„They were proud Germans”
by Angelika Rieber
Ron Sommers is not the first in his family who comes as a visitor to the former country of his ancestors. His father Walter, his aunt Martha Hirsch and his uncle Max Sommers came back to Frankfurt 20 years before him. The families origine from Northern Hesse and moved to Frankfurt around the turn of centuries. Here, Walter was born in 1920 as the child of a well established family who owned the flourishing stores “Wittwe Hassan”. In the first months of 1939, after his father was released from Buchenwald, the family managed to escape to the USA. Here, he changed his name to Sommers. To Germany, he turned his back. In 1992 Walter Sommers and his wife Louise took part in the Visiting Program of the City of Frankfurt. Ever since he gives lectures on the Holocaust and his personal experience in his new country. Both his children, Ron and Nancy, followed the invitation to Frankfurt in 2012 and 2013.
Ron Sommers in the footprints of his ancestors in Frankfurt, in the Taunus mountain area and in Heinebach
The telephone lines were running hot after Ron received the invitation from the city administration of Frankfurt he had been waiting for. His father Walter Sommers called him several times on that day telling him what there was to see and explore: the school (Musterschule) that Walter had once attended, their apartments in Loenstraße and Finkenhofstraße, the head office of the “Wittwe-Hassan” chain stores in Hanauer Landstraße which his grandfather had helped to establish etc.
Walter asked me to remind Ron to bring his hiking shoes so that we could go hiking in the Taunus mountains to those places where the family used to start on the weekends for the peaks of Fuchstanz or Feldberg.
Fortunately Ron and his wife arrived in Frankfurt resp. Bad Homburg two days ahead of the official date. Otherwise we would have run into trouble to squeeze the various activities into the one-week Visiting Program.
Walter Sommers and his cousin Martha Hirsch née Sommers had been guests of the city twenty years ago. Since then I have had ties with the Sommers via visits of members of their family in Germany and vice versa, my visits with them in the United States. So it was my turn to accompany him to the places with links to his family. Since I had only met him once before at the Bat Mitzva of his niece Alex, I wondered what might have motivated Ron to come and what this visit meant to him.
“We stay here!”
“Why am I here?” was a question Ron rhetorically asked at the beginning of his visit to the school (Musterschule). He is here, upon the invitation of the city administration, because his family used to be firmly rooted in Germany and in Frankfurt. The families originally came from Northern Hesse and moved to Frankfurt around the turn of the century. Walter Sommers was born in Frankfurt in 1920 into an upper middle-class family who ran a thriving chain store. In and around Frankfurt there were about 34 Wittwe Hassan stores selling coffee, cakes and other delicatessen. Walter has only good memories of the time before 1933.
After the Nazis had taken over, the situation gradually changed. And at the very same time when Julius Sommer still was taking part in the May Parade with his car on May 1, 1933, his son experienced the expulsion from his sports club as the first deep cut in his life. In 1936 he had to leave Musterschule, the school of which he still speaks with respect and esteem (Zeugnis Musterschule).
The family thought about emigration, but hesitated to take action. They considered themselves Germans in the first place and then Jewish, as Ron emphasized in his final address at the Frankfurt town hall Roemer. A visit of a family delegation to the United States in 1936 also confirmed them in their decision “We stay here!” (i.e. in Germany), a fatal step as many members of the family lost their lives shortly after. Walter took up an apprenticeship in Hamburg. There he learned that his father had been arrested in November 1938. Julius Sommer was detained in Buchenwald for several weeks. When he was released, he was a broken man. It was high time to leave the country. The family started preparations for emigration. In January 1939, Julius and Helen Sommer and their children Walter and Lore left Germany. The United States became their new home. Walter went to war in the Pacific for the United States and changed his name to Sommers. He turned his back on the old country and became a patriotic American. The family moved to the Midwest, where Ron and his sister Nancy grew up. German was no longer spoken in the family; and Germany at large was passed over in silence. It was only at school that Ron was confronted with the Holocaust. And yet, the German origin of the family showed up at times, e.g in the form of “Struwwelpeter” with which the children grew up as Ron and Nancy remember. In 1970, Walter and Louise Sommers came to Germany for the first time in order pay respect to the graves of their ancestors. Walter was in Franfurt for one day only. He felt oppressed. “I did not feel particularly well. It was easier for me to go to Munich than to be here in Frankfurt.”
