Grandson of Nazi Who Took Over A Jewish Man’s Store Tracked Down Descendant To Apologize

November 16, 2020

Thomas Edelmann was born in Germany more than 25 years after the end of the Second World War. Yet last year, following an unexpected sales call, the 49-year-old businessman contacted a retired teacher in Israel to apologize for the actions of his Nazi grandfather that he never met. In this heart-warming act of reconciliation, Edelmann wanted to teach his son a lesson about the impact the his decisions in life can have on other people, according to a recent story by CNN. 

As he was growing up, Edelmann had heard rumors about his family’s business and suspected it might have previously been owned by German Jews who were forced to sell to Wilhem Edelmann, his paternal grandfather.

Over the past several years, the father of two had begun to explore his family’s genealogy. In doing so, he came across tax records from the Nazi era that confirmed that a Jewish man named Benjamin Heidelberger, was the original owner and had been forced to sell his hardware store in Bad Mergentheim, southern Germany, in 1938 following the introduction of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws.

These laws restricted Jews from the German economy by making it legal to confiscate their property, among many other restrictions.

Edelmann mentioned this story in passing to a salesperson from MyHeritage, an online family tree building website, who had called him to discuss his subscription. Fascinated by the story, the salesman decided to relay the tale to the company’s research team.

Two weeks later, MyHeritage called Edelmann back after they had unearthed two important records including Heidelberger’s 1942 naturalization record from British Mandatory Palestine, and his tombstone alongside his wife, Emma, in northern Israel. Additionally, they discovered that Heidelberger had a living granddaughter, named Hanna Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich, an 83-year-old retired teacher in Israel, knew all about the store that came to be known as Willi Edelmann. So much so, that a black-and-white photograph of it, bearing the earlier name of her grandfather, still hangs on a wall inside her home.

Edelmann lost touch with his father after his parents divorced in the early 1970s and knew very little about his family history on his father’s side of the family. He grew up with no connection to the store, which had become a prosperous retail chain from the original hardware store.

The store itself no longer exists, but Edelmann’s family still owns the building and numerous other properties in the town. He, however, has no financial stake in the family’s firm.

Unaware that Ehrenreich grew up speaking German, Edelmann sent her a letter in English. He said in the letter, “I believe that if my family supported the injustice your grandparents experienced, it is our duty to take this into account and take over responsibility at least in getting in touch with you to listen and learn. As I am part of the Edelmann family I want to take the first step and listen to you.”

“I do understand that you might not see any benefit for yourself personally in talking to me. But with me understanding and being able to teach my children and possibly other family members about the impact of particular historical decisions, this might help them to make better decisions in their lives,” he continued.

Commenting on current events and a rising atmosphere of anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes in Germany today, Edelmann also wrote, “Currently, the political climate in our country is poisoned. There is a new anti-Semitism upcoming. I want to make sure that at least my family will never again be responsible for injustice experienced by others, but stand up to take part for the weak.”

After receiving the letter, Ehrenreich agreed to speak with him. Several weeks later, they spent an hour and a half discussing their families’ pasts on the telephone, in German.

Speaking to CNN, Ehrenreich  said, “It was a very good conversation.” Thomas wanted to hear how we had been. I said we were happy, and we have had a good life.”

Ehrenreich told Edelmann that Benjamin Heidelberger and his wife Emma, her paternal grandparents, had used the money from the forced sale of their family store to flee Germany to Mandatory Palestine in 1938, just weeks before the horrific events of Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish pogroms that began on November 9, 1938. Ehrenreich’s parents, who also fled Germany, had arrived in pre-State Israel earlier than their parents and she was born there in 1937. Sadly, her maternal grandparents staid behind in Germany and were murdered in the Holocaust.

“He was very moved and said he was so happy to hear the story from my side — he was almost crying,” she told CNN.

Ehrenreich was close to her grandfather and shared his side of the story with Edelmann. She said that Heidelberger often spoke of his former homeland and wrote in his German-language diary, “My business successor, Wilhelm Edelmann, came every first of the month to pay the rent, and even though he was a member of the Nazi party, he was a decent man and not an anti-Semite. In the fall of 1937, we sold him our house for 10,000 Reichsmark, though my asking price had been 15,000. In July 1938, we sold our shop and warehouse for the bargain price of 28,500 Reichsmark, the same sum for which I had bought it 30 years earlier,” Heidelberger continued.

“Under different circumstances, I could have sold it for 40,000. But back then many Jewish businesses in Bad Mergentheim were sold under value,” he wrote in his diary. “One day, Edelmann came to me and said I should leave Germany as quickly as possible. There were plans in place to act against Jews and he felt obliged to warn me, his good acquaintance.”

Ehrenreich had visited the location of the shop on a family trip to Bad Mergentheim in the 1980s. She told CNN: “I knew Edelmann was indeed the person who bought the shop. I understood that he was a good man, although he was a member of the Nazi party.” Edelmann was deeply moved by his call with the granddaughter of Benjamin Heidelberger and the two have stayed in touch since. Edelmann hopes to visit Israel in the future.

Speaking to CNN, Edelmann described this encounter saying, “It was such an emotional moment when I heard Hanna on the phone and when she told me about her grandfather. Although her family was treated so badly she was very friendly and didn’t hold me responsible for anything.” While somewhat relieved to learn of Ehrenreich’s version of the events, Edelmann still has doubts about his grandfather.

“I know my grandfather was a very good businessman. When he was a student during the 1920s he was already a member of the Nazi party, which was before Hitler came to power. So I don’t believe he was such a good man, I’m not 100% convinced. I doubt he didn’t take advantage of the situation.”

Edelmann felt strongly that coming to terms with his family’s past is an important lesson for his children. His 15-year-old son Finn started learning about Nazi Germany in high school last year. “I want him to understand what history is, and what history means. Although he doesn’t have anything to do with this story, it’s our ancestor who has impacted the lives of a whole family who had a life in this country,” he said. “I want him to learn and understand that whatever decisions he makes has an impact on someone else’s life.”

Read More: https://cnn.it/3nss91O