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Dec 2000 Journal

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Two centuries of family history

(final part)

A short drive south from Wroclaw is Ziebice (Münsterberg), birthplace of grandfather Max. It’s six in the evening and the women of Ziebice are streaming into church; the men are sitting in the town square, walking their dogs or out of sight. The town can hardly have changed in its composition and structure. Here, I try to imagine our grandfather as a young boy, playing in the streets until, when only five years old, he lost his father Louis and the widowed Johanna moved west. As before, we search out the local priest to point us in the direction of Jewish traces. This time, the priest, when he emerges from the hour-long service, is unhelpful in his haste to get away. And the language barrier seems impenetrable. One of his helpers somehow communicates to us that there is indeed a Jewish cemetery outside the town and as the early evening turns sunless, we climb the hill and pass through the stone arch leading to the Münsterberg cemetery, packed close with headstones, some standing, some fallen, all bearing Hebrew inscriptions. Disappointingly, we don’t find the grave of great-grandfather Louis, but there are many Münsterberg families buried and recorded here over the previous two centuries. To our astonishment, the most recent interment dates from 1972. How many of the inhabitants of Ziebice are even aware of this treasure-trove of Jewish history?

We have two more appointments with our grandparents’ forefathers: in Cracow and Warsaw. Cracow seems to be experiencing a Jewish revival, almost as if to compensate for the obliteration elsewhere in Poland. Maybe this is partially due to the more tangible and commercial explanation of Spielbergia: for this is where Schindler’s List was filmed. In any event, Kasimierz, formerly the Jewish quarter until the Nazis forced the Jews into a ghetto on the other side of the river, is bubbling with Jewish-style restaurants, renovated synagogues converted to Jewish museums, hotels with Jewish or biblical names and even a (non-operational) mikvah. The oldest synagogue – the beautifully simple Rama – still functions as a house of worship for the 150-strong Cracow Jewish community and has an old and well-kept cemetery. Amongst the several old graves is that of our great-grandfather eleven times removed, the seventeenth-century Tossafist rabbi Lippmann Heller, imprisoned for his views and subsequently released but banned from preaching in Cracow. His grave is covered in candles and other tributes, which makes me ever so slightly proud.

The Jewish Historical Institute and its archive is what draws us to Warsaw. It acts as the central archive for the erstwhile Jewish communities in pre-war Poland. Not all archives were saved from the Nazis’ desire to eliminate every sign of Jewish existence but what has been saved is piled up in this Aladdin’s cave, much of it uncatalogued through lack of financial resources. Amongst the many records of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish community life are some of the Breslau community’s records: death registers, notifications of marriages, bequests, minutes and financial records, none of them complete, but still the green shoots of information. From these pages, the Koebner/Köbner family grows and spreads through cholera epidemics which claim the lives of babies and young children, brothers and sisters, the old, frail and sick, to give us back a history we have taken so long to reclaim. It is a deeply moving moment.

David and I part company, he to explore his (paternal) West Prussian family history, I to return to Berlin to visit Daniel Libeskind’s unforgettable Berlin Jewish Museum, a moving experience and a memorial in its own right. There are those who say that it should remain empty and communicate its power without the help of the clutter of pre- and postwar artefacts of Jewish life in Germany. Maybe that is what the architect himself secretly intended!

In a perverse way, it is a relief to be back in Germany: undoubtedly because I can communicate with those around me in a way I couldn’t in Poland. But with the surfeit of experiences and impressions flooding in during the previous six days, I just want to go home and try to assimilate two centuries of family history.
Marion Koebner

previous article:Holocaust Memorial Day
next article:The Judenplatz Memorial