Twenty years later the couple visited Frankfurt again; this time upon the invitation of the city administration. Walter went to his old school, Musterschule, and talked to the students. The invitation of the city and the opportunity to tell his life story to young people changed Walter Sommers’ attitude towards his old hometown. He started to study the Holocaust intensively, he gives speeches in schools and in the little Holocaust Museum in his hometown Terre Haute, and he initiated a school competition in Frankfurt titled “They lived next door … Jews in Frankfurt”. “It would be a great satisfaction for me, and the memory of my parents would be honored, if young German students seriously concerned themselves with what happened to their neighbors who happened to be of Jewish belief and whose misfortune it was to become victims of Nazi persecution.” The results of that competition were presented in an exhibition and compiled in a documentation. Today his father got bright eyes when he talked about Frankfurt, Ron told the students at Musterschule.
Search for Traces
What was the most important moment of his stay in Frankfurt? It takes Ron time to find an answer. It is hard to decide. Is it the graves of his greatgrandparents Moses and Bertha Sommer at the Jewish cemetary at Rat-Beil-Straße? They are the last graves of the family that used to be so deeply rooted in Germany. The two graves were hardly visible. The last visit of a relative was in the nineties. In the meantime a thin layer of moss had covered up the surface of the tombstones, and it took quite an effort to remove it.
Or is it the story of the cow at Loenstraße? Ron grew up with the story that the family bought a cow during the world depression that grazed in their garden and gave milk. Ron and his wife look with astonishment at the former head office of the “Wittwe Hassan” company at Hanauer Landstraße and at the place where there used to be one of the chain stores in Oberursel. But he was also moved by the hike through the Taunus mountains, in the footsteps of his father, and by the visit at Musterschule which his father had so warmly recommended to him as well as the hike from Hohemark to Fuchstanz.
The “Stumbling Stones” for a brother of his grandfather, for Salomon and his wife Betty Sommer at Schleidenstraße, initiated by the present inhabitants of the house and the meeting with them also left a deep impression on the Texan.
When the official Visiting Program was over, Ron headed for Heinebach in Northern Hesse, the birthplace of his grandfather. His father Walter had made it a point that he had been in Heinebach only once when he was a child and that in the thirties the overt anti-Semitism in that region kept them from visiting the birthplace of the paternal family.
Accompanied by Hans-Peter Klein and other local historians, Ron visited the places of his paternal family, the house, in which the Sommer children grew up, and the Jewish cemetary in which many of his ancestors are buried. Ron is the first family member to trace the whereabouts of his family in Northern Hesse.
Impresssions – Experiences
What did the visit in Germany mean to Ron Sommers and his wife Charles Mary Kubricht? It was not their first time in Germany. Both had been here before when their son, professor of German literature, now at Princeton, studied in Berlin for some time. Walter Sommers had told me how proud he was of his grandson who studied and now also teaches German. It shows that the memory of their German origin does not completely lose its relevance for the emigrants, but takes a different direction, e.g. by skipping one generation, and the next then reviving the memory of the past. Ron grew closer to his father through this visit. He can understand him better now that he studied the history of his family in situ. For the first time in his life he can imagine living in Germany, says Ron to his wife, and wonders about the changes taking hold of him. He has become aware of the strong impact which the German origin of his family has had on him. He has gained confidence, he says in his final address in Frankfurt’s townhall Römer, thanks to the people who accompanied him during his visit.
