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19 th century stories
The first Jews of Dorsten
Dorsten 1820: "Violence in
the synagogue itself"
Eisendrath Family in Dorsten
The family name
Julia Eisendrath - portrait of
a Jewish Mama
Eulogy at the grave of
Julia Eisendrath
Jewish real property in Dorsten
Nathan Eisendrath emigrates
David Samson Eisendrath
Establishing in the USA
Migration of Jews from Europe
to North America
20 th century stories
Visits to Europe since the 1920s
1933: A Protest Letter to
President Hindenburg (1933)
The Letter in full text
The Eisendrath branch in Zaandam/Netherlands
The last jewish place in Dorsten
Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
Charles R. Eisendrath: An
identity and family history that
are inextricably linked (1999)
21 st century stories
Adam Eisendrath: The German Heritage Quest - February 2000
Dorsten contacts and
visits 2001-2007
Family Reunion 2010
The journey of two prayer books
Who and why?
The Dorsten research group
and the Jewish Museum
of Westphalia
 
* The signature in the header above
is that of Samson Nathan Eisendrath
(from the year 1840)
 
 
Charles R. Eisendrath:
An Identity and Family History that are inextricably linked (1999)

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN – The letter came from a stranger in a German town I had never heard of. Would I please inform a local history group about my family and an ancestor who had led the Jewish community 160 years ago? It sounded like the sort of study Americans make of longlost Indian tribes. Bemused with a new status as anthropological cariosity, I complied – and stumbled in a 10-year reconciliation with history.
My reply did not amount to much. Like the most Americans, I knew three sentences- worth about where and what I came from.


Anyone named Eisendrath is related because they all – 23, lore has it – came to the United States in 1848, bound for Chicago. By the 1930s, their huge numbers had inspired a sociology thesis and the Eisendrath Cousins Club, 3,000 strong, had taken a complaint directly to President Paul von Hindenburg about an upstart named Adolf Hitler. He was, said the club, giving a bad name to good Germans everywhere – Chicago included.
I did not expect much in return. But what arrived was “Jews in Dorsten,” a 301-page hardback with an entire chapter on “Die Eisendrath-Story” and a family tree going back to the 18th century. The progenitor couple, Samson and Julia, had born all he children: German records disputed the number (birth ledgers listed 18, not 23) and also the legend that all had left Europe.
They should have warned me that comfy notions about being completely American and entirely removed from the Holocaust were about to dissolve. But for me, denial was a natural extension of a 1940s and ‘50s upbringing wirh Christmas instead of Hannukah, Israel as a foreign (unvisited) country, and a religious training left to the family maid, a Lutheran. Yet we called ourselves Jewish.
If you happen to be a nonpracticing “assimilated” Jew with a German background, the Holocaust tends to blot-out the idea of a single point of origin, as if blood had obliterated your birth certificate. Only gradually did I realize the huge effort going into not knowing something.
Did I have “Jews in Dorsten” translated? No. Yet the book fascinated me. I spent hours with it – the way a child might, looking at the pictures, puzzling out bits of a language, having parts read to me. Equally oddly, I did not look up the town on the map, I had made at least 20 trips through Amsterdam airport between the day I opened the letter postmarked Dorsten 1988 and last sprung. Even then, I went only because business called in Düsseldorf, a half hour away.

At the door of the Jewish Museum of Westphalia stood an Ursuline nun who had founded it and co-authored the book. Her name was outlandish for someone in her position: Eichmann, as in Adolf. But sister Johanna bore no genealogical link to the “angel of death” at Auschwitz. After retiring as revered headmistress of the local convent school, she had mustered a platoon of fonner stundents and civies buffs in a cause. They would force the town to amend a planned municipal history to include the 30 or so Jewish families that lived there.

Her personal story partially explained why. A Jewish mother. A father whose Catholicism had protected the family until 1944, when her mother was packed off to a concentration camp, and Johanna, confirmed Catholic at age 10, was nevertheless drafted into forced labor. At the end of the war, a harrowing escape from the Russians, who detained her as a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan look-alike just as the Nazis had enslaved her because she was Jewish enough.
We were sudden, kindred spirits. It forced astonished reappraisal of everything, including a face that wore 74 years with neither apology not excuse. I had had no intention of imparting my distrust of museums of the Holocaust, slavery and other tragedies. The belief that while they inform, they also inspire vengeance is unpopular even in America.
Yet here, in Holocaust heartland, the creator of one of the few Jewish outposts volunteered that she would not permit her center to emphasize how Germany’s Jews hat been destroyed. Instead, it emphasized how they had lived. And there was something familiar about this nun, particularly the eyes. They were Eisendrath eyes.
Then it happened. Would I please add my children to the family tree? “This is where I come in,” she said, pointing. “My grandmother married an Eisendrath. I grew up thinking them special because only one family in the world had that name.”
It has taken me a year to absorb all that. Personal history no longer begins in North America. Delusional isolation from the Holocaust has been replaced by something like the angst/relief that haunts children (even some Jewish children) after learning the truth about Santa Claus.
But gone, too, is the paralysis. Out of the vapors stepped my new cousin, the nun, who inspired a sad, strong compulsion to feel more Jewish than I had imagined possible, and more German than seemed permissible.

The writer, a former Paris, London and Buenos Aires correspondent for Time magazine, directs the university of Michigan Journalism Fellows programm. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Header: Charles Eisendrath during his Dorsten visit in 1998

 
   
 

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