Deep in my heart, was I really ready to visit Germany?
By Christa Fischer
Family Spier: from Merzhausen in Northern Hesse to Ramot Hashawin in Israel
Miriam Maria Spier was born on June 13, 1935 in Frankfurt am Main. At that time, her parents lived in Voelckerstrasse 12, the house where her mother Marlene, née Hermann, born 1910 in Luckenwalde, had her physiotherapy practice.
Her father, Dr. Selmar Spier, a lawyer, was born in 1893 in Frankfurt and grew up in Gruene Strasse near the zoo.
The paternal side of the family came from Merzhausen/Schrecksbach in Northern Hesse, where they had settled for many generations. Selmar Spier`s father Simon Spier, came to Frankfurt at the end of the 19th century where he opened Schuhhaus Spier with his brothers. The shop was first in Alte Gasse, at the corner of Schaefergasse, and after 1908, in Fahrgasse.
In Frankfurt, Simon Spier married Berta Kaufmann. She was born in Merzig/Saaland and lived with her family in Eschenheimer Anlage 2. When his mother-in-law was arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1933 and jailed for a while, Selmar Spier immediately decided to leave Germany. In 1934 he began preparations to leave for Palestine.
He emigrated in 1935, followed a year later by his wife and the nine-month-old daugther, Miriam, as well as the two grandmothers.
The family settled in Ramkot Hashawim, a village set up by German academics, where the family ran a farm.
Miriam still lives in Ramot with her sons and their families.
After a hard day's farm work, Miriam's father, Dr Selmar Spier, took the time to write a book about Frankfurt that was published in 1962: “Vor 1914: Erinnerungen an Frankfurt” (Before 1914: Memories of Frankfurt).
He wanted his children, two of whom had been born in Palestine, to get to know Frankfurt. The publication of the book was made possible by the then mayor of Frankfurt, Dr Walter Leiske.
In six chapters, Selmar Spier describes his family life in the Spier and Kaufmann circles, his sheltered childhood and youth in Gruenen Strasse and later, in Eschenheimer Anlage 2.
He continues with wonderful, almost melancholic descriptions of that old Frankfurt with all its loved and frequently visited areas: the Old Town with its narrow alleys, the zoo, the Palmengarten (botanical gardens), the many cafes, the riverbanks of the Main, the opera, the theatre, the impressive Hauptbahnhof with the spacious Kaiserstrasse leading into the City, as well as the Anlagenring which then had bridle paths and where, as a child, Selmar Spier used to watch the riders.
The former Frankfurter describes his school days at Samson Raphael Hirsch School and later at Goethe Gymnasium. His law studies and his student life are described in a later chapter.
In another chapter Selmar Spier deals with his “Vaterland”: the fatherland for which you were ready to stand for, where you were a conscript, the fatherland you defended, the fatherland for which you went to war and for which you were ready to die.
In his last chapter, Selmar Spier declares that he and his generation “were born as Jews and brought up as Germans”.
“One day it was not my fatherland any more”. Thus ends Selmar Spier`s report about the beloved home town of Frankfurt which he would never have left voluntarily.
Even now, it is a book worth reading. It brings across in a picturesque, lively but also thoughtful manner the background and life of early 20th century Frankfurt.
On the family trail in Merzhausen
Miriam Spier had a strong desire to get to know Merzhausen. And even if her son Boaz, to begin with, did not accept the invitation to visit Frankfurt easily and only took it up at the last minute, he wanted to visit Merzhausen.
Miriam Spier had already been invited to visit by the city of Frankfurt in 2011 but had had to cancel due to an accident. So it was that in 2012 she became part of the group in the first program for the second generation.
As I had been in email and telephone contact with her since 2011, it was not difficult to prepare her trip to Merzhausen.
This turned out to be helpful because the local officials then had enough time to prepare the reception and escort. After a few weeks of preparation, all this worked wonderfully. Mayor Vesker and some older citizens who both could and wanted to remember the Nazi years and the Jewish families in Merzhausen, were there to receive Miriam. We were actively supported by Frau Hoos who has been involved in local history and knows the Jewish history of Merzhausen and Schrecksbach very well.
The local priest and his wife also accompanied us.
Two places were of particular interest on the walking tour. The old schoolhouse, which we could enter, has a classroom on the first floor which still looks almost as it was in 1930. A senior citizen of Merzhausen shared his memories and pictures of those days with us so that we could well imagine what school life had been like by then. The tiny house with the extremely low ceilings that made walking upright difficult left a deep impression on us.
