Synagogue Vöhl

From the time I first stumbled across Synagogue Vöhl website back in 2005, I have been completely enthralled by the history of this building. Long before I had a confirmed connection to this place, I would spend hours pouring over the website, feeling the building pulling me, calling me. It kept me going through the next twelve years of research until I finally found that connection. As always, unless otherwise noted, the information about the Synagogue comes from the Synagogue Vöhl website.

The first record of Jews in Vöhl dates to 1682 and states: “60 pounds of iron for building work on the Marienhagen church were bought from the Jew of Voehle, from which nails for walls and beams were made.” The next mention of Jews in Vöhl is a housing list from 1705 which identifies 8 Jews as home and property owners. Of those 8, one was named Seligman Rothschild, and one was named Ascher Rothschild. The Rothschilds were in Vöhl from almost the beginning. And they were among the last to leave.

The building looks like a typical German timber-framed farmhouse, with exposed posts and beams that support walls and roof and tie everything together into a cohesive unit. There is nothing about this building to make it stand out from the rest. The only thing “Jewish” about it is the Star of David rose window on one end, not really visible from the street. If you were just strolling through town and stumbled across it, you could learn about it’s beginnings by reading he inscription carved into the beam over the door: “In the year 1827 on 17th of July this Sinego was happily completed with the help and strength of the Master Carpenters Hillemann from Kirchlotheim and Heinrich Lai together with apprentices. God bless this building and all, that go in and out.” I’ve always assumed the word “Sinego” meant synagogue. Except this was built to be a school. And the word “sinego” isn’t a Germany word. In fact, I haven’t found anyone who knows what it means. Makes me wonder if the intent all along was for this to be a synagogue, that they had to wait until their was an available Rabbi to make that transition, and the person carving the inscription made the equivalent of a typo. We’ll probably never know.

Upon entering, you’ll find yourself in a nice-sized foyer. About a dozen steps ahead are narrow stairs that lead up to the women’s balcony, with another small space above that.On the right is a door into the sanctuary, and on the left is a door into another room that probably served as living quarters. If you continue through that room, there’s another room in the back that is now a kitchen. In 1827, this was the schoolhouse for the children of the Vöhler Jewish Community, which comprised Vöhl, Basdorf, and Marienhagen. The school teacher and his family lived here. The number of Jewish students peaked in 1843 at 45, then began slowly tapering off until the mid – late 1800s. In 1864 there were 24 Jewish schoolchildren. By 1909, there were 8. Families were leaving to go make their fortune in other towns, other countries, with many of them setting sail for The New World.

The financing for it’s construction was obtained primarily from Ascher Rothschild, local merchant, money lender, and my 3rd great-grandfather. As I understand it, he would front the money, then the other members of the Jewish Community would make monthly payments to compensate him, presumably until the debt was settled. At least one member of the Jewish community, an unnamed man referred to only as “The Basdorfer”, agreed to this initially, then tried to renege once the building was completed. I’m assuming it got sorted out eventually, as there was only the one mention of it.

For me, the most striking feature of the sanctuary is the cupola ceiling. My photo does come near to doing it justice. I recommend looking at this photo, taken before the renovation. So many angles soaring up and up until they must reach the ridgeline of the roof. It is painted a pale, robin’s egg blue, and dotted with over 300 gold stars, and a gold sun in the center. It is stunning! And yet there is has this amazing tranquility about it. As if you’re gazing up at the heavens. The Sanctuary of the Vöhler Synagogue is truly one of my favorite places in the world to be.

The building was dedicated as a synagogue on Friday the 18th of August 1829. What a joyous event that must have been! If I close my eyes, I can almost see the celebration that followed, probably in the back garden, with music, dancing, food, laughter, more than a few tears, I imagine, adults talking in groups, children running about. The Jews of Vöhl, Basdorf, and Marienhagen had a place of their own to worship. I imagine the High Holy Days of 1829 were extra joyful.

For the next 109 years, the Jewish Community worshipped here. The school — and the school teacher — were moved to Ascher Rothschild’s house. At some point, the left-hand portion of the building was rented to Hermann Mildenberg, a shoemaker. His sign now hangs in the foyer.

In August of 1938, acting on behalf of the Jewish Community Board, Alfred Ascher Rothschild (my 1st cousin 3x removed), sold the building to a newly arrived Gentile family. The Torah Scrolls were removed, as was the Star of David rose window. From the outside, it was just another German farmhouse. A few short weeks later, on the night of November 9/10, all across Germany, was the Pogrom known as Krystalnacht. The Night of Broken Glass. Homes, places of business, and synagogues were looted, vandalized, destroyed. But the erstwhile synagogue of Vöhl remained untouched.

Some of our relatives saw the writing on the wall, and made their way to places like Palestine and Argentina. The rest stayed. Little by little, one here, two there, they were arrested, deported. And on 5 September 1942, the last three Jews of Vöhl were taken from their homes by the Mayor and another Nazi, and sent to the train station in nearby Itter. All three were women, elderly, harmless. Their only crime was being Jewish. They were Rickchen Katzenstein, Johanna Frankenthal, and my cousin, Selma Rothschild. The next day they were deported. Selma was sent to Treblinka, where she was murdered.

