Saying Kaddish: Cummington singer Laura Wetzler performs at a German synagogue where her great-grandfather served as cantor before the Holocaust
After discovering a German organization online that has documented
Jewish life in southern Germany, singer-songwriter Laura Wetzler of
Cummington was invited to sing at the former Kronach synagogue,
where her great-grandfather was cantor from 1883 to 1921.
A woman stands behind a Jewish candlestick in the special exhibition 'Aryanization' in the memorial 'The Engineers of the 'Final Solution' Topf & Sons - Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens' in Erfurt, central Germany, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. 'Aryanization' this was the term used by the Nazis to describe the systematic cultural and economic repression and deprivation of that portion of the population labeled 'Jews', who were persecuted under Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945. The exhibition starts on Nov. 9, 2011 and lasts until Jan. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
Behind Wetzler is the ark that used to hold the synagogue’s Torah. It was bricked up by the Nazi’s when the synagogue was desecrated. Below, right the building’s front.
Laura Wetzler performs in the German synagogue where her great-grandfather once served as cantor. Behind her is the ark that used to hold the synagogue’s Torah. It was bricked up by the Nazi’s when the synagogue was desecrated.
After 1938, the Kronach synagogue was desecrated. It was used as a garage and warehouse, and later by the Red Cross.
Singer Laura Wetzler’s music echoes back through generations.
Many of the songs she sings in a sweet soprano accompanied by her guitar are in Yiddish, Hebrew or the Sephadic language Ladino, passed on by her mother, who had her own radio show of Jewish music on Long Island, where the Cummington singer grew up.
In fact, Wetzler, who also writes many of her own songs and sings the music of Broadway and other genres, says it was while still in the womb that she began hearing Jewish melodies from her mother, who also worked as a synagogue choral director and organist.
It’s not surprising, then, that the singer, who taught herself to play a $14 guitar and began singing professionally at age 15, has always identified her love of Jewish music with her mother, a converted Italian-American Catholic. It was as much a part of her heritage as the progressive politics she drew from her father, who’d immigrated with his father from Germany and years later took her to Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests.
Her father had also left her something else, however: a two-page account, written in 1944 for the Wetzler family circle, that detailed the family history, including some members who died in the Holocaust. Among the highlights: Her paternal great-grandfather, Moses Wetzler, held several ritual Jewish positions, including cantor, in Kronach, in Germany’s Bavarian region.
“I’d always had this, and I never gave it much thought,” says Wetzler, who recently returned from a three-week visit to the German village, where she was invited to sing in the same spot her great-grandfather had before the Holocaust.
A beloved ancestor
A year ago, Wetzler had typed in her great-grandfather’s name while surfing the Internet, knowing that he’d been a cantor, but was amazed when details of his life turned up on a German website, Alemannia-Judaica, documenting the history of Jewish communities in southern Germany. The site, run by a group of volunteers, included 19th- and early 20th-century news articles and advertisements about her ancestor. From 1883 to 1921, he was the lone Jewish leader in the small town, where he lived with his wife, Jeanette Heidelberger Wetzler, and their 12 children.
In addition to teaching religion in the high school, where in December 1910 he was promoted to principal, he was the Jewish community’s cantor, leading services, teaching Torah, performing ritual circumcisions and supervising kosher laws, all under direction of the district rabbi in distant Burgkunstadt.
And, as the articles would attest, his voice filled the small synagogue and served his congregation of about 100 people in the hilltown village for 38 years. The articles, originally published in the German Jewish newspaper The Israelite, paint a picture of Jewish life in Kronach in the 1880s. They note the availability of student lodging in the Wetzler home and document a celebration of cantor Moses’ 25th year at the synagogue, during which he was serenaded by the local Cecilia Choir. In 1923, after his retirement to Frankfurt, an obituary detailed his years of service.
“I was astounded,” says Wetzler, who discovered in the treasure trove of digital clippings how beloved was her great-grandfather, the only spiritual leader this Jewish community ever had.
Also amazing was how the 1883 Kronach synagogue — unlike the village’s Jewish population, maybe 100 at its peak — not only survived the war, but was restored over a 10-year period by a community of volunteers as a tribute.
