A Gesture of Reconciliation

Translated by Lesley Loy


B'nai Jeshurun Synagoge in New York City

Invitation to a Bat Mitzvah

“We invite you to share our joy when our daughter Kara Elisabeth is called to the Torah in her Bat Mitzvah (coming of age) in the B’nai Jeshurun congregation in New York City.” This kind and exceptional invitation was extended by the Jewish family Faye Dottheim Brooks and David Brooks to the First Mayor, Gerhard Trautner, to Ingeborg Herrmann, in charge of Gunzenhausen’s community college, to city archivist Werner Mühlhäuser as well as to Emmi Hetzner, teacher at the Stephani secondary school, who unfortunately was not able to make the journey, and to its former principal Franz Müller.

How did this invitation come about?  Faye Dottheim Brooks’ family came from Gunzenhausen.  Her great grandfather, Heinrich Dottenheimer, built a house at Burgstallstrasse 1 in 1900 where he ran his business “Dottenheimer’s Wine Commerce Gunzenhausen near Würzburg”.  The grandparents Sigmund and Frieda, née Reinhard from Gerolzhofen, carried on with the business until 1933.  The couple had four children, all born in Gunzenhausen between 1913 and 1923.

Because of increasing discrimination, the family gave up the business in 1933. They moved to Frankfurt/Main, after Sigmund Dottenheimer and his second son Kurt Moses had been temporarily deported to the Dachau concentration camp in 1938.

The eldest son Joel Fredi already left Gunzenhausen for Augsburg in 1929 and in 1937 he was able to emigrate to the United States, where he settled in St. Louis/Missouri.  The letters which father and mother wrote between 1938 and 1941 from Gunzenhausen and Frankfurt to their son in America are harrowing documents of their desperate efforts to somehow emigrate to another country.  Ultimately the family failed because of 1100 dollars for visa fees which they could not raise. The brutal result was death in concentration camps.  Heinrich, 88 years old, was killed in Theresienstadt concentration camp, Sigmund and his wife Frieda disappeared in Auschwitz concentration camp.  Werner Hermann, 19 years old, died in Majdanek concentration camp.  Kurt and Irene were declared dead as of 1945 as no one knew where they had perished.

The only Holocaust survivor of the Jewish family Dottenheimer was Joel Fredi.  In the USA he changed his name to Dottheim and married Frieda Holtzman, who had been born in St Louis.  The couple had two children, Steven Robert, an attorney living in St Louis, and Faye, our host, who now lives in Manhattan, in the center of New York, with her husband David.  What this invitation represents, as a gesture of reconciliation, can only be understood if one knows the tragic history that leads up to it.

Another guest invited to Kara’s special day was Dr Bernhard Purin, previous Director of the Franconian Jewish Museum.  In his hand luggage he carried the jewel of his Fürth collection, a 300 years old gilded Torah breastplate. It had been privately owned by the Dottenheimer family and as a ritual object used to adorn the Torah scroll in the Gunzenhausen synagogue.  It was stolen from the Dottenheimer home during Reichskristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) and remained missing until some 10 years ago when a man appeared at the Fürth town archive and deposited, amongst other things, two Torah breastplates.  He had received them from his father-in-law, who in turn had been given them.  Thanks to Dr Purin the proof of ownership could be provided and, most importantly, the descendants of the legal owners located in the USA.    A detailed article even appeared in the New York Times in August 2001, describing the odyssey of the Gunzenhausen Torah breastplate.  Visits from the Dottheim Brooks family followed and, above all, friendly contacts sprang up due to the very praiseworthy project “Jewish Life in Gunzenhausen” which the pupils of class 10a of the Stephani secondary school, led by their teacher Emmi Hetzner, have been carrying out for over three years.

Rolando Matalon, the synagogue’s  Rabbi, greeted the visitors from Gunzenhausen by name, told the congregation the story of the Torah breastplate and laid particular emphasis on the fact that for the first time since the Holocaust, it was serving its original purpose in a synagogue, namely to adorn the Torah scroll.  An obviously very happy Kara Brooks, wrapped in a dark blue Torah robe, carried the Torah scroll hung with her great grandparents’ golden Torah breastplate through the New York synagogue.  The members of the congregation reverently touched it with their fingers, in the traditional manner, and brought them to their lips to kiss them.

As climax of the celebration Kara, as Bat Mitzvah, daughter of the commandment and so a full member of the congregation with all rights and duties as laid down by the religion’s law, had one more task to fulfill.  For the first time she was called up to the Torah, had to pronounce the blessing before the congregation and, most importantly, had to read aloud in Hebrew, and from the Hebrew script,  the Torah passage foreseen for that week which she had had to specifically learn.

At the end of the service Rabbi Rolando invited First Mayor Gerhard Trautner to say a few words.  He took the opportunity to relay the official best wishes of the town of Gunzenhausen to her Bat Mitzvah and thanked her parents for the invitation.  “We recognize” said Gerhard Trautner “that this invitation is a wonderful gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the citizens of our town and our land, a land where the Dottenheimer family suffered a great wrong”. The town of Gunzenhausen must take on the task of preserving the memory of the reprehensible acts and of the innocent victims. There is no more room for war, persecution and terror.  “Overcoming the shadows of the past, not to forget them but to understand them as a warning, must be our common goal.

The worshipers applauded Gerhard Trautner for these clear words.  Many of them sought personal conversations, in German, with the German guests.  Noone could remember that a German mayor had ever been given the opportunity to speak in the synagogue.

Deeply impressed by the culture of old Jewish belief in the New World, the group set off on its return journey.  A treasure in their hand luggage, the Torah plate of the Dottenheimer family.  For some time at least it will be on display in Gunzenhausen’s museum.  Faye Dottheim Brooks and her brother Steven Dottheim as owners, and First Mayor Gerhard Trautner for the town of Gunzenhausen, signed a corresponding contract while in New York.