A stop at Bachrach: I see my father's face

"When other rivers will be purified only the Rhine will ever flow red (Natan Alterman).

Prof. Itzhak D. Goldberg, MD FACR

OpEds Pont-de-Beauvoisin (Savoie, France) - Buildings on the river
Pont-de-Beauvoisin (Savoie, France) - Buildings on the river

I wish I knew the meaning,
A sadness has fallen on me.
The ghost of an ancient legend
That will not let me be.
The air is cool in the twilight
And gently flows the Rhine;
A mountain peak in the setting sun
Catches the faltering shine. (Heinrich Heine, The Lorelei)


Metal-bladed windmills punctuate the autobahn cutting through the romantic Rhine Valley. I have just concluded a meeting at the University of Maastricht, Netherlands and I am driving on my way to the airport in Frankfurt. I detour off the highway and take the scenic route.

As I near the ancient picturesque town of Bachrach the luscious Rhine Valley spreads out below me, enveloped by steep hills draped with vineyards struggling, as they have done for centuries to maintain their hold on this fertile soil,.  The sun is bright, the green meadows vibrant. The muddy waters of the Rhine River flow south. River cruise boats steam north against the current.

I stop in Bachrach.

Hiking up toward the Stahleck Castle at the Town’s peak to gain a panoramic view of the magnificent landscape I am unexpectedly confronted by a looming Gothic sandstone ruin dating back to the 13th century, the Wernerkapelle,. The structure is a crumbled shell, roofless and surreal. Tall pane-less windows on immense dark walls open into a vast unnerving space. A wild wind whistles through the air. Two dogs run a barking duet as clouds gather over the river. On the road below an old black Volkswagen Beetle stops.  An elderly German couple emerges and slowly make their way up the stairs towards the ruin. A plaque on the external wall reads:

“We recognize today that many centuries of blindness have shrouded our eyes, so that we no longer saw the goodliness of Thy Chosen People and no longer recognized our firstborn brother’s traits. We discover now that a mark of Cain stands on our forehead. In the course of the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood that we spilt, and he has wept tears that we brought forth, because we forgot Thy love. Forgive us the curse that we unrightfully affixed to the Jews’ name. Forgive us for nailing Thee in their flesh for a second time to the Cross. For we knew not what we did........."                                     

The plaque is signed by Pope John XXIII (term1958-1963).

In 1287 a blood libel about the use of Christian blood for Passover matzah baking sent anti-Semitic mobs raging through the streets of Bachrach. The ensuing pogroms wiped out many of the ancient Jewish communities along the Rhine. This ruined cathedral, erected in memory of the dead child, Werner von Oberwesel, now widely believed to have been a victim of a sexual crime coverup, personified the cult of Werner. In 1963 the Werner cult was deleted from the calendar of the German Diocese of Trier, but "Holy Werner of Oberwesel" still appears in German Saint directories. Heinrich Heine wrote his famous unfinished story about this blood libel entitled “The Rabbi of Bachrach”.

Jews had lived in this region since the fifth century, perhaps earlier. From the Middle Ages onward in its various spellings, the name Bachrach is found among Ashkenazi Jews in all parts of Europe indicating that the family either derived its origin from the city or that an ancestor had been a  resident of Bachrach. The Jews lived in relative harmony with their neighbors until 1096 when the Crusaders carved a path through Germany. Jewish communities along the Rhine River Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, were savagely attacked.

Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade vowed: “…to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name 'Jew,' thus assuaging his own burning wrath”. (Solomon bar Simson Chronicle).

Thousands of Jews were offered the choice of baptism or death. The vast majority, over 10,000, rather than renounce their faith chose to die as martyrs. Thereafter throughout the Middle Ages the Jews in this region were persecuted for their faith. Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar commemorates national tragedies over two millennia including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Every year special lamentations solemnizing the destruction of the Jewish communities along the Rhine River are included in the service.

