My German grandmother’s childhood autograph book survived the Holocaust

In 1916, in the picturesque German town of Heinebach, a 14-year-old girl named Elisabeth Schmidtkunz wrote a sweet message in her classmate Jenny Katz’s autograph book.

Jenny! Get to know the people, ”Elisabeth wrote. “People are changeable. Some of those who call you friend today might talk about you tomorrow! With the love of your classmate, Elisabeth. “

One hundred and five years later, Johanna, Elisabeth’s 84-year-old daughter, was amazed to read her mother’s words for the first time. “It was a joy and a very special surprise for me,” he said in German. “The sight of that page touched me a lot.”

Jenny Katz Bachenheimer was my grandmother. Jenny’s autograph book, known in German as “Poesiealbum,” accompanied the family when my mother and grandparents escaped the Nazis in the 1930s and ended up in New York City.

Half a century later, when I was moving out of her apartment in the then heavily Jewish-German Washington Heights neighborhood, Oma (grandmother) Jenny handed me the Poesie album. He died in 1998, at the age of 95, and this teenage memory has always intrigued me, filled as it is with nearly two dozen pages of witty notes, poems, colorful stickers, and intricate designs from friends and relatives, all long gone. .

And now, thanks to two German scholars who have spent years researching the custom of “Poesie albums”, my curiosity has been rewarded with their knowledge of what they say is one of the rare albums of this type by a Jewish girl. German woman who has survived the Holocaust.

Earlier this year, in a Facebook group dedicated to the German Jewish community, I noticed a post by Dr. Stefan Walter, whose doctoral thesis focused on the tradition of “Poesie albums.” “German Jewish autograph books are very rare, due to the Holocaust, and little explored,” he wrote. “I have created a collection of Poesie albums for research and teaching purposes, and Jewish women’s albums are not yet included. I’m looking for owners of these types of books. “

As a longtime chronicler of my family’s history, I couldn’t resist. Stefan and his life partner Katrin Henzel work at Carl von Ossietzky University in the city of Oldenburg, and we made a deal: They would interview me about Oma Jenny’s life and translate the pages, and I would interview them for this story.

The couple, both in their 40s, provided some background to the Poesie album. “This tradition started in the 16th century,” said Katrin, a professor at the university. “It originally started with adult students and academics, who were traveling. They asked teachers and important people from the villages they visited to inscribe something as a souvenir ”.

In the 19th century, he continued: “It became a tradition for girls, first by Protestants and then by Catholic and Jewish students.”

Katrin and Stefan analyze how the content and attitudes of messages evolve over time; have examined Poesie albums compiled during the Nazi era and pre-war unification entries from East and West Germany.

But Oma Jenny’s album was the first by a Jewish girl. “It is very valuable to us,” Stefan said. Katrin added: “In normal times, people hand over books and souvenirs to the next generation. But the Holocaust interrupted that tradition in Germany. That is why this is a treasure, not only for you and your family, but also for scientific reasons. This is a rare gift that you have here. “

Most of the entries in my grandmother’s album are signed with the date, followed by “1916, Kriegsjahr”, the “year of the war”, that is, the First World War.

There are religious warnings: Jenny’s father, Baruch, the unofficial leader of the Heinebach Jewish community, implored Jenny to “often pray to God with a believing mind. Praise him and thank him for the kindness with which he has guided you. Pray often when comfort is lacking. give strength to the weak. And be willing to do good. “

Uncle Abraham Nussbaum urged her to “wait and wait always. Remember the word of God, which is our only refuge that protects and preserves ”.

Most of the messages are more typical of happy rhymes than popular with teenage girls. Jenny’s friend, Lotte Speier, wrote: “So many thorns on a rose, so many fleas on an old male, so much hair on a poodle, so many years you must stay healthy.” Another friend, Berta Sommer, wrote: “Live happy and healthy until three cherries weigh one pound!”

Survivors of the Nazi regime attend a memorial service at the former Nazi concentration camp in Sachsenhausen, near the German capital Berlin, on April 17, 2005. (credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ / REUTERS)

There was a darker, perhaps prescient suggestion from Jenny’s beloved cousin Wilhelmine Goldschmidt: “When you are in a murky place, and you think you must despair, think of Kaiser Friedrich’s words, ‘Learn to suffer without complaining.'” . Another her favorite cousin, Selma Nussbaum, wrote: “Be like the violet that blooms in secret. Be merciful and good, even if no one is looking at you! “

However, to my delight, there is a final entry written in late 1933, when the financial life of the family collapsed due to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, and at a time when they were under frequent physical attack by gangs. of the Hitler Youth. in Heinebach.

Amid mounting horror, my grandfather wrote a poem to his wife Jenny, whom he married in 1928. Opa Siegfried died suddenly when I was a young child, and while he knew that many loved him deeply, no one mentioned that he was. a romantic. But there were these verses from him, a complete revelation to me:

Sweet as the dawn, Awakened in young spring, And in the flower beds, The delicate rose laughs.

Thus you walk with blessing, And always joyful, Through the paths full of flowers, Of your long life.

After receiving the translations of the pages, I noticed that at least eight of the writers, including Elisabeth, had clearly non-Jewish names. It was comforting to discover that my strictly Orthodox grandmother had close Gentile friends, and it occurred to me that the descendants of those women might still live in the village.

I asked a former non-Jewish neighbor, whose parents and grandparents had been particularly close and protective of the Bachenheimers, if she knew of any of the families. Irmgard Häger, who graciously welcomed my family on our visits to Heinebach in recent years, was happy to help, especially after seeing the precious memory herself. “I loved reading these young ladies’ old German script poetic thoughts,” he wrote to me several months ago. “I know from my parents that everyone loved your Oma Jenny, and you can feel that in the lines.”

Irmgard told me that Oma Jenny’s friend Elisabeth was born in 1902, as was my grandmother. Elisabeth died in 1984. In 2021, Irmgard showed Elisabeth’s daughter, Johanna Dippel, her mother’s handwritten thoughts, at her home, a few blocks from where they were inscribed. After expressing her joy and surprise at this unexpected missive from the past, Johanna emailed me saying, “My mother must have loved Jenny very much; He expressed it by decorating the page. The verse you quoted also contains great truth. I am very happy that my mother was able to express her feelings in this way, at such a young age ”.

On the sides and corners of her page, Elisabeth added some more, writing “Live happily, think of me!” and do not forget me”. Thanks to Jenny’s Poesie album, now part of the digital collection of a German university, we remember them both, today and forever.

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