After my wife and I examined the records at the Polish State Archives in Racibórz, our English-speaking research guide, Ms. Malgosia Ploszaj, suggested we visit the site of the former Jewish Cemetery once located on Leobschützerstrasse [today: Wilczej Górze and Fojcik głubczycki streets] on the outskirts of Raciborz. (Figure 1) Knowing family members had
once been buried here, I was particularly intrigued to see their final resting place. Malgosia had already warned my wife and me that the Jewish Cemetery no longer exists as such but consists merely of ivy-covered pathways meandering through a forested area scattered with fragmentary pieces of headstones (Figure 2), a cemetery originally 5 acres in extent. Beyond the occasional piece of headstone, the only original element of the former Jewish cemetery is the front entrance gate.
According to the International Jewish Cemetery Project (IJCP), this cemetery served the Jewish Community from about 1817 until the last two burials were placed here, respectively, in 1940 and 1941; by their estimate, no more than 200 Jews remained at the time of the “Final Solution” in Ratibor in 1942. While it may ultimately have been the intention of the Nazis to systematically destroy all Jewish cemeteries, by the end of the Third Reich some were still left intact, including the one in Ratibor. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, although its location on the outskirts of town may partially explain why it was not destroyed. However, with no surviving postwar Jewish community to tend the graveyard, nature was in effect gradually reclaiming it. Consequently, by 1973, a decision was taken by the Communist authorities to, in the words of the IJCP, “decommission the cemetery [and allow] masons from the surrounding area . . .to reuse them [the headstones] in Catholic cemeteries.” IJCP describes the gravestones dating from the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries as “. . .black, white or pink marble or granite and sandstone. . .in traditional shapes or obelisks, boulders and more artistic forms with a wide array of decoration.” The inscriptions were a combination of Hebrew and German. Supposedly, following the Jewish cemetery’s decommissioning, it was used as a community garden.
Tangentially, I became intrigued about the destruction of Jewish culture. There is a widely circulated notion that once having exterminated the Jews, the Nazis planned a “Museum to an Extinct Race”; in 2015, while on a walking tour of WWII sites in Prague, our tour guide in fact brought this up. Prague is widely associated as the place where this museum was to be located because upwards of 100,000 Jewish liturgical, religious, historical, and archival objects were archived there at the Central Jewish Museum. Suffice it to say, the idea of such a museum is a myth and there never existed a Nazi plan to create such a museum. The phrase “Museum to an Extinct Race” was in fact coined by Jews following WWII. For readers interested in reading about this myth, I direct them to a video of a fascinating lecture given by Dale Bluestein, former Director of the “Memorial Scrolls Trust”: https://vimeo.com/120373842
In recent years, the Polish schools have apparently taken an interest in re-discovering their Jewish history. Malgosia showed me the product of one such endeavor, a booklet prepared by local students and published by the European Union, written in both Polish and German. This booklet is entitled in German “Vergessene Geschichte der Juden aus dem Ratiborer Lande,” which translates roughly as “Forgotten history of the Jews from the land of Ratibor.” (Figure 3) The cover page includes a hand-tinted drawing of the former Jewish synagogue, along with additional pictures inside showing the conflagration as it was destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.
Following Kristallnacht, the Moorish synagogue (Figure 4), which had originally been built in 1889, survived as a ruin until 1958, when Communist authorities demolished it.
Inside this publication are multiple photographs of the headstones of the former Jewish cemetery, amazingly, including one of my great-grandparents grave, Hermann Berliner (1840-1910) and Olga Berliner, nee Braun (1853-1920). (Figures 5, 6) Malgosia graciously obtained an original copy of this booklet for me, and explained that the majority of the headstones from the former Jewish cemetery were photographed before the gravestones were disposed of. It remains unclear whether these photographs were taken by a well-intentioned individual
interested in documenting history, or by the Polish Security Services with some nefarious purpose in mind to further “torment” dead Jews and their descendants come back to reclaim stolen Jewish property.
