POST 13: THE FORMER JEWISH CEMETERY IN RATIBOR (RACIBÓRZ)

Figure 1-1927-1928 plan map of Ratibor showing location of former Jewish Cemetery along Leobschützerstrasse

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

Figure 2-Fragment of headstone with Hebrew script

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

 

Figure 3-Cover of booklet entitled “Vergessene Geschichte der Juden aus dem Ratiborer Lande”

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. 

Figure 4-Moorish-style Jewish synagogue as it looked in 1889 when it opened

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.

 

 

Figure 5-Headstone of my great-grandparents, Hermann & Olga Berliner, in former Ratibor Jewish cemetery

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

Figure 6-My great-grandfather Hermann Berliner (1840-1910)

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

Figure 7-Curator Adam Knura at entrance to Muzeum Raciborzu

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)

 

 

 

Figure 8-Example of plan map of Jewish Cemetery with colored highlight indicating section where photos in each of seven albums were taken
Figure 9-Page from one album with three pictures of headstones

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Figure 10-Headstones from section of former Jewish Cemetery with graves of children

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.

POST 12: “STATE ARCHIVES IN KATOWICE BRANCH IN RACIBÓRZ (RATIBOR)”

Figure 1-Entrance to the “Archiwum Państwowe w Katowicach Oddział w Raciborzu“

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. 

Figure 2-Ms. Malgosia Ploszaj from Rybnik, Poland examining the civil records at the State Archives in Raciborz

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)

Figure 3-My Aunt Susanne, my father Otto and my Uncle Fedor as children in Ratibor
Figure 4-Birth Register (“Urodzenia”) for the period 1874-1902 found at the State Archives in Raciborz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In former times, it was quite common for parents to have many children, so I often wondered why nine years (1895 to 1904) had transpired before my grandparents had a second child.  This question was promptly answered by a careful examination of the birth certificates for these years; it turns out my grandparents indeed had a second child in this intervening period, a son by the name of Walter Bruck, who was born in August 1900 but died shortly thereafter in April 1901.  The existence of another older brother was never mentioned by my father when I was growing up.  As to the Birth Certificate for my Uncle Fedor born in 1895, I did eventually locate it in the Eastern Prussian Provinces database: Östliche preußische Provinzen, Polen, Personenstandsregister 1874-1945 (Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany [Poland], Selected Civil Vitals, 1874-1945).  

Figure 5-My great-aunt Elsbeth Bruck, right, with her older brother Wilhelm “Willy” Bruck as children in Ratibor

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.” 

Figure 6-My grandparents, Felix “Lixel” Bruck and Else Bruck, nee Berliner, on their wedding day, February 11, 1894

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.”

Figure 7-Cover of remembrance poem written by Wilhelm “Willy” Bruck for his brother Felix’s wedding “in brotherly love”
Figure 8-Wilhelm “Willy” Bruck standing next to his velocipede in 1889 in Ratibor, possibly the same bike his brother once fell off of

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.