These are the words of an email that I read in shock last April.
I received an email via JewishGen from a man from my paternal great-grandmother’s hometown, Giershagen, Hochsauerland, Nord Rhein-Westphalia, Germany. He asked if he could be of assistance and I wrote him back. We exchanged a few emails and after I explained who I was and which relative lived in Giershagen he proceeded to tell me that my great-great-grandfather’s house and the synagogue that he attended are still standing. I cried. I lived in Germany for two-half years, rather close to Giershagen and never went there. Okay, I was young and stupid.
Since my job takes me to Germany every 3-4 months, I decided on the next trip I would drive up to Giershagen. Fortunately, my husband was able to join me for the weekend.
David and I drove for almost 3 hours to the beautiful Hochsauerland village of Olsberg and stayed at a lovely hotel recommended by our host, Wolfgang.
Olsberg is 30km from Giershagen. While we were driving on dark winding roads at night, my husband remarked, “Leave it to your family to live in the middle of nowhere!”, but when he woke up the next morning and saw the beauty of the area, he said that he understood why our family lived here. It is green and hilly and really picturesque.
Wolfgang met us at our hotel for breakfast and then our journey began. First, at his lovely home, where he showed me letters, newspaper clippings and photographs of the area. Some of the letters were quite humorous. One of them was from a woman originally from Giershagen who heard from a distant relative that one of my great aunts had grown very fat! It reminded me of living in my hometown.
We then stopped in the village of Padberg to see the synagogue where my great-great grandfather, nicknamed Chicken Opa, prayed and had to walk 7km one way to get to. I found out that he would walk to synagogue and walk right back. Walking 7 km was “no big deal” back then. We walk 2 km to our synagogue.
The synagogue is the oldest half-timbered (fachwerk) synagogue in Westphalia, first mentioned in 1751, and is on the property of a local farmer. The Jews in Beringhausen, Giershagen, Helminghausen, Madfeld, Messinghausen and Roesenbeck were all members of the Padberg synagogue.
The synagogue is so tiny. Maybe 30 men could sit on the ground floor and 15 women on the top floor. It was quite emotional being in the synagogue, I could almost see people praying there…I felt their presence. The synagogue survived Kristalnacht in 1939 because the building was sold in 1932 when the congregation could no longer get a minyan together. The synagogue was made into a memorial and small museum in 1999. Some of the prayer books, a mezuzah and other artifacts are on display.
After looking at all of the pictures, architectural drawings and prayer books in the synagogue we headed to the cemetery in Beringhausen where some of my family are buried. The cemetery is located on a hill in the middle of the forest. It is a beautiful resting place.
The cemetery has 38 tombstones dating from 1862 to 1932. Some of the tombstones were turned over during the war, but the town of Marsberg put the stones in their proper place after the war.
Our first stop in Giershagen was to see the Jewish path. The 7 km path through forest and up and down hills to the Padberg synagogue. It wouldn’t have been fun to walk that in the rain or snow, but I want to go back and do the walk. It must be a beautiful walk in good weather. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any photos of this. There is even a marker at the beginning of the path that says Judenpfad or Jewish Path.
We went to visit a neighbor of Chicken Opa who was about 6 or 7 when my great-great grandfather left in 1937. Chicken Opa baby-sat him from time to time while his parents tended their fields. He had nothing but fond memories of going to his house. He told us that Chicken Opa had the largest apple tree in the village and that he could play and make as much noise as he wanted, except when Opa was praying. He also told us that when the house was sold to someone else, he went over and got a sausage hanging rack that Opa used to hang the beef sausages he made.
He then asked to be excused for a minute and he came back to the room with this:
He explained that Chicken Opa bought a Leica camera before he left Germany and he gave him the box with some money before my great-great grandfather, one daughter and my grandparents left for Alabama in December 1937. I was quite moved that he still had this box. It was all I could do to keep from crying. I was speechless. He was also teary when he told us how sad he and his family was when Chicken Opa left. He then gave me a glass with the crest of Giershagen on it and we said good-bye. It was really a lovely meeting and I hope to spend more time with him the next time I go back.
Then, we left his house and stood in the street and saw the one thing that brought me here in the first place, the house:
The house has been completely renovated and looks nothing like the original one in the picture below, but I know that the heart of the home is still there and Chicken Opa is smiling somewhere knowing that I went back to see where his life began.
Solomon Freibaum, a.k.a Chicken Opa, left his home and all his possessions at the age of 81 to go to a country where he didn’t speak the language, that didn’t have kosher food for him and didn’t pray like he did. But he lived to the ripe old age of 88. My grandfather told me a lovely story about him. Chicken Opa was Orthodox and he always wore a kippah and a hat when he went to synagogue in Germany. The first time he went to the ultra-reform (at the time) synagogue in my hometown he wore his kippah and hat. He noticed that no one was wearing a kippah let alone a hat and he removed them. My grandfather said, “Opa, it is ok; you can keep your hat on.”, to which he replied, “Child, I pray with my heart, not with my hat.”