Worms and Gravesites
Jews were driven out of Worms across the Rhine River to Biblis and other friendlier Hessen towns in the late sixteen-hundreds. Nowadays Worms boasts a restored Jewish ghetto, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe . . . and a Rhine River tiki bar.
My trip to the oldest town in Germany, Worms, and across the Rhine River to the nearby Frankel ancestral town, Biblis, was educational and emotional, especially in the context of recent immigration and refugee problems across the European Union.
I met Rudi, a lifelong resident of Biblis, retired business executive, and an ardent member of the local historical preservation society. His latest study is a 300-page Jewish history of the town. Previously, his eclectic interests included a history of the railways in the area.
Today there are no Jews left in Biblis with a population of 8,000. In the late 1880s there were 200 Jews, or about 8% of the population. In 1938, a week after Kristallnacht, the village was officially declared “Jew-Free.”
Rudi unearthed several interesting pieces of Frankel lore. There are only two Jewish families that have kept in touch with the town―the Frankels and Hochschilds. The Hochschilds left for South America while the Frankels dispersed to Palestine, North America, and South Africa.
Rudi showed me a map of Jewish land-holdings dating back to Loeb “The Jew” in 1720, (first Frankel in Biblis) which is now the site of the town hall. This corresponded with the expulsion from Worms and the migration across the Rhine to Biblis.
Rudi also pointed out my grandfather’s home, now an upscale ladies clothing store. The mother of the store owner remembers my grandfather and some of his children, including my father. She showed us the un-renovated basement with ceiling hooks from the old butchery he owned.
About a block away, is the restored former home of my great-grandfather Lazarus, now a modern hair salon. All three sites suggest the Frankels were upstanding members of the Jewish community and contributors to the economy of the community.
Rudi obtained the key and gravesite map to the area’s Jewish cemetery, Alsbach, which opened in 1616. With a lot of navigation, using the ancient cemetery wall and some more recent and legible gravestones, we found and photographed my forbearer graves dating back to 1827, 1854, and 1918. It is reasonable to assume that their ancestors are buried in Worms. To be on the safe side, I recorded my visits to cemeteries in both Biblis and Worms as well as a visit to the Prague Jewish cemetery, since the predominant flow of migration was along the Danube River from East to West.
By coincidence, we drove by Ulm, the birthplace of Einstein, while I was finishing his biography by Isaacson. A few minutes past Ulm, we stopped at a gas station. There was a row of six urinals each with a separate advertising framed on top of the porcelain urinals. Mine had an ad to advertisers. It showed a picture of Einstein with a thought-bubble saying “Genius idea. Guaranteed average of 40 seconds of viewing per patron for only 8 euros a month.”
It was a thought provoking and emotional immersion into German-Jewish history and a memorable trip―another opportunity to leave a footprint in my past.
In Europe two countries claim to have the oldest Jewish cemetery — Heiliger Sand (founded 1058) in Worms, Germany, and the Old Jewish Cemetery (founded 1439) in Prague, Czech Republic. Then there are the Jewish burials in the catacombs (founded in the years 0100 to 0200) in Rome, Italy.
Philip Roth in The Prague Orgy describes the Prague Old Jewish Cemetery as “. . . the capsized tombstones of what . . . is the oldest Jewish cemetery left in Europe. Within the iron grating, the jumble of crooked, eroded markers looks less like a place of eternal rest than something a cyclone has torn apart. Twelve thousand Jews buried in layers in what in New York would be a small parking lot. Drizzle dampens the tombstones, ravens in the trees.”
It is very difficult to find family records prior to the mid-1600s because of the destruction caused by the Thirty Years’ War that took place mainly in Germany. The war reshaped religious and political boundaries in Europe and divided Germany into hostile Protestant and Catholic camps. The ensuing wars drew in Sweden, France, Spain, and Austria―laying waste to many church and civil records.
Connecting with my ur-tribe of Jews in Rome is impossible but I set foot in the catacombs just to be on the safe side. Tribal connections in Asia Minor are even more impossible. There were too many wars to count too many ancient burial sites in Israel and Palestine. All I can claim in leaving a footprint is a drive-by of Jericho — one the oldest inhabited city of the world, circa 9,000 BCE.
I think my footprints are over all possible family gravesites unless I want to consider the Rift Valley on my family’s journey out of Africa some 60,000 years ago―according to my Y-chromosome DNA history.