Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach! Hanukkah 2017 begins this evening. And because I do identify as Jewish by virtue of my ancestral birthright, we find no problem with fitting it in among our celebrations of the season.
Being Jewish has everything to do with my passion for Family History. I grew up knowing that my grandmother was a Jew, but I did not feel its impact until I was required to read The Diary of Anne Frank in junior high school. The connections I made between my grandmother, Anne, and the Holocaust suddenly became very real to me, and I longed to know more about my own family’s experiences during those dark days, but it would be several decades before the truths of those times would come to light.
I know that my personal commitment to religious, cultural, and racial tolerance had its beginnings in those early literature and history lessons. I was solidly struck by the fact that I would have been targeted for death camps had I lived in Europe during those rough times, simply because my grandmother was born into Judaism. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that my whole family could have been slaughtered based on the identity of one grandparent. I still can’t.
Those early lessons in prejudice and religious/racial tension led me to want to know more. As I learned, the desire to understand that extreme commitment to birthright and religious heritage led me to make connections between my parents’ chosen religion and the tenets of faith espoused by my third great grandfather, Rabbi Heinrich Abeles.
For the longest time, the only things I knew about my Jewish predecessors were related to what I could learn through my history classes at school and church. Unfortunately, those lessons were limited to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the older-than-dirt-and-twice-as-dusty Old Testament, the latter of which I found beyond boring. In the intervening years between high school and the advent of the internet, I was able to glean a few more insights into Judaism, but really only enough to help me to understand the basic differences between Christmas and Hanukkah, along with the fact that all of those “potato pancakes” I’d been eating over the years as a side dish to Mom’s Christmas Saurbraten, were really Latkes, the traditional food of Hanukkah.
Thanks to the internet though, I have been able to bring to life the Jewish commitment to God and tradition, and to intertwine them with my past and present. It was during those early days of inquiry that led me to understand myself as a Messianic Jew. I think there is an actual established religion out there that identifies as such, but for me, Messianic Jew is simply a way to identify my personal faith in Jesus Christ as the god of the Old Testament (“Yahweh”—whose name is too sacred to be spoken aloud). Since then, I have not only learned how to make Hanukkah an annual tradition in my home, but I have learned how music, prayer, and practice come together to make religion an integral part of daily life as a Jew. I have even been able to participate in, and appreciate, the deeply spiritual Passover Seder. Those early days of inquiry and discovery brought that dusty Old Testament back to life for me.
But doing Jewish genealogy has not been so easy. This has a lot to do with the Holocaust and the intersection of German, Hebrew, and Yiddish languages, upon none of which anyone in my family has much of a grasp. We have struggled to make connections between my grandmother’s verbal history and the truth of her past as a European Jew with not much to go on. Were it not for a handful of trinkets, photographs, and letters in a handwritten language we have yet to decipher, that past would have been nothing more than rumor.
All of that changed exactly one month ago when I received an email from a woman I’ve never met by the name of Ruth Contreras. Ruth’s letter asked about the family of Rudolf and Charlotte Abeles. She implored, “If there is the possibility to get into contact with someone of the descendants of the Abeles Family you may give them my e-mail address . . . so they can decide if they want to contact me.” Ruth not only provided the names of my great-great grandparents, but the name of my great grandmother along with the name and birthdate of my grandmother, all of whom had lived in Pitten, Austria at one point or another. This was information we already had on record, but her letter indicated that she could provide even more that we did not have. I was so overcome with excitement I had to read the email three times before I could actually believe what I was reading. The first thing I did was call my mother, after which I swiftly replied, “We are very pleased to report that you have made direct contact with descendants of the Abeles family in the United States.”
After a series of back and forth emails in which we both asked and answered questions, I asked Ruth for a candid interview regarding her background and interest in finding my family. To my delight she was completely forthcoming in her answers. Ruth’s family had been next door neighbors to my family before all of the residents in the Jewish sector of Pitten were displaced or murdered in the dark days of the Holocaust. As I told her, “We must not let the world forget.” Ruth agreed, and the interview proceeded as follows:
Q: Would you prefer to be called just Ruth, or may I also share your surname?
A: You may do as you like and feel better.
Q: I have noticed that your official title is “Mag. Dr.” Does the Mag. stand for magistrate? Is the Dr. a Doctrate of Philosophy or some other kind of doctor? If magistrate, are you a magistrate for the town of Pitten?
