As children, Milton Weinberger and his cousin Susan Weinberger Martin knew little about their parents’ early lives in pre-Nazi Germany.
“We regret that we did not get as much information as we could have so that my kids and grandkids could share it,” said Milton in an Aug. 24 phone interview from his home in Rockaway.
But in the past year they have learned a great deal about what Milton’s father, Julius, and Susan’s father, Bernhard, endured, thanks to the elaborate efforts of a non-Jewish teenager in Germany who invested a year of research and writing on the Weinberger family history.
She is Virginia Simon, who elected to focus on the Weinbergers’ stories of tragedy and survival as the subject of a high school term paper.
Simon, who has been Martin’s guest at her Manhattan apartment since July, told NJ Jewish News her interest in the Holocaust deepened after she read The Diary of Anne Frank in school.
“When you learn about the Holocaust in school you only get to see one side, the German side of war, and how it all developed,” she said. “But I always wondered how the other side, the Jewish side, reacted, and I wanted to get into detail about what developed in my area of Germany.”
Simon and her family live in Hellenhahn, a small village in western Germany several miles from the Weinbergers’ hometown of Langendernbach.
For a year she visited Langendernbach often, pored through municipal records, spoke with local residents, and reached out across the sea to locate the Weinberger family’s second-generation survivors in New York and New Jersey.
Through diligent research she discovered that Julius and Bernhard Weinberger had been arrested on Kristallnacht and incarcerated for three months at Buchenwald.
“My father didn’t speak about it, but now I have a real perspective of their ordeal,” said Milton. “I don’t know exactly how they got out of Buchenwald. I would have loved to have had a personal story of what went on.”
Simon wrote in her term paper that the two brothers “were beaten with canes and iron rods”; slept standing up in cramped, cold, and unfurnished barracks; and watched as other inmates died from disease, starvation, or suicide.
“I am amazed at what my father went through and how he managed to keep up hope,” said Milton. “I would love to have asked him.”
In February 1939, Julius and Bernhard Weinberger were among several hundred people released from Buchenwald by the Nazis. They fled to England, then moved to Canada and, later, the United States.
Two of their three sisters, Hilde and Irma, had managed to escape to England before their brothers arrived. But a third sister, Clothilde, stayed behind in Langendernbach to take care of their mother, Paula.
The older woman died of a heart attack in May 1942, a short while before the Nazis rounded up the town’s remaining 33 Jews.
A few weeks later, Clothilde, a single mother with a twin boy and girl, Ruben and Tana, were among the 250 Jews and Roma who were burned to death at the Sobibor concentration camp.
“The most impressive thing I found out was that Clothilde died in a concentration camp but the others were able to escape and move to England and America. It was interesting to follow their path and to get in contact with their children,” Simon said.
“I did not know about this until I met Virginia,” said Martin. “She found my cousins on the internet. My cousin Milton let me know that Virginia was asking questions, so I contacted her and said I would be willing to answer them.”
Part of Simon’s research came from the writing of Peter Josef Mink, a Catholic theologian. In 1999 he wrote a book, The Lives of the Jews of Langendernbach.
“He couldn’t tell me a lot about the Weinberger family in detail but he helped me along with my research and gave me some hints,” she said.
Simon also visited several concentration camps in western Germany. “It was kind of unbelievable,” she said. “You couldn’t really understand it and you couldn’t believe that something like that happened at these places.”
Simon also interviewed an Israeli-born rabbi, Joseph Pasternak, who lives in the German city of Koblenz. “I asked him if Jews still feel in danger, and he told me they feel quite safe. They have found a way to get peace with the past,” she said.
Now, at age 20, Simon is back in Germany, where she plans to major in psychology at a university and forge a connection between her future studies and her high school project. “I think the most interesting part of this research was to find out about how people felt about the Jews,” she said.
She is eager to share her findings with both older and younger generations of Germans. “I think it’s good to raise awareness and become friendly and get closer to each other. That is what everybody should try to do. They need to develop their own opinion of [the Holocaust] and think about it and try to avoid it in the future,” she told NJJN.