citizenship article

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.

A tale of geographies

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

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.


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