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Remembering Kristallnacht: An elegy for young Heinz Gutmann and the Jews of Worms, Germany

Heinz Gutmann, a young boy, lived with his mother, Mira, father, Ludwig and his little sister, Ruth in a hamlet of Worms, Germany, his entire life. In spite of the rise to power of the National Socialists, also called Nazis, living along the Rhine River was a time honored Jewish tradition.

Worms was a vibrant center of Jewish life since medieval times; the Jewish community grew in number until the 1930s. The oldest synagogue in Germany, the Alte Synagogue was built in 1034. Assaulted and damaged repeatedly by anti-Semitic uprisings, the synagogue was rebuilt time and time again.

When the Gutmann family attended religious services and were guests at wedding ceremonies they entered the tall solid building through a heavy front door. Inside, the brass chandeliers set alight the polished wooden benches for worshippers. Older boys like Heinz and men, for example his father and grandfather, attended morning services and they followed the religious tradition of wearing tefillin and tallitot. Machzors dating from 1272 were used for Jewish festivals and they were preserved into modern times. The baroque ceremonial cup, from 1609, belonging to the Worms Burial Brotherhood, was stored in the building for safekeeping, as was the Scroll of Esther, which was used for Purim celebrations. 

As the centuries passed, more members of the Jewish community became integrated into the general society by holding positions in local government and business; in1849 a Jewish mayor was elected, the first in Germany. In 1933, however, personal freedoms were restricted and the SA arrested Jews. By 1937, half the Jewish community had left Worms, though the Guttmanns stayed on. What was the reason they stayed? We will never know.

During the Kristallnacht pogrom the following year in November 1938, Heinz, his parents, Ruth and their grandmother, Klara were physically harassed and abused on the streets by National Socialists and their supporters. Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked callously. The Alte Synagogue was set on fire; the building and its contents were burned. Photos of the burning show citizens milling around as if lured by the flames. The Alte Synagogue was further destroyed in bombing raids during the war. Ludwig, along with 45 other Jewish adult men, was arrested and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Punishing treatment of the prisoners resulted in Ludwig Gutmann dying in February 1939; his body was returned and buried in the Worm’s Jewish Cemetery. More than 900 years of Jewish life in Worms was shattered in mere days by the assaults that occurred during Kristallnacht.

Fear gripped the family and by 1941 they were dispersed away from Worms. Mira and Heinz’s Uncle Wilhelm were forcibly sent to the city of Mainz, where they became part of the labor power in the Blendax factory, which had been overhauled from producing tubes of toothpaste to building a series of armored tank prototypes. In the same year, Heinz, 15 years old, attended a vocational school in Frankfort, Germany. In Worms, the Jews were being rounded up and deported. In early 1942 Heinz was injured at school and traveled back to Worms for medical treatment. On March 20, 1942, while he was still in town, he and Ruth were among the last Jewish people seized and deported by train to Poland. They were detained in the Piaski ghetto and later they were transferred to an extermination camp where they were killed. The display in the Jewish Museum of Worms did not indicate that anyone of the Gutmann family survived the Shoah.

The threads of our Jewish lives are woven together from the past, to the present and continue into the future. When I walked the streets of the Jewish quarter in Worms, I experienced an enduring sense of the responsibility. I appreciated that we, the living, have the duty to remember and to take actions in many ways. We can be travelers, for example, to the towns and the Jewish neighborhoods where buildings alone stand and artifacts are on display. We belong in these places as engaged witnesses. This is in sharp contrast to the point of view that anyplace that the Germans maligned and terrorized the Jewish people is off limits. We can aspire to commemorate Jews and their devotion to Judaism in the places where they lived. And in this way, each of us can attempt to practice tikkun olam by honoring the memory of Heinz Guttmann and those Jewish lives that ended too soon. 

Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. serves on the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission. Her speaking engagements on preventing anti-Semitism, and the link between anti-Semitism and leadership are based on her research that advances the study of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.