The most remarkable thing, I came to discover, is that the original photographs of all the headstones from the former Jewish cemetery are archived at the Muzeum Raciborzu. (Figure 7) My wife and I learned of their existence too late to actually schedule a visit there in 2014, but immediately upon my return to the States that year, I contacted one of the curators at the museum and asked
if we could examine these photos on a subsequent visit; the archivist indicated this would present no problem. So, upon our return to Raciborz in 2015, again in the company of Malgosia, we examined and photographed all the pictures. (Figures 8, 9)
The curators at the museum have created an Excel spreadsheet with the names of all the people once interred at the Jewish cemetery, along with their dates of birth and death, where this information can be gleaned from the pictures. A copy of this database was given to me. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to compare the birth and death information obtained for a few individuals from the headstones with comparable information obtained from original birth or death certificates for these same people, and, interestingly, I’ve found some discrepancies not owing to archival errors but, ironically, to incorrect dates being inscribed in stone. One can only wonder whether surviving relatives “lost track” of the year their ancestors had been born. In any case, the Excel spreadsheet with the names of the entombed has provided a wealth of useful family history information.
The previously discussed booklet included a touching photo of “small” headstones once belonging to the graves of children who’d perished at birth or shortly thereafter. (Figure 10) I knew that my great-grandparents on my grandfather’s side had eight children but had only been able to track the fate of six of them. I was hoping these headstones would shed some light on the fate of the other two, but this was not to be.
In the previous Blog post dealing with the Bruck’s Hotel “Prinz von Preußen,” the hotel in Ratibor owned by the Bruck family for three generations, the reader learned about the “Archiwum Państwowe w Katowicach Oddział w Raciborzu” (“State Archives in Katowice Branch in Raciborz”) where civil records of births, marriages, and deaths from the 1870’s onward are to be found. (Figure 1) I explained to the reader the genesis of this situation, namely, that the Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the liberal nationalists in Germany saw the existence of a Church loyal to the Pope as a threat to national unity, and, for this reason, sought to bring the Church under the control of the Prussian state. This conflict with the Church was known as the Kulturkampf (“Cultural Struggle“). Among other things, this resulted in mandating that births, marriages, and deaths be recorded as civil events. Consequently, today, a researcher is compelled to show up in person to access these records at the State Archives.
In the previous Blog post, I explained I’d been referred to an English-speaking Polish lady, Ms. Malgosia Ploszaj, who is studying the former Jews of her hometown of Rybnik, about a half-hour from Raciborz. Prior to our visit to Raciborz in May 2014, Malgosia had already visited the State Archives there and discovered the existence of an inch-thick portfolio of administrative documents related to management of the Bruck’s Hotel from about 1912 to 1928.; these have been discussed in the previous Blog post. When my wife and I visited Raciborz in May 2014, Malgosia accompanied us to the State Archives and helped us efficiently navigate the plethora of civil documents. (Figure 2)
My father’s older sister, Susanne, was born in Ratibor in 1904, and my father, Otto, three years later in 1907. (Figure 3) Once I understood their birth documents would not be among the Jewish religious records found on Mormon Church microfilms, it became a priority to find them with the civil records at the State Archives. I knew my father’s older brother Fedor had been born in 1895 in the nearby town of Leobschütz [today: Głubczyce, Opole Voivodeship, Poland], so had no expectation of uncovering his birth certificate. With Malgosia’s assistance, we were very quickly able to locate the birth records of both my father and my aunt. (Figure 4)
I found several other original family documents at the Polish State Archives in Raciborz that ultimately provided context for artifacts in my possession, and also pointed me to other towns and countries to find additional historic family records. At the State Archives in Raciborz, I also found the Birth Certificate for my great-aunt, Elsbeth Bruck. (Figure 5) Previously, I’d located the birth record for Elsbeth’s seven older siblings, born to my great-grandparents Fedor Bruck and Friederike Bruck, nee Mockrauer, on the Jewish microfilm records from Ratibor, but was puzzled as to why I’d never found hers. When I eventually learned that Elsbeth was born in the midst of the Kulturkampf, it became obvious her record would be with the civil documents, which is where I ultimately found it and where I also discovered her given name was not Elsbeth but “Elisabeth.”
