A Decade of Discoveries
The Synagogue of Reichenbach / Dzierżoniów in Lower Silesia [read footnote 1]
1875 – 2009
W. John Koch
Located at the foot of the Eulengebirge / Góry Sowie, Reichenbach / Dzierżoniów [read footnote 2] was one of the more important small cities of Silesia. It was relatively prosperous and, until the beginning of the Hitler regime, included a Jewish community counting over one hundred members. With the adjacent villages of Langenbielau / Bielawa and Peterswaldau / Pieszyce, Reichenbach constituted the thriving centre of Silesia’s weaving and textile industry. It was in Peterswaldau where the revolt of the Silesian weavers broke out in June 1844, to be remembered in the dramatic play The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann.
22 miles west of Reichenbach is the city of Waldenburg / Wałbrzych, the centre of the Lower Silesian coal mining basin where I was born in 1925. In 1936, our family moved to the Silesian capital of Breslau / Wrocław. In 1943, I was drafted into the German army and, after being wounded at the Russian front, I became a prisoner of war of the US Army and later the French armed forces. I escaped from prison camp in 1946 and began my studies at the University of Würzburg in 1947. In 1954, I emigrated to Canada and settled in Edmonton which is still my home town. One year after my arrival in Canada, I read in the Edmonton Journal about the closure of the coal mining town of Nordegg on the Eastern slopes of the Alberta Rocky Mountains. According to the Journal, both mine and town had been built by a German entrepreneur Martin Cohn — a year earlier, Martin Cohn had changed his name to Martin Nordegg and the town he built was given his name.
Forty years later, I visited the small museum that had just been opened in the old school house of Nordegg. Standing at the door of the room of displays, I discovered the life-sized photograph of a man on horseback. As the picture’s caption indicated, this was “Martin Nordegg born Martin Cohn in 1868 in Silesia.” At this moment, my “Decade of Discoveries” had its beginning. I immediately suspected that Martin Nordegg came from Waldenburg, the coal mining town of my birth. A few years later, I published the biography of Martin Nordegg. [read footnote 3] Ultimately, the research for this book led me to the synagogue of Reichenbach / Dzierżoniów after I had discovered that Martin Nordegg was the son of Moritz Cohn, its first rabbi!
After a successful career in chemical engineering, Martin Nordegg left Germany in 1906 for Canada on behalf of a syndicate of Berlin bankers. He discovered coal deposits on the Eastern slopes of the Alberta Rocky Mountains and developed several enterprises, some jointly with the Canadian Northern Railway. Some years after World War I, he moved to the United States where after 1933, he and his second wife were actively assisted and, in several cases, rescued Jewish refugees. Until W.W.II, the Nordeggs travelled extensively through the entire world including the young Soviet Union. Martin returned to Europe many times, but only once for a short visit to Reichenbach.
During my research for the Martin Nordegg biography, I discovered important remnants of the records of the Reichenbach synagogue in the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to the records saved shortly after W.W.II , in 1859 Martin’s father Moritz Cohn had been called from his prior posting in Rawitsch / Rawicz in the then Prussian Province of Posen to Reichenbach where in 1821 a Jewish congregation had been re-established. Moritz Cohn’s first task was the reconciliation of the orthodox and the reformed members of the congregation that had been split for more than a decade. His success is reflected in the synagogue rules of 1863 that were inspired by Moritz Cohn. Under his leadership, the Jewish community built a new synagogue which Moritz Cohn consecrated on the eve of Shawet 1875. This is the dignified building that still stands today, still showing the traces of years of neglect. After 31 years of service, Moritz Cohn retired to Berlin to be closer to his son Martin. Moritz Cohn died in 1890 in Berlin.
Martin Nordegg had no descendents. Marcelle, his only daughter of his first, rather unhappy marrriage died a terrible death in a mental hospital in Bonn in Germany at the end of January 1945, after being the pawn of the Hitler government; Marcelle’s maintenance as a patient, paid by her father, had been a useful source of foreign currency for the Third Reich. Martin Nordegg died in 1948 in New York. No reference to his Jewish origin can be found in Martin Nordegg’s memoirs and the surviving papers of his estate. Indeed, the numerous relatives of his second wife Sonia née Meisel were all unaware that Martin had been Jewish.
Shortly after I had completed my Martin Nordegg biography, fate directed me to Martin’s birthplace. In the internet, I discovered a photo of a manor house in a village near Reichenbach that reminded me very much of the house where my grandmother had been born in 1858. Soon, it turned out that the birthplace of my grandmother was only 100 meters from the old manor house. But this picture brought me together with Volker Tobias, a young German man, whose family had come from Langenbielau / Bielawa next to Reichenbach. Volker lived near Berlin, but travelled often to the now Polish Silesia. He read the final draft of my book and advised me that the Reichenbach synagogue was still standing! This unexpected discovery directed my future interests and travels to Dzierżoniów, the city I had never seen during my childhood but, because of its historic synagogue that had survived the Hitler years and World War II, would now become the destination of my and my wife Maria’s travels.
