The Jewish Community of Siegen (1884–1943)

The central figure of the Siegerland Jewish community was the textile merchant Meier Leser Stern (center), born in Hohenlimburg in 1834. The photo was taken on October 6, 1920, at the golden wedding anniversary of the Stern couple. Stern’s wife Sara, born in 1850, was a native of Lenneberg and a granddaughter of Isaac Rosenberg. It is not known precisely when Meier Leser Stern (also: Meyer Löser Stern) moved to Siegen as a cattle dealer, but the Sterns were one of the seven Jewish families mentioned in a document in 1870. The couple had five children: Julius (1871–1927), Hermann (1874–1942), Jenny (1875–1930), Emil (1877–1942), and Betty (1890–1942). The eldest son Julius took over his father’s textile business in Sandstraße and managed it until his death in 1927.
Meier Leser Stern was a co-founder of the Siegen synagogue community and its chairman from the beginning until October 1921. He was then appointed honorary chairman. The Siegener Zeitung paid tribute to him in 1914 on the occasion of his 80th birthday with the words: „He raised the religious community, which originally consisted of only a few families, to a state-recognized religious community. His undisputed creations are the local Jewish public adult education center, the synagogue, an ornament to the town, and the establishment of the new Jewish cemetery in the Hermelsbach.“ Meier Leser Stern died on October 15, 1924, his wife Sara on February 2, 1933. Eight of their 18 grandchildren were able to emigrate in time and survived the Shoah in Australia, England, Israel, and the USA.

From 1867 onwards, mainly Jewish merchant and trader families from villages in the neigh­bo­ring regions of the Sauerland and the Witt­gen­stein came to the growing indus­trial city of Siegen. They were part of a migration movement that could be observed throughout the German Empire in the last third of the 19th century: with the construc­tion of the railroad network and indus­tria­liz­a­tion, more and more rural residents moved to the cities, where they hoped for a better life. In 1871, with the founding of the German Empire, Jews received legal and statutory equality for the first time in German history, putting them on an equal footing with the Christian majority of the popu­la­tion. However, they were still denied high positions in the state and the military during the empire.

In Siegen, the number of Jews increased from 23 (1870) to 111 (1880), so that the desire for a struc­tured community life grew. By way of compa­rison, the popu­la­tion of Siegen grew from around 11,000 to 15,000 people in the same period. The propor­tion of Jews in the city popu­la­tion was therefore less than one percent. In total, 512,000 Jews lived in the German Reich at that time; most of them in Berlin.

Like ever­y­where else where Jews wanted to settle perma­nently, the Siegen Jews were the first to acquire a plot of land for a cemetery: in 1871 on the Linden­berg. The estab­lish­ment of a private religious school also dates back to 1871. It was reco­gnized by the state in 1885 and was in operation until 1915. In 1884, the official Jewish community was finally founded, for which its chairman, Meier Leser Stern, acquired a plot of land „aufm Ober­graben“ seven years later, in 1891, for the construc­tion of a synagogue. It took another decade, however, before Stern applied for a building permit in September 1902. The synagogue, which had room for 90 men and 70 women, was conse­crated on July 22, 1904. Until then, Siegen’s Jewry had gathered for services in their homes or in rented premises such as an inn or a factory building. In 1912, they were able to establish another burial ground in the municipal Hermels­bach cemetery. The social concerns of the community were taken care of by the Israelite Women’s Asso­cia­tion, founded in 1900.

 

The community numbered around a hundred members throughout its existence: 127 (1885), 97 (1900), 130 (1925) and 122 (1933). While the number of Jews remained about the same, the city popu­la­tion grew to almost 33,000. Another hundred or so Jews lived in villages in the district. For the most part, however, they were only in loose contact with the Siegen community and gathered in their own prayer rooms, as in Hilchen­bach and Littfeld. At most, they attended services in Siegen on the high holidays such as Passover or Yom Kippur. After the First World War, an Eastern Jewish family origi­na­ting from Poland moved to Siegen for the first time.