“Remember this, sage people

And do not refrain from amplifying lamentation

And mourn the pious and the just

Who sank into the seething waters…”

(Lamentation by Rabbi Meir Ben Yehiel)

On the hills to the right of the ruin the grapes swell ripe on the vines along the steep slopes. Wine making was a major occupation of Jews in the Middle Ages.                  The vineyards are still here. The Jews are all gone.

Turning to face the tawny Rhine I recall Natan Alterman’s poem linking the muddy waters to the blood spilled here. In 1942 Natan Alterman published his reversion of Heine’s “Lorelei” predicting that the Germans will lose the war and that “when other rivers will be purified only the Rhine will ever flow red”.

I see my father’s face.

One of ten children raised  in Krasnik, Poland in a Gur Hasidic family  my father was a survivor of the inhumane Budzin labor camp. Escaping a death march in May 1944, he joined the partisans in the forest until the war ended.

My father lost his wife, two daughters and most of his immediate and extended family in the Holocaust. After the war my father was assigned to the Zielsheim Displaced Persons Camp near Frankfurt, about 45 minutes by car from Bachrach. This Zionist DP Camp was visited by David Ben Gurion and Eleanor Roosevelt and housed about 3500 Jewish survivors. The streets of the camp were named after towns and kibbutzim in land of Israel and the camp held many protests against the British mandate in Palestine.

While in the DP camp my father’s older brother Eliyahu, a miraculous survivor of multiple brutal Nazi labor camps, died in the American hospital from food intolerance. His burial site remains unknown.

A train is rushing up the Rhine Valley below.

I recall a story my father told me when I was nine years old.

He was in Germany during this chaotic post Holocaust period and passing between two passenger compartments on a rapidly moving train when he was roughly seized from behind and dragged to the edge of the open pivoting steel platform. After a fierce struggle with a stranger my father overpowered his assailant and thrust him off  the moving train. He never ascertained the identity of the mysterious assaulter or the reason for this murderous attack.

I am reminded of the biblical struggle of Jacob and his mysterious foe on a dark endlessly long night. Jacob was preparing to reenter the Land of Israel after many years of exile. He had already moved his family across the Yabok River but crossed back to retrieve objects left behind. It is then that Jacob encountered his enigmatic antagonist. After a long night of existential struggle Jacob emerges victorious, though limping. G-D changed Jacob’s name to Israel and he then enters his homeland.

Did my father’s struggle on the train with his mysterious foe take place here along the Rhine?

Soon after my father’s life and death encounter on the train he married his second wife, my mother, a niece of his recently deceased brother Eliyahu. The wedding was held in the  Eschwege DP camp, 41 miles from Bachrach. With his new wife he moved to Israel and joined the nascent IDF. Operating the Davidka mortar he battled the invading Arab armies in the Galil during Israel’s War of Independence.

The train disappears beyond the hills along the River bank. The dogs stop barking. The elderly German couple gingerly make their way down the stairs away from the ruin. Clouds gather over the river.

A large flock of birds flies out of the ruin’s vast Gothic opening and quickly disappears. The Volkswagen Beetle is gone. The skies over the Rhine darken. It starts to rain.

A Scientific American article published in 2015 on the epigenetic effects of the Holocaust on second generation survivors cites a report by Rachel Yehuda of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. The report claims that descendants of Holocaust survivors have altered stress  hormones and are more susceptible to PTSD. Primary trauma responses and pervasive attitudes of survivors were shown to have major ramifications on their children’s personality and worldview.

Apparently, Bachrach had conjured up my father’s demons.

Back on the autobahn I head to Frankfurt’s airport. Polished Porsches pass me in the left lane speeding at over 100 miles per hour. In my elementary German I am able to understand the radio newsman announcing that the German government has approved the sale of advanced Dolphin class submarines to Israel.

“This will provide Israel with a second strike capability in case of an Iranian nuclear attack” the broadcaster explains.  

”For Hashem shall console Zion, He shall console all its ruins, and He shall make its desert like a paradise and its wasteland like the garden of Hashem; joy and happiness shall be found therein, thanksgiving  and a voice of song”  Isaiah 51:3.