When we picked our house 3 and a half years ago, one of the first things I did was Google the village to find out more. There wasn’t much to find then, but everything noted one place specifically, the Jewish cemetery. Remembering the Jewish Cemetery in Prague that I visited in high school on a Holocaust educational tour, I was very interested to find a local one. The cemetery in Prague was like nothing I had ever seen. Because of space issues, the cemetery had many layers, and with each layer added, the stones for the previous were lifted. I do not have access to my photos from that trip, as I left them in storage when we crossed the Atlantic, but here is one I pulled from the internet.
Over the years my interest in this local spot has only increased. It seemed, as I asked around, that people knew of it but no details. I would get answers like “it’s in the woods outside of town”, or “it’s easy to find, but the path is overgrown” but nothing that really helped my quest. Also, it seemed that this cemetery was old, and had not been in use for quite some time… as you can guess. The thing is that in Germany, and much of Europe, because land is such a commodity, graves are not permanent but are leased. Often the grave stays in the bloodline, but it is not exclusive to one body. Walk around any cemetery and you will be pressed to find a grave with a death date prior to 1990. I discovered this when I started researching my genealogy in Germany, and confirmed the notion by walking around the cemetery in town. The thought of such old graves, and ones that had miraculously stood strong through the worst part of German history only interested me more.
In our new routine, after putting Brock on the bus to school, Poppy and I take a nice walk. Sometimes around town, sometimes on the trails through the woods, but never the same path twice. We are blessed with an abundance of trails in and around town to make our walks a new discovery each day. One day, about a month ago we walked up the hill towards the top of town as we have done many times, but turned on a path we had not yet taken. I try to keep to the paved or gravel paths so Poppy’s nails are tended to on the coarse surface, but this time we followed what looked like an old wagon path, grown over with grass but still visible. I was ecstatic to find the Jewish cemetery halfway along the trail! On later walks we would take the trail the whole way through the woods, the length of town, but for this first day finding the cemetery was enough for me.
We practically ran home. One, I couldn’t wait to dig in and use my more developed knowledge of the area to research more about it, and two, the stinging nettles had done a number to my legs and Poppy so it was time to clean up. I clearly remember running into the house and telling Fil what we had found. He didn’t quite share my enthusiasm, but he could tell it was quite important to me so he played along and took care of some things so I could start my inquiry in peace.
As it turns out, my research skills paid off and I found a number of German websites with information that I translated to piece together the Jewish history of our town. I, along with a few readers I know about, may appreciate this post more than most, but it is important. All history is important, but when you consider what happened to the Jewish people 80 years ago in Europe, the fact that I was able to find this information is a feat in and of itself.
The first Jewish person to live in Hoppstadten was in 1670, and the community grew to 25% of the town’s population by the 1840’s. Thereafter there was a steady decline due to emigration, as was the case across Germany, my ancestors included emigrated during this time period. By 1930, 80 people belonged to the synagogue community (8.6% of total pop. in town). The community maintained a synagogue, school, ritual bath and cemetery, and clubs and associations: Chewrah Kadischa (aims: support needy, burial), the Association Ezra, the Israelitian Women’s Association, the Association for Jewish History and Literature, the Synagogue Choir Association, the Wanderarmverein and a youth club.
This vibrant community would soon face the unimaginable. I was struck by the translation of one particular sentence that I read as I researched…
“In the following years, the number was further reduced by the increasing deprivation of rights and the economic boycott.”
I would not be so gentle in my explanation of what happened. Pure terror, murder, and genocide would aim to eliminate the entire Jewish community in Europe.
One of the most terror filled nights of the Holocaust was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, 9-10 November, 1938. Hoppstadten was not spared. It was on this night that 4 Jewish men were taken from town to Dachau Concentration Camp. The synagogue, which was now 100 years old, was destroyed from the inside. The inside was set on fire, and only when a police officer protested the possibility of damage to nearby homes, was the fire put out. The empty shell of a building was then used to house French POW’s, and afterwards turned into a residence.
The final 16 Jews of Hoppstadten were deported in July of 1942 and records from that exact month are clear that the Jewish community had been completely wiped out. In all of the sources I found, they recognized that a Jewish community had existed in Hoppstadten from at least 1770 until 1942.
One Jewish woman who had married a non-Jew, was spared. The woman died in 1958 and was the last to be buried in the Jewish cemetery.
Today, this plaque is all that remains of the Jewish community.
Although I cannot read the Hebrew on the headstones, I was able to find out that the cemetery dates to at least 1770. During the Holocaust the cemetery was desecrated, and you can still see smashed tombs today. After the war, restoration of the graves happened, which I found miraculous. As pictured below, many of the stones received newer inscriptions to mark the grave more clearly.
This cemetery is known as the biggest, with 168 graves, in the broader area. While it may not have been so in the past, after the destruction that occurred during the Holocaust, it truly is a miracle that it is still intact today.
In all of our travels we have not been to any concentration camps or Jewish memorials. This is not without great thought. In High School I toured 3 camps and many other sites as part of a Holocaust studies class. That experience will never leave me, and in part shaped my career path. I often feel guilt that I have not revisited and then shared with you all every emotion I felt, but those are emotions that I don’t want to experience with Brock. A time will come when he will learn about it, and I will share my knowledge and experience with him then.
When I think about the Jewish cemetery in my town I am filled with sadness and grief, but also pride. I mourn everything that happened during the Holocaust, but I feel great pride that my town’s ancestors tried to do what they could, albeit too late, to preserve some of the history. Across Germany many of these cemeteries were completely destroyed, with nothing today to prove they existed. This preservation makes me proud. Proud that it was saved, but also a little zinger of pride that today you will not see Nazi graves, but you can still see these Jewish graves standing tall.