in the garden

 

Dec 2010 Journal

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A labour of love (review)

Published by the author, 2009, paperback, 3 vols., 760 pp., ISBN 978-3-00-026168-8; for further information contact Dr Rita Scheller, Husarenstr. 26, 30163 Hannover, Germany
Gerhard Salinger, an elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, has lived in the USA much of his life and has worked there as an accountant. I am in no position to judge his worth as an accountant but, when perusing his now numerous books on the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe – many of these communities long forgotten – I have formed the impression that he has missed his vocation. He is, without doubt, a devoted, meticulous and unquenchable historian who is utterly determined that the Jewish communities that he has so lovingly researched should not be forgotten. Not only has he devoted many years of his life to this task but he has also been largely self-financed. His studies have involved travelling with a driver thousands of miles by car through the areas under study, looking up ancient records, visiting synagogues and cemeteries (or what is left of them), and bringing to life the names of those who lived (and died) there, together with as much personal information as he could uncover. This intense preoccupation is a labour of love and he is to be greatly admired for his efforts, which will be of huge importance as a resource to scholars researching European-Jewish history. It will also enable individuals to trace their families and provide them with valuable information. Salinger dislikes modern technology and, extraordinary as it may seem, his data are collected, analysed and written up without the use of a computer.
This book, the publication of which was greatly facilitated by Dr Rita Scheller, a practising Christian who was born in Pomerania and who has made a significant contribution to reconciliation between Germans and Jews, appears in three parts and deals with former Jewish communities in what used to be West Prussia – an area south of Danzig (Gdansk) – which has a chequered history. West Prussia was not established until 1772, after the first partition of Poland, when Frederick II of Prussia took it over. Before then Jews had led very restricted lives and were required to live in rural areas. Frederick II changed all that: poor Jews were expelled and only those who possessed at least 1,000 Taler were allowed to stay, although they were required to live in the towns, despite some resistance by the local populations. Radical improvements for the Jewish populations came about only after Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians in 1807, when Frederick III had to flee: under Karl August Hardenberg’s chancellorship, some reforms were made and the proclamation of 1812 conferred citizenship on most Jews living in the area. However, equal rights were not achieved until 1871, when Bismarck established the German Reich. Following the First World War, most of West Prussia was incorporated into the new Poland (1920). In the introduction to Part I, Salinger provides a scholarly history of this turbulent area going back to the Middle Ages.
In his Foreword, Salinger explains that he had a personal motive in selecting West Prussia for study: evidently members of his maternal family had lived there until 1830. They later moved to Pomerania (Hinterpommern), which likewise became entirely Polish in 1945. Only the smaller part of Pomerania called Vorpommern remained German, and Salinger has already published similar studies of these two areas. He explains that after extensive correspondence with the Polish authorities in many towns and villages he visited all sites in which it was possible to trace a Jewish past. On his trip, which took place in 2005, he took numerous photographs which enliven his text, and he has included many detailed maps which provide the reader with essential points of reference.
So how has he set about his seemingly overwhelming task? Take the town of Preussisch Stargard (now Starogard Gdanskie) as an example (see Part I). What can the reader expect to find here? Apart from a brief potted history, Salinger notes that two Jews, Mendel Salomon and Alex Baruch, were permitted to settle there in 1774 because they possessed more than 1,000 Taler. By 1812 there were 112 Jewish households, and individual names - both original and adopted later - are listed. The population had grown to 597 by 1840, to 688 by 1849, and to its highest number (802, 13.7 per cent of the population) by 1870. There was a synagogue, a rabbi and a school. Salinger goes on to list all those Jews who paid taxes in 1883, stating their names, occupations and places of residence. There is also a list of tax-payers in 1911. The names of two men who lost their lives in action during the First World War are given, as are extracts from the Secret State Archives in Berlin concerning the election of Jewish officials and other matters. There is a list of deaths, giving names and age, going back to1848, and a long list of deaths from 1857 until the community ceased to exist. It is striking that many died at a relatively young age. There is no information on where and how they died, but it is nonetheless an extraordinarily detailed survey.
On his visit to the town, Salinger discovered that the synagogue is now used as a shopping centre and that the greatly neglected cemetery has a number of gravestones, many severely damaged but five still standing upright, with the names of Mendelsohn and Wohlgemuth recognisable. Photographs of the former synagogue and the cemetery are provided.
I don’t expect that many readers of the Journal will want to rush to purchase a copy of this book, of which only a limited number has been printed. Only someone with a very personal interest in West Prussia, or scholars of Jewish history, would want to do that. But I intend to present my copy to the Wiener Library in London, where it will be accessible to anyone wishing to look up his or her family and I hope that some will find that helpful.
Gerhard Salinger is to be congratulated on single-handedly providing us with such a scholarly resource. I am greatly indebted to Dr Rita Scheller for some factual corrections.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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