A: My titles are „Master of science“ (I studied biology and have been teaching for some year in Vienna at a highschool.) and Dr. phil. Yes, indeed when I studied in spite of studying a branch of natural sciences the degree was Dr. phil. I have been working as an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in Vienna since 1972. From 1995 to 2003 (my retirement) I was the Head of the Department of Entomology at the Natural History Museum. After my retirement I did some terms of Jewish Studies at the University in Vienna.
Q: I can see that you have a personal vestment in this project, but do you also have a more official role in the Jews of Bucklige Welt project? What is your role?
A: One of my interests is the history of Jews in Austria before the Shoah. I am working since several years on a project about the Jews that lived in the 10th district of Vienna and so I learned first about Rosa Rebecca Abeles who was deported from Alxingergasse 97 to Theresienstadt.
Some years ago I was interviewed for a book on the history of our family and the house where we are living: Johann Hagenhofer, Gert Dressel (editors) (2014) „Eine Bucklige Welt – Krieg und Verfolgung im Land der Tausend Hügel.“ ISBN: 978-3200037342 . Publisher:Alois Mayrhofer.
Q: What is the official name of the project, and how did it come about?
A: Last year I was invited by Dr. Hagenhofer to participate in the team that is doing research for a project „Die jüdische Bevölkerung der Region Bucklige Welt – Wechselland“
(English translation: The Jewish Population of the Bucklige Welt Region – Wechselland. Bucklige Welt covers more than 23 villages with approximately 39,000 inhabitants. Wechselland is a region of mountains and valleys in Lower Austria, South of Vienna. )
Q: Will there be a museum? A book? A website?
A: This project is part of the preparation for a regional Jewish Museum in Bad Erlach, which will be inaugurated in on occasion of the Lower Austrian Provincial Exhibition 2019 and yes, there are also plans for a book.
Q: How many towns in the region does the project cover?
A: We are 17 working on this project on about 25 villages and their former Jewish fellow citizens. As I am living in Pitten and had already some information, I was invited to participate in this project.
Q: How did you know to look for the Abeles family, and what was important about Rudolf, Lotti, and their children?
A: The history of the Jaul- Family in Pitten was known as well as the history of our house. In order to get more information I started with the permission of the Mayor of Pitten to check old registries at the school in Pitten where I found the information on Josefine Daniel and Heinrich Abeles. The other children of Rudolf have been added with the help of the archive of the Jewish Community in Vienna and by using the Austrian genealogical website https://www.genteam.at/.
The other important source where the registration forms where I found Rosa Rebecca repeatedly also hosting people at her home and this last document when she had to leave Pitten..
From the registration forms at the municipal archive in Wr. Neustadt I learned that Jakob Abeles had changed his name into Aldor.
The next step was to go to the Jewish Cemetery in Neunkirchen where I found the gravestone of Franziska Daniel. There is also a grave stone of a Ruben Abeles. The letters are in Hebrew, do you know the Hebrew name of your great great grandfather?
(The only name we have for my great-great grandfather is Rudolph)
Q: What was the surname of your family living next door to the Abeles family?
A: My grandparents who bought the house in 1917 were Rosa and Fritz Weiss. My parents were Elfi Lichtenberg (maiden name Weiss) and Franz Lichtenberg.
Q: Do you have any details of comradery or community between the families that can be shared?
A. I have no information if there was any contact between the families. As I told you, my mother did not talk much about this. My grandmother was born in 1880 (she was two years younger than the youngest son of Rudolf Abeles who was born in 1878) Maybe he did not even live there anymore. My mother was born in 1904 and my dad was born in 1907 so I think there was too much difference in the ages of them.
Q: How difficult was it to find us, and what led you to my website?
A: As Rosa Rebecca was the third person directly deported from Pitten I considered it important to find more information about this family. And yes, it was not easy at all to find your blog. After having contacted several groups of 2nd generation of survivors of the Shoah without success it was really by incident that I tried by using Google to look if I could find something about Josephine Daniel Wimpassing and came to your article A Renewed Tribute to Tante Rosa – Stories From the Past .
(Rosa Rebecca was a previously unidentified daughter of Rudolph Abeles. She was my great-great aunt)
One of the most fun parts of the Hanukkah celebration is the dreidel game. The dreidel is a four-sided spinner with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin; one letter appears on each side. My children have very fond memories of that game which we played as a family. The letters stand for the Hebrew words, nes gadol haya sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” For my family, connecting with Ruth is a great miracle, and we are so very thankful to welcome her as a new part of our continued quest to discover the truth of our Judaistic past.