The synagogue, she discovered through a website link, had been completely desecrated and used as a garage and warehouse after 1938, and then used by the Red Cross during the war.
It wasn’t entirely uncommon for the Germans, rather than destroy synagogues outright, to instead defile the buildings in how they reused them, she said. What was fascinating, though, was that when the next generation considered in the 1990s how to get rid of a building that was by then in deplorable condition, a young woman convinced volunteers in the town that it would not be right to destroy the building and erase the memory of the community’s lost Jews. Among the main volunteers were banker Willi Zaich, his wife, Gisela, and their daughter, Katja. Together they formed the group Aktionskreis Synagoge Kronach, which donated time and money to restore the synagogue as an education center and memorial.
“Most of the synagogues in Germany were destroyed in Kristallnacht,” says Wetzler, who found a photograph online, with a link to the volunteer organization.
Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night, also called the Night of Broken Glass, refers to coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria in November 1938.
“To even find a synagogue extant in Germany is a miracle. I was so thrilled the place is still there, that it hadn’t been destroyed during Kristallnacht, and that these people, who aren’t Jewish, did all this work.”
Wetzler wrote a note to Alemannia-Judaica, thanking them for preserving and making available the articles about Jewish history, without which she never would have been able to trace her great-grandfather’s story. And then she wrote to the Action Circle Kronach group in appreciation for its work, and was referred to Dr. Katja Zaich, the Zaichs’ daughter, who went on to work with the organization and writes about the restoration process.
As a result, Zaich, now living in Amsterdam, invited Wetzler, who already had concerts scheduled in Amsterdam, to perform in Kronach on June 16.
“I went,” Wetzler said, “for several reasons: to honor my grandparents and say (the Jewish remembrance prayer) kaddish for my family. I went to memorialize the Holocaust and the members of the community killed in the Holocaust, to make sure they are not forgotten. And also I went to acknowledge the work of this particular generation of people, from Allemannia-Judaica, and Action Circle Kronach, for the work they are doing to preserve the history of the Jewish people in Germany,” where her family, she believes, had lived for at least 500 years.
After visiting Katja Zaich in the Dutch capital, Wetzler’s German itinerary included family research beginning in Frankfurt, where she traveled to see the house where her grandparents had raised her father, and then in 1934 and 1935 escaped to resettle in the United States. She visited the birthplace of her great-grandfather in Welhausen and the graves of his parents in the Ermetzhofen cemetery in Uffenheim, traveled to Altenkunstadt to see the site of her great-grandmother’s birth, as well as the burial site of her parents in the Burkundstat cemetery, and Schwabach, where she stumbled upon the college that Moses Wetzler graduated from in 1871.
“It was beyond the beyond,” Wetzler said recently, after her return. “I was able to do research in nine different towns, to see the synagogue buildings, and most importantly, visit Kronach and Altenkunstadt.”
A narrow bridge
The centerpiece of the visit was Wetzler’s performance at the synagogue where her great-grandfather sang.
When she entered the building, she saw where the Nazis had bricked in the ark that used to contain the synagogue’s Torah. Restorers left the bricked-in portion to show a remnant of the desecration. A nearby photo showing how the synagogue originally looked showed Hebrew text that was magical because Wetzler quotes from that line of Jacob’s in one of her songs on her 2002 “Kabbalah Music” album: “Surely God was in this place, I did not know it.”
“When I came there and saw this is what had decorated my great-grandfather’s synagogue, and when I wrote that melody to ‘Jacob Wakes Up,’ I never could have imagined (being) in this same synagogue, where that quote was painted on the wall.”
In the rear of the auditorium, Wetzler pointed out to the audience, was the balcony where she would have been required, in her great-grandfather’s day, to sit, along with other women
The Synagoge Kronacher Center, since its rededication last October has held klezmer concerts, as well as lectures and exhibits. “The significance of having a descendant of this place come back was important and meaningful for all of us,” said the Cummington singer. “I had to think long and hard, what am I going to say to this audience?”
Wetzler sang traditional Jewish music in Yiddish, in Hebrew and Ladino, contrasting the traditional religious song “Eyn Keloheynu” with a version from Tunisia.
