Venturing into a Strange Land (8/18/08)

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I have lived for many years now in a small farming village in Western Massachusetts.We are one of about 10 Jewish families surrounded by a predominantly Polish and Yankee population. I have repeated my family’s story.

The central square of Herborn, the Marktplatz, had been anchored in my consciousness since memory began. A painting of the square hung in my parents’ home, an iconic representation of a disappeared world. It always seemed so tranquil and quaint in a way that resembled nothing I knew in Forest Hills, Queens. It was a far off mystery dream location.

 

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Herborn Town Square

My mother would never ever go back to this town of her birth. The painting captured a memory of happy youth in Germany, but the actual town represented the horrors of upheaval.

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Grave of Nathan Sternberg

My son Seth has made four trips to Germany. He visited my mother’s home town and cleaned the gravestones, including that of my great grandfather Nathan Sternberg. Seth has been trying to convince me for many years to return to Germany to visit my mother and father’s home towns.

I had not planned to revisit my grandparents’ Heimat. For me, Germany represented a burial ground, a country that had decimated European Jewry, and I did not want to wander on its soil again. In 1965, as a naïve and idealistic seventeen year-old, I had traveled to Germany to study German at the Goethe Institute. Seeing people old enough to have fought in the War filled me with turmoil. I did not want to be immersed in such pain again.

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With my son’s encouragement and support (although he was unaware of that), I steeled myself to conquer my inner landscape, letting go of the turmoil and rage. Seth and I bought air tickets to Frankfurt and a Eurail pass for three weeks in Germany. Hopefully, “everything (would become) illuminated.” everything-illuminated11

But, there was also a personal story that needed resolution. A family secret had haunted me and needed to be laid to rest at the cemetery in Vacha. I would be going as an “emotional tourist” visiting the site of a family tragedy, fulfilling a promise, and doing the work of teshuvah for my family.

herborn-rathausThe first part of the pilgrimage was to Herborn, a bustling town about 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt where my mother Betti was raised. Her parents Emma and Heinrich Sternberg, cattle dealers, had been good friends with their neighbors the Meckels and my mother’s best friend was their daughter Johanna. sternberg-home-front

schnittert-yardTheir homes on the Austrasse shared a common garden which extended the length of the block and was behind the Sternberg stables and butcher shop. sternberg-stables

The photo below shows the shop attached to the home and a portrait of the family with friends. From the right rear is my great grandmother Josefina Rosenthal, her son-in-law Heinrich Sternberg, his wife, my grandmother Emma. In the front row are their children. From the right is Leo, Betti, my mother, and Bernhard.

herborn-home-familyMy mother studied piano at the conservatory in Frankfurt and taught Johanna also. In 1935 at the encouragement of her brothers who had immigrated to the USA and had read Mein Kampf, she left her parents and Germany and came to the USA. In 1938, she and her brothers were able to bring her parents out of Germany to America. Growing up, I heard of the friendship of the two families—the Sternbergs and the Meckels. My mother was never emotionally able to return to her heimat but Johanna did visit my mother once.

What I learned on this trip from Johanna’s daughters was the extent of this friendship. During the 1930s the Meckels had hidden food in the backyard garden so that my grandparents could survive. Had this cache been discovered the Meckels would have been imprisoned by the Nazis. On this trip, I made sure to visit their graves and offer a prayer of thanks to them.

Johanna married Paul Schnittert, a lawyer. He tried to avoid the military but was eventually conscripted and sent to serve in Norway. When the War ended he was captured by the Americans and imprisoned. My grandparents wrote letters to the US authorities on his behalf stating that he was not a Nazi and about the help rendered by his family. He was released from the prison. After the War my family sent parcels and care packages of food and coffee and clothing to the Meckel family and it helped them to survive.

herborn-mikvah Seth has continued this family friendship of over 100 years into the next generation. herborn-shul-plaque

In Herborn the town archivist showed me sites where Jews had lived and the plaque where the synagogue once stood. They also discovered and restored a mikvah. It was the “extinct people tour.” This is a town with no Jews. They fled to foreign lands or vanished on transports to their deaths.

