Saturday, December 22, 2007
A Jewish Cemetery in Germany
Erlangen- Former Margravial Palace-Now University Administration Building
In 2005, my third book was published. It was entitled: Erlangen-An American's History of a German Town (University Press of America). Erlangen is a university town of about 100,000 people situated 20 kilometers north of Nuremberg. Along with Munich, it is a co-hqs of the Siemens Corporation. I chose Erlangen as a subject since I had been stationed there in the 1960s as a young US Army MP. I have returned many times since my Army period there was a formative part of my life, and I had formed a deep personal attachment to the town. During my research, I learned so much history that I had never even given much thought to when I was a soldier. One aspect of that historical research was the fate of the Jewish community of Erlangen during the Nazi era. That, of course, is not a pleasant chapter, but, in the midst of tragedy and evil, there were instances of good. One example is the story of Erlangen's Jewish cemetery.
At the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Erlangen's Jewish community consisted of approximately 120 persons. A larger Jewish community existed in neighboring Fuerth (birthplace of Henry Kissinger). Until 1891, Erlangen's Jews had principally used the cemetery in nearby Baiersdorf to the north. In 1891, their own cemetery was dedicated on the northern outskirts of the city.
Needless to say, Erlangen's Jewish community was not spared the measures taken against Jews under Hitler. Jewish shops were subject to boycott on April 1, 1933 as part of a nation-wide action. Similarly, Erlangen's Jews experienced Reichskristallnacht in November 1938. Not surprisingly, most of the community emigrated during the Third Reich. By the time the final roundup and deportations were carried out during World War II, there were only 20 or so Jews left in the city. Most did not survive.
By February 1944, Erlangen was declared Judenrein (Free of Jews). Only the dead in the Jewish cemetery remained. On July 6, 1943, the Bavarian State Ministry issued an order authorizing the conversion of the Jewish cemetery for other uses and the removal of the dead in the process. At the time, the cemetery was under the care of Philipp and Anna Kilian, a Christian couple. Courageously, the couple defied the authorities and refused to open the gates of the cemetery. They felt that they had been entrusted with the care of the dead and would not cooperate in this act of desecration. Incredibly, the authorities backed down. During the final war years-and after the war, it was not always possible to conduct a formal Jewish funeral since religious leaders were not available. In those cases, the Kilians conducted the funerals themselves saying prayers for the deceased. Today, their son, Helmut is the caretaker, representing the 3rd generation in his family to care for the cemetery. It was my privilege to meet him when I visited the cemetery during my research trip in 2004.
In recent years, the cemetery has been re-dedicated and turned back over to a newly-established Jewish community (consisting almost entirely of Russian emigrees). Periodically, the city holds memorial ceremonies at the site in honor of the former Jewish community. In addition, visits to the site are regularly organized for local schoolchildren. Norbert Krapf, an American schoolteacher who was teaching in Erlangen in the 1980s, wrote a poem about the cemetery entitled: "Stones for the Dead". Krapf's young daughter, who was attending school in Erlangen, was taken on a school outing to the cemetery. In Krapf's poem, he describes trying to explain to his daughter why none of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were buried in the cemetery. The answer is, of course, that they did not die in Erlangen; they perished in places like Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Riga.