Silence is a statement, too
Present and past linked up in the talk with the students, too. Many of the questions of the young people focussed on how the parents and grandparents lived with their traumatic experiences, how Ron grew up, what his attitude towards Germany and German young people was, what religion meant to him and if he had ever experienced discriminating comments. Ron Sommers told them that he learnt about the Holocaust in school. It was only after his father’s visit to Frankfurt that his father opened up and told him about his experiences in Germany. It takes time to heal wounds. The students also wanted to know how the experiences of his family influenced his thinking. Ron told them that he became an attorney because he considered certainty of the law a great value. It was this certainty which his ancestores had lost; they were at their persecutors’ mercy and stripped of their rights. His profession put him in a position to protect his family, himself, and others. The students also asked whether he was religious, and were impressed by his open attitude to religion and that religion had failed too many times and would often contribute to separating people rather than to bringing them together.
How did the students react to Ron’s report? Before the discussion they were sceptical as to how “productive” a discussion with the child of a contemporary witness would be, says teacher Kathrin Guttmann. But their scepticism soon vanished because Ron could not only retell the experiences of his parents, but also express his view of history and of present-day topics.
“After the visit, all of my students were impressed. They now understand that silence about a time-period is a statement, too. They found Ron Sommers to be a very interesting person and were impressed by his attitude toward life. In the course of the discussion, the memory of the Nazi time became less dominant.” Predominant became questions as to how to deal with anti-Semitism or how to manage cohabitation of different cultures, of respect, tolerance and courage, questions of common concern to everyone in the group no matter of which origin, religion or political position.
Ron Sommers searching for traces of his ancestors in Northern Hesse Hans-Peter Klein
During their visit to Frankfurt in June 2012, Ron Sommers and his wife Charles Mary Kubricht came to Northern Hesse, too. In addition to visiting the Documenta 13 (art exhibit) – Charles Mary Kubricht is an artist – Ron Sommers was primarily interested in getting to know those places where his ancestors had lived. It was his first trip into the countryside of Northern Hesse.
Frequently families of the visitors who are invited to Franfurt as part of the city´s Visiting Program are originally not from Frankfurt. Many of them come from one of the many small rural Jewish communities where families of Jewish belief had lived for many centuries. Visits to these places were therefore arranged in cooperation with regional initiatives and researchers. The research and documentation which were initiated in the past few decades in many places with former Jewish communities as well as the work of regional and local museums, history workshops and memorial sites (“Gedenkstätten”) supplied the information for the guests in their search for documents and the homes of their ancestors. In return these documentary centers were interested in receiving information and reports from the visitors about the everyday life of the Jewishs families and communities.
The ancestors of Ron Sommers, as the family named itself in the US, had lived since the mid-18th century in Heinebach, a village about 30 miles southeast of Kassel in the Fulda river valley, now part of the community of Alheim in the district of Hersfeld-Rotenurg (www.heinebach.de/geschichte/Juden.htm). The Jewish congregation had its own synagogue with school and mikwe, the deceased were buried in the Jewish cemetary at Binsfoerth, the oldest collective cemetary in Northern Hesse. Most of the men were cattle-dealers, Ron Sommers’ great-grandfather, Moses Sommer, was a butcher. Moses, his brother and an uncle fought in the war of 1870/71 (between Germany and France). Since the middle of the 18th century the Sommer family had owned a house and estate where they had lived and worked for five generations before Ron Sommers’ grandfather Julius Sommer moved to Frankfurt at the beginning of the 20th century to take over the coffee business of “Witwe Hassan” in 1912 (www.juden-in-nordhessen.co.de Genealogien juedischer Familien – Sommer aus Heinbach).
We started our search for traces at Rotenburg an der Fulda at the Jewish Museum in the former mikwe (www.Mikwe.hassia-judaica.de). During the restoration at the beginning of this century the excavators not only revealed the 19th century mikwe, but also hitherto unknown remnants of an earier mikwe dating back to he 17th century. In addition, the museum, of which Dr. Heinrich Nuhn is the director, owns many documents on Jewish life as well as numerous biographies of Jewish families of the region Hersfeld-Rotenburg, including those of Heinebach and of the Sommer family. For Ron Sommers this museum was an impressive example of how to deal with the historic and cultural memory of the area. He discovered a number of details about his ancestors and got a good idea of Jewish life in Norhtern Hesse.
