A trip to Munich in search of family, history and stories
Bustling Marienplatz with its municipal buildings, offices and stores, is the center of Munich. A gilded statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the middle of the plaza. At one end is the old city hall, with its distinctive red roof.
Munich's new synagogue opened on Nov. 9, 2006 -- the anniversary of Kristallnacht when many synagogues in Germany were destroyed by the Nazis, including two in Munich.
The sanctuary of Munich's new synagogue, Ohel Jakob. The synagogue opened on Nov. 9, 2006 -- the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when many synagogues throughout Germany were destroyed by the Nazis.
A conservator at Munich's Jewish Museum prepares Torah finials and a pointer for display a few days prior to the museum's opening on March 22, 2007.
Rabbi Steven Langnas, who heads congregation Ohel Jakob, holds an antique Sabbath lamp such as all German-Jewish families would have used in the 19th century.
The old Jewish cemetery in Munich. The first burial took place in March 1816 -- a seven-day-old boy who was the twin of the author's great-great grandmother, Terese Neustaetter Ullmann.
Nathan Ullmann, the author's great-great grandfather, and his son Adolph, my great-grandfather, who emigrated to America. Nathan died in 1863 and is buried in Munich''s old Jewish cemetery. The date of his death, his age and the location of his burial plot are noted on the right hand page of the cemetery''s record book (third listing from the top).
In 1932, Hitler erected the Haus der Kunst on Prinzregentenstrasse to display the traditional, German art of which he approved and occasionally to exhibit the "degenerate" art that he despised. Now the building houses a range of cutting-edge exhibits and performances.
Munich's Gothic city hall, facing Marienplatz, is "only" about 150 years old.
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MUNICH, Germany -- This city is pretty and very jolly. People sit shoulder to shoulder in sunny beer gardens, drinking from mugs the size of small wastebaskets. Marienplatz, the square in the center of town, bustles day and night. The ubiquitous pastry shops are so tempting. The Baroque palaces and churches are stunning. The city's art museums, particularly the Alte Pinakothek, are among the best in Europe. In a city of 1.3 million, there are two opera houses and three symphony orchestras.
But Munich is also where Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party got started.
During the Nazi regime, Munich's synagogues were smashed and 4,500 Munich Jews were murdered.
One of my great-grandfathers, Adolph Ullmann, was born in Munich in 1858. His family lived in the Jewish quarter behind the Gaertnerplatz Theatre. As a young man, he emigrated to the United States as did his brother and sister.
For years, I pored over a family album with a few 19th century photos of Munich that Adolph brought with him. I was curious to see where he came from, but I was reluctant to go back.
However, on Nov. 9, 2006 -- the anniversary of Kristallnacht when synagogues throughout Germany were destroyed -- a new synagogue, Ohel Jakob, opened in Munich followed in March by the opening of a Jewish museum.
I decided to return. At the airport when I said I was going to Munich, I was almost teary-eyed. The thought flooded over me, "I'm going home."
More than seven million people emigrated from Germany to the United States in the 19th century -- the largest number from any country. According to the 2000 census, more than 42 million Americans are of German descent. I am part of a throng.
I arrived in Munich on Saturday -- the Jewish Sabbath -- and that night, went to the synagogue for a service. The synagogue, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Museum are located on St-Jakobs-Platz, in the heart of the town. Centuries ago, there was a market on this site. In the 18th century, it was a Jewish ghetto and then, after World War II, a parking lot.
The synagogue has a high, stone base that suggests both the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and a fortress. It is surmounted by a glass cube that looks dark from the outside during the day but glows at night.
Everyone who enters has to go through a metal detector. There is 24-hour-a-day security.
The synagogue follows Orthodox traditions, though people of all persuasions from very traditional to non-observant, "cultural" Jews belong. The service is in Hebrew and according to Orthodox custom, the men sit in the main part of the sanctuary with the women in a balcony. That night, there were around 30 people.
During a break in the service, the congregants went to a different room to eat and invited me to join them. As elsewhere in Germany, which has the fastest growing Jewish population in Europe, most of them were from the former Soviet Union. After a kosher meal of salmon, salad, bread and wine, the singing started, and I knew some of the songs.
I felt warmly welcomed.
