Badische Zeitung, Tuesday, 29th June 2004

Breisach, an open town
Historical and genealogical conference on the founding families of the Jewish community

Geismar house
Since the renovation work was completed and the opening celebrated exactly one year ago, the Former Jewish Community House in Breisach, “The Blue House,” has developed into a centre for reconciliation and a place for coming together. On Sunday, a five-day conference on one of the largest founding families of the Jewish Community got underway. The conference included numerous lectures as well as excursions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Breisach was, despite its fortifications, a multicultural trading and military centre between Germany and the rest of Western Europe, between Alsace and Baden. The Jewish families, especially the Geismars, Günzburgers, Breisachers, Wormsers, Blochs, Blozheimers, Uffenheimers and Auerbachs, were respected traders, who occasionally held important positions in the town administration. They belonged to the second largest Jewish community in Baden (after Mannheim) and differed markedly in status and wealth from the “Landjuden” (country Jews) of the surrounding area.

Most of the descendants of those Jewish families who were able to escape to freedom after 1933 live today in the USA, Israel and France. Around 50 of them came from six different countries in order to exchange the results of their own genealogical research and to build up a network of personal contacts. Konstanz historian Eva Wiebel presented in her lecture her groundbreaking work on the integration of immigrants in Breisach between 1660 and 1760, when diverse languages and cultures did not hinder integration. Even in court records of conflicts between long-standing residents and their newly arrived neighbours, hardly any xenophobic or anti-Jewish prejudices could be found.

"To not exclusively focus on the horrors of the holocaust"

The Sun King [Louise XIV of France], who was ruler of the fortified town around the Minster of St. Stephen up until 1700, even permitted Jewish immigration while keeping Protestants out. The garrison needed traders to provide for the soldiers. Their number was at times equal to that of the civilian population. Wiebel stressed the high ability of the early modern town to integrate immigrants, and the bilingualism that was taken for granted in many families.

In light of this earlier epoch, the exclusive focus on the horrors of the Holocaust was replaced by a more hopeful view. By plumbing deeper into the town’s history, Wiebel added a reconciliatory note to the meeting, perhaps even hope for the future. This took place without the slightest move towards relativising the cruel suffering, the dragging off and murdering of Jews from Alsace, Baden and especially Breisach. Each of the conference participants could mourn the murder of someone close to them [...] In Arno Cahn’s lecture, which was accompanied with impressive pictures and documents, we heard of his first visit to Cologne after the war: “I had the feeling I was walking on my own grave.”

The Breisach conference, despite being overshadowed by the current conflict over the partial remnants of a swastika on the road leading into the upper town, shows the remarkable work of the Association under the leadership of its president Christiane Walesch-Schneller. Nevertheless, a suitable level of support and recognition for the Blue House from the town council and mayor are still conspicuous by their absence. The two schools in Breisach showed themselves to be more open and interested than large parts of the conservative citizenry.

Peter Winterling [Translated by Samuel Harding]

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