2018-08-15 / Voice at the Shore

Second generation survivor returns to Germany with Torah saved from Holocaust

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Lennard (left) and Marc Hammerschlag symbolically brought their family’s Torah back to its original home in Lauenau, Germany. That location, which was once a worship room in their grandfather’s house, is now a Greek restaurant. Lennard (left) and Marc Hammerschlag symbolically brought their family’s Torah back to its original home in Lauenau, Germany. That location, which was once a worship room in their grandfather’s house, is now a Greek restaurant. In July, Lennard Hammerschlag of Atlantic City took his family’s Torah back to Lauenau, Germany—its town of origin— on a trip dedicated to tracing his family’s pre-Holocaust roots.

Traveling with his brother Marc, from Johannesburg, South Africa, and Stockton faculty members Gail Rosenthal and Michael Hayes, Hammerschlag and the Torah journeyed back to what was once the prayer room in his grandfather’s former home— and is now a Greek restaurant.

The Torah has since returned home to Chabad’s Chai Center in Ventnor, where it has resided since last summer, when Hammerschlag created a Holocaust memorial there with the help of Stockton University’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. The memorial, a small exhibit at the back of the Chai Center sanctuary, tells the story of Hammerschlag’s family, which had lived for centuries in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power made them flee to Zimbabwe (which was then the British colony of Rhodesia).

Stockton Holocaust and Genocide Studies Professor Michael Hayes helped Hammerschlag research his family’s history for the exhibit. This research led Hayes to suggest to Hammerschlag that he would find it meaningful to “return to Germany to see the sights connected to his family’s history.” Hammerschlag agreed, and the planning for this summer’s trip began.

Notably, those plans were facilitated by two non-Jewish residents of Lauenau, pharmacist Thomas Berger and local historian Jurgen Schroeder, whom Hayes connected with online after reading about an exhibit and memorial they had created for the Jews of Lauenau. “They set everything up for us,” Hayes explained. “The townspeople encouraged our visit and warmly welcomed us.”

How did the Torah become part of the trip?

Although Lennard’s grandfather, Adolf Hammerschlag, had to leave most everything behind when his family fled Germany, “one of the few things he brought with him was the Torah,” Hammerschlag explained. The Torah had resided in a special room of the family’s home where they and five or six other Jewish families in Lauenau came together to pray.

“I wanted to take the Torah back there, but wasn’t sure it was appropriate,” said Hammerschlag. He was surprised and happy when Hayes came to him and asked: “’What do you think about bringing the Torah back?’” Incredibly, Holocaust Resource Center Director Gail Rosenthal, who also went on the trip, had independently been thinking the same thing.

The Torah’s return represented closure. “It was symbolically important to bring it back to the room where it was used,” Hayes explained. “Returning it there for a couple of days was symbolic of bringing things back full circle. I knew how moving this would be.”

Throughout the journey, the Torah was treated with reverence and respect. On the Lufthansa flights to and from Germany, “they were so respectful of the Torah,” said Hammerschlag. Although he’d brought carry-on luggage aboard along with the Torah, Hammerschlag did not have to hold the Torah on his lap during the flight. Instead, it was treated as “a priority,” and given its own compartment.

When the Torah finally returned home to Lauenau, said Rosenthal, “it was so well received. None of the people were Jewish, but we still got a fantastic reception from people. They asked to have it opened.”

“It was a great moment of closure,” she added.

In addition to bringing the Torah back to the room where his grandfather had read from it, Hammerschlag also brought it to the local cemetery to say Kaddish with it.

A local Lutheran Pastor who had built a memorial to Holocaust victims near his church also came along with the Hammerschlags to the cemetery. He too said a prayer.

Notably, the Jews of Lauenau never experienced the same kind of violence and hatred as Jews in many other parts of Germany did when Hitler came to power. For Hammerschlag’s mother, Wally Moritz, who lived in Frankfurt, the horror of Kristallnacht “was the defining moment of her life,” said her son.

That was when she watched her synagogue and Jewish school burn while fire trucks stood by and did nothing. Shortly after that, she was forced to hide in the attic when looters came to ransack the homes of all the Jews living in her building.

Kristallnacht was thankfully a much different experience for her future husband, Lutz Hammerschlag. In Lauenau, a town of 4,000 residents in the German countryside, no Jewish shops or homes were damaged on Kristallnacht, nor did violent attacks follow. The occasion was marked by an anti-Semitic speech—given by a prominent Nazi in front of the Hammerschlags’ home and textile shop—but the speech attracted only a small audience.

Ultimately, five Jewish Lauenau residents were killed by Nazis. Three of these were Hammerschlag’s cousins.

The townspeople have since memorialized the five victims through the Stolpersteine (which in German means “stumbling block”) Project, created by artist Gunter Deming. The artist came up with the idea of remembering “victims of National Socialism by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice,” according to the project’s website, www.stolpersteinie.eu.

Although Deming’s plaques were initially made only for those murdered in the Holocaust, they are now being made for people who escaped the Holocaust as well. On October 23, Hammerschlag will return to Germany when Stolpersteine commemorating his mother and her sister are installed in front of their former home in Frankfurt. He hopes to have stones installed for his father’s family in Lauenau sometime next year.

The Holocaust exhibit about Hammerschlag’s family at the Chai Center also serves as a constant reminder to many locally of what the Nazis did and how his family and so many like them were affected. Notably, the family Torah is once again back there, in its new home, where it is now helping to teach people about the Holocaust.

Hammerschlag believes the exhibit gives people hope because it tells the story of a family that survived, rather than telling a story about death, ashes and “broken stone.”

“What happened to my family happened to many,” he added. “It’s not such a unique story, but it doesn’t seem to be told anymore,” he said sadly. This is especially problematic because some of the things happening now with respect to the treatment of immigrants and minorities are reminiscent of what happened during the Holocaust, he added.

Without education, noted Hammerschlag, “history repeats itself.” 

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