herborn-cemetery2Seth and I walked to the Jewish cemetery and cleaned the moss off the stones and said prayers. The cemetery was well maintained and had not been damaged during the Nazi period because it bordered on a Psychiatric Hospital and a Christian cemetery. herborn-cemetery1

vacha-birds-eye-viewVacha had been a border town in East Germany and thus no one from my immediate family had visited. It is a beautiful village that time has forgotten. I felt as if I was back in the 1920s and admire the strength of my grandparents—maintaining their Orthodox Jewish life in this little German village. Kaufmann and Therese Schon were part of a community of 20 Jewish families. They lived on Steinwegstrasse (1915 views on right). vacha-postcards

cow-sale-documentThey were also cattle dealers just like my other grandparents, as the bill of sale on the left proves. Herr Georg Hess and his wife from Wolferbutt are paying off the cost of a cow purchased on Nov. 5, 1934. It seems that Kaufmann Schon was also a shochet as the document on the right from the provincial Rabbi Dr. M. Cahn from Fulda reveals. shochet-letter100

vacha-schoen-home vacha-hospitalMy grandparent’s home had been taken over and combined with the small hospital next door during the 1940s or so. With the reunification of Germany in 1989, the hospital was closed. The home like many in Vacha was abandoned and I could only peer through the windows. I fantasized about moving back into my grandparents’ home and the return of Jewish life somehow to this little village.

Just as in Herborn, I went on tour of the town and was shown where the Jews used to live and the synagogue used to stand and curiously a restored mikvah. It was haunting and I felt like an American Indian visiting former grounds where ancestors had worshipped. There were no more Jews in this village. Only signs and memorials and a room in the local museum.

Since at least the 18th Century the Schons lived in nearby Volkershausen. Kaufmann’s father was Isaak and his mother was Hanna. They had five children pictured here: Rosalie, Kaufmann (far right), Veilchen (front center), Louis, and Ida. Kaufmann was the one to move to Vacha in the early 1900’s.

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My father Isaak left to come to America in 1927 as a very young man seeking the golden dream of fortune. He lost that fortune in 1929 in the stock market collapse but continued to work as a coffee salesman. New York City is dotted with many restaurants and delis who were his customers, and these contacts would become important very soon. He rescued 69 individuals during the 1930s and many of them found work in these modest eateries. He rescued his whole family except his sister Selma. Selma was suffering from some serious mental illness. The family knew she would not be admitted into the US as a refugee because of immigration restrictions.

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My grandparents Kaufmann and Therese did not want to leave her behind when they finally left Germany in February 1939. At the time she was in a mental hospital in Hildburgshausen some hours away from Vacha. My grandparents negotiated with the mayor of Vacha for her care in perpetuity. The family home was left to the town of Vacha with the understanding she would be cared for and when the time came, buried in the Jewish cemetery. What happened next, I am sure you are all aware of… She was murdered by the doctors at the hospital as part of the euthanasia program. The promise was betrayed.

Growing up in the German Jewish shtetl of Forest Hills, Queens, I had never known about Selma and only learned of her short life after my father died in 1981 and I received a large handwritten family tree. Her name appeared next to my father’s. For some time no one would answer my questions about this mysterious aunt. Finally, I was told her story as I have just told you. Here was a tragedy that had been buried and there was a family shame that was hidden.

I was resolved to transform the family secret and shame into an acceptable reconciliation a belated Jewish burial of sorts. I have been saying kaddish for her for many years and in 1986 I gave her name to my daughter. But, Selma needed a place in the family cemetery.

vacha-cemetery-2 vachacemetery-1Seth and I drove up to the cemetery on a hill overlooking Vacha—a very bucolic tranquil spot. The cemetery had been repaired some years ago through the financial contribution of a distant cousin Louis Schoen. In order not to invite renewed vandalism, it was decided to leave the stones leaning on their bases rather than put them upright again. A few local residents, Inge Wimmer, an historian, Gunter Hermes, the head of the Vacha Museum, and Olaf Ditzel, a book dealer, had been involved in doing research on the Jews of Vacha and repairing the cemetery. They also were very helpful to us during our stay in Vacha.

vacha-cemetery-veilchen selmastone3In the cemetery I located the grave of Kaufmann’s twin sister Veilchen. It was broken in half. Next to the gravestone I placed a small smooth round stone with the name Selma Schon written on it and her date of birth. Her stone would be next to her aunt Veilchen.

