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11.11.16 Issue

Hanna Rosenberg Gradwohl

I was born in Coburg, Germany, in 1935.  My parents, Ilse Speier Rosenberg and Ludwig Rosenberg, and I escaped the Nazis in 1937 and emigrated to the United States. We settled in Lincoln, joining my maternal grandparents (Alfred Speier and Käte Blüth Speier) and aunt (Eva Speier) who had fled Germany in 1936. Why did the Speier and Rosenberg families settle in Lincoln? They did so with the assistance of my grandfather’s first cousins, Albert Speier and Henrietta Gold Speier, who lived in Lincoln and ran several laundry and dry cleaning businesses. During the summer of 1935, Albert and Henrietta traveled to Europe and invited my grandparents to meet them in Switzerland. They did not want to set foot in Nazi Germany because of the growing anti-Semitism in that country. My grandparents went to Switzerland to meet their American cousins and were convinced that they should consider fleeing from their homeland. Hence, my grandfather sailed to the U.S. in the spring of 1936 and looked over the situation in Lincoln for several weeks. He then returned to his home in Halberstadt, where he and my grandmother decided to emigrate as quickly as possible. This was not an easy decision for my grandfather, since he was a patriotic German, was in the German army during World War I, and received an Iron Cross for his distinguished military service. My grandfather sold his fashion textile store and disposed of his assets as best he could, including the payment of an exorbitant “Reichsfluchtsteuer” tax for the privilege of leaving his native country.

Alfred and Henrietta Speier signed all the necessary financial papers and affidavits to get my grandparents and aunt out of Germany. Once they settled in Lincoln, they turned their efforts to get my parents and me out of Hitler’s Third Reich. We arrived in August of 1937 and moved into a large house on B Street rented by my grandparents. My grandfather went to work in the Speiers’ laundry and dry cleaning business. My aunt continued school at the University of Nebraska’s Teachers’ High School. My father got a job as a “stock boy” at Gold’s Department Store, owned by Nathan Gold, brother of Henrietta Gold Speier. My mother went to work in the Speier laundries, and my grandmother babysat me.

Hanna’s farewell to her grandparents, Hedwig and Benno Rosenberg, August 1937.

Hanna’s farewell to her grandparents, Hedwig and Benno Rosenberg, August 1937.

I graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1957 and married David Mayer Gradwohl, who was born and grew up in Lincoln. In 1962 we came to Ames, Iowa, where David was employed by Iowa State University, and I had a career as a school social worker. In 1996, my mother and aunt, lifetime members of The South Street Temple, moved from Lincoln into a retirement community in Ames.

Since 1995, the German artist Gunter Demnig has been crafting and setting “Stolpersteine” in memory of civilians murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The term “Stolpersteine” literally means “stumbling blocks.”

Demnig selected this designation because in pre-World War I Germany, it was a custom for non-Jews, if they stumbled along a cobblestone-paved street, to say, “There must be a Jew buried here.”

These memorials consist of concrete blocks, approximately four inches square, covered with a sheet of brass. On these brass plates, Demnig stamps the words “Hier wohnte” (here lived), the name of the victim, his or her birth date, date of deportation, and place and date the victim was murdered by the Nazis. If possible, the Stolpersteine are placed flush with the sidewalk in front of the last place the individual voluntarily resided.

Demnig set the first Stolpersteine in the city of Cologne in 1995. Since then, over 50,000 of these memorials have been installed, primarily in Germany, but also in Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Norway, and the Czech Republic. Although most of the Stolpersteine have been set in memory of Jews, Demnig has also installed these memorials for other victims of the Holocaust.

On Sunday, May 17, 2015, Gunter Demnig set three Stolpersteine in Frankfurt, Germany, in memory of my paternal grandparents, Bernhard “Benno” Rosenberg and Hedwig Speyer Rosenberg, and my great uncle, Julius Speyer.

Hedwig and her brother Julius were born in Völkerhausen, in 1874 and 1872 respectively. Benno was born in Dankelshausen in 1872. When Benno married Hedwig, he settled in Sonneberg and joined the Speyers in the ownership and operation of a department store established there in 1895. By 1938, rampant anti-Semitism forced the family to sell their store to an “Aryan” businessman. Benno, Hedwig, and Julius subsequently moved to Frankfurt am Main, seeking security in the larger Jewish community there.

