Why the Rhine River town of Bacharach, Germany is a dark spot in Jewish history: more than Riesling and medieval castles

Wernerkapelle, in Bacharach, Germany (Ellin Bessner/photo)
No. 43 Langstrasse, Bacharach, Germany: last home of Willi and Emma Keller, siblings, deported by the Nazis to Theresienstadt in 1942, where they died.  (Ellin Bessner/photo)

My front page story published in the Canadian Jewish News  July 6, 2017.

Here is the link to the online story.

A moving van was blocking the narrow, cobblestone lane outside our hotel in the quaint town of Bacharach, Germany, on the banks of the Rhine River. A white-haired truck driver saw that I was struggling to squeeze between his parked truck and the walls of the building, trying to heave my suitcase over its giant wheels, in order to reach my car. He stopped what he was doing, smiled and helped me lift my bag. After stowing the luggage in the trunk, I headed back to the hotel to settle the bill. That’s when I noticed two brass plaques embedded in the street in front of the truck.

I got goosebumps.

“Willi Keller, Born 1894, Deported 1942, Died in Theresienstadt,” read one. “Emma Keller, Born 1893, Deported 1942, Died in Theresienstadt,” stated the other.

I knew immediately that they were stolperstein, or “stumbling stones,” which are part of a European commemorative art project to document the last known residences of victims of the Holocaust, both Jewish and non. Willi Keller, a 48-year-old bachelor, had been a tailor, and his sister, Emma, 49, had also never married and lived with her brother until July 27, 1942, when they were deported.

Seeing the stolperstein outside my hotel surprised me, but also made me shiver, because their presence completely changed the way I felt about that picturesque tourist town that’s known for its medieval castles on the hilltops above the Rhine River, its local Riesling wines and for the restaurants and brasseries filled with cyclists,  hikers and other tourists like myself.

I shivered because seeing the evidence of anti-Semitism under my feet also made me see the town’s most famous landmark in another light. In 1289, 700 years before the Nazis had rounded up the Keller siblings to take them to their deaths, Bacharach had built a shrine, known as the Wernerkapelle, to honour the death of a local teenager. Its ruins lie steps away from the hotel we were staying at.

We had visited the ruins the night before. The town had been the scene of some of the most famous anti-Jewish attacks of the Middle Ages. One in particular, in 1287, was linked to the murder of a local teenager named Werner of Oberwessel. The story has it that when the body of this poor young fellow was discovered, the Jews were blamed, because he had been working for a Jewish family. His death happened just before Easter, and the old story of Jews using his blood in their ceremonies led to retaliation against Jewish people in Bacharach and elsewhere. In Bacharach alone, over two-dozen local Jews were killed.

The Catholic Church eventually made Werner a saint, and a shrine to honour him was built in Bacharach. The shrine was destroyed in 1689 by falling rocks, when the French blew up the 12th-century Stahleck Castle, which is just up the hill from the townsite. In the mid-1800s, the Jewish-born German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the novel, Der Rabbi von Bacharach, about the Werner incident and the continued persecution of Jews living along the Rhine. Today, the ruins of the Wernerkapelle are considered Bacharach’s main attraction.

We had taken photos there the evening before, but I hadn’t fully understood what I had seen until I did some online research. A plaque on the gates of the ruin describes the site as “a unique example of German High Gothic architecture” and “the finest and most noble of the ruins in Germany.” But the plaque also hinted at the site’s darker origins: the Werner murder and the “violent riots against the Jewish citizens” that followed.

The inscription explains that in 1996, after a series of structural restorations, the Catholic Church dedicated the site as a place of “brotherly respect between Christians and Jews.” It also quotes a prayer by Pope John XXIII, asking for forgiveness:

“We recognize today that many centuries of blindness covered our eyes so that we do not see anymore the beauty of your Chosen People and we do not recognize in their faces the features of our firstborn brother. We recognize that Kain’s sign is on our forehead. In the course of centuries our brother Abel was lain in the blood that we shed, and he shed tears which we have caused as we forgot your love. Forgive us the curse which we wrongfully affixed to the name of the Jews. Forgive us, that for the second time, we nailed you to the cross. Because we did not know what we had done.”

During the Second World War, the Stahlbeck Castle, now a popular youth hostel and restaurant, was used as a detention centre for youthful opponents of the Nazi regime, and as an indoctrination camp for young Germans. Even Deputy führer Rudolph Hess visited the castle to supervise the work. Meanwhile, in the town below, many of the remaining Jewish residents were killed.

The Keller siblings aren’t the only local Jews to be commemorated with stolperstein in Bacharach. Their plaques were installed during a ceremony in 2014.. They honour an elderly woman, Antonie Herzberg, who was killed in Treblinka at age 80, and Heinrich Pfaff, a watchmaker and First World War veteran who was suffering from shell shock and was gassed by the Nazis at the sanatorium where he was being treated in 1941, according to local newspaper reports. A fifth Holocaust victim, Marie Louise Jeiter, had a stolperstein installed in 2015 outside the home where she lived before she, too, was deported to an institution and euthanized in 1944, because the Nazis considered her mentally ill.

After learning all this, I couldn’t wait to leave Bacharach. The moving van driver asked me how long I was staying in Germany and I told him, truthfully, that I was flying home to Canada that day.

He looked down at the stolperstein and admitted that he was very worried about the growing nationalistic sentiments in Europe and the anti-immigrant feelings around the world. He said that he feared bad things could happen – again. He told me how lucky I was to be living in Canada. He thought it was a beautiful country and said that “your prime minister is a good boy.”

My son, Alex, had been on a Birthright trip to Israel just a week or so before he joined me on this road trip down the Rhine, and he had been wearing his black Birthright-Taglit Canada Israel Experience T-shirt on the day we arrived in Bacharach. Long before I had learned about the town’s dark history, I had urged Alex to change and wear something else that day, because I was afraid that the Star of David on the T-shirt might bring us unwanted attention, or even lead to violence.

But now, I am fiercely glad that the Jewish symbol had been proudly worn in this tiny corner of the world, unknowingly and defiantly saying to the haters, “Here we are, back again.” It made me proud of him, and of Canada, which is seen even by the driver of a moving van in one of the prettiest tourist towns in Germany as a beacon of goodness in the face of evil.

3 thoughts on “Why the Rhine River town of Bacharach, Germany is a dark spot in Jewish history: more than Riesling and medieval castles”

  1. Thank you. A very touching story.
    However, I question whether or not our Prime Minister should be designated a “good boy”. He named his son Hadrian, the Roman Emperor that crushed the Jewish revolt and who renamed Judaea -> Syria Palestina
    ISIS stole 11,00 blank Syrian passports. How well are we monitoring those coming in with Syrian passports.

  2. Excellent but sad reading, we are going on holiday there this year, I like to know what to look out for, i have seen these plaques on the pavements in Amsterdam, I have also visited a few death camps, very very sad

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