A particularly interesting document I found was the marriage certificate for my grandparents (Page 1 & Page 2), Felix Bruck and Else Bruck, nee Berliner, dated February 11, 1894; prior to the discovery of this certificate, I didn’t know when my grandparents got married although I have photos of them on their wedding day. (Figure 6) This document was interesting principally because it provided context for an “erinnerung,” or remembrance, I’d found among my father’s papers. The name on the cover page of this remembrance, written in difficult-to-decipher Gothic font, said “Willy Bruck,” and was dated “February 11, 1894.” I incorrectly assumed it related to a ceremony or rite in honor of a relative who’d died on this date; unfortunately, I could think of no relative by this name who’d died on this day. After a German cousin recently examined this remembrance, all became clear. Felix’s younger brother was Wilhelm or “Willy” Bruck, and the remembrance I thought was a death announcement was actually an ode or poem Willy had written on the occasion of his brother’s marriage, “in brotherly love.” (Figure 7) While I never knew my grandfather, and my father only spoke sparingly of him when I was growing up, from this remembrance I also learned Felix’s nickname was “Lixel.”
In the poem Willy Bruck wrote in honor of his brother Felix’s marriage, he teased his brother about a few incidents that occurred to him as a young lad, such as the time he threw a stone through an expensive window and when he fell off his velocipede. Coincidentally, among the family pictures is one of Willy Bruck himself standing next to his own velocipede, perhaps a hand-me-down from his older brother! (Figure 8)
In addition to the marriage certificate I found for Felix Bruck, I also located the marriage certificates for two of his younger sisters, Charlotte Mockrauer, nee Bruck (1865-1965) (Page 1 & Page 2), and Hedwig Loewenstein, nee Bruck (1870-1949) (Page 1 & Page 2). These historic documents are of interest primarily because they eventually helped me unravel the complete family tree for these branches of my family, and, in turn, lead to some compelling discoveries. In time, I will relate to the reader these tales which are rather involved and span multiple countries.
NOTE: This Blog post marks a transition from stories about Tiegenhof, the town in the Free State of Danzig where my father, Dr. Otto Bruck, was a dentist, to Ratibor in Upper Silesia, Germany [today: Raciborz, Silesian Voivodeship, Poland], the town where my father was born in 1907. The next series of posts will cover the Bruck family’s association and connection to Ratibor, although future posts will likely take me back to Tiegenhof, as I uncover more information about my father’s circle of acquaintances and friends there. This post will detail the Bruck family’s historic ties to Ratibor, but will also discuss the available documentary evidence, unearthed in both in Ratibor and elsewhere, that inspired and guided much of the research I later undertook related to my family.
NOTE ABOUT FIGURES: HYPERLINKS WILL BE FOUND BELOW SOME FIGURES AND MAPS ALLOWING READERS TO OPEN THESE ITEMS IN A SEPARATE WINDOW AND VIEW THEM AT FULL SIZE.
The Bruck family’s most enduring link to the former German town of Ratibor, Upper Silesia (Figure 1), was its long-standing ownership of the Bruck’s “Prinz von Preußen“ Hotel. (Figures 2, 3) Family control of the hotel appears to have extended through three generations, beginning no later than the mid-19th Century and continuing through the first quarter of the 20th Century. Samuel Bruck (1808-1863) (Figure 4) and his wife Charlotte Bruck, nee Marle (1811-1861) (Figure 5) were the original family owners of the Prinz von Preußen. In time, Samuel’s son, Fedor Bruck (1837-1894) (Figure 6) and his wife Friederike Bruck, nee Mockrauer (1836-1924) (Figure 7) took over the hotel. Following Fedor’s death in 1892, his widow Friederike, and two of her daughters, Franziska Bruck (1866-1942) and Elsbeth Bruck (1874-1970), ran the hotel. When Friederike, Franziska and Elsbeth left for Berlin in 1902, the hotel passed into the hands of the oldest of Fedor and Friederike’s children, Felix Bruck (1864-1927) (Figure 8) and his wife, Else Bruck, nee Berliner (1873-1927) (Figure 9), that’s to say, my grandparents. None of Felix and Else’s children ever managed the hotel, although I recall my father telling stories of working in the hotel as a young boy fetching wine from the cellar, a sommelier in training.
