By Ruth Ellen Gruber
Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, took time out on a trip to Poland and Germany this month to honor her ancestors at sites of her own family history.
Rosenthal’s family came from what is now Bytom, Poland. All were murdered at Auschwitz in 1942 except for her father, who was the last Rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, and survived interment in Buchenwald.
In a post Tuesday on the State Department’s official blog, Rosenthal recounted that she visited sites in Bytom where her family had lived and also visited the Jewish cemetery there, hoping to find the graves who her grandmother and uncle, who had died before World War II “and therefore would have graves.”
Visiting Bytom, she wrote, was “both exhilarating and devastating.”
When we went to see the gorgeous synagogue, where Dad had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and loved to tell us great stories about, there was no synagogue. Just a dilapidated gray apartment building. When we went to the cemetery, we hoped to find the graves of my grandmother and uncle who died before the war—and therefore would have graves. But Polish activist Wlodzimierz Kac had something else in mind. He had researched my family and ended up showing us 18 Rosenthal graves. My grandmother Selma, my uncle Martin, great and great-great grandparents, great and great-great uncles, and aunts and cousins. Eighteen Rosenthals who we could honor. I am the last Rosenthal in my family.
Bytom now has not a single Jew and hardly any Jewish presence. Where once a bustling community thrived, there is not one single survivor. We visited two of the places Dad’s family had lived. He had described his home’s music room and parlors. Now the buildings are dark, dank, depressing. And mostly empty. We wondered how we could help restore a school or a prayer house, or clean up the cemetery, when there is no one to keep it up. The absence is profoundly present.
During her trip to Poland, she wrote, she met Jewish community leaders and representatives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, the Forum for Dialogue Among Nations, and the Judaica Foundation.
I learned about the present-day Jewish community in Poland and civil society engagement on Jewish history and culture. These organizations are doing important work, fostering interaction between Jews and non-Jewish Poles through dialogue, education, and cultural exchange. Several programs focus specifically on fostering interaction among Polish non-Jewish and Jewish youth. It was moving to meet the extraordinary people working to keep the memory and spirit of Poland’s absent Jews alive.
On July 9, during her visit to Germany, Rosenthal took part in a ceremony in Mannheim at which a “stumbling stone” memorial was dedicated to her father. Stumbling stones are plaques the size of cobblestones that are placed on the street in front of houses in which Holocaust victims and survivors lived.