Book Reviews

The Way It Really Was

Mathilde Stein's Masterful History
Of Jewish Life in Rural Hesse


If piety, the dutiful respect or regard for parents, race, etc., may be expressed by writing a book, Mathilde Wertheim Stein's recently published The Way It Was: The Jewish World of Rural Hesse is an act of great reverence for her forebears, for the communities from which they sprang, and for the agonizingly contradictory, complex history of Jews in the lands of Germany since their first appearance there as companions of the Roman Legions more than 1,500 years ago, and until their dispersal and mass destruction.

Mathilde Stein has written a detailed account of the lives of Jews in the rural villages of what is now called the State of Hesse. The book was assembled over a period of more than twenty five years of painstaking, relentless, tenacious dedication and thoroughness. Without research grants, help from foundations, of great personal wealth, Mrs. Stein has adhered to her ambition to tell the oft neglected story of Jewish rural lives and has produced an outstanding document.

The many histories of the Jews of Germany divide their attention between narratives of suffering on the one hand, and of emancipation, acculturation or assimilation, and achievements on the other. It is not well known that, until the advent of the Great Disaster, approximately one half of the nearly 600,000 Jews of Germany lived in hundreds upon hundreds of rural towns and villages. In the lands of Hesse alone one counted about 380 congregations. Indeed, Hesse had the greatest concentration of Jewish rural populations of all German lands.

In the majority of those places, Jewish inhabitants often were so few that several communities had to be combined for synagogue worship, for Hebrew instruction of their children by itinerant teachers, for maintaining Chevrath Keddushim (the burial societies), or for the support of a kosher butcher. Nor is it well understood that in many of those enclaves, families were deeply rooted in the face of their often perilous and tenuous political, legal and economic situations.

The continuity of Judaism in Germany, dependent though it may have been on the Yeshivoth of Worms, Speyer, Mainz and Frankfurt, owed perhaps even more to so-called "ordinary" people who, over the centuries, practiced their faith with tenacity. A recent history of rural Jewish life in Franconia points out that this was accomplished in the face of nearly unrelenting, centuries long attempts of Christian churches and secular authorities to convert Jews to the "true faith." In significant contrast to the life of Jews in the fast growing cities of Germany, religious orthodoxy prevailed in the villages, conversion to Christianity among them was rare, and intermarriage perhaps even rarer, though not absent, as Mrs. Stein is careful to point out and enumerate.

The author's attention to the history of her own, far flung Wertheim family, and to the town of Lauterbach near the cities of Alsfeld and Fulda, does not distract her from providing the reader with an account of the historical context of the Jewish Diaspora in the German lands. Major events of that history are described and documented in individual chapters and also carefully interwoven in the many separate stories of the families and the groups of villages of the Vogelsberg region of Oberhessen. Thus, the generations of individuals and families are seen not only in their particularity and their uniqueness, but framed within the historical circumstances of their time, of the settings of Jewish mores and customs, and of the economic and socio cultural setting of their "host cultures:'

Jewish practices are as lovingly rendered, and as carefully documented as are the many genealogies: The "Brith Mila" is detailed ceremonially and anatomically; the so called "hologrash," a counterpart ceremony of naming female children; the custom of married men wearing their white burial shrouds on the high holidays; Sabbath observances in the home and in the synagogue; the pattern of Jewish education of children; observances of major and minor holidays; wedding celebrations featuring adaptations of the German custom of "Festschriften;" the practice of male and female use of the "mikveh," the ritual bath.

Similar care is given to Jewish institutions, especially to synagogues and prayer rooms, large and small, which dotted the landscape. Architectural drawings, paintings and photographs, including maps of street locations, dates of erection and other details, are carefully displayed.

While the history of the extended Wertheim family is most closely dealt with, as are the villages of their origin and residence, Mrs. Stein's detailed attention to generations of other families is manifestly amazing. One gets the sense that no one has been overlooked or omitted, that every consequential fact about them has been marshalled, every illustrative document and photograph provided. Together with all of that, the author generously draws on her own rich and lively memories about many of the people and their activities, their businesses, even their reputations. That is especially true for the lives of the Jewish teachers, rabbis and congregational leaders, whose self sacrificing and heroic conduct tried to insure the continuity of Jewish communal life and the protection of individuals and families. Nor is she sparing in her judgment of those whose conduct she finds wanting in various ways. The pressures of life in Adolph Hitler's Germany did not evoke only heroism and sacrifice. evoki 6rdy rolsin ce. Mathilde Stein does not flinch before unpleasant narratives.

So many people are accounted for that one is prompted to speculate about the number of descendants presently living, all of them spread across the world as they now are. They must surely number in the thousands, and one wishes that all of them could know of this book and come to count it among their most important possessions.

The documentation featured in this marvelous volume deserves special mention. The attentive reader of The Way It Was will not be prompted to ask whether there is sufficient documentation, but instead whether there are any significant pieces of first hand evidence that the author has not seen, heard of, touched on, collected and reproduced here. The rhetorical question answers itself: It's all here, assiduously assembled, and thoughtfully presented. There are copies of birth certificates, of photos of families and individuals, of "Schutzbriefe," marriage certificates, cemeteries and headstones, homes, neighborhoods, Jewish men in World War I uniforms, of Jewish children at school, of obituary notices, and every other variety of physical manifestation of the life of rural Hessian Jews at home, at work, at play, at war, at prayer, at school, or at eternal rest in the cemeteries.

