Seeking Kin: German city of Wurzburg brings back its long-lost Jews

John Schwabacher memorialized his grandmother with this plaque, or stolperstein, he sponsored in the German town of Wurzburg. Schwabacher will show it to his family when they visit the city in April.</p>
<p> (John Schwabacher)

John Schwabacher memorialized his grandmother with this plaque, or stolperstein, he sponsored in the German town of Wurzburg. Schwabacher will show it to his family when they visit the city in April.

(John Schwabacher)

BALTIMORE (JTA) — John Schwabacher was 12 years old when World War II ended.

He and his brothers, Michael and Thomas, emerged from hiding in their hometown of Wurzburg, Germany, and joined their father in San Francisco. Their grandmother and countless other relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, and their mother and grandfather died just prior to being deported.

When Schwabacher would travel overseas on business for the semiconductor equipment company he founded, he often would detour to visit his hometown. His most recent visit was a decade ago, for the birthday party of a woman who helped save him and his brothers.

This April, Schwabacher, now 79 and retired, will bring his family back to the northern Bavarian city, including his brother Michael (Thomas is deceased). Wurzburg’s mayor is inviting Jewish natives to return with their spouses as honored guests for a weeklong visit, airfare and lodging included. Approximately 25 couples from Israel, the United States, Argentina and England have registered, and the city is seeking others.

Wurzburg’s outstretched hand is meaningful to Schwabacher, “an acknowledgement that the Jews accomplished a lot in Germany, and that [Germany is] overcoming the reluctance to admit that the Jews contributed a lot,” he told JTA. “I’m going because it’s an official recognition of the Jews.”

Rotraud Ries, director of the city’s Johana Stahl Center for Jewish History and Culture in Lower Franconia, called Wurzburg’s sponsorship long overdue, especially with traveling difficult now for aged Holocaust survivors.

“It’s important for them to see how the city tries to deal with this dark period of its history, and it’s important that the city says, ‘We know what happened in the Nazi period, that people left and were murdered,’” she said. “And it’s an important gesture to have them here as guests of the city.”

Other German cities have hosted such visits over the years, but this is a first for Wurzburg.

The April 16-23 program will include an opening reception at the town hall; meetings with present-day residents at the Jewish community building; a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in the synagogue, which in 2006 was incorporated into the community building; ceremonies dedicating plaques, known in German as “stolpersteine” (stumbling stones), in the sidewalks near buildings where Jews resided before they were deported; and trips to cemeteries where visitors’ relatives are buried.

New York’s Fred Zeilberger, 82, will be attending to dedicate a stolperstein in memory of his grandmother, Lina Mimetz, who last lived in a nursing home on the site of the contemporary Jewish community building. After surviving the Jungferhof, Kaiserwald and Stutthof concentration camps, Zeilberger returned to Wurzburg and for two years lived in the nursing home with other survivors before leaving for America.

Fewer than 1,100 Jews now live in Wurzburg, nearly all recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union. Before World War II, approximately 8,000 Jews lived in Germany’s lower Franconia region, about 2,000 of them in Wurzburg, Ries said.

Josef Schuster, who practices internal medicine in the city and whose parents were from Germany, explained that Mayor Georg Rosenthal revived earlier, aborted initiatives to host former Jewish residents. Rosenthal, who is not Jewish, appreciates Jewish history and is committed to its preservation, said Schuster, who serves as vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

“It’s a special feeling the mayor has. It’s in his heart to do this,” he said. “There’s a very good connection between him and the Jewish community.”

A notable moment, he explained, occurred with January’s publication of a book documenting each of the 1,455 Jewish tombstones used to construct a centuries-old building that was razed in 1987. The book represented the climax of a lengthy research project by three local and two Israeli historians. The tombstones, some dating to the 1300s, now are kept in the Jewish community building.

Schwabacher is looking forward to showing his grandson the home of the former’s grandfather, Wilhelm Schwabacher, who owned several flour mills and saved people after World War I.

“I want that [information] not to die with me,” he said.

Schwabacher also mentioned a 2011 event that he said illustrates the city’s seriousness about dealing with the Nazi horrors: a memorial for the deportees in which thousands of residents walked from the Jews’ former homes to the railroad station.

“It was one of the most impressive things they did. That’s one of the reasons I’m going,” he said. “It was a lot more significant than paying for airline tickets. I don’t excuse what happened. I was filled with fury, as you might expect. But I’ve lived a marvelous life in the United States.”

(Please send a message to seekingkin@jta.org if you are a Holocaust-era Wurzburg native who wishes to participate in this program or if you would like our help in searching for long-lost friends or family. Include the principal facts in a brief e-mail (up to one paragraph) and your contact information.)

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