From Leeds to Klingenmünster: A story of family discovery.
Guest blog by Judith Rhodes
In 2019 I had been employing a researcher to try to find out a little more about my mother’s family. Her parents and sister were murdered in camps in Poland, so I had never known my grandparents and knew little about their families. I discovered that although my grandmother had been born and brought up in Berlin, in fact both my grandparents had their roots in the same small town in Rheinland-Pfalz: Klingenmünster.
I knew very little about this town, and began to wonder how big the Jewish community had been; I thought that perhaps the number of Stolpersteine (“Stumbling Blocks” – small memorial stones set in the ground) might be a good indicator. I simply did a Google search “Klingenmünster Stolpersteine” and discovered that the town had just two Stolpersteine. And that they commemorated two members of my family, Gustav and Alfred Levy!
These two men were referred to in letters from my grandmother to my mother, as “Onkel Gustav” and “Onkel Alfred”, but I did not know their exact relationship to the immediate family. They were also mentioned in some post-war correspondence from the USA, where another distant family member was attempting to resolve a property contract from the 1930s. I found quite a lot of information online (especially about the younger brother, Alfred Levy) from the time when the Stolpersteine were laid. The dates of birth (1871 and 1881) gave me no clue as to the family relationship, as they fell between my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations.
What I found online included an interview with an old lady who, as a child, had known the brothers. She spoke in a broad local dialect, but I could get the gist – that she, and the other village children, had been especially fond of Alfred, who had a shop and also travelled round the region selling household goods and farm equipment. Gustav was less well known: he lived with Alfred, but worked in a nearby town, leaving early for work and coming back late. But Alfred – well, this lady had played dominoes with him, eaten cakes with him, and along with the other children was allowed to ride on his horse. There was a picture of Alfred online, too, a smiling friendly-looking man. But there was much sadness in this story, too. It was headed “If anything should happen to me, please look after my little horse”, for this was what Alfred Levy said to one of his fellow-townspeople as the times darkened. In 1940 both brothers were deported to Gurs Concentration Camp in the French Pyrénées, and Gustav died there; Alfred tried to escape but was captured and sent to Auschwitz. There is no further trace of him.
I began to feel that I would like to visit the town, especially to see the Stolpersteine and to lay some flowers in memory of these good men whom my mother had remembered with affection. I began to plan my visit, and in preparation I contacted the town’s council. Firstly, I wished to check that the Stolpersteine were fully accessible to visit, and secondly to offer copies of the relevant family letters to any local historian who might be interested. From this first contact grew a truly memorable day.
I received an invitation from the Bürgermeister (Mayor) to meet him and to visit the town’s museum, where I was promised some more information about the Levy Brothers. I was put in touch with a local historian, who very kindly did some extremely thorough family research on my behalf, and on my visit presented me of a wealth of information – more than I had ever dreamed of possessing, and including photographs of the town and its inhabitants. In exchange, I was able to provide him with photos of my great-grandmother, who was born in the town, and even a photograph of Alfred Levy which the historian had not seen before. I was made very welcome by the Bürgermeister and his colleagues, and was presented with documents and books to commemorate my visit. The museum contained not only information about the brothers and the part they played in village life, but even had a cast-iron cooking range which came from Alfred Levy’s shop!
An invitation had been given to two people who remembered the Levy brothers; they joined us, and I heard first-hand how fondly they remembered Alfred in particular, and how grieved they were that he had to leave the town, and could not be saved. One lady had, as a little girl, asked her parents if the brothers could hide in the family’s attic, and was regretfully told that this was not possible. I heard how Alfred Levy had sat with his suitcase in the town square, and how he had quietly said to somebody who asked where he was going, “I don’t want to make a fuss, but I have been told to be here, and I am going to be taken away”. Gustav and Alfred Levy were the last Jews left in the town of Klingenmünster, and they were deported in October 1940. It was clear that they were remembered with great affection, and with shame for the memory of those times.
I also met the man, a retired doctor, who had initiated and sponsored the Stolpersteine. He told me that there had been an error in the original Stolpersteine – they mentioned Buchenwald, and in fact the brothers had not been there. The incorrect Stolpersteine were replaced, and the doctor kept the wrong ones. He asked if I would like to have them, and of course I said yes!