The next day I went to the old Jewish cemetery on Thalkirchnerstrasse in Sendling on the outskirts of Munich. The first burial in this cemetery was on March 24, 1816 -- a 7-day-old boy. He was the twin brother of my great-great grandmother, Terese Neustaetter Ullmann. The cemetery is surrounded by a high, brick wall with an iron gate, which Frau Johanna Angermeier, the caretaker, unlocked. Although Munich's new Jewish cemetery on Garchingerstrasse (dating from 1908) is readily open to visitors, the old one can only be visited by family members, and occasionally, by tour groups. Inside, it smelled of yew and cypress trees and moss. There were rows and rows of closely arrayed monuments, some of them, large and impressive. A flagstone path ran down the center.
Frau Angermeier had a large, black book from 1882 listing the locations of the graves, replacing an earlier book from 1816. In the book, she found the names of my great-great-great grandfather, Israel Neustaetter who died in 1833, and my great-great grandfather, Nathan Ullmann, Terese's husband, who died in 1863.
She showed me the place where Israel was buried, but his tombstone was gone. Nathan's was still there -- inscribed in Hebrew, which I can't read, and in German. A cypress tree was growing next to it, and the roots of the tree had wrapped themselves into and over the grave.
I sat on the soft pine needles, leaning against the tree. The ground was covered with the leaves of violets and dandelions, not yet in flower, and a few tiny, white daisies. The air was cool but the sunlight shining through the tree canopy was warm.
I thought about Nathan's descendents in America -- lawyers, writers, artists, businessmen, inventors (including Carl Sontheimer, the founder of Cuisinart) -- and how remarkable it was that around 130 years after my great-grandfather had left Munich, I was able to return and find Nathan. When I got up, I placed a small stone on his tomb to show that I'd been there.
I asked Frau Angermeier if many people come seeking their relatives. She said not anymore. Hardly anyone, she said. The old people who used to come are dead, she said, or too ill to travel.
Frau Angermeier's in-laws were the caretakers of the cemetery during the Nazi years. Realizing that if the Nazis got hold of the burial book, they would destroy it, her mother-in-law smuggled it out of Munich to a relation in southern Bavaria who hid it during the war. I asked her if she and her family were Jewish. No, she said. They were Catholics.
There were many Ullmanns and Neustaetters and Obermayers in that book besides the ones I knew to be my relatives, but I suspect that many of them are. One very large Neustaetter monument of granite marked the graves of several people and had a plaque on the front in memory of Albrecht Neustaetter who, it said, was murdered at the Dachau concentration camp in 1938.
Dachau, nine miles north of Munich, is a tourist attraction now. "What do you think about that?" I asked Rabbi Steven Langnas who heads the Ohel Jakob congregation when I met him the next day.
"When I go to Dachau, I always have the impression that it's much too manicured to give the impression of a real concentration camp," he said. "It's hard sometimes to feel the atrocities that occurred there because it's so well kept up."
I asked him, "When you walk around Munich and look at the older people, do you sometimes think where were they, what were they doing, who are they?"
"Anyone who would have been actively involved in the war would be in their upper 80's by now," he replied. "I know that 30 or 40 years ago, this was a question on everybody's lips. If you met somebody -- what was he doing during the war? It's not so relevant anymore."
And what about anti-Semitism in Munich, I wondered. Does it still exist?
"I personally have experienced very little in my nine years here," he told me. "However, other people have had other experiences."
An exhibit in the Jewish Museum next to the synagogue deals with German-Jewish ambivalence. Artist Sharone Lifschitz put an ad in German newspapers that said "Young woman from Israel who is Jewish is visiting Germany and would like to speak to anyone who is reading this about nothing in particular."
"She met, I think, with over 40 people," said curator Suzanne Zuber, "and from these conversations pulled together posters with text fragments in German and English that she placed all over Munich. She recorded the reactions to these posters on video."
The fragments are suggestive and open-ended, for example: "I cannot always be upset with who I am." -- "No, of course not, of course ..." or -- "I am sorry if I bore you." -- "Oh, no, no, I just forgot what I wanted to say ..." --"Perhaps there is just nothing more to say." -- "Perhaps ... ." -- "Yes ... ."
"You can imagine what is not said," said Ms. Zuber. "Part of the project is for the viewer to let their thoughts flow and to learn about themselves from these conversations."
For me, the abiding words about Munich are in the new synagogue next to a niche in the wall containing a copper cylinder. This cylinder, rescued from the cornerstone of Munich's former head synagogue, is all that remains of this magnificent building, built in 1887. Hitler had it destroyed in June of 1938.
Under the cylinder is a quote in German from one of David's psalms:
"God, you have taken me out of the land of the dead and from the crowd of those sentenced to death and have called me to life again."
First Published October 14, 2007 12:00 am