First Time and First Impressions in Frankfurt Germany

Eschenheimer Tower;  photo by Rhonda Spivak
Eschenheimer Tower; photo by Rhonda Spivak

By Rhonda Spivak

It was February 2012, my first time in Germany for two days on a stopover on my way to Israel. I had decided to stay at the Flemings Deluxe Hotel because it was centrally located, safe and it had a great view of a medieval tower that was opposite it.

There are two things I remember most about the hotel. The first was that when I ordered tea at the rooftop restaurant, it came with a little hour glass-timer. When I saw the timer it reminded me of playing boggle with my cousins in Israel on Netanya beach. For a moment, I began wondering why the waiter in this Frankfurt hotel had assumed that I wanted to play boggle. Then I realized that I was supposed to turn the mini-hour glass upside down and when the sand drained to the bottom, it meant my tea was ready. The waiter explained that my timer was set to mark exactly three minutes which is the perfect steeping time for tea. I had never seen such precision for making tea anywhere else I had traveled. I usually just look at the colour of the water and guess when to take out my tea bag, and if I guess wrong I just plunk the teabag back in. The timer made this whole process to be very exacting – almost too exacting. For a split second, I thought of the fact the Germans during the Holocaust were very precise – the trains to the death camps always arrived on time. However I should add that although at no time anywhere else in Frankfurt or during my subsequent two trips to Germany was I ever served tea with a tea timer. (On the net, there are several companies, all in Germany, one can find that make these tea timers).

The second thing I remember most about the hotel was that it had a completely see-through shower – with glass panes on all sides, something I have never seen anywhere else. I suppose this has it’s advantages – i.e. if you want to watch TV at the same time as taking a shower. And I remember wondering whether I would find a sand glass-timer in case I wanted to time how long my shower took or play boggle in my head while I showered. And if truth be told, the very first night I took a shower in this see-through shower I thought about all the Jews during the Nazi period who had been told they were just going to be taking a shower when in fact they were gassed.

As I left the hotel to find something to eat that evening, I saw a post up on the street advertising some event called “Stille Nacht” – and as I read it, my mind automatically thought of the word “Kristallnacht,” and then I began to wonder where the synagogues of the Jewish community that lived here before the war used to be – how near or far from my hotel. (I would later find out it was only about a 15 minute walk to the Borneplatz, the synagogue which was destroyed on Kristallnacht. I unexpectedly came upon the memorial of over 11000 stone blocks, incorporated into the Frankfurt Jewish cemetery wall, depicting the names of Frankfurt’s Jews, who were murdered.)

I slept very badly the first night in the hotel. I was startled by the sounds of a siren as a police car went by my hotel. The sound of the siren was the same as I had heard in films about the Holocaust when the Nazis came – or so it seemed to me. The sound of the siren is the same in Germany as it is elsewhere in other European countries, such as in Switzerland for example, but it had been a long time since I had heard it, and it spooked me a bit.

In the morning I had a better look at the Eschenheim Tower across from the hotel, a landmark city gate that was part of the late-medieval fortifications of Frankfurt. The tower, which was erected at the beginning of the fifteenth century, is the oldest and most unaltered building in the city. This medieval landmark was neat to see, but I realized it harkened back to a time which was very difficult for the Jews of the city. During the outbreak of the Black Plague in 1349, the Jewish community of Frankfurt (like elsewhere in Europe) was completely massacred, and many Jews chose to burn down their own houses while still inside rather than face death from an angry mob. But Jews were invited back into Frankfurt in 1360 where in these medieval times they were forced to become moneylenders (since “usury” was prohibited for Christians) and although the government of the day took much of the interest that the Jews charged, the average person didn’t know this, which only caused them to dislike Jews more. By 1462, the Jews were forcibly relocated to a ghetto which in German is called Juddengasse. Judengasse means Jewish alley (originally the Jewish Ghetto in Frankfurt was only one street).

