Whew!

With that adventure behind me, I next set off looking for a residential address that I had found for my grandfather in a 1923 directory. We knew that later on the family resided in a luxury apartment building in Charlottenburg, but this address promised to reveal to us for the first time where the Ringels lived before that, during the first five years of my mother’s life. Along the way I passed by the main avenue in Weißensee, Berliner Allee, and stopped in a shop for a restorative lemon ice. The heat wave is still on and lots of others had the same idea, so I had to wait in line for my refreshment. 

Now I was feeling well again and proceeded across the boulevard to the address of Woelkpromenade that I had previously pinned on my downloaded map. The promenade was a short two-block frontage alongside a small lake and park built up on one side with seven connected four-story brick apartment buildings. They were well-kept, apparently upscale residences. At number 5, the Ringel address in the 1920s, there was a historic plaque at the entrance identifying the building as the residence during the 1960s of a prominent (though not known to me) Jewish literary critic. I hung around for a while, shooting more soundless video and hoping that someone I could talk with might come in or out, but nobody did. 

I then set out to a cathedral-sized building in the park across the street. It turned out to be a gymnasium, the Primo Levi Gymnasium no less, but it did not appear to be in use. However, one can imagine the sports-minded Hermann Ringel going there for his workouts and recreation. There were plenty of dog-walkers on leash going around the small lake. I proceeded across the park and stopped in a shop for another ice, this time the Erdbeere (strawberry). 

As I strolled farther along, expecting to get back to the Berliner Alle by another route, I entered another, much larger park and could hear sounds of merriment below. I saw some girls in bathing suits and though at first there must be a pool. Even better, I turned into a path and saw a glistening lake below, with several official beach areas on the other side and laying out in the sun along the entire perimeter of the lake. This turned out to be the Weißer See, for which the town is named and which was opened in the 1880s as a resort meant to be Berlin’s Tivoli Gardens. It is not as elaborate as my childhood memory of that landmark in Copenhagen, but it sure drew a lot of locals looking for a cool dip on a sweltering day. 

I had no swimming suit and was hungry anyway so I availed myself of a lovely lakeside beer garden and ordered a Pilsener and chefs salad. I got just a small glass of beer and finished it far sooner than the salad plate piled high with meat, fish and cheese. Feeling s=well-satisfied, I tried out a small joke on the waiter. “Ich sollte einen kleiner Salat und einen grosser Bier bestellen.” I should have ordered a smaller salad and a larger beer, I’m not sure if I got all the grammar right, but I earned a chuckle from the waiter.

By now, I had reached the decision to go for a swim in my short pants, figuring they would dry quickly enough. But walking along I saw more than a few men and women who were going without any suits at all. Nobody seemed to pay them much mind, this being a different culture on matters of nudity and sexuality. Guess what? I joined them, modestly stripping down behind some hanging branches and joyfully slipping into the cold lake water. 

It was a fine finish to my eventful day in Weißensee. I didn’t mean to go on at such great length about I, but I wanted to paint a full picture.

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.