The other important place on our tour was the cemetary in the forest. It is not hidden or distant, but directly at the end of the village. Miriam Liver and her son were pleasantly surprised to see how well-cared for it was, as well as with the many gravestones with the name Spier on them. All these were photographed. This is when I felt that Miriam`s son Boaz, especially identified with his family’s history and his own roots in Merzhausen.
“I speak German”
Miriam Liver in conversation with students of Woehlerschule, Frankfurt.
The visit to the school could also be organized in good time with the introductory evening of the project “Jewish Life in Frankfurt” also being helpful. Frau Brehl, the history teacher and some of her students were present this evening and there was a lively discussion between them, Miriam Liver and her son Boaz.
The visit to the school and the discussion took 90 minutes and were documented on film. Frau Brehl had prepared a short biography and possible topics for the discussion with her students:
- the significance of family and home country; the problems of scrutinizing this tradition;
- Memory and coming to terms with genocide/the Holocaust from the point of view of the children and grandchildren;
- significance of emigration and immigration
- confronting people’s common history as perpetrators and victims
- motivation for the visit
After greetings and introductions and the initially hesitant questions of the students – all of whom were very interested and concentrated – Miriam Liver led the discussion with great ease, with her son Boaz and his partner Hava Hallel joining in.
Miriam Liver emphasized that Israel was her home and had always been so. She had been 9 months old when she emigrated to Palestine in 1936 with her mother and brother.
Miriam Liver’s father, Selmar Spier, had settled in Ramot HaShawim, a village-like settlement near Tel Aviv.
Like many of his fellow emigrants he built up a small farm and bred poultry, grew fruit and vegetables. In Germany he had studied law, had gained a doctorate and had run his own legal practice in Frankfurt.
Miriam’s mother Marlene had studied law for 10 semesters as a Jew, before she had to quit the university. She then trained to be a physiotherapist and opened her own practice in Voelker Strasse 12 in Frankfurt. In the local address book of 1935 both parents have their own entries.
Their life was to change radically: from a middle class, intellectual household in Frankfurt to a simple farming life in Palestine. The photos of her family that Miriam Liver had brought along showed her father as a lawyer in Frankfurt and then as a farmer in Palestine.
This radical break in her parent’s biographies was the most important topic for Miriam Liver and makes clear how this had shaped the family and how it was also engraved in the memories of the following generation.
From 1951 on Selmar Spier worked for URO (United Restitutions Organization Frankfurt). In this organization he was the legal representative of the persecuted in their claims on their confiscated properties. As such he was in Frankfurt every now and then for a few weeks. In 1958 Miriam accompanied her father who took the opportunity to show her his hometown and the surrounding region. It was on this visit that the picture of the two of them at Ronneburg was taken.
German remained the family language even in Palestine; above all because both the grandmothers who had emigrated with the family, spoke no Hebrew.
A brother was born in Palestine. To this day, all family members live in or around Ramot.
As all Israelis, Miriam had served in the army and later, like her mother, had trained as a physiotherapist.
Miriam, born in Frankfurt, married in Israel, had three sons, worked in her profession and ran the farm with her husband.
The family Spier is a good example of the cultural diversity in Israel. Miriam herself with her German background, her husband with his Polish, her three sons, all married and with children of their own, are “Sabras”, that is, born in Israel.
The sons’ wives come from families with Jemenite, Moroccon and Iranian backgrounds.
All of Miriam Liver’s direct family members survived the Holocaust.
She emphasized that only a few families had this good luck and pointed out other fates, such as that of her friend Hava from Greece who only survived the Nazi regime there under the most difficult conditions. Hava’s entire family were hidden over a long period by orthodox priests and lived for almost two years in great fear until being freed. After this, they also could emigrate to Palestine.
At the end of these two hours there was time for an informal get-together with the students who asked further questions in this relaxed atmosphere.
“That was a special event for us!”
