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Finding my Berlin family

Weekend read! Upon discovering that she has family buried right here in Berlin's Weißensee Cemetery, American Berliner Rebecca Jacobson set off on a genealogical hunt to connect with her Jewish past.

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Photo by Simon Hesse

American Berliner Rebecca Jacobson goes on a genealogical hunt to connect with her Jewish past.

I stand under the leafy canopy of the Weißensee Cemetery, just past the edge of Prenzlauer Berg, staring at a pair of graves. I’m not sure what I should be feeling. At this moment, not very much… I stare harder. “Fischel Stutinsky. Geb. 27.9.1849. Gest. 12.2.1931”; “Sara Stutinsky. Geb. Schilobolski. Geb. 3.3.1855. Gest. 23.3.1935.”

Schilobolski is the name I keep looking at: it’s the link to me. The pretty darn remote link to me.

It’s only a few months ago I learned I have family buried here, in Europe’s second largest Jewish cemetery. Distant family, to be sure: Sara and Fischel were my great-great-great aunt and uncle. But something about learning I had even the slightest tie to Berlin – that I share a tiny shred of genetic material with people who walked these same cobblestones a century ago – stirred me. It also felt phenomenally cliché: American twenty-something arrives in Berlin, discovers faint family connection, embarks on genealogical hunt. Maybe it was the physicality of it – the fact that these names had been carved onto these stones and sunk into this ground – or maybe the hope I would make some exciting discovery. I set off.

Let me back up. My mom was born and raised in Baden-Württemberg, so I’ve no shortage of (Catholic) ancestors buried in Germany. My dad’s family, though, is a tangle of eastern European Jews. Some of those ancestors are the Schilobolskis – like Sara Estera. She was the older sister of my great-great-grandfather, the peerlessly named Julius Judah Joseph Jacobson. Julius was born in East Prussia – what’s now northeastern Poland, close to the Russian and Lithuanian borders – and in 1879, at the age of 18 or 19, he emigrated to America, dropped the Schilobolski surname and became a candy distributor in Chicago. He went on to die in Akron, Ohio.

As I begin my quest, I feel confident that no matter what I uncover about Sara, it will be at least as interesting as dying in Akron. And thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t take long. Suddenly, I’m pinging emails with fourth cousins in Western France and Virginia. I learn Sara and Fischel had 10 children, most of whom moved abroad before World War II. They kept kosher and spoke Yiddish. They didn’t come to Berlin – more than 700km away from their home in East Prussia – until 1920 or so, when they were already in their sixties. Their son Albert ran a garment factory here, employing 350 people and producing men’s silk shirts. At the time, Berlin was the third largest city in the world, buzzing with artistic activity – along with prostitution, crime and drugs. As Orthodox Jews, Sara and Fischel wouldn’t have had much to do with any of those worlds.

In his memoir Du bist ein Jude, grandson Reuven Schanzer recounts how Fischel held him in his lap and sang Yiddish folk songs. He describes Sara as: “a little red-haired woman who wore a shaitl (a wig, worn by Orthodox Jewish married women). She was in her seventies when I knew her, and not talking too much. She always let Grandpa talk. She was a very nice woman. She didn’t make up stories.”

He also writes: “The old grandparents wanted to marry their children to ‘respectable people’. ‘Respectable people’ meant relatives.” Maybe we share more DNA than I thought.

After too many late-night binges on MyHeritage.com, I make my way to the Centrum Judaicum archives at the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße, where I squint at documents on microfiche, trying to make out decades-old squiggles. Daughter Rosa died of meningitis in a Charlottenburg sanatorium in 1920. She was 22. I see Fischel’s death certificate, 1931. And Sara’s, 1935: she left Berlin sometime after Fischel’s death and died in Neuteich, in East Prussia. I see the document authorising the transport of her body back to Berlin. There are scribbled notes about taharah, the ritual purification of the body, and about “Sonderfeld”, the part of the cemetery reserved for Orthodox Jews. I hit the death certificate for son Isidore: 1936, appendicitis. As a Jew, it’s unlikely he would have been able to get the necessary medical care. My eyes lurch over the police stamp: an eagle atop a swastika.

The last document I find is for Bertha, another daughter, dead at age 56 in 1941. Cause of death on the burial registry: “stroke”. The Yad Vashem database, meanwhile, states “suicide”. That distant French cousin of mine confirms it was suicide. He adds that Bertha was remarkably educated for her time (she earned degrees in economy and agronomy from the University of Königsberg) and conjectures that depression, but also awareness of the political situation, precipitated her death. One year later, Bertha’s husband and three daughters were deported from their apartment on Lothringer Straße – today Torstraße – to the extermination camp of Chelmno, in Poland. Their date of death is listed as May 4, 1942.

Only Bertha’s son, Reuven, survived. He had left for Palestine in August 1940, on what was to be the last legal transport out of Germany. His father was convinced women and girls would be fine, but that Jewish boys needed to get out of the country.

I bike to Charlottenburg to visit other addresses from the documents. The house on Sybelstraße – where Fischel and Sara lived, just off Ku’Damm – was at some point razed and replaced by a characterless apartment block. But the Gründerzeit building on Nestorstraße, once home to Isidore, still stands.

And then, finally, I’m at the cemetery. I search for Rosa, Isidore and Bertha without success. As I trip over tree roots and stomp through seas of ivy, this whole quest still feels so silly – somehow self-indulgent. I’m so far removed from these people. My dad was the only one of his four siblings to marry a non-Jew, and while I can recite a handful of prayers, I never went to Hebrew school or had a Bat Mitzvah. My favourite things about being half-Jewish – on the ‘wrong’ side, as I’m sometimes reminded – are eating challah and not knowing all the words to “Hava Nagila” (which doesn’t have very many words to begin with).

But the cemetery is still moving. It’s massive: 42 hectares, much of it overgrown, with about 115,000 graves, dating back to the 1880s. Some are marked with deportation rather than death dates. “Ermordet und verschollen,” (murdered and disappeared) others read. Many headstones have tipped over; some are so weather-beaten they’re illegible.

Yet it’s surprisingly easy to find Sara and Fischel. They’re on the eastern end of the cemetery, far from the entrance. A caretaker calls to me: “Gefunden?”

Ja”, I answer.

And I stand there, looking at the stones, reading the names. And I stop trying to summon any grand emotion.