Reflections of Josbach - Life in the 30´s.
The date, January 30, 1933, the place Josbach, a small town of 419 people in South Central Germany. The Steinfeld family is anxiously awaiting the visit of Dr. Heinrich Hesse, from Rauschenberg, to treat Hanschen Steinfeld, the grandmother, who seems to be the patriarch of the family, and who has been ill for over a week. The Doctor arrives arround 4:30 pm, as it has been snowing continously for the day. He greets Mrs. Steinfeld and gives her some medication, and on the way out says "Something wonderful has happened today. Adolph Hitler has been made the new Chancellor!". The remark is quickly passed over and the impact of that day will not be realized for may days to come. The Doctor then leaves to treat another patient in the town. Grandma Steinfeld recovers a few days later, and is soon well again.
The Steinfeld and Katten families are two of the Jewish families who have lived in the town for almost 200 years. Now there are a total of six Jewish families living in Josbach: 2 Steinfeld´s (my father´s brother Solomon), 2 Katten´s, 1 Fain. Their livelihood is earned in the typical small town fashion, which seems to be repeated in almost every town where there are from 6, 7, 8 or 9 Jewish families living. One dry goods store (operated by my mother), another one will own a hardware store, a third will be a live stock trader, however in Josbach there is one additioral trade - and that is a confectionery store and during the first part of the year it also becomes a Matzoh Bakery. The Matzoh Bakery was founded in the year 1851 and the son-in-law, by the name of Hans Fain, who married a Steinfeld, has taken over the business.
Each of the families in the town have either two or three children, and among the Steinfeld´s and Fain´s, there are a total of eight children. (Three in my family - including myself, my sister Irma, and my brother Herbert, two in Solomon Steinfeld´s family - Trudie and Martin (my first cousins), 3 in the Fain family - Hermann, Hans and Selma.) In the Katten families there are 5 children, Albert and a younger daughter named Tillie, and three children in the other Katten family - Heinz, Martha and Ilse. The sixth family consists of a spinster, Metah Katten, who has a younger niece living with her.
The Jews in this town have made their livelihood in this fashion since the beginning of the 19th century, and when one visits the cemetery in the town of Halsdorf, 4 miles south of Josbach, which has served since the beginning of the 20th century, one realizes how these families made their living over the past 200 years.
There is an ancient cemetery located in a town by the name Hatzbach (which even today has over fifty percent of the monuments still standing), and the earliest burial in this cemetery was about 1815. The names of Steinfeld, Katten, Stern appear, and it is evident that these three families were really dominant among the Jews within a radius of approximately 15 to 20 miles. It also appears that the surmame of some of these familes were taken prior to the granting of full rights by Napoleon in 1811, and the significance of the names of Steinfeld, Katten or Stern cannot be explained today. However, we must assume that the names were taken because of a "stonefield" close to their home. One explanation of the name Katten is that it was derived from the German word "Chatten", the antecedent of the Hessians. Literally translated the word means "heathens".
The Steinfeld´s lived in Josbach sine about the mit 18 century, and the Katten family, which was my mother´s maiden name, originated from an adjacent town named Halsdorf. She was born in the town of Rauschenberg, which was only 8 miles away from Josbach. The community of Rauschenberg dates back to the mid 14th century, with a population today of about 3.000. It was the seat of a local Count, with a very substantial castle overlooking the town.
The Jews in this town, numbering about 20 families, in addition to the normal mercantile trade had grocery stores, butcher shops, and other retail esablishments.
We know that in the town of Rauschenberg, which is 8 miles away, there have been Jews of Spanish heritage since the beginning of the 15th century, as the name Marannoh appears in some of the ancient death and marriage registers.
The Jews in the province of Hesse date back to the 8th century, when the first Jews were settled in the town of Fulda, and subsequently in such well known Jewish communities as Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Whorms, Marburg and Giessen. The town of Marburg and Giessen had Jews living there as early as 1300.
