How Attempted Authentication
a Story Led to Building a Museum
by Arthur Obermayer
(from Avotaynu, Spring 2001
edition, pages 35-37)
Please note: This article was written prior to the
opening of the museum,
whose permanent exhibits opened in November, 2004.
When I was a youngster, one homework assignment
was to find out the countries from which my ancestors came. I was disappointed
when my mother told me they were all from one country, Germany, so she
said, "If you go far enough back, you can include Italy."
Some years later, but still more than 40
years ago, I visited a cousin who was in her nineties. She told me the
entire story of my Italian ancestors and gave me a copy of the history
that her father had written around 1900. She also said, with a twinkle
in her eye, that he was a great storyteller, and she did not know whether
the narrative was true.
Since then, many other relatives have given
me copies of essentially the same story, which was also published in a
local German newspaper in the 1920s. Most of my relatives had been convinced
the story is true, because it was common knowledge -- an example of how
many people repeating the same story make it true! It is a charming, romantic
story -- especially with its embellishments -- that will not be included
The story starts with Raphael Blumenfeld's
death at the age of 85 in 1854. He was Mendel Blumenfeld's grandfather
and my three times great-grandfather, As a youth, Mendel lived with his
grandfather in the town of Creglingen, Germany. A few days after Raphael's
death, Mendel found some extremely old documents that had normally been
locked up carefully, but now the key was in the lock. One was a bulky,
flat package consisting of 10 parchment pages held together by strong
Then Mendel remembered that his grandfather
had provided some mysterious hints about the early ancestors of the Blumenfelds
in the 15th or 16th century, and how they had descended from Italian Christians.
These documents described that history in detail.
A man named Ravaelo Floricampo lived on the
island of Sicily on the slopes of Mount Aetna, where he owned an extensive
grape orchard and olive trees. He had lived in a large stone house with
one room exclusively for guests who came to drink his excellent wine.
His family consisted of his wife Blanca, son Raphael and daughter Florina.
The Floricampo family was prosperous and
happy. One day, a young man named Gustav Stuermer from Creglingen, Germany,
came to their house to taste the wine. When Bianca started to wait on
him, Florina whispered, "Mother, let me wait on this gentleman."
Not only was she attracted to him, but he was struck by her great beauty.
A painter, he was traveling through Italy to study its great works of
art. He struck up a friendship with the family and returned frequently.
One day a terrible thing happened. The Mount
Aetna volcano, after many years of rest, burst open with thunderous noise,
emitting fire and flame, ashes covering the land for miles around, and
streams of red hot lava flowing down the mountainside, destroying everything
in its wake. Stuermer hastened to the aid of his friends. The house was
still standing, but lava streams threatened to engulf it very soon. They
tried to save as many of the valuables as possible, but eventually their
home went up in flames.
Ravaelo's grape and olive orchards also were
destroyed and covered by several feet of lava. Viewing their despair,
their friend, Gustav Stuermer, suggested that they might want to settle
in Germany, where there were no earthquakes or volcanoes. The Floricampo
family agreed and accompanied Stuermer to Creglingen. They were happy
in Creglingen, but Blanca's health declined rapidly in the cold climate.
She survived long enough, however, to attend her daughter's wedding to
Gustav Stuermer. When her husband applied for a burial permit in the Christian
cemetery, he was refused because the deceased woman was a Catholic, and
this was a Protestant cemetery. A permit for burial in the Jewish cemetery,
however, was willingly provided.
Raphael was upset by the rejection of the
Christians. After brooding over it, he decided to leave the Christian
church and adopt the Jewish faith. At the same time, he changed his Italian
name, Floricampo, meaning flowering field, into its German equivalent,
Blumenfeld. The family also resolved that the oldest son of each generation
should be named Raphael, which was done faithfully until the last two
generations, when it was replaced by German names beginning with R, for
example, Rudolph, Raymond and Ralph.