There are indirect clues as to when Samuel Bruck acquired the Prinz von Preußen. Jewish birth records available for Ratibor on-line through the Mormon Church’s website at familysearch.org (Microfilm Roll #1184448), cover the period from approximately 1817 through 1874. Charlotte Bruck is known to have given birth to at least nine children between 1831 and 1849. Birth records of the time recorded the profession or occupation of the father, and in all instances for Samuel Bruck, either “Kaufmann” or “Handelsmann” (merchant, tradesman, or businessman) is documented; Samuel Bruck is known to have been a successful wood merchant before he purchased the Prinz von Preußen. By contrast, the birth records for his son, Fedor Bruck, always registered his occupation as “Gastwirt” or “Gasthofbesitzer” (innkeeper). This suggests that Samuel Bruck bought the Prinz von Preußen following the birth of his last child in 1849 after his career as a wood merchant.
While no longer in existence, the Bruck’s Hotel Prinz von Preußen once stood at Oderstraße 16 [today: ulica Odrzanska], at the corner of Oderstraße and Niederwallstraße [today: 3 Maja, Sawickiej, Podwale] (Figure 10), only a short distance from the River Oder. John Murray’s English-language “A Handbook for Travelers on the Continent,” a traveler’s guidebook published in 1850, touted the “Prinz von Preußen” as a very comfortable hotel; later editions characterized the hotel as the best one in Ratibor. At the time, a town of 6,000 inhabitants, Ratibor was described as an ideal place for persons traveling by rail between Breslau [today: Wroclaw,Poland] and Vienna, then part of the Austrian Empire, to spend the night. The journey by rail from Ratibor to Breslau was a six hour trip, while the train ride from Ratibor to Vienna took 12 to 13 hours.
The “Prinz von Preußen” must have been one of the most fashionable hotels to stay at in this part of Prussia because in a book on Ratibor, entitled “Geschichte der Stadt Ratibor“ by Augustin Weltzel, the author records that on May 10, 1853, King Leopold I of Belgium spent the night. (Figure 11) King Leopold I was a German prince who became the first king of the Belgians following their independence in 1830, and reigned between July 1831 and December 1865; he was the uncle of Queen Victoria.
A historian, Ms. Katrin Griebel from Zittau, Saxony, who has studied the surviving personal papers of Franziska Bruck (Figure 12) and Elsbeth Bruck (Figure 13) archived at the Stadtmuseum in Spandau outside Berlin, to which future Blog posts will be devoted, has gleaned some anecdotes about the Bruck family and the hotel from the personal papers of these two great-aunts. According to Ms. Griebel, the building occupied by the Bruck’s Hotel was the former palace of a marquis. Upon the nobleman’s death, the palace became known as the “Prinz von Preußen.”
Personal family papers also tell us that Fedor Bruck, son of Samuel Bruck, did not enjoy working in the hospitality industry, preferring to be a musician. He took violin lessons, and is reputed to have spent a goodly sum of money honing this craft. His daughter, Elsbeth Bruck, was an ardent socialist her entire life. When she was working in the Prinz von Preußen, she is reputed to have been engaged to a Polish cook working in the kitchen there. Her parents were not at all amused, and sent her to the Riesengebirge [today: Krkonoše (Czech), Karkonosze (Polish); mountain range in the north of the Czech Republic and the southwest of Poland] to “get some fresh air and clear her head.” Later, Elsbeth was an actress and peace-activist, and was imprisoned in Görlitz in 1916 and, again, in 1918, for her activism. When she lived in Munich, she gave birth out-of-wedlock to a child who died in infancy (Wolfgang Bruck’s Death Certificate No. 448). Her family is known to have disapproved of Elsbeth’s free-spirited lifestyle. During the Nazi era, she was in exile first in Czechoslovakia, then in London. After the war, she returned to Germany and spent the remainder of her life in the German Democratic Republic, formerly East Germany. She is buried in the Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde in the former East Berlin, adjacent the “Memorial to the Socialists.” (Figure 14)
In March 2014, I attended a presentation, sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, by Mr. Roger Lustig, a specialist on genealogical records from the former Prussian state. Following his presentation, I contacted Roger, and narrated my family’s connection to Ratibor. I described the microfilm records I’d been able to find for Ratibor through familysearch.org, records very familiar to Roger, that broadly cover the period from 1814 to 1940, but indicated there appear to be gaps; I asked Roger whether some of the documents were to be found elsewhere or had been destroyed during WWII.
