The grandson of a Nazi who took over a Jewish store in 1938 tracked down the original store owner's descendants to apologize, and to share a lesson with his own children that the decisions they make have an impact on someone else’s life. Thomas Edelmann, 49, had never met his paternal grandfather Wilhelm Edelmann, but told CNN he heard rumors about the family business and suspected it had previously been owned by Jews.
When he started dabbling in genealogy, he came across Nazi tax records confirming that Benjamin Heidelberger was the Jewish owner, who had been forced to sell his beloved hardware store to Wilhelm Edelmann following the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. These laws, which were enacted in Nazi Germany in 1935, were antisemitic and racist in nature and restricted Jews from the German economy by making it legal to confiscate their property. The store was located in Bad Mergentheim, southern Germany.
When Thomas Edelmann shared this information to the online family tree building site, MyHeritage, the company’s research team had been intrigued and decided to help him learn more about his past. During their research, they discovered Heidelberger’s 1942 naturalization record from British Mandatory Palestine, and his gravestone alongside his wife Emma, in northern Israel. They had also learned that Heidelberger had a living granddaughter, whose name was Hannah Ehrenreich. The 83-year-old retired teacher was still living in Israel, CNN reported.
Thomas, who was born in Germany, said he had known very little about his paternal family history, due partly to his parent's divorce when he was a child. He also had no connection with the retail chain his grandfather built that had blossomed from the hardware store, CNN reported.
According to Thomas, the store no longer existed, but his family still owns the building, along with other properties in the town. However, he himself has no part in the firm, the news outlet reported.
Through MyHeritage, Thomas was able to send a letter to Ehrenreich in English, unaware that she spoke German. Thomas, wrote in the letters published by CNN, that he felt it was “his duty,” on behalf of his family to reach out regarding the “injustice” her grandparents endured, to hear her story and “to listen and to learn.”
His letter states: “I am part of the Edelmann family I want to take the first step and listen to you. I do understand that you might not see any benefit for yourself personally in talking to me.
"But with understanding and being able to teach my children and possibly other family members about the impact of particular historical decisions, this might help them to make better decisions in their lives," Thomas continued. "Currently, the political climate in our country is poisoned. There is a new antisemitism upcoming. I want to make sure that at least my family will never again be responsible for injustice experienced by others, but stand and take part for the weak."
The letter was well-received, and after a few weeks, the pair finally spoke on the phone. Their conversation was mostly in German and lasted about 90 minutes.
The pair spoke about their families' pasts. Ehrenreich told Thomas that her grandfather, Benjamin, whom she said she was very close to, spoke often of his homeland and kept a diary in his mother tongue. She told Thomas that her paternal grandfather and grandmother, Emma Heidelberger, used the money they got from the store to flee to Palestine in 1938.
It was weeks before Kristallnacht, also called the “Night of Broken Glass,” a devastating period when the Nazis went on to torch synagogues, vandalize Jewish homes and other property and killed close to 100 Jews. Some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Ehrenreich told Thomas sadly that her maternal grandparents had remained in Germany and died under the Nazi regime. All their hopes and dreams vanished by the Nazis.
She then shared with Thomas some of the personal entries her grandfather wrote.
In one entry, Heidelberger wrote: “My business successor, Wilhelm Edelmann, came every first of the month to pay the rent, and even though he was a member of the Nazi party, he was a decent man and not an anti-Semite.”
In another compelling entry: “One day, Edelman came to me and said I should leave Germany as quickly as possible. There were plans in place to act against Jews and he felt obliged to warn me, his good acquaintance.”
Thomas told CNN that although her family was treated so badly, Ehrenreich was very kind and didn’t blame him for anything that had taken place. He said he was deeply moved by the call and said that he and Ehrenreich have stayed in touch, and he hopes one day to go to Israel and meet her.
After learning of Ehrenreich’s story, Thomas explained that he knew his grandfather, Wilhelm, was a very good businessman, but that he had also been a student during the 1920s, and had already been a member of the Nazi party, which was before Hitler came to power, and expressed his own doubts about his character.
“So I don’t believe he was such a good man,” Thomas told CNN. “I’m not 100% convinced. I doubt he didn’t take advantage of the situation.”
Today, the 49-year-old father of two feels as a parent, it is his responsibility, he said, to teach his children "what history is and what history means." He said his 15-year-old son Finn, started learning about Germany and the Nazis in high school and stressed how important it is to know these horrid events that took place.
Thomas added, “Although he [Finn] doesn’t have anything to do with this story, it’s our ancestor who has impacted the lives of a whole family who had a life in this country. I want him to learn and understand that whatever decisions he makes has an impact on someone else’s life."