Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | March 2017 | 25 minutes (6,248 words)
David Birnbaum got off the train in Baiersdorf. The Bavarian village 12 miles north of Nuremberg as the crow flies made a pleasant, pastoral impression. Green fields surrounded the railroad station, and men in leather trousers stood in front of traditional timbered houses.
In 2000, Birnbaum, a corporate business development manager, had come all the way from Rechovot, Israel. He had never heard of Baiersdorf until he looked at one of his family trees. His great-great-grandfather, the renowned numismatist Abraham Merzbacher, was born there in 1812, as was another famous relative, the mountaineer and explorer Gottfried Merzbacher. In the first half of the 19th century, the era in which the two men were born, almost one third of Baiersdorf’s 1,400 residents was Jewish.
David Birnbaum’s relatives had left Baiersdorf for various reasons and in all directions. Abraham Merzbacher went to study in Munich. He became a banker and collected one of the largest private Jewish libraries in the world. Gottfried Merzbacher caught wanderlust. He went to explore Central Asia’s Tian Shan mountains, indulging in nature’s “wondrously sweet, flowery alpine valleys… wild gorges… rock chains of unprecedented boldness.” Later, a glacial lake there was named after him. In his expedition “sketches” (available only in German) Merzbacher also wrote that in the magic of this “unworldly solitude (…) the struggles and passions caused by the contrast of people’s real or perceived interests appeared surreal, like phantoms.”
David Birnbaum knocked at the town hall in Baiersdorf’s neat main square. He expected to unearth information about his family by looking at 300- or 400-year-old tax records at the town’s archive, as he had done in other places in Germany. A clerk said that the archive was a complete mess; no way that he’d find anything there. Normally, the clerk disclosed, they don’t even let people go to the Jewish cemetery unescorted. But since Birnbaum had come all the way from Israel and only had a few hours, he could take the big iron key and go to the cemetery which was, unlike other Jewish cemeteries, located right in the center of town. Read more…