Ruby Family History Project Blog

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. 

Family Story:

Schija Ringel in Berlin

Galitzianers who came to Berlin in the 1880s thought themselves modern and progressive relative to the places they came from, but they were viewed quite oppositely by polite Berlin society. They lived and did business in the Spandauer district and most especially in the eastern half of it called the Scheunenviertel, where the sight of pushcarts in the streets and men in strange dress gave the feel of a shtetl right in the middle of cosmopolitan Berlin. 

This was the world that Schija Ringel came to in the early 1880s. Extending my speculation, Schija was connected to the Rzeszów garment trade and may have been representing a combine of Rzeszów makers in the Berlin market. Maybe he was sent there by business interests or maybe he put it together himself.  

In any event, he moved to Berlin and established himself in business. From two original certificates that we have, we know that he lived first at Koblancker Straße 14 and later at Rückerstraße 2, both addresses in the Scheunenviertel. Later on, Hermann’s own business address was just around the corner on Alte Schönhauser Straße. 

Family Story:

Feigel Kaufler from Krakow

Herman Ringel's 1885 birth record

As a single Jewish man, Schija would have needed help to keep house and cook for him. He found what he was looking for in an efficient and personable young woman from Kraków. 

Feigel Kaufler was about twenty-five years old when she arrived in Berlin from Kraków, not a blooming rose but still with prospects to find a suitable husband, she hoped. She was the second daughter of of Abraham-Mojzesz and Esther Chaya. In years past, a Jewish girl in the shtetl waited at home for a proper match to be arranged. But this was a new era. Now  a single girl with limited means could take herself to the big city with plans first to secure employment and then to land a husband. 

Feigel fulfilled both objectives with one man, Schija Ringel, for whom she became a live-in housekeeper. Things got a little messy when she found herself pregnant with Schija’s child without the benefit of marriage. But Schija owned up to his paternity in the 1885 birth record, and he made Feigel an honest woman in 1888, as a record amendment attests.

Family Story:

Hermann Ringel’s citizenship status

Rzeszow domicile document obtained by Hermann Ringel

Now let’s take a step back and look at the citizenship question for the Ringel family members in Berlin. Schija and Feigel were not German citizens but permanent residents from the neighboring state of Austria-Hungary. Baby Hermann had a slightly different status since he was born on German soil but of non-citizen parents. At this time, the relevant citizenship law was that of the State of Brandenburg, of which Berlin was a part. (The confederated German states honored each others’ laws but there was not a federal citizenship law until 1913, the same law that with amendments remains in effect today.) 

I have not yet determined the Brandenburg law governing Hermann’s circumstances, but his later actions suggest it allowed for a native-born child of alien parents to obtain German citizenship upon reaching the age of majority. Such a child would have lived continuously in Germany since birth and would become eligible for citizenship at the age of twenty-one.

Since my mother’s death in 2005, I have had in my possession precious original documents including Hermann Ringel’s birth and death certificate, Feigel Kaufler’s death certificate and Helga Ringel’s birth certificate. I studied them during earlier phases of my research but only now have realized that two of them were not from the original dates but were copies obtained by my family members at a later date. 

To be specific, Hermann’s birth certificate documents his 1885 birth and includes a handwritten update about the parents’ 1888 marriage, but the copy of it that I have was actually issued in December 1906. Similarly, the copy of Helga’s 1924 birth certificate that I have was actually issued in 1936. 

Family Story:

Hermann obtains full rights at age 21

So what Hermann was up to in 1906? Among the documentation I have there is also a fascinating Polish language document that is a certification of Hermann’s place of origin. This is dated on August 13, 1906, a few months before Hermann’s twenty-first birthday. This document will play an important role again later when Elly uses it in 1940 to obtain a Polish passport during her flight from Europe. 

But in 1906 it seems that Hermann had a need to document his legal status as the German-born son of Austrian parents. He must have applied to the municipal authorities in Rzeszów, his father’s ancestral home, and received this formal certificate of his status as a citizen of (or depending on translation, “a national of” or “belonging to”) the municipality of Rzeszów in the kingdom of Galicia. Around the border we see all the geographical designations: Royal Free City of Rzeszów, District of Rzeszów, Kingdom of Galicia, Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. 

This document provided proof of Hermann’s legal status at the time of his birth. Together with a copy of his 1885 birth certificate with the 1888 amendment, which Hermann obtained four months later, he now— shortly after reaching his twenty-first birthday—had the necessary documents to satisfy the Brandenburg legal requirements to obtain German citizenship. 

Family Story:

Hermann’s war service

Hermann Ringel in uniform

I don’t have in my possession any kind of German nationality document for Hermann Ringel, but there is ample evidence that he enjoyed both the rights and responsibilities of German citizenship during the following 30 years, until the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped away those rights. 

Hermann served the German Reich honorably in the Great War. War service in the German military by itself did not confer citizenship, however. Witness the well-known difficulties in obtaining German citizenship after the war encountered by a certain Austrian corporal in the German Army. That corporal’s name was Hitler, and he did not become a German citizen until obtaining a special decree in 1932. But Hermann’s situation was different because he served as a German citizen, not a foreign national. 

In 2012, when Joanne applied for restored German citizenship based only on our Ringel documentation (we had not traced the Wohlgemuth history at that time), the [State Citizenship Office] readily approved her citizenship claim. Thus, the ultimate arbiter of German nationality confirmed in 2012 that Hermann Ringel was a full German citizen after 1906, despite his Austrian parentage. 

