At 93 years old Fritz Montermann sometimes needs a moment or two to remember the name of his youngest great-granddaughter. But he very clearly remembers every detail of a November night almost 80 years ago. “It was one of the first times that I had ever been to the cinema,” he says. “I had just turned 13, so mum had let me go with some friends. As soon as we came out of the door, everybody immediately told us about the fire in the Synagogue, so we rushed the few meters up the street to see what was happening.”
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It was Kristallnacht, 1938. All over Germany synagogues burnt, but Montermann’s home, Niedermendig, a tiny remote village of only a couple of thousand people was far away from chaos of Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt. Hitler’s NSDAP had only won a fraction of the votes there in the 1933 elections. The village community was tight-knit, and while the majority was Catholic, a vibrant and completely integrated Jewish community going back to the 16th century had made the village their home. “Longer than my own family lived here”, smiles Montermann. The synagogue and ritual bath were right next to the small Catholic Church in the village center. Traditional Jewish foods such as challah bread and potato latkes were favorite village foods, as they are still today.
“Of course everybody knows everybody else here well, it is a tiny village. And of course we all knew exactly the names of the men who set the synagogue on fire, who plundered and destroyed it that night. We saw them doing it, we lived in the same street with them, we went to school with their siblings,” Montermann says.
Describing the events of that night and naming the perpetrators is something Montermann has only recently done for the first time.
It was late, almost too late, when a group of six villagers from Niedermendig decided to interview Montermann and 70 others who witnessed the rise and fall of the Third Reich, in order to uncover the hitherto withheld details of life in the village for a book project. It took them over two years, hundreds of hours of interviews, archival research in both in Israel and Germany, and digging through boxes and boxes of forgotten pictures in order to puzzle together an honest chronicle of their village and its citizens. The book bears witness to the failures of the village, on both an individual and collective level, but to acts of solidarity too.
“With 70 years between us and the events, we did not necessarily want to become inquisitors and ask questions that would imply individual guilt. But we did want to report on what has happened openly and honestly, and we wanted to make sure we would notice parallel developments in our community today that may lead to similar catastrophes,” explained Gernot Mittler, the book’s principle editor, at the recent book launch at the village community center.
Still, not every villager was happy about the project. Some dreaded the book's publication, and the potential consequences it could have for their families and for the community as a whole.
“This is not an extraordinary situation," says Professor Frank Bajohr, head of the Center for Holocaust Studies in Munich, referring to the process by which discrete communities took stock of their past. Niedermendig is not the only village or small town in Germany that is going through the difficult process, breaking one of the last taboos of Holocaust remembrance in Germany.
Very localized Holocaust remembrance and research has become more common. “It is exceedingly important that individuals from villages take the lead on this kind of research now, because academia will not do it and then we will never know what happened in these small places, because everyone who might know is dying,” says Bajohr.
The search for surviving Jewish residents and their families is often an integral part of the project, but does not always serve to reconcile the painful past. Oftentimes this is because there is nobody left to reach out to. Sometimes however, it is because the families cannot forgive what was done to them by their German neighbors.
Only a few kilometers north of Niedermendig, in the small town of Niederzissen, a trove of Jewish scriptures was discovered as they undertook a similar project. A hidden Geniza, including Hebrew prayer books, marriage contracts, and a Talmud was found, and participants of the project went in search for the owners to give it back, but were met with rage, the door shut in their face.
When villagers from Niedermendig reached out to the descendants of Jewish survivors from the community, the reaction they received in one instance was rather different. Research during the course of the book found that there were descendants of Jewish families living in New York City that had escaped with the help of villagers before 1942, and when they were contacted by the village community, they were apparently delighted for contact to have been made.
“Just imagine, Niedermendig villagers in America!” smiles Montermann. “That makes our tiny village almost cosmopolitan. Perhaps that openness and small sign of reconciliation that comes from this contact could help prevent another awful catastrophe from ever happening again.”