The Siegen Jews were mostly cattle dealers, butchers and merchants, who in the course of time opened small stores, espe­cially around the market in the upper town. Only a few of them achieved relative prospe­rity; the vast majority belonged to the petty bour­geoisie, lived in poor condi­tions and had to fight every day anew for economic survival. The piety of the Siegen Jews was tradi­tional, but they were also open to inno­va­tions, as the instal­la­tion of a harmonium in the synagogue shows.

The community could neither finance an organ nor a rabbi, so that the Jewish teachers worked as preachers and cantors. The most important among them was the innkee­per’s son Simon Grünewald, born in 1870 in Pömbsen in East West­phalia, who worked in Siegen from 1897 until his forced emigra­tion in June 1939. Grünewald died in New York in December 1939, a few weeks after his arrival in the USA.

 

The teacher, preacher, and cantor Simon Grünewald (1870–1939) was the second central personality of the Siegen Jewish community besides Meier Leser Stern. The undated photograph shows Grünewald in a circle of his pupils.

Poli­ti­cally, the Jews in the Sieger­land were mostly loyal to the Kaiser or German national conser­va­tives. So it was no question that their young men volun­te­ered to take part in the First World War: 32 Jewish soldiers from the Sieger­land fought for the German Empire, eight of them did not return from the battle­fields. The cantor and teacher Grünewald was parti­cu­larly patrio­ti­cally minded. In 1915 he published a volume of „war poems“ which read:

This is the way of the Sieger­länder:
The outside is rough and hard,
His mind, however, is honest, his soul is mild;
And where great things are to be accom­plished, -
To his glory be it proc­laimed:
The Sieger­länder is always there!

The Jews of Sieger­land lived in a special region: In the region, which was charac­te­rized by strict religious Calvinism and the piety movement of Pietism, the Christian-social court preacher and poli­ti­cian Adolf Stoecker (1835–1909) had his consti­tu­ency for three decades. Stoecker was one of the leading figures in the anti-Semitic movement, which incre­a­singly went public from 1879: When the first major economic crisis of the 19th century occurred in Germany after the stock market crash of 1873, a parti­cu­larly aggres­sive form of hostility toward Jews emerged. Ancient anti-Jewish stereo­types, passed down from genera­tion to genera­tion, combined with modern anti-Semitism: Christian religious anti-Judaism, envy of the visible success of many Jews, and the unbroken defi­ni­tion of the German Reich as a Christian state combined with a new pseudo-scien­tific ideology. According to this ideology, humanity could be divided into different races, some of which were suppo­sedly superior – the Germanic peoples, for example – and others inferior. The Jews were now neither a religion nor a nation, but a funda­ment­ally different and, what is more, inferior „race“: they were dehu­ma­nized and equated with pathogens, insects or parasites, which one was allowed to „eliminate“, „exter­mi­nate“, „render harmless“, „remove“ and „exter­mi­nate“. The centuries-old antago­nism between Jews and Chris­tians turned into the far more momentous and ulti­mately deadly antago­nism between Jews and Germans.

With his anti-Jewish agitation, Stoecker made anti-Semitism „accep­table“ and was later cele­brated by the National Socia­lists as the „prophet of the Third Reich. In the Sieger­land, he achieved extra­or­di­na­rily good election results; in 1887, for example, he was elected to the Reichstag with 77.9 percent of the vote. Siegen historian Ulrich Friedrich Opfermann sums up the atmo­s­phere in the empire as „Chris­tia­nity, bourgeois decency and anti-Semitism as a synthesis.“ It was therefore not surpri­sing that the Sieger­land could become a strong­hold of the National Socia­lists: In the last demo­cratic elections in November 1932, the NSDAP received 56.1 percent of the vote – the average in the German Reich was 33.1 percent.

