On the traces of Jewish life

A walk with Josef Wißkirchen in Pulheim-Stommeln

The 20 or so curious visitors who joined Josef Wißkirchen on a summer Sunday afternoon in search of traces of former Jewish life in the village of Stommeln had to bring along a little imagination. The stables of Josef and Johanna Heidt’s agricultural business in Berlich have long since given way to a multi-storey residential building. One has to imagine the graffiti on the façade, which their son Julius and his wife Elisabeth branded: “A Jew lives here with his whore”.

Wißkirchen explains that Heidt converted because of the marriage of the Catholic girl from Pulheim. In 1937, the family moved to Cologne because of persistent abuse. Heidt survived the Nazi terror in a hiding place in Cologne-Junkersdorf. He became Pulheim’s first mayor in 1946, as a CDU member.

The rage of the local Nazis against the Jewish-Catholic couple can still be seen in the badly damaged gravestone of the parents in the local Jewish cemetery, where Wißkirchen later took the walkers. There were many similarities and parallels between Jews and Christians.

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Badly damaged: the gravestone of the Heidt family.

Ilse Moses

The former history teacher and author of numerous books on Judaism shared his almost inexhaustible knowledge about the fates of Jewish families from Stommeln. He told of the life of the mentally handicapped girl Ilse Moses, whom her father Ernst Moses, son of a cattle dealer from the corner house at Nettegasse 1, had had to leave behind when he emigrated to the USA in 1937.

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A photo shows Ilse Moses.

The German authorities had denied the daughter the necessary health certificate to leave the country. At first she stayed with grandpa Carl Moses. Then she was taken care of by his sister Johanna Moses, who ran a small grocery shop in Kattenberg Street. And finally she experienced something like a family life with her aunt Anna Katz and her daughter Hella, who was about the same age, in Cologne. Her name appears in the special group of Jewish children in an institution for the handicapped run by the Elisabeth Sisters in Essen, which was still called an “insane asylum” at the time.

The institution had been a place of refuge for about 1200 children and had enjoyed a good reputation. The nuns had set up a special group for the Jewish children. The nuns kept them in their private rooms, probably to protect them from occasional visits by the Gestapo in preparation for the so-called euthanasia programmes, Wißkirchen knows.
Nevertheless, Ilse Moses’ name was last on the list of those deported to the ghetto in Riga on 7 December 1941. It is questionable whether the twelve-year-old survived the icy cold of the four-day train journey and the subsequent march to the camp.

In order to be able to admit the Cologne Jews into the overcrowded ghetto at all, the Gestapo had caused a bloodbath among the Lithuanian Jews already housed there. A survivor tells of frozen pools of blood in the streets and abandoned food in the kitchens.

Sophia Ehrlich living in the „brown house”

Wißkirchen told of Sophia Ehrlich from the house in Venloer Straße known as the “Brown House”. Even today, the house with its yellow and reddish-brown bricks exudes much of the atmosphere of those days.

The 98-year-old died only ten days after the Nazi pogrom night in November 1938 in the Jewish hospital in Cologne-Ehrenfeld, Josef Wißkirchen recounts. A coincidence? In any case, the death certificate does not establish a direct connection, but lists a fracture of the neck of the femur and a cardiac insufficiency. An uneasy feeling remains.

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The “brown house” in Venloer Straße, where Sophia Ehrlich lived.

The Siblings Änne and Georg Heymann – Stories of Resistance

Wißkirchen has also documented stories of resistance, of Änne Heymann, who joined the Zionist movement. Once she escaped to Haifa, she joined the paramilitary organisation of the Haganah and later made it to colonel in the Israeli army. Her brother Georg Heymann had been active in the communist “resistance” and had been in prison for “preparation for high treason”. During the preceding violent interrogations by the Gestapo, he had lost an eye. Nevertheless, there are stories that he later flew with the Royal Air Force as a co-pilot in the war against Nazi Germany. It is certain that he worked as a ground crew member.

Josef Wißkirchen’s book “Lost Freedom” is about communist resistance under National Socialism.

The Family of Lily and Ernst Herz

The fate of the Lily and Ernst Herz family, who lived in the brick house at Venloer Straße 567, is also well documented. Siegfried, who was only 17 years old, volunteered to go to the front in the First World War and was soon killed in action. His service and that of many other Jewish soldiers did nothing to change the anti-Semitism in the Reich of Germany at the time; as “shirkers” they had to serve as scapegoats for the lost war, said Wißkirchen. Three Jewish soldiers from Stommeln alone were killed in action.

