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Yad Vashem The Story of the Jewish Community in Würzburg

Würzburg During the Holocaust

Shammai Zahn

For me, the beginning of the end was the 28th October 1939. It was as we were about finishing Shacharis (morning prayers) when all those who had Polish passports were called out. We were met downstairs by the Gestapo officials and marched off to the dormitories in the Bibrastrasse where we were told to pack a small suitcase each and then were led to the town's prison. There we were first searched and then conducted to the cells. By that time a number of families from the town had joined us; one man had brought with him two bags full of food - it was Friday morning and the Shabbos meals were already prepared - he left them outside the room whilst he underwent a body search and then promptly picked them up when led to the cells. I was allotted to his cell and so at least did not go hungry. We were six in a small, dark and evil smelling cell, and when the door was locked behind us, we finally realized that we were at the mercy of the beasts. The loss of one's freedom of movement is a terrible thing in  itself and I still remember very clearly the feeling of desperation which overtook me! And so Shabbos came. We davened as best we could and had something to eat. The food pushed under the door by the prison warden was, apart from being non-Kosher, quite inedible, and was returned untouched. Late Friday night we suddenly heard whistling from outside. Some of our Chaverim (friends) must have found out where we were, and whistled one of the tunes usually sung for "L'cho Dodi" at the Seminary. This was wonderful and it gave us new hope and courage. I still do not know who these thoughtful Chaverim were, but if they are amongst those who read these lines, I wish them to know how grateful we were for this wonderful gesture; it reminded us that normal life went on outside and that one day we would again enjoy the same freedom.

Very early on Shabbos morning we were told to get up and were led outside where we had to get onto waiting vehicles which took us to the railway station. We still had no idea of our destination or fate. The train took us to Nürnberg where we were all gathered in one of the Bahnhof-halls, which were still decorated with welcome signs and swastikas, etc. from the recent Reichsparteitag. There were already hundreds of people, mostly women and children, in the hall. They came from Nürnberg, Munich and other cities in southern Germany. The babies and children were crying as there was no food for them, when the large doors which led to the street opened, and the venerable Rav of Nürnberg, Rav Klein, appeared together with a Jewish taxidriver carrying crates of milk etc. for the children. Finally, we were loaded onto a long train (there were about 1,100 people on it) and started the slow journey to Poland. By then we had learned that this was to be our destination. One transport of mainly men and women without children had already left and had reached the border; (my father and sister were on it) and my mother and my younger brother and sisters were on my train, but we were not allowed to communicate as each carriage was sealed off and guarded. So the train moved slowly through the autumn landscape. At one or two stations local Jewish people were allowed on the platform and they handed food, milk and warm children's clothing through the windows, all of which was very urgently required and greatly appreciated. Late at night as we were approaching the Polish border, the train stopped and after a long wait an announcement was made. Germany had come to an arrangement with Poland and we were free; we could leave the train or, if we wished, we could stay on as the train would take us back to our home towns-and this is what everyone did. Apparently, the Poles had closed their border and the Germans decided to rather let us go back than to turn us loose in this sensitive area. The feeling of relief at our regained freedom was indescribable. I now stayed at home in Nürnberg to help my mother and the children when on the 9th of November it was decided that I should return to Würzburg for the time being. And so we come to the events of November 10. Around midnight we could hear from our beds in the Bibrastrasse the noise of a demonstration and eventually the sound of marching jackboots on the cobblestones. They came nearer and nearer until they stopped at the heavy wooden doors of the building. We listened with rising fear as they knocked heavily and shouted to us to open the door. Before long we heard the splintering of wood, and we knew that they were about to break into the house. Now it was everyone for himself. I ran up to the attic where I hid in a cupboard. I do not know how long I stayed there; I heard the noise of breaking glass, splintering wood and heavy articles dropping down onto the stones in the yard. I had no idea what had happened to the others - I could not but fear the worst. Eventually all became quiet and I ventured slowly out of my hiding place. When I came downstairs, everybody was sitting around in good humor and telling tales. It became clear that the Nazis had not touched anyone but had taken their vengeance on the furnishings and other contents. The bedding was torn and was smeared with flour and honey which came from one of the rooms where the "Winterhilfe" had a store. The beds and broken in the courtyard. We all breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that this was it and that it was all over now. Little did we know that the worst was still to come! Later on that morning we all found ourselves in the ground floor flat of Lehrer Stolberg when a group of Nazi hooligans broke in and assumed very threatening postures. They pointed at one of us and said he looked like Herschel Grynszpan (the young boy who had shot vom Rath, the German diplomat, at the Paris Embassy as revenge for the deportation of his parents to Poland on the 29th of October), and with murder in their eyes and on their faces they came closer and closer, encouraging each other to start a pogrom. We feared the worst. At that moment the Gestapo entered the room and told the mob to leave, and we were all rounded up and marched through the jeering and spitting hooligans to the local prison. Here I was again in the same place after less than two weeks, when I thought that I had seen the inside of this particular prison for the first and last time. An officer came forward and asked whether there were any Poles amongst us. We stepped forward-there were two or three of us-and after a moment's hesitation when we thought we were going to be shot, since Herschel Grynszpan had been Polish, we were told to leave and to depart for Poland. And so we found ourselves in the street, free again. All the others were taken, as we know, to the concentration camp.

I went to the Sandbergerstrasse and there I saw a sight that haunted me for a long time. The Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) and other Seforim (religious books) of the Library were piled high on the playing field in front of the Seminar and were burning fiercely. Director Jakob Stoll was held by his arms and forced to watch, surrounded by the wildly jeering crowd. I left as quickly as I could and spent the day in the Jewish Hospital across the road, which I reckoned was the safest place. I was worried about my mother and the children in Nürnberg and wanted to travel there but was frightened to be seen in the street, especially at the station where I feared there might be some sort of control. So I returned to the Sandbergerstrasse and asked Herr Hüffner (the caretaker) to lead the way for me on his bicycle and I would follow. We arranged a number of appropriate signals to indicate whether it was safe to proceed, and so I caught the train home.

Source: Ottensoser M., Roberg A. (eds.), ILBA Israelitische Lehrerbildungsanstalt Würzburg - 1864-1938 by the Alumni of 1930-38, Huntington Woods 1982, pp. 183- 187.