I had little reason to question this story
until four years ago. In early 1997, my wife and I visited Creglingen
and came to know a number of people who lived in the town, including the
local historian, Hartwig Behr. My maternal grandfather had been born in
a house on Main Street, and my maternal grandmother had come from a hamlet
about three miles away. They came separately to the U.S. in the 1880s,
and married in New York City. My grandfather's mother's maiden name was
Blumenfeld and her grandfather was Raphael Blumenfeld, the person who
supposedly had all of these old records in his library.
The town of Creglingen is in the northeastern
comer of Baden-Wuerttemberg, close to Bavaria on three sides. This is
a farming community, and Creglingen was an old walled town that last year
celebrated its 650th anniversary. Many of the old buildings are still
standing, as are parts of the old town walls.
One day I received a fax from Hartwig Behr,
containing a page from the local newspaper of 1828, listing the Jews of
the community with both their new surnames and former patronyms -- a name
adoption list. Apparently, for most of his life, Raphael Blumenfeld had
been known as Raphael Lazarus, (i.e., the son of Lazarus).
This raised serious doubts, but then two
years ago, the validity of the Floricampo story was completely destroyed.
I received an e-mail from Claudia Heuwinkel, a woman now living in Creglingen,
who found out about my genealogical interests from the current resident
of my grand. father's house on Main Street. She had been employed by the
town to search the city archives to learn about the history of a particular
building in the town. During the course of her work, she learned how to
trace through the yearly tax records of homeowners, which allowed her
to find out how long a family had lived in a particular house. Most houses
remained -- perhaps for centuries -- within the same family, passed down
from father to son. Claudia sent me information that she had uncovered
about my family history, and I in turn sent her the information I had
about my ancestors. With this, she began to use tax and court records
in the archives to uncover a number of interesting stories about how the
Jews lived and participated in community activities.
She computerized the yearly tax data and
sorted it by location. Then she filled in the missing pieces for Jews
with town records of Schuetzbrief (letters of protection granted to Jews
for a substantial fee), real estate transfers, wills and other miscellaneous
In this fashion, Claudia. traced my family
back 11 generations to the early. 1600s. My earliest known ancestor, my
eight times great-grandfather, was "Isaak the Jew." He was five
generations of male ancestors earlier than Raphael Blumenfeld, and there
were no references at all to Blumenfelds or Floricampos and no first names
beginning with the letter R! I was forced to conclude that this nice fable
was only a fairy tale with no historical basis -- though I still have
trouble convincing the romantics in my family that it is not true.
Isaak the Jew lived near the center of town, at Badgasse 3, In a house
which was continuously occupied by his descendants until 1879, when it
was converted into a stable. Recently, the city wanted to remove the farmer
and his animals from the center of town, and it purchased the house for
rehabilitation by a developer. When I learned about this, I felt that
it would be exciting if the house could be in the hands of family members
again and considered the possibility of purchasing it. Of course, the
practical question was, what would I do with a house in a little town
In southern Germany where I have no intention of living?
A Jewish Museum for Creglingen
My solution was to convert the house into
a Jewish museum. Initially, this seemed pretty far-fetched because no
Jews lived in Creglingen. In fact, the nearest Jewish residents were 30
miles away. As time passed, the pieces began to fall into place, however,
and the Jewish museum project has become more than an idea.
The key factor has been the strong support
the museum has received from the German community. This effort has been
spearheaded by younger Germans, who have a very different attitude toward
the Holocaust than their elders. They resent being made to feel guilty
for the horrors of the Holocaust. They were born long after the end of
World War II and did not choose their own parents and grandparents. They
feel that they should be judged individually on their own values and actions,
not by those of their ancestors. On the other hand, as German citizens,
they feel that their country and their community have an obligation to,
preserve the history of the Jews who once lived there. They feel that
German-Jewish history should be treated in its totality and not focus
only on the atrocities during the Third Reich.
