In the extensive archive of my family’s papers, I found the University of Heidelberg law degree bestowed on my great-great-grandmother’s brother, Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim. This was in 1839 and he was just 19. Although he taught law for a time, Heinrich was denied a position as a professor of law because he was Jewish. Later, however, his legal training enabled him to become a well-known journalist and commentator for liberal and left radical causes for nearly 40 years.
As a young man, Heinrich was a member of the intellectual and literary circle around Countess Bettina von Arnim in Berlin. Although he was short and had an odd voice and accent, he was known as a great conversationalist and a man of “uncommon wit” (Carl Schurz). His boyish appearance and sparkling talk made him a favorite with women. In the von Arnim salon he befriended some of the leading European thinkers and progressive political figures of the day. For a time he shared rooms with theologian Abraham Geiger, one of the prime founders of Reform Judaism, and he was good friends with the young Karl Marx.
In March 1848, Heinrich participated in the political uprising in Berlin in a failed attempt to wrest a more democratic form of government from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. He addressed several of the mass demonstrations in the Tiergarten park in the Prussian capitol. Later in 1848, Heinrich fled to the southern Duchy of Baden where he continued his revolutionary activities with a left extremist wing led by Gustav Struve in Karlsruhe and Lörrach.
In July 1849, the Baden revolution collapsed and Heinrich was driven into an 11-year exile in Switzerland, France, Belgium and England. He was unable to return to Germany until 1861. During his political exile, he continued to publish pro-democracy commentary, much of it in French.
When he was finally able to return to Germany, Heinrich continued his liberal political writing. In 1879-80 he earned recognition for his articulate opposition to a sudden onslaught of antisemitism led by the prominent historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Oppenheim’s articles targeted the attacks as a political strategy of conservatives to discredit governmental reforms being pressed by liberal activists, many of whom were Jews.
On March 29, 1880, a few weeks after publishing his rebuke to the Berlin antisemites, Heinrich died of a chronic lung ailment . His funeral was attended by many representatives of the Berlin news corps as well as liberal political activists from all over Germany. Shortly thereafter, his colleagues published a long pamphlet collecting numerous speeches about him and the obituaries published in the many newspapers in Germany. The pamphlet contains the only known portrait of Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim.
The funeral for Heinrich took place in his home in Berlin and a long procession accompanied his casket to the Schönhauser Allee cemetery. In December of that year, the family arranged for the erection of a grave monument of pink granite. My family’s papers includes the original text of the gravestone inscription, written by the liberal political leader Ludwig Bamberger.
“In memory of Heinrich Bernhard Oppenheim, born Frankfurt a/M 20 July 1819, died Berlin 29 March 1880.
True and good of heart, strong and bright in spirit, always a ready fighter, always a helping friend, expert in learning and life, compassionate to the least of men, faithful to the greatest of men, willingly accepting and even more willingly giving all that a man can give, thus he worked for his country, thus he lived for others to his last breath, thus unforgettable, irreplaceable, he lives in the memory of his family and his friends.”
More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com
Julius Streicher was hanged on October 16, 1946 following his conviction by the international war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg. Streicher’s headquarters were in Nuremberg, where Hitler held rallies to whip up fervor for his dictatorship. Streicher’s particular charge was was to stoke Germans’ hatred of Jews. To this end, Streicher published a weekly magazine, Der Stürmer, a pornographically vicious hate sheet directed at Jews. He was also famous as a speaker given to lengthy antisemitic harangues.
Perversely, while overseeing propaganda against Jews Streicher acquired a large and valuable library of Judaica. From the earliest years of Nazi rule party officials routinely stole property from Jews and others out of favor with the regime. Streicher pursued manuscripts and books relating to Jewish religion, history and culture. By the time the Nazis fell in 1945, Streicher had accumulated more than 30,000 volumes. At the end of the war, the Allies seized Streicher’s library and turned about 10,000 of the books over to the remnants of the Jewish community of Nuremberg, called the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, or IKG. Decades later, lacking the facilities to care properly for their collection, the IKG negotiated a loan arrangement to have the Nuremberg City Library house it. The IKG remains the legal owner and has a designated librarian to oversee the collection on its behalf. The IKG considers itself the trustee for the original owners and has lovingly cared for and preserved the books. Over the years some of the books were claimed by the descendants of the original owners, most of whom had been killed or forced to flee. Beginning in the 1990s, more aggressive efforts were made to find identifying marks in the books that might give some clue as to the original owners. With the advent of the Internet, the IKG posted the first of a number of search lists online with identifying information about the books and their possible previous owners.
Readers of this blog know that I have been researching my family’s history for the last several years. In the course of this work last fall I was trying to track the sister of my great-great grandmother. The sister was born Bernhardine Oppenheim and married a Berlin jeweler named Heinrich Friedeberg. I had no reason to think that Heinrich and Bernhardine had done anything that would cause them to be in some historic record, but I nevertheless Googled their names. The result was astonishing. The first hit was the lost books list of the IKG in Nuremberg. It seems that two volumes of the Collected Writings of Abraham Geiger were stolen by the Nazis from a descendant of Heinrich and Bernhardine Friedeberg. Geiger was one of the founders of Reform Judaism and a close friend of Bernhardine’s brother. The stolen books ended up in Julius Streicher’s hoard of Judaica and after his execution went to the IKG.
I wrote to the IKG and asked for a further description of the books and their history, and received a gracious email in return from Leibl Rosenberg, the erudite curator of the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg sent scans of the Friedebergs’ bookplate and Bernhardine’s signature taken from one of the volumes of Geiger’s work in the IKG collection. Herr Rosenberg’s email concluded with the unanticipated observation that I might well be the closest living relative of the Friedebergs. He invited me to confirm that fact and to start the restitution process to have the books returned — to me.
It did not take me long to respond to Herr Rosenberg. I expressed my gratitude and sent him a copy of a genealogy chart handwritten by my grandfather in 1928 showing our family’s relationship to the Friedebergs along with other documents from my family’s archive. In response, Herr Rosenberg sent me an agreement acknowledging my receipt of the books. I signed it and returned it to him and a few weeks later received the package pictured at the top of this page. I am now the custodian of these books and of their poignant history. I am entrusted with caring for them and preserving them as the Jewish Community of Nuremberg and the Nuremberg City Library have done for all these years.
Of all the adventures I have had in researching and writing about the Hoeber Family, this is perhaps the most moving and unexpected.