Letter from Konstanz

Konstanz, better known in English as Constance, is situated in a scenic and fertile fold of southwestern Germany. Such is its generally mild climate that palm trees flourish here, at least in pots. Vineyards and orchards are also common in this bucolic region between the fabled Black Forest and Bavaria.
This town of about 85,000 inhabitants, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, lies along the shore of Germany’s largest lake, the Bodensee, which borders on Switzerland and Austria.

On a clear day, which is quite often, there are tantalizing views of the snow-capped, crystalline Alps.

Settled by the Romans around 50 A.D., Konstanz – a seat of the Protestant Reformation – was absorbed by Habsburg Austria in the 16th century.

Subsequently, a redoubt of the Catholic faith and the place where Czech philosopher and religious reformer/martyr Jan Hus was burned at the stake, Konstanz was Austrian until 1806, when it passed into the hands of the Grand Duchy of Baden.

With German unification in 1871, Konstanz became part of Germany.

Esthetically, Konstanz is a marvel, distinguished by a profusion of architectural styles ranging from Renaissance to art nouveau, and by several medieval city gates that escaped destruction in the mad rush toward modernity and conformity.

The Niederburg, the oldest quarter, is a jumble of crooked streets and lanes and half-timbered buildings, some adorned with frescoes and golden Gothic lettering.

Unlike many towns in this country, Konstanz was spared by the ravages of World War II. As a result, its priceless ensemble of antique buildings, from the 15th-century town hall to the 19th- century imperial post office,  were preserved.

While German cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Dresden were devastated by Allied air raids, with horrific civilian casualties, Konstanz was never bombed.

Konstanz’s attractive city centre was saved by a geographic quirk.

Since it is adjacent the sleepy Swiss town of Kreuzlingen, the Allies did not bomb Konstanz. Allied bombers tried not to violate Switzerland’s neutrality and touch off an international incident.

For good measure, Konstanz left all its lights on at night so that Allied pilots would not be able to differentiate Konstanz from Kreuzlingen.

Nonetheless, due to navigation errors, equipment failure and weather conditions, Allied aircraft dropped bombs on Swiss towns and cities, including Zurich, Basel and Geneva, causing fatalities and property damage and forcing the Allies to pay reparations.

In the most serious case of its kind, the U.S. Air Force misidentified Schaffhausen as a German town, bombing it on April 1, 1944. Forty Swiss citizens were killed and numerous buildings were destroyed.

By that point, the Jewish residents of Konstanz had been deported by the Nazis and the synagogue, consecrated in 1883, had been desecrated.

Jews have lived in Konstanz, on and off,  since the 13th century, their presence subject to the whims of its rulers and the times.

The Jewish quarter, in what is now an altogether charming and gentrified section of  the town, was concentrated between the Munzgasse and the Salmannsweilergasse and along Rosgartenstrasse.

During the Black Death, when they were accused of poisoning wells, more than 300 Jews were killed. Jews were expelled in 1533, permitted to enter Konstanz only with permission.

Allowed back in, Jewish merchants and craftsmen returned in the mid-19th century.

On the eve of the Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, Konstanz was home to slightly less than 500 Jews. As anti-Semitism intensified, they emigrated from Germany.

On Kristallnacht, on Nov. 10,1938, the SS  obliterated the ornate synagogue in a fiery foreshadowing of the Holocaust.

In 1966, a Jewish businessman bought the plot of land  where the shul had stood undisturbed for 55 years and in its place built a six- storey building on the ground of which is a restaurant/bar.

I don’t know how many Jews from Konstanz attempted to cross into neighbouring Switzerland after Kristallnacht. An unguarded mesh wire fence separates parts of Konstanz from Kreuzlingen today, and on a lark, I walked into Switzerland one fine morning. No questions asked and no passport necessary. But in the late 1930s, the border was scrupulously patrolled and such incursions would simply have been impossible.

By 1940, when Germany invaded France and the low countries and the lives of German Jews had become intolerable, a small number of Jewish burghers still remained in Konstanz, unable or unwilling to leave.

On. Oct. 22, 108 Jews were deported to Gurs, an internment camp in France that originally housed refugees from Spain. Amid appalling conditions, some died. The rest were transported to Auschwitz and Sobibor in 1942, and there they were murdered.

As a memorial to them, a black marble monument stands on Sigismundstrasse, which is close to the commercial district and a short walk from the railway station, where many Jews resided before the Nazi era. Their names – Lina Weil, Anna Weiler, Moses Forszt and Ludwig Bab, to name but four of the victims – are engraved in the stone in four languages, German, English, French and Hebrew.

So-called stumble stones commemorate the tragedy of the Holocaust as well. These unobtrusive brass markers, containing the names and addresses of  the victims of National Socialism, are embedded in sidewalks throughout Konstanz and in German towns.

With the war over and Nazi Germany vanquished, Eastern European Jewish survivors who had been liberated from concentration camps settled in Konstanz. The majority departed soon afterward. By the late 1960s, only 30 Jews resided in Konstanz. Three hundred Jews live in Konstanz today, mainly from the former Soviet Union, but also from other European nations and Israel.

In 1974, when Konstanz had about 100 Jews, a 28-year-old Jewish singer and voice teacher from Rotterdam, Holland, named Ruth Frenk arrived to study with her teacher.

Frenk, whose mother was a German Jew and whose father was a Dutch Jew, thought that she was merely passing through. “I somehow stayed on,” said Frenk, who initially earned a living singing traditional Jewish songs. “There was a need for it. No one else was doing it. And I liked Konstanz.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community was immeasurably bolstered by new arrivals. “We were not prepared for these people,” said Frenk, the president of the local German-Israel society. “There was no infrastructure to absorb them properly.”

In addition, they knew very little about Judaism and did not speak German, said Frenk, who commutes to Israel regularly to meet her partner in Tel Aviv.

Unable to fit into German society, many of the elderly among them subsist on social welfare payments. “They have a rough time,” said Frenk.

Three years ago, the community split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions after the president, a wealthy Polish-born Jew, decreed that it would abide by Orthodox rather than Conservative rites in order to integrate the Russian newcomers. Jews like Frenk rebelled, triggering the schism.

Due to these divisions, paralysis has set in and the community has not taken possession of a piece of land that Konstanz donated for a new synagogue. As of last month, the impasse was as deep and raw as ever.