A VISIT TO MY ANCESTRAL HOMELAND: EPPINGEN, GERMANY
By R J Furth
Last week Sandy and I visited Eppingen, Germany, where the Furth family traces its history back to the early 18th century. I am indebted to our son Alan who visited Eppingen two years ago and encouraged me to make the voyage. As he said after his trip, visiting Eppingen was an amazing personal journey that has led me to consider who I am. Of all the things that describe me (American, male, father, husband, progressive liberal, writer, musician) German and Jew are pretty far down the list. I do not speak German and don’t love German food. I am not a practicing Jew and we did not raise our children in the Jewish faith. Those descriptors have not changed, yet I do have a better understanding of where my family came from and why my great-grandfather Julius moved to Omaha, Nebraska, about 130 years ago.
When Sandy and I were planning our trip to Switzerland and Austria (visiting friends and international schools) I checked out Google maps to see the viability of driving from Zurich to Vienna. While looking at Switzerland I realized that Zurich was not far from Stuttgart, Germany, which is near Eppingen. When I checked directions from Zurich to Eppingen I learned that it was a 3 ½ hour drive. The plan was thus hatched: Zurich to Eppingen to Salzburg to Vienna to Zurich. I then called Alan who sent me the email for Reinhard Ihle, the president of the Eppingen historical society who had given Alan a tour of Eppingen. With Alan and Reinhard’s encouragement, Sandy and I headed for my home village.
The Furth family can be traced back to Eppingen in the early 18th century. We know this thanks to the local church, which kept records of all major life events for Christians and Jews: births, marriages, deaths. We also know that all German states (the modern nation of Germany was born in 1871 out of a confederation of independent states and principalities) ordered Jews to take a family name in the early 19th century. Until that time Jews used their given names along with their father’s names, as was common with Muslims and is still common for Christians in southern India. I would have been Ron ben Sidney—Ron son of Sidney. One of my ancestors was a widow who married a man from Furth, the twin city of Nuremberg. They decided to take the name of his birth city as their family name. I am a descendant of the children from her first marriage, who all took the name Furth. (Henry Kissinger is from Furth.)
As the GPS guided us toward Eppingen we were dazzled by the beauty of the countryside, with its lush farmland and dense forests. We entered the small town of about 20,000 that was similar to so many other small towns of Europe: a few gas stations, restaurants, a pharmacy, and the usual clothing and book stores. It was when we left the paved road and entered the cobblestoned old section that I was struck: my ancestors walked these cobblestoned streets 300 years ago. Instead of cars (mostly German), there would have been donkey carts and horses. Instead of restaurants and the Gasthof (guest house) Wilde Rose there would have been butchers and carts selling vegetables. The buildings remained the same, three and four story structures with exposed wooden beams painted red or brown, and white stucco. The dormered roofs were steep and tiled, for protection from the snow. Some of the buildings were made of massive blocks of stone, and all were in excellent condition. This part of Eppingen was over a thousand years old, yet it was well preserved. The citizens of Eppingen should be proud of their village.
Reinhard Ihle met us at the Wilde Rose. He is a middle aged secondary school teacher who loves history and loves sharing that history with guests. Reinhard loves Eppingen, though he also clearly feels badly (shared national guilt?) about the ‘bad times’ and the horrible fate of the Jews in Germany. He has hosted many Jews who were born in Eppingen and fled prior to World War II. He mentioned octogenarians from Florida, Nashville and Los Angeles who have visited. When we went to the Jewish cemetery he put on a yarmulke from the American bar mitzvah of the grandson of one of these old Eppingen Jews. Reinhard is a good man who loves talking history, and he does not shy away from his nation’s ugly past.
One of the first things Reinhard told us when we sat down for lunch in the restaurant in the stone walled basement of the guest house—and something Alan had already told us—is that the magnificent building that houses the Wilde Rose used to be divided into four apartments. During the 19th century two of the apartments were occupied by Christians, two by Jews. Members of the Furth family lived in one of the apartments from 1840 until late in the century, so I found myself dining and sleeping in the same building as my ancestors. We spent the afternoon visiting Jewish sites such as the old synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. Many Jewish buildings (the new synagogue) were destroyed by the Nazis, but the cemetery, which is a few miles out of town, remains intact. Reinhard showed us half a dozen Furth graves with headstones in Hebrew and/or German. One eerie thing I’ll relate regards walnuts. My father and his friends used to play a game when they were kids where they would pit walnuts against each other. Holding the nuts back to back, the kids would smack them together; the walnut that survived was the winner. The Furth family has played this game every Thanksgiving and Christmas since before I was born. In the middle of the Jewish cemetery in Eppingen is a walnut tree, and walnuts blanket the ground. The ties to Eppingen feel strong and deep as the trees roots.
Some may wonder if I feel closer to those German and Jewish roots. The fact is Jews had always been second class citizens in Germany, as they have been throughout the world. Jews could not hold government posts or marry Christians and were limited in their choice of profession. Jews may have been allowed in Germany, but I seriously doubt if they were ever welcome. My great-grandfather came to the US around 1880. I assume he left Germany, as did so many Jews, because he sought greater economic opportunity and less discrimination. The twenty Jews who remained in Eppingen when Hitler came to power were eventually shipped to an internment camp in France, then to Auschwitz. A bronze plaque in their honor is on display in Eppingen. Although my background is predominantly German, I feel no affinity to the country or its people. I am also undeniably Jewish, but my parents were not people of faith and I was not raised to be an observant Jew. I acknowledge my Jewish heritage as I do my German heritage, yet neither defines me.
I know Irish Americans who visit Ireland and drink Guinness with cousins and grandparents. They feel their Irishness. The same is true for Mexicans who return to their village for festivals and feel a sense of belonging. Visiting Eppingen was an emotional experience, one that I highly recommend to the other Furths. However, the place I consider to be my homeland is Chicago. Have I lost something by being so removed—physically and emotionally—from my roots? Hell no. I’ll always have Ernie Banks, John Peter Altgeld and the Chicago hotdog.