She sang Gershwin and she sang original songs from her 2011 album “Flying,” including the haunting account of the imprisonment of her mother-in-law, Ursula, in a Nazi jail together with her sister, Helga. The two had been teenage resistance workers. Only her mother-in-law survived. She now lives in Northampton.
“Helga served her three years, but they never let her go / They murdered her in Ravensbruck, ashes beneath the snow.”
Explaining that she was singing several songs from the Holocaust era because she felt the importance of, above all else, being honest with one another, Wetzler sang a song from the Vilna ghetto, “Tsvey Taibelech,” that tells of two doves that come and kiss in the air, “a curse on that man who came between them.”
And then she sang her song “Narrow Bridge,” based on the teaching of Reb Nachman of Breslav:
“A narrow bridge, but every step across might lead you home.”
“I managed to keep it together, but it was really hard emotionally, to make sure I didn’t just start crying in mid-concert. There were a couple of spots where I got choked up,” “It was a really hard concert to do,” Wetzler said.
Wetzler, who figures she’s done “hundreds and hundreds of concerts” over the last 40 years, paused and said, “I’ll NEVER forget this concert.”
The singer has already been invited to return next year to perform in Kronach and said that she felt a momentous sharing in this concert, even though she and her family was the only Jewish people present.
“It was very emotional, not only for me but for many people,” said Zaich, who had attended with her mother, Gisela. “Someone said, ‘During this concert, I realized what we lost in the Holocaust, people we lost, culture we lost. Many people in Kronach got interested in Laura’s family story — really amazing. (I was not sure this would happen.) Even the local newspapers dedicated several articles to this fact.”
“For me,” added Zaich in an email, “it was also very emotional when Laura visited the Kronach Cemetery. She said Kaddish at the memorial for the last Jewish families deported in 1942 to Izbica (a transfer camp in Poland, built for deportation of the Jews to the Belzec and Sobibor extermination camps.) And she honored my father’s grave (he died in 2010) nearby the memorial.”
Apart from the concert, Wetzler said, the trip was like a treasure hunt in which one after another, the treasures of the past began to miraculously open up — just as the tiny window of opportunity opened briefly for her great-grandfather to attend college and teach school in Kronach before it began slamming shut in the 1920s.
Just as with the fragment of Joseph’s dream quotation seen on a large photo of the old synagogue wall, there were repeated unimaginable moments, like the photograph she stumbled on in a book she was researching about Jewish cemeteries in Germany: the headstone shown in Altenkunstadt, she realized, was that of her great-great-grandfather, Solomon Heidelberger, from 1862.
“I had all this bashert (destiny) stuff keep happening,” she said.
At the Kronach concert, a man named Karl who’d read about the performance stepped up to Wetzler announcing that his house was one of those in which her great grandparents had lived with their 12 children. What’s more, his great-aunt, who had raised him, had told him about “Rebbine Wetzler and the 12 little beds that were in the home they rented.”
The day after the concert, showing Wetzler the original key he still had to the 1840 house, Karl took her there, into the apartment where her great-grandfather and grandfather would have slept.
“It was so important for him,” Wetzler recounted. “His great-aunt talked about Rebbine Wetzler all the time and how she loved them, and how upset she was when they moved away. He said he hadn’t spoken about this to any other human being for 40 or 50 years. He said, ‘I’ve held onto this story for 50 years and now I share it with you.”
Wetzler, who also travels each year to Uganda to volunteer for the Abayudaya Jewish community of Abayudaya there, says, “A lot of my Jewish music concerts help teach the story of how we were in all these different places, and I’ve always loved and been amazed by the resiliency of Jewish culture as expressed through the music.”
Her trip has deepened that love.
“I come home with an even greater appreciation for what it means that my father was able to work in the resistance, to be lucky enough to make it here,” Wetzler says. “I just feel tremendously privileged that I even have a tombstone to say kaddish at.”
Wetzler says her father, by taking her to Civil Rights demonstrations and antiwar rallies, “passed along the politics of always being vigilant in your culture and told me stories of how my grandparents could not believe Germany would betray them. His message was, ‘You’re privileged to live in a democracy, and you’d better keep vigilant to maintain that democracy,’ because he saw what could happen.”
Richie Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Wetzler will present a concert Sunday at 4 p.m. at North Hall in Huntington. For more information, visit www.laurawetzler.com.