How does one manage memories and meaning? In recalling my family’s story, the past comes full circle. For me, it is about the loss of family members, grandparents among many others during the Holocaust. Reading their names and studying their individual lives at least permits me, my cousins and their children to bring some closure to these stories. But none of these family reflections could have taken place without the extraordinary role played by my father, Fred Windmueller.
Memory can be haunting, just as it remains an essential piece to our humanity. Without it we lose perspective and consciousness about love and loss, life and legacy. Between 1936 and 1938, believing that the story of German Jewry would be forever altered, my father would visit courthouses and cemeteries, interview family members and collect letters and documents. He would construct a living history of our family, marking the story of how one family left its imprint.
This “Stammbaum” or family tree would identify the first recording of the family name in Holland in 1480, as “Avram Wendmohl” would become the family patriarch. My father would be able to track the continuous presence of “Windmuellers” in Westphalia (Northwest Germany) dating from 1680.
I often ask myself so why would my father have invested two years of his life to secure this information? Without ever expressing this theme in writing or in conversation, my dad was providing through this genealogy an extraordinary gift to current and future family members. In these pages, one uncovers the story lines of hundreds of relatives, their achievements, challenges and encounters. More than that he was confirming the historical presence and the depth of contributions that German Jews had endowed.
His own journey may be more remarkable than this family historical treasure. From a very young age, Fred Windmueller lived with polio. Isolated from his family for long periods at any time and faced with a series of surgeries to “correct” the paralysis, he would manage to thrive first as a student, later as a merchant and always as a historian. When my mom and he decided to apply for a visa to enter the United States in 1938, they not only faced the challenges of dealing with the Nazi authorities but also with American immigration restrictions. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act set quotas, denying individuals “not of sound body and mind,” admission into this country. My father would be denied admission!
Thanks to the assertiveness of one of my aunts, my parents acquired a resourceful and assertive sponsor and supporter, William Rosenwald of Sears and Roebuck. Employing the argument that my father’s polio ought to be seen as an opportunity, Rosenwald approached his friend, President Franklin Roosevelt, constructing the argument: “Mr. President, in spite of having polio, you have been elected to the highest public office in this nation, so now give someone else a chance to experience his American dream?” In May of 1938 Roosevelt responded by signing a waiver that permitted my father admission into the United States!
In the end Rosenwald would bring some 300 individuals into this nation, providing housing and jobs for many. In a 1935 interview, Rosenwald stated that” I would like to get across to the Jews of America — that to the extent that the Jews as a whole help their suffering brethren, we will fortify the Jews of all countries against anti-Semitic onslaughts.” In 1939, he helped to organize the National Refugee Service, charged with resettling refugees entering the U.S.
My father’s story continues! My parents would make Richmond Virginia their American home. In 1947, along with a group of fifteen other “newcomers,” my dad helped to establish “the New American Jewish Club”. Following the war the “DP’s” (displaced persons) who arrived in Richmond would become part of these “new Americans.” In addition to creating this social network in Richmond where they shared holidays and festivals, produced theatre, and were able to share their unique yet often tragic stories with a circle of fellow immigrants who could readily understand their pain and loss, as well as their dreams and expectations.
As the founding president, my dad offered some reflections on the role and place of the New American Jewish Club when welcoming those immigrants who would arrive following the War:
We brought an abiding sense of human compassion, expressed in philanthropy, in the help we have given to the persecuted. We ourselves experienced persecution and therefore understood the plight of our brethren after 1945. We cared for the Survivors of the Holocaust, and in those years the NAJC did their finest person-to-person relations job. We did not call the DP’s ‘Refugees’, as we were called. We considered ourselves immigrants, and the DP for us was a ‘Delayed Pilgrim.’
This community would undertake one additional step, the creation of a cemetery, Emek Sholom. “On November 6, 1955, the New American Jewish Club unveiled a monument, dedicated to 200 family members who had perished in the Holocaust and whose final resting places will forever be unknown.”
In 1998, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources recognized the Holocaust Memorial’s uniqueness and listed it as a Historic Landmark in Virginia. The following year, Department of the Interior placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. According to American Jewish historians, Emek Sholom is the second oldest holocaust memorial to be established in North America, coming into existence more than 35 years before the dedication of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The Mission Statement of the Cemetery reads as follows:
Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place for persons of the Jewish faith who have physical and/or emotional ties to the Holocaust, and their families. Its primary goal is to memorialize victims of the Holocaust, whose descendants live (d) in the greater Richmond area, through maintaining the historic Holocaust Memorial landmark and promoting Holocaust education.
By 2010, a total of 461 names would be memorialized on these tablets. Today, the cemetery’s leadership is planning to introduce a series of three “Walkways that Teach” designed to chronicle a Holocaust Timeline, 1933-1945; the “Road-to-Richmond ” that will identify the names of the more than two hundred survivors who came to Richmond; and “Iconic Quotations” offering inspiring quotations extracted from the Second World War period. Finally, as part of this initiative, the cemetery will pay tribute to local citizens of Richmond, including 30 “Liberators” of concentration camps and death marches and 4 “Rescuers” of persons who were hunted by the Nazis.
Across the United States, one would find similar examples, the New York Jewish community would establish a “German Jewish Club” (later to be known as the New World Club), while in Los Angeles, two organizing initiatives would result in the creation of the “1933 Club” and the “1939 Club.”
Historian Hasia Diner, commenting on this period and the impact of German Jews on the New York Jewish scene and beyond, noted:
Most refugees, while availing themselves of the resources offered to them, founded an array of their own institutions that spoke to their needs and reflected their sense of apartness. They founded about thirty synagogues, spanning the religious spectrum from the highly reformed Hebrew Tabernacle to the Orthodox Breuer community centered in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. Where their numbers could not sustain a synagogue, they created their own burial societies. They banded together for lectures and other kinds of social and cultural activities.
By 1985, as the membership of the New American Jewish Club continued to decline, the then leadership elected to formally disband the organization. In 2008 a two-hour documentary entitled “Out of the Holocaust – To New Lives in Richmond, Va.: The NAJC-1947 to 1985” was produced, capturing the story of the New American Jewish Club and its members’ contributions to the Richmond community.
My father passed away in 1977. Yet his legacy involving the family chronicle he created and the New American Jewish Club, which he helped to form, certainly continue! The German version of the Windmueller Chronicle was translated and updated, with a new edition, honoring his memory, published in 1981. Today, the Windmueller records, like so many genealogically connected family units, are available on-line and at various sites.
At a time when our society is experiencing an increased level of anti-Semitism and a renewal of Holocaust denial activities, added importance must be given to Holocaust remembrance ceremonies. Even more important are the on-going educational initiatives in schools, within churches, and in other settings that affirm the historic record of this genocide and give attention to other global atrocities directed against religious communities, ethnic groups and minority populations. Telling the story is a legacy responsibility not only for survivors but for all who care about the human condition.
But what happens when the eyewitnesses are no longer among us or when there are few who are prepared to tell the story of this moment in time. Eli Wiesel instructs each of us to make a personal connection with the Holocaust. This is not a subject matter only for books and monuments. We must constantly be asking: “Who was murdered?” “What were their names, how old were they?” “Where did they die?” “ What is their relationship to me?”