It appears that Jews settled in these towns because they were given protective rights by the local governing magistrate. During the days of the feudal system, in the 15th or 16th centuries, administration of a locale was usually the responsibility of a Duke, Count or Baron (Landesherren). They granted the Jews protective custody for the payment of a fee, and gave the Jews limited citizenship. The size of the protective fee varied according to the settlement fee for Schutzjuden (Protected Jews). It is for this reason that in the province of Hesse, 492 small towns had Jews residents.
Usually the local authorities that granted Jews limited citizenship, and gave them protective custody, allocated one, two or three Jewish families to almost every single town. The records show that those towns which had no Jewish population after World War I did have Jews living there at one time, during the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries.
Life itself for Jews, and Germans, were very primitive by today´s standards. Most towns were founded in the 13th, 14th, or 15th centuries, and the livelihood of the inhabitants came primarily from agriculture. It was basically a peasant type of living conditions, the land was plowed by a hand-pushed plow, pulled by oxen or cows, and only the well-to-do families had horses for this task. There was no indoor plumbing in most of the towns, although our home was the only one on the town that had indoor plumbing and a flush toilet. The reason being that the town well was located adjacent to our home, and in the 1920´s, my father had connected indoor plumbing and running water, directly from the water pump.
Pogroms and persecution of the Jews took place periodically, especially during the Crusades, or after the Thirty-Year War, or after the Black Plague. However, it appears that after 10 of 20 years after each pogrom, the Jews returned and settled again.
In 1933 there were in the province of Hesse 401 Jewish communities, which were registered and had synagogues. For instance, the town of Josbach had it´s own synagogue, but we were part of the Jewish community of Halsdorf, since we normally did not have the required 10 men for a minyan and only conducted services when a Bar Mitzvah took place, or during the High Holidays. For during those days, a tenth man would come from an adjacent town.
The only buisness activities that took place in the town, not dominated by the 6 Jewish families, was the town tavern. It seems that either the first or last house of each town was the town tavern, and also offered overnight accommodations to the weary traveler.
Most travel in those days was conducted by either walking or riding a bicycle. Only one family in our town owned an automobile, and in most instances the rest of the travel was conducted by the use of a horse and buggy, or again the bicycle.
The Germans of the town, in addition to being involved in agriculture, also had a town carpenter, painter, shoemaker and tailor. This made up all the trades which were basically needed to fulfill the needs of the community.
Mail in our town was received from another town, approximately 20 miles away by the name of Treysa, by means of a postal bus, which delivered the mail each day, 5 days a week, and covered approximately 20 towns. The post office of the town was located in the center of our town, and this was a part time job for one of the Germans who acted as Postmaster and also had a gasoline pump.
Since the Jews of the town controlled most of the mercantile trade, at least 70 % of the mail was destined for them. It was always a happy occasion for the Jewish children to meet the Post Bus. At 5 o´clock each afternoon, when the Bus came to town, we would run to pick up the mail for our parents. I can vividly recall the window where I picked up the mail, it was adjacent to the cow barn and manure pile. (You measured the wealth of a German farmer by the size of his manure pile. This indicated the amount of livestock he had, since animal manure and human waste were used for fertilizer in the fields. This was supplemented by chemical fertilizers.)
In the center of the town there was also a community Bake House, where the entire town baked bread and cake. Each Friday morning this Bake House was reserved for the 6 Jewish families of the town, who would bake cakes for the Sabbath and make Chale for the Sabbath. This was a tradition accepted by all of the town´s residents.
Next to the Bake House, was the Town Bulletin Board, on which was posted the daily newspaper, and the townspeople would go there on Saturdays and Sundays to read the daily or weekly edition of the papers on display there.
Education in the town consisted of a two room schoolhouse. Grades one through four in one room - and five through eight in another room. Since this was a peasant community the intelligence of the Jews far exceeded those of the local Germans. The total number of students were approximately 70, of which 10 were Jews. There was just one teacher on duty and he had been there prior to World War I. A man in his late 50´s, or early 60´s, by the name of Wolf. I can vividly recall the 4 spinster daughters who lived with him, since their home was directly across from ours.