On behalf of my entire family, I spoke out loud to Selma, pleading for her forgiveness for having left her behind, and on top of that, for having buried her memory. I told her she was not forgotten. Both Seth and I were sobbing. Seventy years after her murder, I said some prayers for her… that the Master of Mercy shelter her and that her soul be bound up in the bond of Life and that she repose in peace.

I felt a heavy weight leave me. I had also found some peace.

Together with Seth I had spied out the land and the people that had terrified my family and I was no longer afraid. I found myself at ease. Two generations had passed and the profaned land is transforming itself. The newest generation has a full awareness of the crimes of the grandparents.

It is this generation that Seth is making friends with. Together, I hope they will work to make this world a better place.

vacha-schoen-home2

This journey was inspired by the work of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Massachusetts and was made possible through the generosity of The Harold Grinspoon Foundation Incentive Grant.

My thanks to my wife Jane Trigere for her encouragement and design help.

 

Interview with New Vilna Review (3/7/11)

Ken Schoen, founder and owner of Schoen Books, has created an oasis filled with important and rare Jewish texts at his store located inside a 1930’s era firehouse in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. Visitors to the shop can expect to find volumes in multiple languages, classical music playing on the stereo and the occasional poetry reading as well as a proprietor and staff dedicated to sharing their love for Jewish books and ideas with customers. In this interview with the New Vilna Review, Mr. Schoen talks about what inspired him to begin this endeavor, how his business has changed over time and the kinds of things that he likes to read.

 

 

 

NVR: For our readers who may not have heard of Schoen Books, can you give us a brief description of your business and what inspired you to start this unique bookstore?

 

I like to tell people that The Haunted Bookshop, a novel by Christopher Morley was my inspiration. His fictional bookshop proprietor delighted in identifying and prescribing the right tome for the soul. My rampant bibliomania, my desperate need to buy yet another book led finally to its logical conclusion: I became a book dealer. I satisfied the passion for hunting books with the excuse that I would sell them, having had the pleasure of possession for a brief moment. Walter Benjamin has captured eloquently the profound psychological and perhaps sensual pleasure in collecting books and holding them.  (Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, Engl. trans. (London: Fontana, 1982), pp. 59-60, 63, and 66-67. http://www.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/benj-bookcoll.htm)

 

Some of our holdings can be seen on the web site http://www.schoenbooks.com. We specialize in Judaica in all languages including Yiddish and Polish, but especially German Judaica; also, books on the Shoah, works by exile and refugee writers, books about Israel, and also the social sciences. We upload internet catalogs of recent acquisitions and send them to. We travel widely purchasing fine scholarly libraries. There are at least 20,000 books that are stranded in my bookstore hotel. They call out for new homes.

 

We are in South Deerfield, which is in Western Massachusetts (about 90 miles west of Boston, about 80 miles East of Albany, and 30 minutes north of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Springfield. We maintain a (usually) open shop weekdays and by appointment on Sundays. In all cases, a call ahead is strongly recommended; 413-665-0066.

 

 

NVR: Can you give us a snapshot of what your clientele looks like – who comes to Schoen Books?

 

Scholars and research libraries are our main clientele via the internet. Occasionally itinerant pilgrims stop by. We have been known to serve a light lunch.

 

There are only about five or so serious full-time book dealers in the United States specializing in out-of-print scholarly Judaica. And serious seekers of obscure titles know where to find us.

 

 

NVR: What can visitors to your bookstore expect to find?