The efforts of Jews in the 19th century to assimilate into German society and the legal equality with Germans in the constitution of 1871 could not have changed the renewed growth of hatred towards Jews, which culminated in the murder of the Jewish German Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922, said Wißkirchen. As early as 1879, the highly respected Berlin historian Heinrich von Treitschke had stooped to the sentence: “The Jews are our misfortune”.

Why couldn’t they leave the country?

Why didn’t families like the Herz family with many children leave the country in time? This would have required the guarantee of a US-American who was either liable for the family of eight and had the corresponding financial means. A boat passage to the USA had initially cost 500 dollars per person, later more. The Herz family had neither American friends nor money.

The once flourishing business of the country produce merchant had become unprofitable due to government orders (“Germans, don’t buy from Jews!”). Ernst Herz therefore opened a small forwarding agency in Cologne, but the revocation of the driving licence in 1939, which affected all Jews, ruined that too. Ernst Herz was unemployed. A letter of petition from Lily Herz to a Jewish friend from Rommerskirchen, who did not have much himself, testifies to the futile attempt to raise money for the passage.

Karl Otto and Rudy survived

Of the six children of the Herz family, only the brothers Karl Otto and Rudy had survived the concentration camp and forced labour underground, seriously ill. The mother had been murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber together with her three youngest children, including Jona, who was only two and a half years old. The father’s trail was lost in the Auschwitz subcamp Blechhammer.

He was good friends with Rudy Herz, who last visited Stommeln in 2011, until his death from fish poisoning in 2011. Numerous conversations with him had enabled him to write a biography about him.

The Graveyard

During the visit to the Jewish cemetery in Stommeln, Wißkirchen not only traced the still visible traces of the devastation and destruction by the National Socialist SA during the November pogrom in 1938, but also made clear the deep roots of Christianity in Judaism. He pointed out, for example, that Jesus had been a Jew and had lived as such; that the Christian Lord’s Supper was linked to the Jewish Passover meal on Seder evening; that the Easternisation of the Christian churches continued the Easternisation of the synagogues, because for both religions the point of reference in salvation history was in Jerusalem. For the Jews it is the Temple Mount, for the Christians it is Mount Golgotha in Jerusalem.
Above all, however, the belief in life after death unites both religions. Wißkirchen made this clear with the blessing that can be found in Hebrew abbreviation on every gravestone: “May his soul be bound up in the bundle of life”.

On two gravestones, Wißkirchen drew the visitors’ attention to the images of hands raised in blessing – once as a relief, once as a carving. In both cases, the deceased were named Cahn. This name testifies to the fact that they are members of the priestly tribe of the Kohanim, who once served the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem and were descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70, the Kohanim retained certain privileges in worship in the synagogue even in the dispersion of the Jews, the “Diaspora”. These included in particular the privilege of giving the Aaronite blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.” Catholics also know this prayer as a solemn final blessing after festive church services.
As former neighbours and spiritual sisters and brothers, Wißkirchen wanted to make it possible to experience the Jews who once lived in Stommeln. He provided much food for thought in this regard.

About Josef Wißkirchen:

Josef Wißkirchen was born in Bonn in 1939. In 1966, the history teacher moved to Stommeln and soon immersed himself in the history of the town and Jewish fates. From 1983 to 2010, he was second chairman of the Pulheim History Association. In the early 1980s, this association published the two volumes “Jews in Stommeln” with many contributions from his pen.

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Josef Wißkirchen at the jewish cemetery.

The association initiated the restoration of the synagogue in Stommeln, which had been used as a shed by a farmer who had bought the building. In 2002, Wißkirchen initiated the construction of a memorial in Brauweiler, which was opened in 2009.

Josef Wißkirchen works as a historical researcher with the stories of those affected and their descendants. He researches sources such as civil registers, the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross, looks at deportation lists, many of which can be found online, or pays a visit to the Berlin Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues – a “central treasure trove”, he says. Here, he says, he is also interested in shedding light on the repressive property regulations for Jewish families in Nazi Germany.

One will soon be able to read the family documentations in detail. Wißkirchen says he has already largely completed the script for the book “On Jewish Traces in Pulheim-Stommeln”. He wants to publish it next year. He has also done research on communist resistance under National Socialism and published the book “Verlorene Freiheit” (Lost Freedom).

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