Creglingen, in particular, has a shameful
Holocaust history which it Is trying to overcome. On March 25, 1933, 16
Jews in the community (including my great uncle) were taken by the police
to the City Hall, beaten and tortured; two died as a result. These are
considered the first two Jewish deaths in all of Germany after Hitler
came to power. Every year on March 25, local and regional newspapers refer
to this event, and most articles in the German news media about Jewish
connections with Creglingen start with a reminder of the events of March
The planning for a Jewish museum in Creglingen
has had tremendous local appeal. It allows people to honor and remember
their past Jewish connections, but it does not focus on the Holocaust.
My ancestors had left Creglingen in the latter part of the 19th century
and did not suffer the anguish and horror of later times. The museum will
celebrate the life and contributions of the Jews to the Creglingen community
and demonstrate what was lost when the city lost all of its Jews. It will
not focus on just the death of Jews, as a Holocaust memorial would have
done. According to present plans, the museum will consist of three exhibits:
The first exhibit will cover the history
of Jews who lived in Creglingen. It will be structured as a time line.
At the top, extending horizontally from left to right, will be a genealogical
chart starting with the earliest Jew (perhaps Isaak the Jew) and moving
on to their descendants up to the 20th century. As new Jewish families
moved into the area, their charts will be added to the exhibit as well.
It will include the houses where they lived (using photos and maps) and
other material from both archival and family records, such as wills, marriage
contracts, court accounts and family histories. In the appropriate time
frames will be listings of special events that occurred in Creglingen
and in Germany. Of course, it will cover fully the destruction of the
Jewish community in the 1930s.
The second exhibit will focus on where Jews
went and what their families did after they left Creglingen. Their descendants
have been high achievers in various parts of the world. As a result of
my genealogical research, I personally know of more than 100 relatives
who settled in the U.S., Israel, Mexico, England, Brazil and South Africa.
They have made outstanding contributions to their new homelands which,
under different circumstances, could have been Germany's gain.
The third exhibit will depict the life of
a Jew in Creglingen. We expect that many school groups will visit the
museum. It is especially important for these young Germans, who may never
have known a Jew, to understand what distinguished Jews from other residents.
The customs, traditions, occupations, education, clothing and religious
beliefs of Jews may have been distinctive, but the Jews were active and
constructive contributors to the Creglingen community. This component
will show and explain objects such as tallit, tefillin, yarmulkes, havdallah
spice boxes and candies, Torah yads and bindings and Hanukkah menorahs.
We anticipate that most of the antique ceremonial objects will have originated
in Creglingen and other towns of southern Germany and will be provided
to the museum by Jewish descendants who still have them.
The strongest proponent of the Jewish museum
is the mayor of Creglingen. He is a bright young man, age 31, who speaks
excellent English and was elected in September 1998. He is not a Creglingen
native, but had worked for the State government and had political ambitions.
Mayor Harmut Holzwarth has great political skills and has used them effectively
to gain support for the museum. As a result, the City Council has given
the project its unanimous support and voted to provide almost $100,000
for the project. More than $40,000 has already been raised from local
residents and industrialists, and much more can be expected. I personally
have made a major contribution, and other American Jews have also made
significant donations. The Jewish museum has received considerable press
coverage from local newspapers as well as some from national and international
A German foundation, Stiftung Juedisches
Museum Creglingen, was set up to oversee the building renovation, the
installation of exhibits and the operation of the museum. After completion
of extensive renovation, the building was dedicated on November 19, 2000.
The Board of directors of the foundation consists of the mayor, a local
attorney, an architect, a City Council member who has also been a member
of the County Council, a Jewish professional who lives 30 miles away and
myself. (The Articles of Organization require that one member of the Board
always be a descendant of a Creglingen Jew,) There is great competition
among Germans to be involved in the planning for the museum. People in
Germany consider it an honor and a privilege to be part of the project.
What only recently was an idea is now becoming
a reality. And what started out as a genealogical venture is now turning
into a source of reconciliation between Jews and Germans.
Arthur Obermayer has been doing genealogical
research on his own family for more than 35 years, having identified all
32 of his three times great-grandparents. A 30-year board member of the
American Jewish Historical Society, he also served on the JewishGen board
and started its GermanJewish SIG.