Following the Fulda river valley we headed for Heinbach where we were met in the parsonage by Mrs. Sabine Haede and Mr. Wilhelm Soedler. They had spread out numerous documents, genealogies and photographs on the table in the living-room which got us rightaway into an interesting exchange of experiences and provided Ron Sommers with many names and stories about his ancetors. Our hosts had intensively studied the history of their hometown and in particular the history of the Jewish community and the Jewish families. Mrs. Haede had written her examination paper on that subject, and Mr. Soedler, a retired teacher, had researched and documented the history of the community of Heinebach for many decades. During a stroll through the village Ron Sommers saw house and estate (Im Hof 9) in which the Sommer family had lived and worked for centuries, and the synagogue the inventory of which was destroyed in 1938. The building itself, a framework house which also housed the school and mikwe was saved but is presently in very bad condition.
Ron Sommers was impressed by the engagement with which Mrs. Haede and Mr. Soeldner had researched and doumented the history of the Jewish families, and appreciated the contribution they thus rendered to the memory of the Jewish history of heir hometown.
The last stop of our tour was the Jewish cemetary at Binsfoerth. It is the oldest Jewish cemetary in Northern Hesse dating back to the 17th century. It is situated outside the village on a slope above the Fulda river. There are 256 tombstones which were documented by the Commission of the History of the Jews in Hesse and made accessible in the internet (www.lagis-hessen.de/de/subjects/index/sn/juf).
Thanks to a plan of the site which Mrs. Haede had given us it was not difficult to find the graves of the three direct ancestors of Ron Sommers who are buried here: great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Sommer and great-great-grandparents Itzig Sommer and Marianne Sommer, née Abt. In the nineties of the past century the tombstones of the Jewish cemetaries in Hesse were restored and put in place again where possible. Since then the cemetaries are in an acceptable state and are important places for visitors in search of traces of their ancestors. This positive impression and the fact that the local people care for their history is what Ron Sommers took with him after the visit to the graves of his ancestors.
My roots are here in Frankfurt and I have a positive feeling about that
Speech of Ron Sommers at the fare-well-meeting in the Frankfurt Roemer
My name is Ron Sommers. I was asked to make a few comments by Mr. Alex. These are my own personal comments and not the comments of the group of invitees.
I am a descendant of a former resident of Frankfurt. My father, who was born in 1920 left Germany in January 1939 after Kristallnacht. My father and his family had strong roots in the Frankfurt community. My grandfather built a thriving business in Frankfurt and the surrounding areas of Frankfurt. Frankfurt was their home. They were proud Germans. They were Germans first and Jewish second. With all of the problems that occurred in Germany in 1933 and thereafter, my family was fortunate in finding a new home in the United States.
I want to thank the city of Frankfurt and thank all the other German people involved with the program, who have done so many things to make this visit to Frankfurt a very memorable and meaningful experience. Until this week I really did not understand and appreciate the silent anger, that was a part of our family that I as a son of a German Jewish descendant had to deal with growing up in the States. Fortunately, this silent anger is something, that my father was able to use and put into perspective. As an invitee of this city my father returned to Frankfurt in the 1990’s and had, in my opinion, a transformation. His experience in Frankfurt helped him become somewhat of a scholar on the Holocaust. After his Frankfurt experience he began reading about the Holocaust, became a docent at a Holocaust Museum, and as a result, his life had more meaning and also he became a good role-model for me.
How does this relate to my one week experience in Frankfurt? I came to Frankfurt open minded. I came here, thinking, that I might discover something. What I have discovered is, that my roots are here in Frankfurt and I have a positive feeling about that.
