Friday, December 04, 2015

The Oppenheimers, Steinbach am Glan & the Shoah

The Oppenheimer lot in the Chariton Cemetery.
Simon Oppenheimer
Lucas County has been a traditional Iowa home for both Oppenheimers and Steinbachs --- Germans all --- since the late 19th century, so one source of amusement for both families has been the fact that Simon Oppenheimer, patriarch of the former family, was born in the German village of Steinbach, bearing the same name as the latter.

But this isn't as straightforward as it might seem, since there are at least a dozen towns, villages and localities in Germany called Steinbach, each with modifiers that clarify its precise location. A sea of Steinbachs, so to speak.

Although many members of the extended Oppenheimer family were content to identify their native place as just Steinbach, some weren't --- and for that reason were know that Simon and his 10 siblings were natives of Steinbach am Glan.

Steinbach am Glan is a municipality in the Kusel district of what now is the southwest German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, not too far from the French border. Many former military types are familiar with Ramstein Air Force Base. Steinbach am Glan is just a hop, skip and a jump to the west.


Find a Grave photo
The most obvious record of the Oppenheimer place of origin is the tombstone of Simon Oppenheimer's oldest sibling, Jacob Oppenheimer, at Emanuel Cemetery in Des Moines. Emanuel, established in 1871, is Des Moines' oldest Jewish cemetery, affiliated with Temple B'nai Jeshurun, the city's oldest Jewish congregation and Iowa's first Reform synagogue. Emanuel now blends almost seamlessly into the northwest corner of the capital city's renowned Woodland Cemetery.

Jacob died at the age of 80 on Saturday, June 24, 1905, at the home of his son, Eli Oppenheimer, in Chariton. His remains were taken on Sunday to Emanuel for burial and the tombstone erected on his grave bears not only his date of birth, April 15, 1825, but also the place, "Steinbach a Glan, Germany."

Although Simon, Jacob's brother, and Eli, his son, are buried in the Chariton Cemetery, many other members of the extended Oppenheimer family are buried at Emanual, including Jacob's and Simon's sisters, Bertha (Oppenheimer) Loeb and Juliana (Oppenheimer) Seligman. Another Oppenheimer sibling, Joseph, is buried at Webster City. A sixth Oppenheimer sibling to settle in the United States was Ely, who spent most of his adult life in Cincinnati, Ohio, but retired to Buffalo, New York, where he died.

As the years passed, the Oppenheimer men returned to Germany for visits and Steinbach am Glan was the place of birth specified in their passport applications, affirming --- if that was necessary --- the information on Jacob's tombstone.

It appears that five Oppenheimer siblings remained in Germany. One was Samuel, whose sons Isadore and Julius, joined their aunts and uncles in Iowa. Julius was born during January of 1868, also in Steinbach am Glan. Babette (Oppenheimer) Berman, whose children Julius, Josephine and Ida all joined their aunts and uncles in America, was the last surviving sibling in Germany, living at Konken, not far from Steinbach am Glan, when Simon Oppenheimer died at Chariton during 1930.

A source of pride for Simon was the fact he had been able to purchase a home in Konken for the Bermans, impoverished by the shattered post-World War I German economy.


A good deal of information about the Jewish community centered in Steinbach am Glan is available on the Web, principally because of the efforts of historians and researchers who have attempted to piece together the fragments left after Germany's Jewish population was decimated during the Shoah, or Holocaust.

The first Jewish families were recorded in the area of Steinbach am Glan during the late 17th century and by 1736, as many as 25 families --- most residents of Steinbach --- were living there.

As the 18th century advanced, Steinbach am Glan became the center of Jewish life in the western Palatinate. The Jewish population in the municipality reached its peak in 1848, when 217 people in 44 families were recorded. The Oppenheimers would have been among them. Smaller numbers of Jewish families lived in surrounding municipalities and were attached to the Steinbach am Glan community.

A synagogue that would endure for more than 200 years was built in 1725 in Steinbach am Glan and a cemetery for the community was established during 1726, then expanded in 1891.

Jews and Christians seem to have lived peacefully together in Steinbach am Glan until the early 1930s, when the Nazi party began its rise to infamy.

Emigration and the scattering of families due principally to economic factors had reduced the number of Jewish people living in the immediate area to 79 by 1933. Of these, 35 lived in Steinbach am Glan proper. Approximately half that number moved elsewhere soon thereafter.

On Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Steinbach am Glan synagogue was desecrated and its interior destroyed; the homes of two remaining Jewish families, Oppenheimer and Kayem, were looted and vandalized. The men of the community were sent to Dachau. The synagogue and other Jewish properties were confiscated and sold to neighboring Christians.

The only remaining Jewish family in Steinbach am Glan, consisting of four members, was deported to Gurs in 1940, then sent to Auschwitz in 1942.

I have no way of telling how many of these people were related to the American Oppenheimers, but there's little doubt that some were. Among those from the immediate area who perished were Hulda Oppenheimer (b. 1886) and Otto Oppenheimer (b. 1880), who were residents of neighboring Glan-Munchweiler and would have been part of the Steinbach am Glan community. In addition, an Emil Oppenheimer, born 1867 at Steinbach am Glan but a resident of Landstuhl immediately before World War II commenced, perished in the Auschwitz death camp during 1942.

Today, no Jews are left in Steinbach am Glan. A memorial was erected near the synagogue site during 1988 and, in 1998, a small museum devoted to the historic Jewish community opened. The cemetery, vandalized by Nazis, was vandalized again in 1979, 1986 and 1993 --- but remains.


Anonymous said...

Hi Frank,

You mention a 'Kayem' who was also deported after Kristalnacht - that was my great-grandfather. I wondered what the source is for the information in this very interesting blogpost?


Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Nick --- Oh my, I used a lot of online resources for this post. The one I found most useful if I'm recalling correctly was the Steinbach am glan entry at the Web site of the "Working Group for Research into the History of the Jews in Southern Germany and Adjoining Areas" at

Hope this helps.