 

A mysterious adventure unfolds behind the bay doors of the 1930s WPA former firehouse. Those with a vivid imagination may bump into Franz Kafka reading an insurance text, Theodor Herzl reading a pamphlet on Palestine, Sigmund Freud pondering a sphinx, Gershom Scholem scribbling marginalia on mysticism, Uriel Weinreich deciphering Yiddishisms, and Bruno Schulz sketching under the sign of the crocodiles.

 

Wandering the aisles is an intellectual journey…and a place to linger and delight in the journeys of others and commence your own pilgrimage. The books are not organized by subject, but find themselves nonsensically shelved simply by order of appearance…much like the list characters in a theatrical playbill. The shop is a respite from the maddening pace and pressures of modern life, a place of solace and also community. The strains of a Bach suite or a Schubert trio completes the experience.

 

Throughout the year, we hold occasional poetry readings and talks about art, travel and Jewish topics. The shop is close to several museums: Historic Deerfield and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, the National Yiddish Book Center, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and the Five Colleges and their art museums.

 

 

NVR: How have you built up your inventory over the years? Have the kinds of books that you sell changed much since you first started your business?

 

I buy books from professors who are retiring or downsizing for various reasons, and university libraries that are weeding and deaccessioning. I do not mind library markings. Most of my clientele doesn’t either. The content is the primary concern. Much of European Judaica was destroyed by the Nazis and what made it over to the United States came with the refugees or was purchased earlier by American libraries. I feel it is a sacred task to bring these books back to being read again. In the interim we offer them refuge.

 

When I started in 1990, there seemed to be a greater interest in books on the Shoah, and Holocaust Centers were building their collections. Now, there seems to be less interest. Or, it may reflect a lack of funds or a shift toward electronic purchases. The unusual titles and those in foreign languages sell best and the Europeans are buying more than ever before.  The more common titles are now easy to find inexpensively anywhere via the internet. For those titles you no longer need a specialist. They are so inexpensive that I donate many of these titles to local schools.

 

 

NVR: Can you tell us a little about your background and what inspired your passion for Jewish books? I grew up surrounded by German Jewish refugees in Forest Hills (Queens, N.Y.). All my grandparents were cattle dealers in Germany (http://www.schoenbooks.com/wordpress/?p=111 ) and my father had a coffee roasting business in NYC, selling coffee to restaurants. I have continued the tradition of being a merchant. I did not become a yeshiva bocher as all my male cousins did, but instead I sought out scholarly Judaica to read. It is partly to honor the heritage of my family coming out of Germany that I became immersed in German Judaica.

 

I was a school teacher in New York City and then a psychiatric social worker focused on children and families. I have always belonged to a Conservative movement shul and within that orbit I have founded a Men’s Club and run a Jewish Seniors group in Northampton, MA.

 

 

NVR: Is there anything else you would like to add? The “we” I have been referring to includes my wife, Jane Trigère and my young assistant, Nathaniel Otting, who is the main blogger on my web site. It gives me great naches that he has started his own bookshop (http://www.flying-object.org).

 

Jane is an artist (www.trigere.com) and some of her work is in an exhibition now (until June 30, 2011) at the Hebrew Union College Museum in NYC. She was a member of kibbutz Kfar Giladi for 6 years and also co-founded Yedidei Hasefer (Israel Bibliophiles) in 1980. She is descended from seamstresses and tailors. Her father Robert Trigère was born in Odessa, raised in Paris and came to the USA in 1937. He and his sister Pauline were major players in the garment industry on Seventh Ave. in NYC.

 

The children from our blended family are Rebecca who is starting out in social work, Seth who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Rachel who is a massage therapist, and Shatay who is an art director. We are the proud grandparents of three future readers.

 

What few people know about me is that I am addicted to detective thrillers in the genre of Alan Furst and Philip Kerr.

 

Today I would like to prescribe two novels that are not well-known and need a wider audience.

The 13th Man by Murray Teigh Bloom is a thrilling novel of suspense based on historical events.

The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht is a mystery about identity and loss after the Shoah.

For more information on Schoen Books, please click here. (http://www.schoenbooks.com/)

 

 

Copyright 2011 The New Vilna Review.