Jewish education for the Jewish children of Josbach, and Halsdorf, was given by a teacher from the Jewish community of Gemuenden, who visited each of the towns an a weekly basis. Every Tuesday afternoon he would visit our town and we would receive our religious instructions. (Gemuenden had Jews living there as early as 1735, when the first Schutzjuden settled there. In 1735 there were already 5 families living in the town. The synagogue was built in 1823, and the school was founded in 1848.)
Our teacher´s name was Dr. Spier and his father had already taught in this particular town since 1869, when he had 29 students and Herr Spier continued the education of the Jewish children in the community until 1938.
Our home faced the town church, which was on top of an ancient cemetery dating back to the 14th century. Our home consisted of 3 bedrooms, two on the lower floor and one on the upper floor; an attic, and an additional bed and living room on top of the store, where the dry goods and textiles were displayed. At one time this had been two separate homes, but late in the 19th century they were combined into one home and the living room and bedroom, over the store, were only utilized when we had company.
My father had six brothers and sisters, and one brother married and remained in the town. The other brother had a successful buisness, in a large town about 100 miles away, and the sisters were all married and had settled in various towns all of which were in the province of Hesse.
In addition, each family had what was known as a "root cellar". At harvest time enough vegetables would be put away for the winter in the root cellar. The vegetables consisted of potatoes, turnips and a variety of other vegetables, which grew in abundance. Those vegetables unable to be kept in the cellar during the winter would be bottled in mason jars, and the pantries were fully stocked to last from one harvest to another.
Each home had a wood burning stove, which was utilized for cooking and also the flue would give off some heat for the upstairs rooms. Central heating was unknown in any of the towns, and in order to keep warm in the winter you utilized a heavy down comforter.
On January 30, 1933 when Hitler came to power, the day just passed as just another day. The Nazi party had not really made any significant inroads in the town itself. There was only one German who had joined the party in the late 20´s, his name was Heinrich Haupt. The Mayor of the town was Heinrich Henkel, and the administration of the town was simple to say the least.
The police administration came under the jurisdiction of the town of Rauschenberg, which was approximately 8 miles away. When Hitler came to power the Jews in our town, plus the surrounding towns were really not concerned because they had unanimously agreed that the NSDAP (the initials of the Nazi Party) would not last long in power.
Only 25% of the population were members of the Party, and the Social Democrates coupled with the Christian Center Party still constituted the largest segment of the population.
Probably one of the reasons that the Jewish population of Hesse felt secure in their surroundings was due to their illusion of having served the Fatherland during World War I. The Jewish participation in World War I had amounted to approximately 15% of the Jews living in Germany, while the participation of the Jews on the province of Hesse had amounted to 19%. Of those who served from the province of Hesse, 11-12% were either killed or missing, and statistics indicate that approximately 12% of those who were served were volunteers. The Jews who survived World War I were proud of having served, and this gave them the additional sense of false security that nothing would ever happen to them. Initially during the Nazi persecution, exemptions were made for World War I veterans, but this was eliminated in 1937.
I should also add at this point, that in addition to the buisness of the Jewish families, they each owned a substantial amount of land, which was either leased out to tenant farmers or worked by the families themselves. Also, each family had a nice sized garden where all the vegetables that were required were grown. Also, they owned chickens, goats and cows, utilized for their meat requirements.
It was customary that all of the Jewish families would meet at each other´s homes Friday night, after dinner, or on Saturday afternoon, after lunch, and discuss current happenings. I can recall being at a Saturday afternoon study session and hearing that there was very little future for the Nazis. As I have previously said, only one citizen of the town had joined the Nazi Party in the late 1920´s, and he had not been successful in recruiting any others in this particular town. However, in some of the surrounding towns, approximately 25 to 30% of the population were members of the Nazi Party.
The Germans´s love for uniforms probably induced many of the young people to join the S.A., which was the official party organization. They received their brown shirts with the swastika armband, and rather than know what the party stood for they joined because of the nice looking uniform.