Archeological ruins of a mikveh-which are proof that the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt used to be here;  photo by Rhonda Spivak
Archeological ruins of a mikveh – which are proof that the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt used to be here; photo by Rhonda Spivak

When I first encountered the word Judengasse on my first day in Frankfurt, I was keenly aware that in English it was like saying ” Jews-Gas”, and I couldn’t help but think of the Germans gassing the Jews. Every time I read the word Judengasse in a pamphlet or book, that was the automatic association I had and I couldn’t change it even though I consciously tried. In Frankfurt, while the municipality was clearing land to build something in 1987, they happened upon the remains of a street in Judengasse – the Jewish ghetto. I did go see these archaeological ruins which are now part of the Judengasse Museum. They were amazingly intact – to the point where they could identify the names of the families who lived in this crowded, neglected ghetto. In the corner of the ruins there was a mikveh, a way in which archaeologists can be certain they have uncovered remains of a Jewish settlement. At the Museum (which had only two other people when I was there), I learned there was a major confrontation as to how much of the ruins the municipality was going to preserve. The foundations of 19 buildings were found, but only five were incorporated in the “Museum Judengasse.”

Later that night while sipping my tea, I had a close read of my Frankfurt city guide written by Wolfgang Kootz, which had a two page overview entitled “The history of the City of Frankfurt.” The last entry the overview had that related to Jews was 1864, when the book said “The Jewish are given full civil rights.” There was absolutely nothing in the overview that referred to what had happened to the Jewish citizens of Frankfurt during World War II – how those “full civil rights” were completely taken away and in 1945 only 160 remained. (In 1933 Frankfurt’s Jewish population numbered 26,158, with Frankfurt having the largest Jewish percentage of population among Germany’s major cities). Amazingly, the only entry for the war years in the overview in my book was this: “1936-1944: Rhine-Main international airport is opened. The historic city centre is destroyed in air raids.”

Restaurant Schwartzer Stern; photo by Rhonda Spivak.
Restaurant Schwartzer Stern; photo by Rhonda Spivak.

When I did go to see the reconstructed city centre, I remember noticing names I recognized as being Jewish surnames on stores or restaurants, reminding me that so many Ashkenazic names I am familiar with are Germanic in origin. I saw the Rosen pharmacy, a shop named Rosenthal, a restaurant in the historic Romerberg (town hall square) named Shwarzer Stern, a store called Steinberger, etc. The Romerberg, including the Old Church of St. Nicolas was decked out with Nazi flags in Hitler’s time.

At the Romerberg, stands the Fountain of Justice and as I later learned by surfing the net, apparently a few steps away from the fountain there is a plaque in the cobblestones that commemorates the book burning by the Nazis in 1933. I missed seeing this since for some strange reason it wasn’t mentioned in my Frankfurt City guide written by Kootz. On my way back from the Romerberg I noticed a little book entitled the “Jews of Frankfurt” written by a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I happened to see the book on a discount bargain shelf at a bookstore I passed by. The book was marked down to 2.99 Euro’s, a bargain price. And then I couldn’t help but think to myself – no wonder it’s marked down, who is going to buy it here?

From the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, I could see the old Opera house – “Alte Oper Frankfurt.” I never thought much about this while I was in Frankfurt. It was only much later that I learned with a quick Wikipedia search that the Opera is full of Jewish history. During the 1920’s the Frankfurt opera had more prominent Jewish singers than any other company in Germany. These included the tenor Hermann Schramm, bass Hans Erl , baritone Richard Breitenfeld and contralto Magda Spiegel, all of whom were forced to leave the opera in 1933, as was Musical Director Hans-Wilhelm Steinberg. Members of Frankfurt Opera were sent to die in Auschwitz and other camps. Schramm survived, living to testify against the Frankfurt Gestapo officer Heinrich Baab in 1951. The opera was destroyed in air raids in World War II.

Tombstone in Frankfurt cemetary of a member of the Rothschild family (Kalman Rothschild); photo by Rhonda Spivak.
Tombstone in Frankfurt cemetary of a member of the Rothschild family (Kalman Rothschild); photo by Rhonda Spivak.

Today the Jewish population of Frankfurt is some 7,200 members, half of whom come from the former Soviet Union. I didn’t meet any of them, as they didn’t live anywhere near my hotel. I thought I might come across a few Jews at the Judengasse Museum, but the Museum was staffed with German clerks, all non-Jewish and there was nary a Jew around.

Rhonda Spivak is Editor/Publisher of Winnipeg Jewish Review.

This article originally appeared in Winnipeg Jewish Review; reprinted with permission.