For the next 60 years, the building at Mittlegasse 9 in Vöhl was sold from one gentile to another. Then, in 1999, it went up for sale again, for 40,000 DM. And a couple of men, Kurt-Willi Julius and Karl-Heinz Stadtler, along with a few others, came up with this crazy idea: what if they could get the city to buy it, restore it, and turn it into some sort of a museum, or a place of remembrance, someplace that would instill the mindset of “Never Forget” into future generations. They presented their idea to the City Council, and it went for a vote. The people of Vöhl said no. But the Mayor had an idea of his own. If there were a club, he said, that wanted to take on this project, there were funds available to help with the purchase. 40,000DM, to be exact, meaning the club would need to come up with the other 5,000DM to make the purchase. And so the Föderkreis Synegoge Vöhl was formed, the building purchased. They had their first official meeting on a cold winter’s day in November of that year. In the sanctuary, under the sun and the stars of that pale blue cupola.

Since that time, they have held nearly 200 concerts, had countless art exhibits. They recruit high school students to volunteer to give tours during the summers. From these ventures, they managed to raise the money necessary to fully restore this precious piece of history! On that first, cold meeting, one of the first decisions was to install radiant heat in the place. Not just beneath the stone floors, but in the walls as well. Electrical was replaced, repaired. Plumbing installed. Each stone of the floor carefully removed so the foundation could be repaired. The walls were stripped back to bare timbers in many places. Wherever possible, anything original was salvaged, preserved. Including that magnificent ceiling. Surprisingly few of the boards had to be replaced, and a few stars had to be repainted. The new ones are black. It truly was a gargantuan undertaking, and you can see some of the pictures on their website, broken down by year, taking 5 years to complete. I’m sure there were times they wondered what they’d gotten themselves into! I don’t fully understand what drove them to undertake such a crazy, immense project, but I am beyond grateful that they did.

In the attic, along with finding the sign for Hermann Mildenberg’s shoemaking business, they found a section of woven screen that would have surrounded the women’s balcony. When the renovations were complete, one small section of the sanctuary, from floor to ceiling, was left as it had been, complete with that piece of woven screen, in memory of what was.

In 2017, I found my connection to Vöhl, and my emails to and from Karl-Heinz became more frequent. While in my heart I dreamed of going for a visit, I contented myself with knowing I’d made that connection. In March of 2019, I received a surprising email from Karl-Heinz. The Förderkreis was going to be celebrating it’s 20th anniversary jubilee in May, and I was invited. All I needed to do was get there, and the Förderkreis would take care of the rest. Ah, if only. Airfare was outrageous, and money that could be spent on a trip had already been earmarked for other things. In April, some miracles happened, all within minutes of each other. Airfare dropped to half what it had been. A friend of mine texted me out of the blue to ask if airfare had dropped at all. When I told her it had, she paid for my plane ticket, told me to pay her back after my trip. I just sat there and cried. I’m crying now just thinking about it. So I emailed Karl-Heinz with my flight information. He graciously extended the invitation to include my cousin/friend/research partner Camille.

On May 15, 2019, I arrived. As Karl-Heinz was driving me to Gasthaus Sauer, with his impish grin he asked if I would like to see the synagogue. Of course I said yes! Tired and grungy and jetlagged, almost but not quite understanding the language, I gently laid my hand on the door post, pausing just a moment before following him inside. I didn’t cry then, but I could hear the whisperings of my ancestors, and I felt at home.

Two days later, Friday the 17th of May, was the official start of the 3-day celebration. There was to be a shabbat service, then “Kaffe und Kuchen”, followed by the officially opening ceremonies. There are no Jews in Vöhl, so the Rabbi and the congregation from Marburg — about an hour away — made the journey. A few announcements were made before Shabbat service, and Camille and I were floored to learn this was the first Shabbat service to be held here in 80 years! My heart was overflowing. A Rothschild had built the synagogue. A Rothschild had sold it, and preserved it. A Rothschild was the last to leave Vöhl. And on this historic occasion, the Rothschild family had returned. What made the occasion even more special was when the other American guests — Daniel and Geoffrey Baird, were asked to say Kiddush. Their ancestors, the Frankenthal family, were our ancestors’ neighbors. It seemed perfect and right that we were all there. In a box of old papers, I recently found my first email to the Förderkreis, and my first reply from Karl-Heinz. Ironically, it was dated 17 May, 2005. Fourteen years to the day later, I celebrated Shabbat in my home synagogue.

After refreshments, and then all the speeches, Camille and I had a chance to speak. The first thing I did was present a painting to Karl-Heinz for the Förderkreis as a gift from my family. It was painted by my mother in the same year the Förderkreis was founded: 1999. Next I presented them with a big 3-ring binder. It contained biographical sketches of the first three known generations of the Rothschild family, with some supporting documentation. I read, in German, a two page letter telling them about my family’s journey to get back to this place. I thanked them for the incredible work they have done and continued to do. And I told them the notebook was the beginning of what would eventually become a book. Once finished, I promised to give them a copy. Until that moment, I did not fully comprehend all they had done. And I don’t think they had comprehended the far reaching effects of their hard work. When I sat down, the Rabbi — ancient of days with his shock of white hair — looked over at me, smiled, nodded, and gave me a thumbs up.

I went to Vöhl to see where my family was from. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined I what I would find there. Thanks to a concert on Saturday, I found my favorite music: Kletzmer! I never thought a Mormon girl like me would find her home synagogue, but I did. And after a lifetime of living many different places, I found the one town that makes my heart sing, “I’m home.” Only 5600 miles away from where I live.

Because of the vision and dedication of a small group, the Synagogue Vöhl is alive and well, educating, teaching, and touching the lives of everyone who goes there.

Published by Elizabeth Foote

I am a wife, step-mother, auntie, daughter, sister, friend. I love family history, restoration projects, counted cross-stitch, quilting, and photography. I am grateful for the blessings that abound in my life.

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