Family Story:

Differences in attitude

Hermann and Elly Ringel dressed to the nines

As we’ve seen, the marriage of Hermann and Elly joined the Ringel and Wohlgemuth families first in Weissensee and then in Charlottenburg. In one generation, Hermann had made the journey from the shtetl-like Scheunenviertel of his youth to the toniest districts of respectable Jewish society. In business, he had risen in status above his father’s role as a  trader in the markets to become a registered merchant, a manufacturer and wholesaler of ready-made clothing. 

Differences in Hermann’s and Elly’s family backgrounds were reflected in their differing interests and even values. Hermann identified more as Jewish and attended the Orthodox synagogue on Pestalozzistraße, just a few blocks from the family’s spacious apartment at Schlutterstraße 12. When Elly went to synagogue, which was rarely, she went to a liberal congregation. 

Hermann took a particular interest in Zionism and its ideal of a national homeland in Palestine. As much as he appreciated his status as a Jew in Germany, he believed in the vision of the Jewish people reclaiming their historic homeland. He himself might be too old and settled in his life to become a pioneer in Palestine, but he believed in the idea and supported Zionist organizations. 

Of course, Elly had little patience for talk of Palestine and Zionism. She was raised to appreciate the luxuries of life and had no interest at all in ever living in an underdeveloped country in the desert. Both Hermann and Elly enjoyed vacationing in Germany’s mountain resorts and spas, but Elly went for the baths and nightlife while Hermann liked rugged hikes and physical culture.

The first Nazi actions

As a girl, Helga was attracted more to her father’s outlook than her mother’s which she found less meaningful. Her father prevailed on the question of schooling, and Helga was educated at the Theodor Herzl School, a liberal institution named for the founder of the Zionist movement. 

The first physical actions against the Jews came in February and March 1933 with SA raids in Scheunenviertel. Anti-Jewish signage was unfurled in the city’s market halls. The Nazi Party called for a boycott of jewish shops and department stores. On April 1, the boycott began with street demonstrations. Over the following months, crackdowns on Jewish professionals, civil servants and academics would culminate in public book burnings. These measures hit other Jewish sectors hard but early attempts to shut Jews out of the city’s commercial markets were more difficult to implement. 

Years later, Helga recalled watching from their apartment balcony as Brownshirts paraded past on Goethestrasse. They shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ with their arms outstretched. She also experienced the impacts in education, where there were new restrictions at every level from kindergarten to university. Public primary and secondary schools raised costs and set quotas on Jews, driving students into Jewish schools such as Theodor Herzl, where enrollment swelled in 1934 and subsequent years. By the end of 1937, there were just 2000 Jewish children in Berlin public schools, down from 13,000 in 1933

Emigration as an option

Hilda Wohlgemuth Peiser's citizenship was annulled

Many families sought opportunities to emigrate and by the end of 1934 about 20,000 Berlin Jews had done so. The trick was to get out with any of your assets, which were subject to confiscatory taxes or forfeiture. Hilde’s husband Peiser was able to move his business to Holland and soon after they moved there themselves. On the Ringel side, Helga’s cousin Wolfie Shatner fulfilled Hermann’s dream and left for Palestine with a group of Zionist pioneers. 

Early in 1935, fresh street violence brought personal assaults on the Kurfürstendamm and mob actions targeted at ice cream shops. By summer, the Nazis cleaned up their act while hosting the Olympic Games in Berlin. The Olympic stadium was close to Charlottenburg, and Hermann was able to get tickets through his Jewish sports club for several events. Helga went and later remembered cheering for the African-American Jesse Owens. 

When the Games ended, the hammer came down on German Jews in the form of the Nuremberg Laws, issued in September, stripping Jews of most citizenship rights, prohibiting intermarriages, and banning commercial interaction between Jews and Germans. These laws would provide the legal foundations for all of the repressions to follow.

One consequence of the law was that it immediately stripped citizenship from German Jews who had left the country and were living elsewhere, which is why Hilde Peiser shows up in a database of people whose German nationality was annulled in 1935. Hermann’s sister Rosa Shatner, the widowed mother of Wolfie who went to Palestine, fled with her daughter Margot to her in-laws’ home in Belgrade in Serbia. His other sister Bette and her two daughters were able to get out to London. 

The repressions worsen

Database listings for Hermann Ringel's expropriated businesses

Of course, Hermann was also planning an escape for his family and business assets, but he was doing it deliberately. He had been squirreling money away in his export business, skirting the laws governing financial transfers. Hermann knew that his every move was watched by the Gestapo. 

Family and home life was disrupted when it was ruled that Jewish households could no longer employ German maids and servants, though some exemptions were granted to alleviate German unemployment. Among other measures a child might have noticed, Jews were banned at beaches, baths and sports facilities. Yellow notices barring Jews from certain park benches went up first in Prenzlauer Berg, then Wilmersdorf and eventually citywide.

Crackdowns in the city markets effectively ousted Jewish dealers from dealing in eggs, poultry and game, as well as from the municipal stockyards. In the first targets of the coming Aryanization policy, Jewish food traders were forced into liquidation. Under this odious policy, Jewish business owners could be forced to sell their assets at far-below-market value to any Aryan buyer who bid for them. By the end of 1937, more than 30 percent of Jewish businesses and stores in Berlin had been expropriated or liquidated in this way.