His family’s former home is now a memorial to the German town’s Jewish past – J.
Shira Potash recently traveled from El Cerrito to a small village in Germany to visit a three-story red brick building with stone trim. She had been there before, but this time it was different.
Located in the village of Ronnenberg, the building was once the home of his grandmother and great-aunt. Today it serves as a civic center, and Potash and other family members had been invited to see a new exhibit there about the town’s former Jewish residents.
The permanent exhibit includes a tallit, porcelain figurines, silverware, handwritten letters, and a typewriter once used to write to the US State Department. All are part of a remembrance of the small Jewish community of Ronnenberg, about three dozen people, who were killed or moved during the Holocaust. Many of them were part of the same family, the Seligmanns.
One of the rooms of the former family home served as a community synagogue and now houses the exhibition.
Ronnenberg, near Hanover, has less than 25,000 inhabitants and does not receive many tourists. The exhibition is therefore aimed at local residents.
“Obviously there’s no way for the Germans to catch up with the Holocaust,” Potash, 43, told J. after his return. “But the way they acknowledge their past and try to reconcile it is truly admirable. I am truly touched by the efforts the German government and individuals have made to try.
When Potash refers to individuals, she is largely referring to 84-year-old Peter Hertel and 74-year-old Christiane Buddenberg-Hertel. The couple, with the city’s support, have been largely responsible for efforts to remember its former Jewish residents.
Potash’s great-grandfather, Siegfried Seligmann, was the town’s kosher butcher and sold non-kosher cuts to non-Jews, so he was known to everyone. After Kristallnacht he was arrested and released on the condition that he leave Germany immediately.
Siegfried, his wife Alma and his youngest daughter Ursula ended up on the St. Louis, the ship whose passengers were denied entry to Cuba and sent back to Europe. There, the family was separated and sent to different detention camps in France. Meanwhile, Seligmann’s 16-year-old daughter Else (Potash’s grandmother) stayed in Germany because her visa number was coming in, giving her the best chance of getting out. She got permission to go straight to the United States, and eventually the rest of the family reunited there.
RELATED: Bay Area Family Travels to Germany to Recover, Then Donate, Heirloom Looted by Nazis
“Somehow they were all able to escape through the Pyrenees mountains to Portugal and make it to America,” Potash said, repeating the story he was told. Later, they learned that everyone in one of the detention camps had been sent to Auschwitz. “My grandmother never wanted to talk about her experience, but my great-aunt [Ursula] was the one who went through the trauma and was the one who was ready to speak. I’m sure there was a lot of guilt on my grandmother’s part, having been spared that trauma.
The city’s efforts to commemorate its Jews began many years ago. A retired journalist and author, Hertel has written a book about what happened in his hometown during World War II. As a journalist, he often aired programs on Judaism. He told J. that his grandfather hid a Jewish friend in his attic during the war, and maybe that’s why Hertel feels so motivated to do this job. “I will continue to do this for as long as I can,” he said.
A resident of Ronnenberg since 1973, Hertel felt the heritage of the town’s Jewish residents was largely forgotten and years ago he decided to do something about it, writing two books about the Seligmann family. In 1998, the city invited former residents and their descendants to return to visit. Hertel and his wife created a traveling exhibit for schools and a study guide on the Jews of Ronnenberg, “which is an example of how the Nazis expelled and partially murdered the entire Jewish population of a town the size of average in Germany,” Hertel said. .
The city built a memorial to Jews, both those who were killed and those who were expelled, based on his research. The Hertels collected video testimonies from three Ronnenberg Holocaust survivors for high school students to watch. And the Jewish cemetery, once largely ignored, is now maintained by the city.
In 1998, the mayor placed a plaque on City Hall to commemorate the Seligmanns who once lived there, and 19 of the extended family attended, including Potash (then 19), his grandmother Else and his mother , Helen Seligmann Hordes. Hordes, who donated some of the items for the new exhibit, returned there in 2019 when stolpersteine, or stumbling blocks, were placed to commemorate members of his family. She also developed a friendship with the Hertels.
While Else no longer lives, Ursula lives in Israel. She never returned to Germany, but during the recent visit, Hordes video-chatted with her while walking through the halls of her former home in Ronnenberg, showing her the Seligmann family photo exhibit mounted in the corridor.
Other Seligmanns joined Potash and her mother on the visit, including distant cousins from the UK and Israel she was unaware of.
“We had never heard of them or had any idea of our relationship,” Potash said. But Hertel knew. He had prepared a three-hour lecture on the Jewish history of Ronnenberg, dating back to the 1700s.
For Hertel, this work has become even more important as the last living survivors of the Holocaust are dying.
“Our goal is first and foremost to educate young people,” he said. “For today’s generation, the incomparable and unique Nazi crimes will become history – as if they happened far away, in Eastern Europe, in Auschwitz. We say: they also happened here in Ronnenberg.