Because Roger also has ancestors from Ratibor, he was anxious to help me out. He made clear that most of the birth, marriage, and death records from Ratibor from roughly the 1870’s onward would be found in the “Archiwum Państwowe w Katowicach Oddział w Raciborzu“ (Polish State Archives in Raciborz) (Figure 15), that’s to say, as civil rather than religious documents. The basis for this situation is rooted in the 19th Century when the Roman Catholic Church was under frequent attack by liberal nationalists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who saw the existence of a Church loyal to the Pope as a threat to national unity. The most hostile of these attacks on the Church took place in Germany, and was known as the Kulturkampf (“Cultural Struggle“). The Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sought to break the influence of the Catholic Church which he saw as a threat to the recently established German Empire. While the Kulturkampf was primarily a dispute between the Roman Catholic Church and the Prussian state, clearly, when recording of Catholic marriages and other vital events at a registry office of the state became mandatory, other religious denominations were affected.
In any event, the Church of Latter Day Saints, has not yet gotten around to making copies of the registers in the civil archives, so the only way to view them is to personally visit these repositories across Poland. My wife and I already had plans to spend thirteen weeks in Europe in 2014 visiting places from Poland to Spain associated with the Bruck family diaspora, so decided to incorporate another visit to Raciborz.
To facilitate my investigations, Roger offered to put me in touch with an English-speaking Polish researcher, Ms. Malgosia Ploszaj, who has spent many years researching the Jews from her hometown of Rybnik, located only a half-hour from Raciborz; he explained she could help me navigate the State Archives in Raciborz. Roger quickly sent Malgosia an email telling her about our planned visit and our interest in examining the archival records there. Within hours, Malgosia sent an introductory email offering her assistance during our upcoming visit. Since our scheduled trip to Raciborz was still several months away, Malgosia even offered to visit the Polish State Archives in Raciborz in advance to scope out what might be available on the Bruck family’s ties to Ratibor.
Imagine my surprise when barely a week later Malgosia recounted her visit to the State Archives, and told me she‘d found a portfolio of documents related to the Bruck’s Hotel “Prinz von Preußen,“ covering the period from roughly 1912-1928; needless to say, I was amazed such documents would have survived the destruction wrought by WWII. Eventually Malgosia photographed and sent me all these documents, and I forwarded them to German relatives who reviewed and gleaned interesting tidbits from them.
While most of the handwritten documents related to the Bruck‘s Hotel are penned in Sütterlin, the signatures, including several by my grandfather, Felix Bruck, are Latinized. The subject of the documents are primarily administrative, and record dealings with the local police who apparently handled such matters as approving extended business hours to accommodate returning WWI veterans; undertaking inspections of the hotel and recording violations; authorizing sale of alcoholic beverages; reviewing and approving proposed hotel renovations; and authorizing subleasing of the hotel’s restaurant under the auspices of the Bruck name.
Of particular interest in the portfolio are the hotel’s floor plans. (Figure 16) The hotel is known to have had two kitchens, one to prepare normal meals and another to deliver kosher fare to its Jewish guests. In published advertisements of the hotel, respectively, from 1925 (Figure 17), 1926 (Figure 18), and 1931 (Figure 19), numerous amenities were noted. These included 40 well-appointed hotel rooms with running warm and cold water, a conference room, an exhibition area, a secretarial pool, a hotel phone as well as a phone to call other parts of Germany, a first class kitchen, good cultivated wine and beer, “real” liquor, local access to hockey and tennis arenas and more.
