First trip to Germany sews threads of familial past

First trip to Germany sews threads of familial past

Joan Herz Kamens at the entrance of the Rashi Synagogue in Worms, Germany, holding photos her parents had taken at the same spot. Photos courtesy Kamens family
Joan Herz Kamens at the entrance of the Rashi Synagogue in Worms, Germany, holding photos her parents had taken at the same spot. Photos courtesy Kamens family

Are you Rudy Herz’s daughter?” was the Facebook message Joan Herz Kamens of Yardley, Pa., received in May from a stranger in California. “It came out of left field; it was a very touching surprise,” Kamens told NJJN.

She replied affirmatively, and the social media communication led to a letter dated June 5, 1945, a black-and-white photograph, and a trip to Germany.

The former stranger was UCLA professor Sanford “Sandy” Jacoby, son of Otto Jakobi, who was a childhood friend of Kamens’s father, Rudy. Jacoby had searched for descendants of Herz after finding a letter written by his father that included a photo of Herz with his father.

When the photo was taken both men were enlisted and independent of each other they received permission to visit the graves of their families in the Jewish cemetery in Osthofen, Germany. “It was just a true coincidence for them, that is why it is so touching,” Kamens wrote in an email to NJJN. “After all they had been through and then to meet and share a drink of friendship, one can only imagine how nice that meeting was for them.”

“All the Jews in the area knew each other,” Jacoby wrote in an email, suggesting that Herz and Jakobi had met as children, because the Jews in these villages were closely connected and families had known each other for generations.

Once connected with Herz’s family, Jacoby told Kamens about the June 14 launch of “The Jews of the Old Rhine,” by Gabriele Hannah, Martina Graf, and Hans-Dieter, which would include this photo. The book traced the history of Jews in three small Altrein towns, Gimbsheim, Eich (Otto Jakobi’s home town), and Hamm, which are close to Osthofen and Worms.

“The villages had a lot of Jewish life, but they were very entwined with Christian people,” Kamens said. “The history is there, but the families had to leave.”

From left, Lindsey Kamens; Thomas Goller, mayor of Osthofen; Elizabeth Kamens; and Joan Herz Kamens.

Kamens is a Coldwell Banker Realtor in Yardley, Pa., and member of Har Sinai Temple in Pennington. Her father spent his earlier years in Osthofen, but in 1935, two years after his father Felix died, his mother, Hilda, sold their house to a bank and moved to nearby Worms with her daughter, Erna, and four sons, Karl Herbert, Rudolph, Lothar, and Werner.

On Nov. 9, 1938, the date that would become known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis jailed the three oldest brothers, but Erna worked for a town official and through this connection was able to free them by promising they would leave Germany. Erna’s husband had relatives in Sweden who took in the three brothers, but Hilda and Werner were left behind. They were eventually deported and died in a concentration camp. After two years in Sweden, the surviving brothers made their way to the United States.

Herz found factory work at Yankee metal in Norwalk, Conn., where his sister lived. Kamens said it was “because of his German accent” that a coworker reported him as a spy. She said he was summoned to Washington, D.C., and was asked, “Would you fight for your country?” He answered “yes” and several weeks later he received his draft notice. He served as a radio operator and received a Bronze Star for intercepting confidential information spoken by the Germans.

His childhood friend, Otto Jakobi, who had also moved to the U.S., was a Ritchie Boy, one of the refugees sent to the front lines to interrogate and do counterintelligence work because of their knowledge of local languages and cultures.

Even before receiving her fateful message from Jacoby, Kamens had heard from Inga May, a member of a Christian group in Osthofen that holds a memorial ceremony on each anniversary of Kristallnacht. The 2017 ceremony had focused on the Herz family, and through the help of the book’s authors and Jacoby, May found Joan and encouraged her to attend the summer’s book launch.

With multiple invitations in hand, Kamens decided, on a month’s notice, to fly to Germany with her daughters — Lindsey, who works in advertising sales for the television network Discovery en Español in New York City, and Elizabeth, an assistant district attorney in Bronx County, N.Y., who also talks about her family’s history at area schools through 3GNY, an educational organization founded by the grandchildren of survivors.

Although Joan’s parents had gone back once to Germany in 1967, she had never gone. “I was so excited when my mom was willing to go,” Elizabeth said. “I feel like she had always wanted to go but there were a lot of mixed feelings for her.”

The day after the book launch, the Kamenses toured the towns that were the focus of the book, stopping first at Osthofen Cemetery, where they visited the grave of Felix Herz, Joan’s grandfather.   

The tour also stopped in Worms at the Rashi Shul (named for the medieval Bible commentator) — built in the 12th century, destroyed by the Nazis, and rebuilt in 1961.

Joan had brought along a photo of her parents standing in front of the synagogue, and she and her daughters posed for a similar photo. “Having that picture of them standing there, and knowing we were there so many years later is going full circle,” Lindsey said.

The Kamenses appreciated the Germans’ interest in the area’s Jewish

“I felt the German people we encountered were very remorseful and wanted to make it known they are doing their best to record history and continue to share stories of the people of the town,” said Lindsey. “They are doing their best to make right what was wrong.”

Kamens noted, “What people don’t understand is that German Jews were German first and Jewish second.” 

Joan Herz Kamens in the Osthofen Cemetery next to the gravestone of her grandfather, Felix Herz, who died in 1933.

The day after the book launch, Inga May picked up the Kamenses and took them on a tour of Osthofen. They visited the location of Rudy Herz’s home, now a branch of Volksbank, a German bank, and 14 former Jewish houses or the locations where they had been. The Jews did not live in one specific section of town. “They blended into the society of these villages,” Kamens said.

“To imagine this was where my grandfather might have been in happy times — it’s incredible to think of that,” Elizabeth said.

Despite what happened to their family, Kamens said, “My parents did not raise me to hate Germans. They never instilled hate; rather, they would say there were many good people who tried to help but they just couldn’t.”

The emotions of this trip also helped Kamens to better understand why her father used to say, “Look forward to the future; you cannot change the past.” 

Understanding the predicament of the Jews who remained in Germany at the onset of World War II is complicated.

“My grandfather would say that if your country is in depression — are you going to go against your political leader and risk everything or go along with it?” Elizabeth said. “People are quick to judge or assume without realizing all of the circumstances.” 

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