Creglingen Jewish Museum

How Attempted Authentication of
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 here.

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 linen thread.

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 documents.

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 25, 1933.

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 publications.

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.