It was shortly after Hitler came to power that the first incident of any open anti-semitism could be noticed in the town. The first Jewish boycott was called in may of 1933, and all of the Jewish stores were boycotted by the local population. It really did not affect buisness in our town, since most of the sales were really made by visiting the various customers in their homes.
The population still dressed in native costumes, and the women made all their own skirts and blouses, according to the ethnic customs prevalent in the community. They would purchase the textile goods and ribbons from our store, and we would normally deliver right to their homes. I can recall making these deliveries, by bicycle, to the various surrounding towns. However, with the first boycott the Jewish families of our town became aware of what was happening and they became concerned, although there was no open discrimination against us.
The local newspapers on display on the town bulletin board was no longer a Frankfurt paper, but now was the official party organ, The Voelkischer Beobachter. One of the things that became apparent to the Jewish community was the constant traffic that went through the center of our town, which was part of the main highway between Frankfurt and Kassel. The automobile and military traffic encreased, almost on daily basis.
In 1934, after Hitler had been in power for one year, the local German community organized the Hitler Youth and for those under 14 years of age, a group called the Jung Folk, or Yound People, was organized. I remember distinctly being invited to the first meeting of this particular group, which was the age group of 10 to 14, and asked to join. After the first meeting however, I was made unwelcome and told "No Jews allowed here". That was really the first incident of discrimination that took place against the Jewish youth in our town. There was one other incident, where several windows were broken in our home by a group of Nazi bicyclists when they passed through our town and sang the Horst Wessel Lied, or the Horst Wessel song, which became the official Nazi Party song.
In the election of 1935, there was only a choice to vote "yes" or "no", and the only candidate was Hitler. Each of the Jews in the town were forced to vote and they cast their ballot under the column marked "yes", since they did not want to be different from the rest of the town. I remember distinctly having my grandmother picked up by a horse drawn wagon since she had become an invalid, and taken to the nearest polling place to cast her ballot.
At the Saturday afternoon Kaffe Klatch, we would hear about the persecution of the Jews in the larger towns where the boycott had become more effective. Store windows at Jewish merchants would be broken and Jews would be arrested and not heard from for four to six weeks after their arrests. None of these took place in Josbach. I remember only one incident where two SS men came to arrest my Grandmother, because she held the 1st Mortgage on property in the next town, which was owned by these particular members of the SS. They came under the pretense of arresting her, but primarily to frighten her since they had not made any payments anyway.
I ran to get the Mayor of the town, who came immediately, and he ordered the SS men out of town, since they did not have proper warrants for her arrest. Incidentally, the only party member, to whom I have referred previously, had become Mayor. Many of the Jewish people of the town were among his friends, and every Saturday night he would join them in playing an old favourite German card game, called Skat.
In 1935 all the students were witnessing the first military maneuvres, which took place in the local vicinities, and no distinctions were made between the Jewish and German students. All the Jewish students participated in witnessing these activities.
About the same time, the anti-semitic newspaper, Der Stuermer, took the place of the official party newspaper on weekends. And now hate propaganda against the Jews reached down towards the lowest level of the German communities. In addition, military instructions took place in the elementary school, and training with wooden guns started in the 6th grade. Shortly thereafter, my brother Herbert who was participating in the military instructions, broke his arm with the wooden rifle. Subsequently, the Jewish students were barred from this activity. Anti-semitism became more prevalent in all daily activities.
A new teacher preaching the official party line was transferred into our town about 1935 and the Nazi doctrine now was the dominant educational tool. In recreational activities the jewish student was really not excluded but they were made fun of, and generally pushed arrond. It became more nad more apparent, that the official anti-semitism was reaching down the local level, and was becoming more effective on a day-to-day basis.
In 1936 the first arrest of one of my relatives took place – an Uncle who lived in Rauschenberg, 8 miles away, was held in supposed protective custody for over six weeks. We had heard about the disappearance of those who opposed the Nazi philosophy and the disappearance of many Jewish men from other towns, but there was always the hope that Nazi regime would be toppled.