After this discussion the students from the advanced course History at the Woehlerschule exchanged their impressions of Miriam Liver’s visit. Here are some of their comments:
It was important for us to experience:
- that Frau Liver and her son spoke to us in a friendly and open manner
- that Frau Liver does not hold us responsible for the crimes of the Nazis and the fate of her family
- that Frau Liver made the effort to talk to us about her past so that we could better understand what life was like in those days
- that Frau Liver clearly had no reservations about Germany
- that she speaks such excellent German, although she left Germany as a baby even before she began to speak
It surprised us that:
- Frau Liver described her life in such a humorous fashion
- that she speaks and understands German as if she had grown up in Germany
- that her son who is very interested in his family history, accompanied her
What we would like to know:
Dear Frau Liver,
- could you imagine living in Germany?
- why did you continue to use German as the family language?
- do you see yourself as a “contemporary witness” to this period?
“We experienced a week full of events that often greatly moved us”
To the city of Frankfurt
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Many heartfelt thanks for the wonderful week that we spent together. It was a special and unforgettable gift. It was not the first visit to Frankfurt for me; I knew where we were going because I had accompanied my father to Frankfurt in 1958. My father, Doctor Selmar Spier returned to Frankfurt in 1956 as he had recovered permission to practice law again, and had begun to work as a lawyer with the United Restitution Organization (URO).
I came to visit him in 1958 and he showed his very own Frankfurt: the squares he loved so much and other places which had been important for our family.
I don’t know if there is another person on earth who loved Frankfurt so much. He returned to Frankfurt with joy, in spite of all the painful times he had lived through as a farmer in Ramot from 1933-1945.
The destruction of the Frankfurt Old Town saddened him deeply. My mother Marlene Spier Hermann, born in Luckenwalde, could not accompany my father because of her position as director of the physiotherapy department in a large rehabilitation centre in Israel. She had come to Frankfurt after her marriage, and till emigration, had studied medicine at Frankfurt University. For reasons we all know, she could not complete her studies and that is why she worked as a physiotherapist in Israel.
This visit is particularly important for me because the youngest of my three sons came with me. This time it was I who led him in my father’s footsteps through the history of our family in Frankfurt.
I feel a great significance in the fact that I have had the opportunity to show my son the roots of his family from up close, and so continue what my father began.
The highlight was the trip to Merzhausen organized by Frau Christa Fischer and Frau Gabi Kunhenn. I was extremely surprised that we were welcomed as important visitors. In spite of the rain, we were taken on a tour of Merzhausen. We were shown where the synagogue had stood earlier, and one of the older inhabitants gave me a drawing of the synagogue in 1900.
At the end we visited the cemetery where we discovered many graves of the extended Spier family. We had a good lunch, were given a warm and honourable welcome – simply wonderful!!
We also visited the part of the Jewish cemetery where the Jewish heroes of World War I are buried. They died in the belief that they were doing so for their fatherland. Sadly, we saw that their names were almost illegible and that the wall with an Old Testament verse in Hebrew was broken. I would be grateful when perhaps, remembering that World War I broke out 100 years ago, these gravestone epitaphs and slabs were restored.
We are very hopeful that this project will continue so that more young people are able to come closer to their family histories and furthermore, to see a Germany that, fully conscious of its history, preserves this history and is building a new future. We experienced a week full of events which often moved us deeply. We met many people from all over the world: what connects us however is our religion, our birthplace and the fact that we had all managed to leave the homeland of our ancestors in time.
It is wonderful that you took the initiative to invite us here and to organize our visit. We got to know dear people.
With heartfelt thanks and good wishes
Miriam and Boaz Liver and Hava Hallel
Miriaäm Marie Liver, née Spier, born in 1935 in the Frankfurt Nordend
Participation in the Visiting Program: 2012
Participation of the Parents: 2008
Dr. Selma Spier, lawyer, born in1893 in Frankfurt in Gruenen Strasse, near Zoo.
In Israel he wrote a book for his children: „Vor 1914 – Erinnerungen an Frankfurt“.
Mother: Marlene Herrmann, born in1910 in Luckenwalde near Berlin
Emigration: Dr. Selmar Spier emigrated to Palestine in 1935, followed by Miriam, her mother and two grandmothers one year later. They spoke German in Israel.
Grandparents (paternal line):
Simon and Berta Spier. Together with Simon’s brothers, the had the “Schuhaus Spier” in Frankfurt, first in the Alten Gasse/Ecke Schäfergasse, later in the Fahrgasse.
Today, Miriam Liver and the families of her three sons live in Israel.
Miriam Liver und Ingeborg Hoos
Selmar Spier, Vor 1914 – Erinnerungen an Frankfurt, written in Israel, Frankfurt 1961