Ultimately, there was no security. The three were deported from Frankfurt to Theresienstadt on Sept. 2, 1942. Benno and Hedwig were sent on to Treblinka and murdered there on Sept. 29. Julius remained in Theresienstadt and was murdered there on Nov. 28.

The setting of the Stolpersteine in memory of my grandparents and great-uncle was initiated by a man named Hans Bruno Venema, who contacted my cousin, Angela Rosenberg, in Berlin.

In 1942, Mr. Venema was a young boy living in the same apartment house as Benno, Hedwig, and Julius. He remembered his Jewish neighbors and the fact that they had been deported and sent to their deaths by the Nazis. He offered to sponsor the setting of Stolpersteine in their memory. Interestingly enough, the Venema family was mentioned in letters my grandparents and great uncle had written to my parents in Lincoln, NE. The letters often mentioned the Venemas’ daughter, Bärbel, who was about my age and made my grandparents long to see me again.

The last time I saw my grandparents and great-uncle was in early August of 1937, when I was not yet two years old, just before my parents and I escaped to the United States.

The setting of the Stolpersteine was an occasion for a small family reunion. Coming from Berlin was my cousin Angela (daughter of my late first cousin, Jochanan “Joe” Rosenberg, whose family had fled to Palestine before WWII), her husband, Andreas Schlaegel, and their daughter, Naomi Rosenberg. My brother, John Rosenberg and his wife, Anke Boudreau, from Madison, Wisconsin, joined my husband David, and me. This was also an opportunity for us to meet Hans Bruno Venema and his wife, Maria, their daughter Ute Müller and her husband, Ernst.

In addition, there were relatives and friends of Angela. Our group met for lunch at the Café Laumer, a favorite neighborhood restaurant where Benno, Hedwig, and Julius liked to eat before Jews were prohibited from eating in public places. We then walked to Westendstrasse #88 where the large apartment house once stood.

Today, a modern office building occupies that space. But Mr. Venema pointed to older apartment houses still standing across the street to give us an idea of the 19th century architectural style of the building in which the Venema family, my grandparents, and great-uncle once lived. He described where the main entrance, gardens and sidewalks had been. Meanwhile, Gunter Demnig had already visited the location and had prepared a place within the interlocking concrete bricks of the sidewalk for the placement of the Stolpersteine.

Shortly after our arrival, members of the Frankfurt Stolpersteine Initiative Organization appeared. They unfurled a large banner reading “Steine Gegen das Vergessen” (Stones Against Forgetting). Soon after that, Gunter Demnig came and quickly set about placing the Stolpersteine. He removed several loosened concrete bricks from the sidewalk and placed the three Stolpersteine into the remaining gap. Next he filled the remaining spaces with small cobblestone fragments and tapped them into a level surface. Then he spread a mixture of sand and powdered cement over the area to fill up all the intervening spaces. Finally, he poured water over the area, and brushed it clean. Then he hurried off to set some 50 other Stolpersteine in Frankfurt that weekend. Meanwhile, Mr. Venema and Angela delivered speeches followed by short statements of appreciation by my brother and me.

During the speeches, Andreas held up photographs of Benno, Hedwig, and Julius — literally the faces of history being commemorated on that day. By that time a crowd of 45-50 people had gathered. The leader of the Initiative asked us all to form a circle, join hands, and spend a moment of silent contemplation on the occasion and the importance of remembrance. Finally, one of Angela’s friends stepped forward and placed a large bouquet of white roses next to the Stolpersteine.

Tears of profound loss and sublime gratitude flowed down our cheeks. We were all thankful that Gunter Demnig’s setting of these Stolpersteine had brought back from anonymity the names and living memories of Benno Rosenberg, Hedwig Speyer Rosenberg, and Julius Speyer. Now, the lives of my grandparents and great-uncle will remain, not only in the minds of our family, but as a blessing in the sidewalk at Westendstrasse #88 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.