I feel very comfortable, being here in Frankfurt and, thanks to Angelika Rieber, I have to say I trust my feelings and that is big for me. I trust what I have seen and more importantly what I feel about the experience that I have had here. It is people like Angelika Rieber and the organizers for the city that have assisted in making many meaningful, provocative, profound moments for all of us. I mentioned to our group of invitees at our first get-together, that, when my father and my mother – my mother is also from Germany, when they came to the United States they literally turned their backs on Germany. I was raised in the Midwest in the United States. Although my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors came from Germany, there was really no German spoken in our house. There might have been a silent German, but there was no spoken German in our house. I am an assimilated German Jew. That`s who I am. I don’t speak German and I did not learn German. As I mentioned to our group of invitees in our initial get-together, our son is a German literature and Slavic professor at Princeton. He has full command of the German language and German literature. So German skipped a generation with me. Our other son is very proud of his grandfather and his grandmother and he is videographing their lives.
So family means something significant to us, and this visit to Frankfurt is the kind of experience as a descendant that is meaningful for me, because it helped me to establish an identity, maybe an identity, that I really didn`t fully appreciate until I came here.
So thank you for everything you are doing. This is a very positive programme, and I hope, the city of Frankfurt continues with it.
Walter Sommer, today Sommers, born in 1920 in Frankfurt
attended Philantropin and Musterschule
2016: Walter Sommers receives the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (further information)
Julius Sommer from Heinebach in Northern Hesse
With partner Alfred Mayer owner of the chain “Wittwe Hassan”
Address in Frankfurt:
Loenstraße und Finkenhofstraße
1938 Julius Sommer arrested in the run of the “Novemberpogrom”
1939 after release from Buchenwald emigration of the family to the USA
1992 Walter and Louise Sommers take part in the Visiting Program
2012 Ron Sommers takes part in the Visiting Program
2013 Nancy Sommers takes part in the Visiting Program
Talks and correspondence with Walter and Louise Sommers,Nancy Sommers and Ron Sommers
Historic Photos: Familie Sommers
Photos in Germany: Angelika Rieber
Publications on the family Sommer:
- Kössler/Gürsching/Rieber: …dass wir nicht erwünscht waren. Novemberpogrom 1938 in Frankfurt am Main. Berichte und Dokumente, Kapitel: Martha Hirsch, Frankfurt 1993
- Martha und Erwin Hirsch: “… bis wir es verstehen mussten”, Videoportrait in Zusammenarbeit mit der Staatlichen Landesbildstelle Hessen und dem Fritz-Bauer-Institut, Frankfurt 1994
- Schulwettbewerb: Sie wohnten nebenan… Juden in Frankfurt. Dokumentation der Teilnehmerbeiträge; Hrsg.: Fritz-Bauer-Institut und Hessisches Institut für Lehrerfortbildung, Fuldatal 1996
- Angelika Rieber: „Letzte Nachrichten“, Teilabdruck eines Vortrages in der Frankfurter Rundschau vom 27. Januar 1998 anlässlich des Gedenktages zur Befreiung von Auschwitz
- Ostend – Blick in ein jüdisches Viertel, Kapitel S. 153ff, Hrsg.: Jüdisches Museum, Frankfurt 2000
- Angelika Rieber: Wir bleiben hier. Lebenswege Oberurseler Familien jüdischer Herkunft, Kapitel Wittwe Hassan/Familie Sommer/‘Familie Mayer, Frankfurt 2004
- Angelika Rieber: „Aber mein Selbstbewusstsein habe ich nicht verloren“. Jüdische Kindheit und Jugend – Lebenserinnerungen als Zugang , die Vergangenheit und sich selbst besser zu verstehen; in: Jüdische Kindheit und Jugend, Hrs. Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart 2012
- Die Sommers – eine Familie aus Frankfurt. Erinnerung und Begegnung, in: Informationen 78, November 2013, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift des Studienkreises Deutscher Widerstand 1933-1945, Frankfurt
Angelika Rieber und Hans-Peter Klein