Bavarian town rediscovering its Jewish history

The sandstone building in the center of town had been ravaged by time. The outside walls were pitted and stained and chunks of plaster were missing from the curved ceiling.

My daughters and I could barely tell that this was a former synagogue, built in 1792 for 300 Jews living in Reckendorf, a small village in Bavaria, Germany. The temple had been stripped during Kristallnacht, its contents burned. After the war, the building became a storehouse for beer.

There are no longer any Jews in Reckendorf. In the early 1800s, a third of the town's 1,000 residents were Jewish, making it an important center of Jewish life, one big enough to hire its own rabbi. But after the failed 1848 revolution, Jews realized they were not about to become full citizens, and they fled.

Many of those Reckendorf immigrants ended up in San Francisco, where their exploits became pioneer lore. My great-great-grandfather, Isaias W. Hellman, started as a clerk in a dry goods store in Los Angeles in 1859 and later became president of Wells Fargo bank. Abe and Jacob Haas joined Isaias' brother, Herman, to form one of the largest wholesale grocery businesses in the southwest. Abe's son Walter married Elise Stern, bringing the Haas family into the leadership of Levi Strauss & Co. The Walter brothers started a furniture business, DN&E Walter, which exists (in a different form) to this day.

My daughters Charlotte, 11, and Juliet, 8, and I had traveled to Reckendorf to prowl the streets where Isaias Hellman had walked, to see the town he had chosen to leave. Given its history, I expected to find a place silent about its past, indifferent to the Jews who had once lived there.

I was wrong.

We arrived in Reckendorf in early July just as a rainstorm descended. My daughters and I were warmly greeted by the former mayor, Helmut Horger, and the town historian, Heidi Waschka. We sat down in the conference room of the Rauthaus, the town hall, drank some freshly brewed coffee, and heard a history of the relationship between the town's Jews and Catholics.

I knew Isaias Hellman's father was a weaver, but I didn't know he hired the wives of Catholic farmers to make clothes. I didn't know that the Haases dealt in cotton and textiles in the 19th century — which may partly explain their future affinity with denim. I didn't know that the Walters once owned the house we were sitting in and hired Catholics to thresh hops to make beer for the town's five breweries.

Why did this former mayor know so much about the Hellmans, Walters and Haases? And why did he care?

It turns out he may be a reflection of a new movement. Sixty years after the Holocaust, Jewish life is thriving in Germany. According to Newsweek magazine, more Jews from the Soviet Union immigrated to Germany than Israel last year. Now 200,000 Jews live in Germany, fewer than the 500,000 who lived there before the war, but a huge jump from the 15,000 who remained after 1945.

As the former mayor led us past Isaias Hellman's former house, his old school, the ritual bath and the cemetery, I realized that my fear that all Germans were secret Nazis wasn't true. Horger seemed fascinated by his town's past and immensely proud that some of its former residents had become influential Americans.

And it was his admiration for Jews that prompted him to take action on the decaying synagogue. In true businessman style, he went to play golf one day with the man who used the temple as a storehouse. Horger convinced him to sell it to Reckendorf.

The day my daughters and I walked through the synagogue, rain splattered us through broken windows. We had to kick through debris on the musty stone floor. But all around us were blue-coated workmen who were installing scaffolding and conferring on future plans.

The synagogue is about to become a cultural center, one that will have a section devoted to the Jews of Reckendorf. The town's residents raised 150,000 euros for the project, and the Bavarian regional government contributed another 300,000 euros to complete the restoration.

I was honored to see that Reckendorf couldn't forget its former Jewish residents. I also realized that even though Isaias Hellman left the town more than 140 years ago, his descendants can't forget Reckendorf either. We had a past together. Now it looks like we will have a future.