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  • Joe Swann

Writing to a Lost Home – the Föhse Collection in Wuppertal’s Old Synagogue Meeting Place




The Ulrich Föhse Collection is a unique reservoir of information, insight and response. A head teacher in Wuppertal, Föhse embarked in the early 1980s on a research project to trace and hear back from Jews worldwide who – or whose families – had lived in the city. He asked them to tell him about Jewish life there, about memories of flight, emigration and expulsion, and about the deportation of relatives and friends. In years of careful work he compiled an archive of more than 500 letters, together with reports from the period 1936–1948, and more than 600 photos – documents among which are texts of high literary quality and historical significance. The Föhse Collection is a treasury of Jewish life in Wuppertal that speaks far beyond the city boundaries.



From the 1850s onward, a vibrant Jewish community grew up in the city and region of Wuppertal. Typically Central European in make-up, it counted a large middle class of German reformed Jews, a smaller orthodox community, and a sizable minority of Eastern European Jews who were Yiddish speakers and traditionally orthodox. The Synagogal Community of Elberfeld-Barmen built two synagogues, both in central positions: the Elberfeld Synagogue in 1865 and the Barmen Synagogue in 1897. By the early 20th century the two smaller orthodox communities had established prayer rooms of their own in Elberfeld. The day-to-day life of Wuppertal’s diverse Jewish community, its destruction in the Holocaust, and the slow recovery and growth of the present-day (largely Russian-speaking) community are graphically documented in the holdings of the city’s “Old Synagogue Meeting Place,” home of the Ulrich Föhse Collection.


How the “Old Synagogue” foundation came about is part of the story of post-war Germany’s gradual but persistent attempt to come to terms with its past. Opened in 1994 on the site of what until 1938 had been the Elberfeld Synagogue, the “Old Synagogue Meeting Place” is tasked with “keeping alive the memory of the fate of the Jewish community [...], especially during the National Socialist era, and promoting historical awareness” of the life and achievements of Wuppertal’s Jews. Its mission led to the opening in 2011 of a permanent exhibition of documents, reports and artifacts illustrating Jewish religion, history and culture in Wuppertal and the surrounding region.



A very special memory project


It was against this background that Ulrich Föhse, the young head of a local school, dedicated historian, and Wuppertal city councilor, began in late 1980 to place notices in Jewish media worldwide asking people from Wuppertal (or whose families had lived there) to contact him. And many did. Föhse himself had Jewish grandparents, but what he emphasized in his opening letter to his correspondents was that, born in 1944, he belonged to a generation that could no longer be held directly responsible for the iniquities of the Nazi regime.


Föhse’s letter to his correspondents listed ten headings under which he asked them to relate details about themselves and their families, their social background, experiences of childhood and school years, religious education, attendance at synagogue, memories of rabbis, membership of Jewish associations, family attitudes to Zionism and orthodoxy, anti-Semitic experiences, memories of flight and emigration, and what they knew about the deportation of family members and friends. Some correspondents followed his list quite closely, but more often than not they took the headings as aides-memoires for (often very lively) accounts their own. Föhse’s letter also included a request for photographs or other documents his correspondent might be willing to lend him.


 

Ulrich Föhse and his wife in front of the New York skyline, 1985 (© Alte Synagoge Wuppertal)



Former Jews of Wuppertal remember


In this way the number of correspondents grew exponentially, amounting over the next two decades to more than 500 addressees, of whom more than 400 replied, mostly in the 1980s, to his inquiries. Föhse also received more than 600 photographs, some collections of family letters, and several first-hand reports written between 1936 and 1948. The entire collection is held in the archives of Wuppertal’s “Old Synagogue”. An overview of its contents, including a name-by-name list of correspondents with their places of residence, is contained in the book Writing to a Lost Home ‒ about which more below. Parallel with his increasing correspondence, Föhse was able to organize group meetings, some larger, some smaller, of many former Wuppertalers: in Tel Aviv and London in 1981, Ra’anana in 1983, and New York in 1985. He attended these meetings personally, and he and his wife made many other individual visits overseas, journeys that reinforced the personal element in their undertaking and cemented many friendships. This resulted in return visits to Wuppertal and specifically to the Föhses’ home. The archives contain 90 audio-cassettes with recordings of conversations that took place on these occasions.


 

From left to right: Ida (1863-1939) and Leopold Weißkopf (1862-1934) at the coffee table in their house Freiligrathstraße in Barmen; head cantor Hermann Zivi's (1867-1943) last class with Jewish pupils, Elberfeld 1928; Baruch Weingarten (1865-1922), prayer leader, teacher, shochet and cemetery commissioner of the Orthodox Jewish community; Barmen girls' group of the "Kameraden," 1930; Max Wahl (1870-1947) on the balcony of his house Nützenberger Straße in Elberfeld; Max Banker (far left in the back) in the circle of his chawerim of HaKoah Wuppertal, January 1938; (Alle Fotos: Alte Syngagoge Wuppertal)




A major recent project of Wuppertal’s “Old Synagogue” has been the publication in book form of a substantial selection of letters, photographs and other documents from the “Föhse Collection”. Edited, introduced, and extensively annotated by Ulrike Schrader, curator of the “Old Synagogue”, the book appeared in German in 2018 and in 2019 in English translation as Writing to a Lost Home (publication details below). The book is notable for the variety of its voices and the unique quality of some of its documents. Ulrich Föhse’s correspondents came from many different backgrounds and their letters record a cross-section of Jewish life in Wuppertal both before and after the Nazis took power. Among its “Supplements” are several documents of considerable literary as well as historical value: Ilse Loew’s account of the 1939 voyage of the Flandre to Cuba and tragically back to occupied France; Richard Strauss’s long and detailed letter to his siblings in California about Jewish life in the Netherlands under German occupation; and Ellen Loeb’s account of her and her mother’s transportation from Amsterdam, through the concentration and death camps of Westerbork, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Mauthausen, to eventual liberation by the US army and a future dedicated to medical research.


Writing to a Lost Home can be seen as a representative foretaste of what the Ulrich Föhse Collection holds. While the size of the book justifies the adjective “substantial”, its selection of letters to and from 30 of Föhse’s correspondents represents only a small fraction of the collection’s holdings. More than 90 percent of the archive remains unresearched.



Joseph Swann



Ulrike Schrader (ed.): Antworten aus der Emigration. Wuppertal 2018 (ISBN 978-3-940199-18-8)

English translation: Writing to a Lost Home. Letters and documents from former Wuppertal Jewish families, selected from the Ulrich Föhse Collection. Ed. Ulrike Schrader; 388 pages. Wuppertal 2019 (ISBN 978-3-940199-20-1).



© Title image: Alte Syngagoge Wuppertal