Last August, my husband and I found ourselves in the middle of a field of wheat at the end of a small unpaved road, looking for the Jewish cemetery of Cramberg, Germany, where we hoped to find the grave of my great-grandfather who had died in 1927.
Cramberg is a small village on a plain, not far from the watchful eye of the Schloss Schaumburg, a late 18th century, neo-Gothic fortress, and where my late father, Luther Nashman, was born in 1930. My father, the only child of an only child, knew little about his forbears, and had no desire to return to Germany. By the time I became interested in learning more about my family, both of my father’s parents had passed away. I knew that my grandfather had fought for Germany in World War I and been awarded an Iron Cross Second Class (a source of considerable cognitive dissonance for a child growing up in the US in the 1960s), and that my father’s grandmother, Sophie Nachmann (for whom I am named) died in the Holocaust. That was all.
If one has a relative who perished in the Holocaust, the path to learning about one’s family is through Yad Vashem’s witness pages, and that is how I came to find Jason Hallgarten, a (very) distant relative in Israel who was able to fill in the gaps and give me an entire genealogical tree of my father’s family. Tragically, my father and his parents were the only branch of his family to have survived the Shoah. However, through Jason and a closer relation, Avraham Frank, z”l, I was put in touch with a group of concerned German citizens, the Gesellschaft für Christlich-Jüdische Zusammenarbeit in Limburg, who had taken the initiative to erect a Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Cramberg in honor of the fourteen residents to have perished – among them my aforementioned great-grandmother Sophie. A text I wrote was read at the dedication in October 2011. On the monument it said that my grandmother had perished in Kaunas (Kovno) in 1944 (although the documentation at Yad Vashem had mentioned Riga, which is what I wrote on her witness page.That also appears, as it turns out, on the monument in Frankfurt to the Jews deported from there.)Fast forward ten years. This past summer my husband and I made a detour through Germany to visit Cramberg, an hour’s drive from Frankfurt. The mayor of the village had sent me the address of my father’s home and noted that my great-grandfather was buried in the cemetery (whose Google location she also sent), which is how we wound up in the middle of a wheat field at the end of an unpaved road….
From photographs I had seen of the memorial, I knew that the cemetery was in a forest, so we stopped the car and started to descend a steep path toward the Lahn river. It seemed an unlikely place for a cemetery, since both sides of the road were steep, one falling away to the forest and the river on our right, the other heading up to the wheat field. And then I spotted some reddish-gray head stones poking out of the underbrush on the slope to our left—and we knew we had arrived at the Jewish cemetery, established in the late 18th century.
What can you know from a photograph? The monument and the cemetery seemed so large in the pictures I had received. The reality was more complex: the cemetery, overgrown with weeds, had been built on a very steep slope. It was painfully clear that the plot of land had been given to the Jewish community to perform their burials only because it was nonarable, virtually inaccessible – and in short, utterly undesirable. We slowly zigzagged our way up the hill, stopping to examine the red sandstone headstones covered with lichen and half buried in weeds and brambles, trying to discover which was my great-grandfather’s. At the top of the hill, on level ground, was the Corten steel Holocaust monument, so much smaller than imagined. There were also graves from the early 1900s, so it was here we decided to focus our efforts. I had brought materials to do grave rubbings as I knew the years would have blurred the past, and indeed many of the inscriptions were illegible. Searching among the stinging nettles, we pulled up the weeds around dozens of gravestones in an increasingly disheartening effort to discover what we had travelled so far to find.
And then, as dusk fell, we happened upon my great-grandfather’s grave. We carefully scraped off the lichen and dirt, did a grave-rubbing, and copied the inscription. We lit the memorial candle we had brought, said Kaddish, and left before nightfall, stopping in Cramberg for a few minutes where my father had lived in as a child (a new house has been built on the spot).
But that is not the end of the story. On the way into Cramberg we had passed through Balduinstein, a picturesque town just a couple of kilometers away. An internet search led me to a book on the Jews of Balduinstein and its author, Willi Bode, whom I wrote to ask what he knew about Cramberg. He immediately sent documentation and photographs from his book illustrating the presence of the Nazi party in Cramberg, as well as a shocking excerpt from the Cramberg School Chronicle describing how S. Nachmann, my 66-year-old widowed great-grandmother by then living on her own, was detained by the SS on Kristallnacht:
“The cowardly murder of our legation councilor Ernst vom Rath by a Jew on 10 November 1938 also led to the rioting of the bitter population in Cramberg against the Jewish families still resident in Cramberg:
1) E.I Levita, butcher’ shop.
2) S. Nachmann.
3) Abraham Levita.
…All Jews were guarded by members of the SS in the town hall on the night of November 10-11. The next morning they were released into their homes.”
My correspondence and collaboration with Mr. Bode proved to be unexpectedly meaningful, and he has since taken it upon himself to research Cramberg’s Jews.
This past Wednesday something came in the mail from Mr. Bode—a booklet with the list of Jews murdered in Kovno, including names and exact dates. Perhaps coincidentally, my first project as the collection manager at Yad Vashem was cataloging material from the Kovno Ghetto. And the date of my great-grandmother’s murder in the notorious Ninth Fort in Kovno? Exactly 80 years ago, on November 25, 1941.