In the face of all of that faithfully rendered detail, the twenty four chapters of the book are, nevertheless, framed within an over arching narrative of the history of Jews in Germany. One of the deep contradictions of that history is that the Jews of Hesse, like Jews elsewhere in Germany, had come to think of themselves as Germans, especially after the success of the centuries long battle to become citizens in the fullest sense of that term, and after large numbers of them had made notable contributions to German social, political, artistic, economic and scientific development of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the deaths of more than 12,000 Jewish soldiers in World War I were regarded as tokens of that hard-won identity.

The emergence in the Hessian villages of the deadly anti Semitism of the Nazi era is as carefully delineated as are the family histories. Names of perpetrators and descriptions of their acts can be found here. The arrests, interrogations, deportations, deprivations and humiliations, the destruction of synagogues, of forcible sales of businesses and homes, the night of broken glass, all that is here and it is always told in terms of the lives of individuals.

In that sense, the tragic story of the end of Jewish life in the Hessian villages stands in sharp contrast to the German Diaspora until the early 18th century, when, except for notables of one kind or other, the names of those who suffered the many agonies of those centuries are unknown to us. In the book at hand, the suffering is portrayed in the most personal ways. The victims' names are on the pages, as are the pictures of their ruined synagogues. And, as a powerful testimony to the fate of her many relatives, friends and fellow villagers, there are nine pages of portraits, devoted to the Lauterbach families who perished: The Max Sterns, the Kugelmanns, the Moritz Sterns, the Höchsters the Jacobs, the Katzes, the Friedhinders, the Weinbergs, the Seligmanns, the Pfifferlings, the Franks, the Steins, the two Strauss families and the Baumanns forty seven people in all. Nineteen of those are represented by empty frames alone, though as with all the rest, their names, dates of birth, places of origin, the places and the dates of their execution are carefully noted.

A penultimate chapter called "The Demography of Jews in Hessen Before 1933 and After 1945," takes a statistical look at the Hessian Jewish populations and their fate the radical decline in numbers, the frightful tolls taken by the Nazi extermination programs among children, the disappearance of entire communities. Here are the stories of the frustrating and nearly fruitless attempts of the surviving victims to obtain some compensation for losses of homes, properties, businesses, and pension rights under the so called Wiedergutmachung statutes enacted in Germany after the end of World War II. Administered by a reluctant bureaucracy, the valuations placed on their losses and the conditions surrounding their final disposition, plus the agents' fees for threading their way through the mazes of statutory and administrative rules, left the "petitioners" with the most minimal, even humiliating awards, amounting to the tiniest fractions of what had been forcibly taken from them.

The possible revival of Jewish life in Hessen and the larger Germany is briefly addressed. Only the tiniest number of former inhabitants have returned to their old homes after surviving the Holocaust. or from the places of their refuge, and the postwar revival of Jewish life continues to depend on the new immigrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, many of whom are also Holocaust survivors. If historical perspectives were to be applied to that phenomenon, one could suggest that many, perhaps even most, of these newly arrived Yiddish speaking Jews are the descendants of the very people expelled eastward from German lands during the 13th and 14th centuries and, by that token, are far less "the strangers," than the hundreds of thousands of others who now populate Germany without prior cultural ties to their host country. It remains far the future to tell what the newly constituted Germany will make of these immigrants, or they of it.

The Way Its Was ends by telling the story of the Wertheim Family in their new country. In a chapter which begins with a full page photograph of Berta Lamm Wertheim and Vogel (Frederick) Wertheim (III), circa 1933, the author describes how her parents adapted the values and habits of their rural lives and their customs of religious observance to the heterodox, urban and tumultuous New York of the nineteen thirties. Here, too, Mrs. Stein links the fate of her own family to that of others from the Hessian towns who had escaped to different parts of the world, as if to say that their dispersal only testified to the strength of the connectedness of former times and lives.

The epilogue aims at no over arching conclusions, but instead describes Mrs. Stein's 1959 visit to the ruined, wooden synagogue of Angenrod built in 1797. She found it littered with bicycles and farm implements, and some prayer books left by Jewish American soldiers of the Occupation Forces. On the wall of that old "Shul" could then still be seen the inscription that read, in large Hebrew lettering, "May the God who is always present comfort you together with the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem."

That is a poignant and modest conclusion to a masterful and reverential work. It is as if Mathilde Wertheim Stein, having had her say in these many moving pages, is letting the meaning of her labors speak for itself.

This review appeared in AUFBAU, America's only German-Jewish Publication. New York, April 12, 2001. Published here with Mathilde Stein's permission.

Mathilde Stein: The Way It Was, The Jewish World of Rural Hesse, Frederick Max Publications, 430 Montevallo Drive, Atlanta, Georgia, 303.12.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2003.
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