Only surviving Jewish native of village seeks reconciliation
By Howard Wilkinson, Enquirer Staff Writer
When as a boy Alfred Gottschalk and his mother were forced to flee the tiny German village of Oberwesel for America to escape the Nazis, most of his Christian neighbors looked the other way.
When the rabbi returns to his birthplace in September, his hope is that their descendants won't look away.
"I want them to acknowledge who they are and what they did, or what their ancestors did," said Gottschalk, retired chancellor of Hebrew Union College in University Heights. He is the only surviving Jewish native of Oberwesel, a village of about 3,200 whose small Jewish community was wiped out in the late 1930s and early 1940s by the Nazi purge.
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The rabbi and Hebrew Union College
Gottschalk was born in 1930 in Oberwesel, Germany, and came to the U.S. in 1939 with his mother, Erna Gerson Gottschalk, to flee Nazi oppression.
The family settled in Brooklyn. Gottschalk became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945. In 1957, he was ordained as a rabbi.
Gottschalk became president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati's University Heights in 1971 and served in that post until 1995, when he became the rabbinical school's chancellor. Since 2000, he has been chancellor emeritus.
Hebrew Union College was founded in 1875 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. In 1950, it merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where Gottschalk studied and taught. HUC-JIR now has a campus in Los Angeles and a post-doctoral institution in Jerusalem.
During his years as the head of the nation's oldest Jewish seminary, Gottschalk split his time between homes in Cincinnati and New York.
In 1999, Gottschalk was named president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, a post he still holds.
He is a member of the board of directors of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Gottschalk, who will be accompanied on his 12-day journey by friends and supporters from different faiths, is not sure how the village in the lower Rhine Valley will react when he comes to erect a headstone on the grave of his grandfather and to help dedicate a memorial to Oberwesel's Jews.
"The people there, they don't want to be seen as being pushed into acknowledging their past," said Gottschalk. "Many of them have buried these things deep and don't want to rouse them again."
Here in Cincinnati, Gottschalk's journey has drawn support from a wide audience - from Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk to Episcopal Bishop Herbert Thompson, Gottschalk's close friend and high school classmate.
At the University of Cincinnati, President Nancy Zimpher said the university will become involved in the Gottschalk project, known as "Remembrance and Renewal." The university plans to send a high-level representative on the trip, and give college credit to students who join the 12-day journey.
Thompson said he is going on the journey not only because of his long friendship with Gottschalk, but because as a Christian he feels "enormous gratitude and debt to the Jewish community. It is an act of brotherhood."
In Oberwesel, reactions to Gottschalk's pilgrimage are mixed. Since his plans became known in Oberwesel early this year, a debate has ensued.
The debate is over how the village should respond to the prospect of confronting the Nazi past.
For some, such as Barbara Fuchs, a banking executive who is, with her husband, the only two Jews now living in Oberwesel, it is a moral imperative to honor Gottschalk's pilgrimage and the lives of all the Jewish families whose histories were rubbed out by the Nazis.
For others, it is an unwanted reminder of unpleasant history in a thriving town that sees itself as a destination for tourists who come to see the wine country of the lower Rhine Valley.
"There are quite a few who say, 'Why do we have to talk about this?' " said Fuchs, a 10-year resident of Oberwesel who has lobbied the Oberwesel village council to have the memorial placed in a prominent place in this village's center. "There are many others, though, who believe this is simply the right thing to do."
What angered some in the village, Fuchs said, was when they read that Gottschalk said that as a young boy, he was beaten by Catholic youths on Good Friday - all because of the legend of "Werner."
Werner was a 13th century Catholic boy in Oberwesel, who, the legend says, was killed by Jews on Good Friday.
Even today, Fuchs said, there is a "cult of Werner" that stirs anti-Semitism in the region.
Gottschalk said he was beaten up by boys from the village in 1938, after he and the other Jewish student in his grade school had been expelled from school by the Nazis. The boys, Gottschalk said, were Catholics who blamed him for Werner's death because he was a Jew.
"They said I had killed Werner," Gottschalk said. "I didn't know Werner. How could I have killed him?"
By the time of the beating, Gottschalk had seen his father flee Germany in the face of Nazi threats and experienced the hate of the Nazis firsthand.
He remembers clearly his last day in the Oberwesel school. He and a little girl, Ruth Lichtenstein, were the only Jewish children in the class.
"A storm trooper marched into the class, read a proclamation and shouted, 'Alle Judische Kinde, raus!' - All Jewish children, out!" he said. "So we got out. And we never went back."
Later in 1938 came Kristallnacht - "Night of Broken Glass" - when all across Germany, Nazi thugs fanned out in cities and villages to wreak havoc on Jews. They smashed windows, burned hundreds of synagogues, and dragged thousands from their homes to be sent to concentration camps.
It was an orgy of violence that touched even Oberwesel.
The synagogue in Oberwesel, Gottschalk said, wasn't burned down "because gentiles lived on both sides of it," but the Nazis painted the building black with tar and ravaged the inside, tearing up the Torah scrolls and tossing them into a nearby creek.
The next morning, 8-year-old Alfred and his maternal grandfather, Gustav Gerson, pulled the wet pages of the Torah from the creek bed.
"He said to me, 'Someday, you will put it back together,' " Gottschalk said.
A year later, Alfred and his mother, Erna Gottschalk, boarded a ship bound for America and a new life.
As they came into New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty, his mother opened her pocketbook, took out the 10 deutschmarks they had for the journey, and threw them into the water.
"She looked at me, and said, "I want everyone to know we came to America pfennigslos,' " Gottschalk said. "Penniless. She was a strong woman."
His grandfather was not allowed to go - the elderly were left behind. He died two years later in Oberwesel and was buried in the Jewish cemetery, but the authorities would not allow a Jew to have a tombstone.
On Sept. 3, Gottschalk - with friend Thompson and a large traveling party at his side - hopes to erect that headstone to the man who meant so much to him as a boy and see a memorial in the town square to all his long-gone friends and neighbors.
He wants it to be a journey of reconciliation, not confrontation. He wants it to be an acknowledgement that his Jewish family and friends were just like any other citizens of Oberwesel, except for their religion.
"The Jews of Oberwesel weren't rich people; they were trades people," Gottschalk said. "The Jews who had put together wealth lived in the bigger cities.
"All I would like is for the people of Oberwesel to see that we were just like them."