In the year 1999, we travelled to Dzierżoniów in the company of Volker Tobias, our German friend who had told us about the survival of the synagogue. We were deeply touched, as we stood in front of the synagogue. I had not known that this building had survived and I wondered how this had been possible. I decided to find the answer. After all, as I later learned, the synagogue was one of only three in Silesia that had not been burned and destroyed by the Nazis during the Kristallnacht, the other two being the old Stork Synagogue in Breslau and the former synagogue – now a storage building – in the city of Münsterberg / Ziębice.
The first discovery of the day had been the Jewish cemetery. It was locked, but as we could determine by looking through its iron gate, it seemed undisturbed.
We went back to the synagogue and made the second discovery of the day, a tablet on the outside wall, giving us one important key to the secret of the survival of this house of worship. The tablet was in Polish but included the German name Konrad Springer:
“This historic synagogue was erected in the year 1875 and served the Jewish congregation until 1937. The building was sold by the Nazi administration of the city to the gardener Konrad Springer who handed the keys of the synagogue without any further claims to the Association of Polish Jews in Rychbach. [read footnote 4] The Mosaic Faith used the synagogue as a house of worship until the 1980s. After that, the synagogue stood empty and unused and was left to decay over the years. To prevent further decline, the Jewish congregation and the Association of the Friends of Dzierżoniów resolved to create a museum of Dzierżoniów in the building of the synagogue.” [read footnote 5]
During our next visit, we found access to the Jewish cemetery through Mr. Mojżesz Jakubowicz, the last remaining Jew of the once so large Jewish postwar congregation — a few more remaining Jews lived in the surrounding villages. Mr. Jakubowicz, a former officer of the Polish army had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Army in 1939 and sent to Siberia. After the war, he had come with his wife to Dzierżoniów and had remained there when all the other Jews had left for Israel, the United States, or Argentina. For the Jewish visitors that came to Dzierżoniów, the place where they were born or where their father or mother had lived, Mr. Jakubowicz was the guide to the past. As he had assisted so many visitors from overseas, he also helped us, taking us to the cemetery and to the grave of Martin Nordegg’s mother Auguste Cohn neé Teplitz who had been buried there on October 17, 1890.
Mr. Jakubowicz had been a friend of Konrad Springer, the former employee of the Jewish community who worked as the gravedigger and gardener and informal guardian of the cemetery and had lived with his family on cemetery property until after WWII. How Mr. Springer became the owner of the synagogue and of the cemetery is in all its details still not quite understood. The first thought that came to my mind was “how can a gardener with a large family and a limited income afford to acquire the properties of the synagogue and of the cemetery?”
After speaking to Reiner Springer, Konrad Springer’s grandson in Berlin, to other Springer relatives, and to many former Reichenbachers, especially the group that, like the Springer family, had remained in the city as employees of the Red Army until about 1956, I came to the following conclusions:
Some time in 1937, Konrad Springer came to a confidential agreement with the still relatively prosperous Jewish community, by which the members would furnish Konrad Springer with sufficient funds to acquire the properties. Most likely, there was tacit approval of this plan on the part of the German Bürgermeister Kurt Dzierzon and some members of the city council. What was arranged was a public auction of the two Jewish properties. The remarkable assumption has to be made that nobody tried to or was “allowed” to take advantage of the auction and get a hold of two pieces of valuable property. At any rate, Konrad Springer bid at the auction and acquired both properties.
When the Kristallnacht came, the synagogue and Jewish cemetery were no longer in Jewish hands and thus escaped fire and destruction, the fate of nearly all other synagogues in Germany during that night and the morning after.
While the synagogue was left alone during the Kristallnacht, the Josef Kaminski family who lived in the apartment where 60 years before Rabbi Moritz Cohn and his wife had raised their four children including Martin (Nordegg) did not escape the destructive actions of the Nazi party and the SS . In the early 1930s, the Kaminskis from Beuthen/Bytom in Upper Silesia had purchased a house owned by the city of Reichenbach. When the Josef Kaminski arrived with his wife Amalie and his children Susi and Heinz in Reichenbach, and the city administration realized that they were Jewish, their house purchase was rescinded by the city. As at that time the Jewish congregation did not have a rabbi, the apartment in the synagogue was offered to the Kaminskis. Through Mr. Jakubowicz I had met Mrs. Susi Klein née Kaminski who now lives in Los Angeles and reported the following:
“When we had already gone to bed, the SS broke into our apartment and chased my mother, my brother and myself through the snow in our pajamas before taking us to the Cohn villa, where the other Jews of the city were already assembled. My father and the other Jewish males were taken to the police station and kept there until their transport to the Buchenwald concentration camp from where my father returned weak and frightened six weeks later. In 1939, we succeeded to emigrate to South America and eventually settled in Bolivia.” [read footnote 6]
The following years saw the sad irony of the synagogue becoming the headquarters of the Hitler Youth. The apartment where the Moritz Cohn family, successive rabbis and finally the Kaminski family had had their home, was occupied by the HJ Bannführer, the supreme leader of the Hitler youth of Reichenbach and the surrounding area..