It is not entirely clear when the Prinz von Preußen was sold by my grandfather, Felix Bruck. The archival dossier includes a August 1925 document in which the entrepreneur “Max Kunzer” is allowed to install a beer pressure device using carbolic acid rather than compressed air. However, by August 1926, the owner of record is a “Hugo Eulenstein” who requests and is granted permission to sell alcoholic beverages in the Bruck’s Hotel. Mr. Eulenstein‘s association with the hotel may have been brief. By 1931, the Bruck’s Hotel had a new “Geschaftsleitung” or “executive board,” headed by an “Ernst Exner,” formerly of the Sachs Hotel in Patschkau [today: Paczków, Nysa County, Opole Voivodeship, Poland].
The length of Mr. Exner’s ownership of the Bruck’s Hotel is unknown, although it is certain the Bruck’s Hotel was damaged in the latter throes of World War II by the Russian Army, although how badly remains unclear. One of the curators at the Muzeum Raciborzu sent me an outstanding photo of Ratibor’s main square, probably taken towards the end of the 1940’s or early 1950‘s, showing workers demonstrating around the Virgin Mary’s Column with St. Jacob’s Church seen along the right side; squarely in the center of the picture in the background can be seen the Bruck’s Hotel still standing tall. (Figure 20)
The decision to tear down the Bruck’s Hotel and other brick structures once located along Oderstrasse appears related to at least two things. While the structural integrity of the hotel may have been compromised during the war, it appears that Polish authorities were also looking to scavenge bricks throughout Poland to rebuild Warsaw and, perhaps, at the same time eradicate some traces of the German-era. Regardless, today the Bruck’s Hotel no longer stands and the cultural landscape of the area where it once stood looks vastly different.
Felix Bruck’s name appears in a 1916 Berlin phone directory, and shows him living in Berlin-Charlottenburg in the same area as his sister Franziska Bruck (Figure 12), a famous florist about whom more will be said in future posts. Even if the sale of the Bruck’s Hotel did not take place until the early 1920’s, quite possibly my grandfather had ceded management of the hotel to another family member or it was being co-managed with a potential buyer. Felix Bruck is known to have suffered from diabetes, a disease which may have been better treated in Berlin but which, ultimately, was the cause of my grandfather’s demise in 1927.
The Bruck’s Hotel “Prinz von Preußen” Hotel was probably referred to as either the “F. Bruck’s Hotel” or the “Prinz von Preußen.” This is borne out by silverware (knives, forks, spoons) in my possession, some of which have written on them “Prinz von Preußen,” and others which are inscribed with the name “F. Bruck’s Hotel.” (Figure 21) It seems likely that these items were taken as “souvenirs” by Felix and Else Bruck upon their sale of the hotel, and reflected the silverware in use in the dining room at that time. Regardless, the monogram of the three generations of Bruck family to have owned the hotel are reflected in the surviving silverware.
By now, readers have perhaps divined that where possible I enjoy illustrating my Blog posts with photos and artifacts related to the topic at hand that come from a variety of sources. In a future post, I’ll eventually relate to the reader the challenging process I went through to find two of my second cousins, that’s to say, my great-uncle’s grandchildren. Suffice it to say for now, that this great-uncle, Wilhelm Bruck visited his brother Felix at the Prinz von Preußen in Ratibor in June 1914, and wrote an endearing postcard to his wife Antonie „Toni“ Bruck who’d stayed behind in Berlin with their two children. (Figures 22, 23) A copy of this postcard was given to me by Wilhelm’s grandchildren after I eventually located them. The translation of this postcard can be found here.
1850 Handbook for Travelers on the Continent: Being a Guide Through Holland, Belgium, Prussia and Northern Germany, and Along the Rhine From Holland to Switzerland (Seventh Edition). John Murray, Albemarle Street. London (p. 437)
1856 Handbook for Travelers on the Continent: Being a Guide to Holland, Belgium, Prussia, Northern Germany, and the Rhine from Holland to Switzerland (Eleventh Edition). John Murray, Albemarle Street, London (p. 426)
2010 Geschichte Der Stadt Ratibor (1861). Kessenger Legacy Reprints. Kessenger Publishing.