My grandmother Lotte had an impressive family tree. It was drawn like a real tree, with generations and generations of the offspring of Rabbi Zeligman, who was born in Prague in 1572, hanging as leaves from the branches. It actually was a large oil painting, which used to hang in the home of my great-grandparents, the Rosenfelders, in the town of Furth in southern Germany, just down the road from Nuremburg. Just before my great-grandparents, then in their eighties, were sent off to the Mauthausen concentration camp, along the Rhine River, a relative took the tree with him on a long journey that ended in Cincinnati, United States. The tree, with thousands of people on it, is still updated year after year; this is how I came to be on one of the upper branches of a great bough.
Rabbi Zeligman was born a year before the arrival in Prague of Rabbi Judah Loew, the famous mystic known as the Maharal of Prague who is credited with creating the Golem of Prague, the mysterious mud giant who protected the Jews. A few generations down the trunk of the tree, where the first branches begin to split off, one of my ancestors made his way to southern Germany. Two generations later, the first Rosenfelders already were living in the small town of Dietenheim. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the family moved to Furth.
By then, Furth had become a center of Jewish learning. The town’s Jewish community numbered over 3,000 individuals and many of the rabbis in Germany had studied in one of the two large yeshivas in Furth, which was known as the Jerusalem of Bavaria. Furth also had a large community of Jewish maskilim (followers of the Jewish enlightenment movement) and Reform Jews. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it even had a community of secular Jews. The Jews of Furth were merchants, lawyers, doctors, and craftsmen. One of the town’s judges was Jewish as well as some the city council members. Furth had seven synagogues and two chief rabbis – one of them, the chief rabbi of Furth and Nuremburg, was liberal and the other was Orthodox. Furth had a Jewish school and a kosher butcher. Jews owned seven of the coffee houses in the city, though none of them were kosher.
Albert Rosenfelder, my grandmother’s father, and his younger brother Emmanuel had been born in Furth. The family owned the largest department store in the town, which took up a full block on Furth’s main street. When World War I broke out, my great-grandfather Albert and his younger brother joined the German army. Albert was even decorated for bravery, receiving his iron cross first class from the hands of the kaiser himself.
My grandmother Lotte was born after the war, in 1920, and was raised in Furth. In her early teens, she witnessed the great Nazi rallies in nearby Nuremburg. When the Nazis came to power, in 1933, she explained in class that Hitler and his Nazi followers are not real Germans, not like her own family that had been living in Germany for hundreds of years.