Not only during the Nazi era, but already in the turmoil of upheaval at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, there were anti-Semitic riots in Siegen. Although around 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the empire in the First World War and 12,000 of them were killed, conser­va­tive and anti-demo­cratic forces in the Sieger­land also blamed the Jews for the defeat of the empire. Their demons­tra­tive commit­ment to Germanism had been of no use to the Jews of the Sieger­land: The untruthful slogan „Ever­y­where her face grins, except in the trenches“ could also be heard and read in Siegen. In early June 1920, the night before the unveiling of a memorial plaque for the Jewish victims of the war, the synagogue was smeared with anti-Semitic slogans.

During the Empire and also during the Weimar Republic, when German Jewry expe­ri­enced its heyday, there was hardly any social contact between the small Jewish minority and the Christian majority society in Siegen beyond business connec­tions. Unlike in Laasphe, forty kilo­me­ters away, where Jews were inte­grated into small-town life, only very few Siegen Jews belonged to local asso­cia­tions. They were not repre­sented in political parties or local political bodies. „Laasphe was the exception, Siegen the rule,“ says historian Opfermann.

 

 

With his anti-Jewish agitation, Stoecker made anti-Semitism „accep­table“ and was later cele­brated by the National Socia­lists as the „prophet of the Third Reich. In the Sieger­land, he achieved extra­or­di­na­rily good election results; in 1887, for example, he was elected to the Reichstag with 77.9 percent of the vote. Siegen historian Ulrich Friedrich Opfermann sums up the atmo­s­phere in the empire as „Chris­tia­nity, bourgeois decency and anti-Semitism as a synthesis.“ It was therefore not surpri­sing that the Sieger­land could become a strong­hold of the National Socia­lists: In the last demo­cratic elections In the last demo­cratic elections in November 1932, the NSDAP received 56.1 percent of the vote – the average in the German Reich was 33.1 percent.

Not only during the Nazi era, but already in the turmoil of upheaval at the beginning of the Weimar Republic, there were anti-Semitic riots in Siegen. Although around 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the empire in the First World War and 12,000 of them were killed, conser­va­tive and anti-demo­cratic forces in the Sieger­land also blamed the Jews for the defeat of the empire. Their demons­tra­tive commit­ment to Germanism had been of no use to the Jews of the Sieger­land: The untruthful slogan „Ever­y­where her face grins, except in the trenches“ could also be heard and read in Siegen. In early June 1920, the night before the unveiling of a memorial plaque for the Jewish victims of the war, the synagogue was smeared with anti-Semitic slogans.

During the Empire and also during the Weimar Republic, when German Jewry expe­ri­enced its heyday, there was hardly any social contact between the small Jewish minority and the Christian majority society in Siegen beyond business connec­tions. Unlike in Laasphe, forty kilo­me­ters away, where Jews were inte­grated into small-town life, only very few Siegen Jews belonged to local asso­cia­tions. They were not repre­sented in political parties or local political bodies. „Laasphe was the exception, Siegen the rule,“ says historian Opfermann.

 

 

 

The Jews of Sieger­land did not differ in their appearance from the Chris­tians of Sieger­land; they wore the same clothes, suits, hats and hairstyles. For the Christian Sieger­lan­ders, their Jewish neighbors nevertheless remained a „minority belonging at most condi­tio­nally to the national community“ (Opfermann).

In their memoirs, Siegen Jews report both a good neigh­borly rela­ti­onship with indi­vi­dual Chris­tians and a far-reaching coexis­tence of Jews and Chris­tians. „The Jewish community lived in a self-imposed ghetto,“ according to Hugo Herrmann (1898–1993), the son of the last community leader Eduard Herrmann and one of the few survivors who returned to Siegen after the Shoah. Hugo Hermann, like his father a soldier in World War I, had founded a Zionist group in the community in the 1920s, but it played only an outsider role. In March 1940 he was able to emigrate with his family to Palestine. His father Eduard left Siegen in August 1940, but was killed when the emigrant ship „Patria“ was blown up in Haifa harbor in November 1940.

Text: Uwe von Seltmann (2021)

This is the way of the Sieger­länder:
The outside is rough and hard,
His mind, however, is honest, his soul is mild;
And where great things are to be done, -
To his glory be it proc­laimed:
The Sieger­länder is always there!
Simon Grünewald (1870–1939)