In Polish books I had read that Reichenbach initially had received the name Rychbach, which means Reichenbach in Yiddish. This puzzled me, until Mr. Jakubowicz explained to me that most of the post-war Jewish citizens were the survivors of the large concentration camps and the numerous Außenlager around Reichenbach — during the war, workers in the numerous factories in the area were mostly Jewish concentration camp inmates, as were the thousands of Jews working in the secret underground construction project in the near Hohe Eule Mountains/Góry Sowie. The survivors streamed by the thousands to Rychbach after their liberation by the Red Army on May 8, 1945, which became a predominantly Jewish city. The German population had been moved to the remaining German territory in the West. At one time a year or two after the war, Rychbach was the temporary home town of as many as 17.000 Jews. When political oppression of Jewish citizens in the Communist People’s Republic of Poland became more and more threatening, the Jews of Rychbach / Dzierżoniów left over the next decade or two for the West. The synagogue that had become the often overcrowded Jewish house of worship again, gradually served a smaller and smaller congregation, until the synagogue was closed again.
Before we could revisit Dzierżoniów, Mr. Jakubowicz had died. We felt, we had lost a much respected friend. I had hoped to give the copied records of the synagogue that I had discovered in the archives in Salt Lake City, to Mr. Jakubowicz. Now I had no one to turn to in Dzierżoniów.
But my Decade of Discoveries had not reached its end. The internet helped me discover that there was indeed a group that cared about the old synagogue and its history. in 2008, I found the Fundacja Beiteinu Chaj-2004, dedicated to the rescue of the synagogue of Dzierżoniów / Reichenbach and its historical restoration, that had acquired the synagogue and had already begun its task of rescue.
Only a few weeks before our trip to Silesia in May 2008, I had established contact with Rafael Blau, the president of the Beiteinu Chaj – 2004 Foundation. As a child of concentration camp survivors, Rafael Blau had spent six years in Dzierżoniów, before his family moved to Israel.
On May 12, 2008, Maria, and I, and our friend Volker Tobias who had in the meantime moved to Canada, met Rafael Blau. This was the first discovery of the day, to meet this man of strong convictions, good health and dedication to the rescue the synagogue, so far nearly all of it through his own efforts. When we went to the synagogue I discovered that the property was now securely protected by a fence and by steel doors so that no unauthorized people could enter the property any more. My wife Maria and I readily joined the Beiteinu Chaj – 2004 Foundation as members. We have since dedicated much of our time to work for the Foundation. Much has happened since our visit in May 2008. The high school students of the city have cleaned the building, several exhibitions and open houses were held, and much was done to stop further deterioration.
The immediate task is to make the existence of this treasure of Jewish-German-Polish history known throughout Europe and North America. To that purpose, I prepared a brochure that has found its way to many interested people in several countries, either in its English or its German language version – a Polish edition will be completed within the next few months.
This brochure is also a means to fund raising, as the costs of restoring the synagogue, faithful to its history and original architecture, are considerable. The brochure which can also be found in this website gives an illustrated report of the activities of the foundation and of what has been accomplished so far, of the future objectives and of the people who are devoting their time to the tasks set by the foundation and its members.
The Foundation’s work continues. During my ongoing research, I discovered a photo from the days of the Jewish community of Rychbach (1946), giving the re-opened synagogue new life. It was this picture that moved me to bring the existence of the old Reichenbach synagogue and its rich life under many different conditions and circumstances to the attention of the German public that, I hope, will in a common effort with Silesia’s Polish population bring new life to the synagogue as a place of worship, a center of education and a museum of history of Jewish life in this part of Silesia.
Addendum November 2009
Since the above story was written, new discoveries came about concerning the immediate years following World War II. Please read Jacob Egit and the Jewish Community after 1945.
Gratitude is expressed to the following for their kind cooperation in sharing their memories of Reichenbach with the author:
Mojżesz Jakubowicz, Reiner Springer, Susi Klein, Rafael Blau, Rosemarie Schmidt, Fritz Hilscher, Horst Dzierzon, Wolfgang Seidel, Horst Buchmann, Hans Joachim Fehst, Wolfgang Höntsch, Michaela Deuchler, Klaus Fehr, Rosemarie Tietz
- After World War II, together with the German province of Silesia Reichenbach became part of the Republic of Poland and was named Dzierżoniów after the famous apiarist Jan Dzierżoń (1811-1906) who had been born in Silesia. [↩]
- At their first mention, all place names are given in their current Polish and their former German form or vice versa. [↩]
- Martin Nordegg, The Uncommon Immigrant, see http://wjkochpublishing.com/martin.asp [↩]
- After WWII, when the city had a predominantly Jewish population, Rychbach, the Yiddish version of Reichenbach, was for a few years the official name of the city. [↩]
- Work was started on the interior of the synagogue, but political conditions resulted in the abandonment of the project before its completion. [↩]
- in a letter to the author [↩]