When Hindenburg died in 1935, and Hitler came to power as the supreme leader, the hope for the demise of the Nazi Party disappeared. The German population in the town itself still remained very friendly to the Jewish inhabitants, but as time passed they became afraid to deal with them on a buisness basis. Purchases from Jewish merchants continuously decreased. It was getting more difficult, on a daily basis, to earn a living. We had a live-in maid since 1926, and this stopped in 1934 since it was degrading for a German to work for a Jewish family.
Through contacts with Jews from surrounding towns we learned of violent attacks of anti-semitism, consisting of arrests, disappearances, boycotts, breaking of windows, beating up of children, calling of obscene names, etc., and this became a daily occurence.
On a typical Saturday morning we would attend services in the next town, Halsdorf, which was 3 miles away. We had to pass a locally operated flour mill, and as we passed by the mill, the owner would let all of his dogs loose and say „Go, get the Jews“. After several incidents of this type of harrassment, we bypassed his mill in order to prevent this type of situation.
In 1936 one of the Katten families decided to emigrate to the United States, since their son had left in the 20´s, and all of the Jewish families became aware of the future we were facing. Subsequently in late ´37, the Fain family decided to emigrate to Argentina and my mother decided it was time to make preparations to leave also. She was concerned about the welfare of her three children, since she had been a widow since 1929. My father, Abraham, died of pneumonia when my sister Irma was six years old, my brother Herbert was 3 years old, and I was 5 years old.
In a town very close to Josbach, an agricultural kibbutz had been started to train those who wanted to emigrate to Palestine. In 1937 I spent my vacation with one of my Aunts who lived in Speyer, which was one of the oldest Jewish communities, dating back to the 8th century. At that time, my mother was convinced it was imperative to leave Germany. She submitted my name to the HIAS, and also applied for an affadavit to her sister and brother, who were already living in the United States. I qualified and received my affadavit from HIAS, and left Germany in July of 1938. My mother took me to the railway station in Kirchhain, 10 miles away, and I took an express train to Hamburg. I crossed the Atlantic on the SS New York, and landed in America on July 12, 1938.
My brother went to the Kibbutz training station, and left for Palestine approximately five month later, in December of 1938. He went to a Kibbutz near Pardess Channa, near Tel-Aviv.
In November of 1938, concurrent with Crystal Night, all Jewish property was confiscated and Jews were being eliminated from all types of commerce and buisness, and no contact with Germans was allowed.
My sister received her visa to go to England in the summer of 1939, but unfortunately the war started the week she was to leave and she was unable to get out of Germany.
Our home was transferred by means of a forced sale to a German family, but my mother and sister were permitted to tay in the rooms over the store.
I corresponded with my mother until January of 1942, and received a letter at that time in which she mentioned the impending deportation of the Jews to Littmanstadt in Poland. The records show that she left Germany in the middle of 1942, and was deported to Latvia with many other German Jews. From information that I was able to gather from one of my cousins, who survived several concentration camps (she had been seperated from her mother and sister), that both, my brother and sister had survived the persecution and harships of the Riga ghetto and Stutthof concentration camp until the beginning of 1945. Both perished at that time, when the Russians advanced eastwards causing the Germans to accelerate the mass extermination program and in their haste to flee westwards, killed thousands and thousands of camp inmates.
Those who perished in the Nazi camps were my mother, Paula, my sister, Irma, Hermann Katten and wife and daughter, the spinster, Metha Katten. One of Hermann Katten´s daughters survived in Berlin living with a German family.
My brother Herbert was killed by the British at Kibbutz Schluchot, near Pardess Channa on October 25, 1945, at age of 18. He was a member of the Irgun, an underground group fighting for the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
I returned to Josbach in May of 1945 as an American soldier, and noted that the town had not been damaged during the war. I returned subsequently in 1966, with Fern, Michael, Paul and Jill, and again with Jill in 1976.
Small towns do not change, except that agriculture is automated today. Every family has a car, and each home has a television set. The population is approcimately the same size as in 1938.